Phil Spector's Wall of Sound still stands as a milestone in recording history. It forever changed the art of record production and created some of rock's best-loved and best-sounding music. Phil Spector raised pop production's ambition and sophistication by overdubbing scores of musicians — five or six guitars, three or four pianos, and an army of percussion, including multiple drum kits, castanets, tambourines, bells, and timpani — to produce a massive roar. Spector called it "a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll: little symphonies for the kids." But as impactful as Spector's production work was, it was nearly overshadowed by his bizarre and violent behavior. In 2009 he went to prison for murder.
Born Harvey Philip Spector on December 26, 1939, in Bronx, New York, he moved with his mother to L.A. at 12 after his father died. He began learning guitar and piano while at Fairfax High School, and at 16 played with local jazz combos. In high school, Spector met Marshall Lieb, and in 1957 the two began writing songs. In early 1958, another friend, Annette Kleinbard, joined them to form a trio, the Teddy Bears. Spector's choice of a group name was supposedly inspired by Elvis Presley's hit, "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear." In short order they had a Top Ten U.S. and U.K. hit with Spector's first production, "To Know Him Is to Love Him," taken from the inscription on Spector's father's gravestone ("To Know Him Was to Love Him"). The Teddy Bears appeared on national television, but when Spector disagreed with the record company on the group's next release, he moved them to Imperial. There they cut a few singles and an album, The Teddy Bears Sing!, that flopped, and soon the group broke up.
In 1960 Kleinbard suffered severe facial injuries in a car accident. After recovering, she changed her name to Carol Connors and has written or cowritten a number of hit records and film music, including Billy Preston and Syreeta Wright's "With You I'm Born Again" and "Gonna Fly Now," the theme from Rocky. Leib became a musician and producer of artists including the Everly Brothers. He also has supervised music for films.
Spector, meanwhile, enrolled in UCLA, and worked as a part-time court stenographer, but dropped out and moved back to New York, where he hoped to become a U.N. interpreter in French. Instead, he returned to L.A., where he decided to reenter the record business. At just 18 years old, Spector approached independent producers Lester Sill and Lee Hazlewood and persuaded them to take him under their wing. He also formed another group, the Spectors Three, but after several flops, they disbanded and Spector concentrated on producing.
In 1960 Sill and Hazlewood sent Spector back to New York, where he worked with hitmakers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. With Leiber he cowrote "Spanish Harlem," a mammoth 1960 hit for Ben E. King. Spector also played the guitar break in the Drifters' "On Broadway." He became staff producer for Dunes Records and produced Ray Peterson's "Corinna, Corinna," a Top 10 hit. By this time he was also a freelance producer and A&R man at Atlantic Records as well as an independent producer. He produced Gene Pitney's "Every Breath I Take" and Curtis Lee's "Pretty Little Angel Eyes." Back on the West Coast, the Paris Sisters' "I Love How You Love Me" and the Ducanes' "Little Did I Know" followed. The youthful Spector was becoming an industry sensation.
While these late-1961 hits were still on the charts, Spector returned to New York and with Sill formed Philles (from Phil and Les) Records. He began recording a girl group called the Crystals, who hit in early 1962 with "There's No Other (Like My Baby)." Their next Spector-produced hit, "Uptown," was an even bigger success; and then came "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)," which was banned in some markets because of its lyrics, and the million-selling "He's a Rebel." Spector bought out Sill's part of Philles in late 1962.
At 21, Spector was a millionaire. He began recording on the West Coast, where he crafted his Wall of Sound in earnest, using such sessionmen as guitarists Glen Campbell, Sonny Bono, and Barney Kessel, pianist Leon Russell, and drummer Hal Blaine. Within three years, Spector had 20 consecutive smash hits, including the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Then He Kissed Me," and "He's Sure the Boy That I Love"; the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," "Baby I Love You," "The Best Part of Breaking Up," and "Walking in the Rain"; Darlene Love's "Today I Met the Boy I'm Gonna Marry" and "Wait Till My Bobby Gets Home"; and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans' "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah." The Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" sold over 2 million copies. In 1963 Spector made a Christmas album, featuring Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and the Ronettes' "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."
In a 1964 magazine piece, Tom Wolfe profiled Spector, dubbing him "the first tycoon of teen." By this time, however, Spector had made more enemies than friends in the record business. In 1966 came the turning point, with Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep —Mountain High." Spector considered it his greatest production to date, but it became a hit only in England. Embittered, Spector went into seclusion for two years, during which time reports of strange, near-psychotic behavior on his part filtered out of his 23-room Hollywood mansion: Spector allegedly mentally abused his wife, Ronnie (formerly of the Ronettes); Spector also carried a gun. Except for a cameo appearance as a dope pusher in the film Easy Rider and some hits for Sonny Charles and the Checkmates — "Love Is All I Have to Give," "Black Pearl," and "Proud Mary" (the latter employed some 300 musicians) — he remained inactive through the late Sixties.
In 1969 Spector was brought in to do a remix on the Beatles' Let It Be. He proved he could adapt to more minimal arrangements with Lennon's "Imagine," which he coproduced, and he returned to the Wall of Sound style for George Harrison's All Things Must Pass album. In 1971 Spector oversaw production of Harrison's The Concert for Bangla Desh and produced the studio sides of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Some Time in New York City. In 1973 he formed Warner-Spector Records with Warner Bros., but little came of the association. In 1974 and 1975 he survived two near-fatal auto accidents, and in late 1975 formed Spector International, which reissued the Christmas Album and Greatest Hits packages, and found Spector working with Cher, Dion, Harry Nilsson, Darlene Love, and Spector's latest "discovery," Jerri Bo Keno, still using L.A.'s Gold Star Studios, where he'd made his classics. Spector's last major productions were Leonard Cohen's Death of a Ladies' Man (1977) and the Ramones' End of the Century (1980).
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. In 1995 he came out of retirement to produce an album by Canadian singer Celine Dion; however, he backed out of the project, citing his disgust with Dion's management team. Later in the decade Spector was the subject of more controversy. He won a 1997 legal battle over the U.K. copyright to the music and lyrics of his first Number One hit, "To Know Him Is to Love Him." In November of that year he referred to the Spice Girls as "the Antichrist" while accepting an honor at a music awards ceremony held by the British magazine Q. In 2000 a Manhattan judge ordered Spector to pay $2.6 million, most of it in back royalties, to his ex-wife, Ronnie Spector, and to her former group the Ronettes.
In the first decade of the 2000s Spector's behavior began to unravel. In 2003, police investigated the shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson at Spector's home in Alhambra, California. He was charged with second-degree murder, and photos of a wild-haired Spector began showing up in newspapers and magazines. The first trial, held in 2007, ended in a deadlocked jury. Meanwhile, at the funeral of Ike Turner that same year, Spector delivered a bizarre eulogy in which he berated Turner's ex-wife Tina's autobiography, as well as Oprah Winfrey for promoting it, claiming the book demonized Ike. (Spector's own ex-wife, Ronnie, had written an autobiography in 1990, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life as a Fabulous Ronette, that detailed Spector's erratic and often cruel behavior.) After a second murder trial in 2009, Spector was convicted and sentenced to a prison term of 19 years to life.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this story.