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Phil Spector: The Rolling Stone Interview

An untamed talk with the visionary producer about what makes great music and the characters he’s met along the way to become the “Tycoon of Teen”

Phil Spector

Music producer Phil Spector conducts the band during rehearsals for the concert film The Big T.N.T. Show in Los Angeles, in 1966.

Michael Ochs Archive/Getty

Baron and I sat in a rented Mustang outside the Sunset Strip office of Phil Spector Productions for 40 minutes one April night, listening to the car radio and waiting for the man. A black Cadillac Limousine pulls up, and then away, circles the block and parks behind us. Out steps the chauffeur, who in reality is one of Spector’s several bodyguards. The whole Tom Wolfe legend is about to take place in front of our eyes. We change cars and the chauffeur pulls way with us in the back seat.

Phil Spector, the first “Tycoon of Teen,” is finally about to make good the promise for an interview, after two months of hassling over time and place. The interview is going to happen on the night of “Mission: Impossible.” Spector, it turns out, lives only ten blocks or so from his office.

The grounds are surrounded by electric fences and gates, and what’s more amazing is that after pulling into his driveway, you see electric fencing also covers the windows and front door of his house. Once inside the doors and gates it’s Phil Spectorland, with framed pictures and clippings, all the famous articles about Phil, pinball machines and jukeboxes with all his hits still on the playlist.

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Phil Spector

The living room is around the corner: the house used to belong to one of the Hollywood starlets, and it’s a beauty: 20 foot gabled ceilings, sunken rooms, a grand piano, Irish wolfhounds and two Borzoi’s running around on the patio off the living room. Next to the living room is the game room, a huge pool table in the center, the walls covered with framed photos of Phil playing pool with Willie Moscone, Phil playing pool with Minnesota Fats, and dozens of others.

We waited in the living room another half hour, while Phil was “getting ready.” We were offered something to drink, something to eat: candy-filled dishes on the coffee tables (long with the books and magazines, with bookmarks in place, which carried more of the famous articles about Phil), slices of pizza and cokes. Baron and I sat, almost whispering, because the place must have been wired for sound as well as everything else. The chauffeur-bodyguard returns to check the last minute details, and he comes in without his coat on, displaying his shoulder holster and his gun.

We didn’t know whether to laugh or to faint. Like, they never checked for the stick of dynamite I had in my tape recorder and the .38 Baron was carrying in his camera kit.

In walks the man: Phil Spector, short little Phil, all dressed up for the interview in outrageous yellow plastic rimmed glasses, a tie-piece around his collar, sucking a candy cane. What a show tonight!

Do you see any black militancy in the record business? Let’s take Stax which is owned by . . .
Let’s take it, man. Like, you take $4 million, and I’ll take $3 million, and we all be very rich very quick. I’m rich already, what am I talking about? Go ahead, what about Stax-Volt?

Do you find any black resentment against the whites. You worked at Atlantic, another white-owned company, dealing primarily with black music. Was there any resentment from the artists?
Oh yeah, man, “We bought your home, goddamn, and don’t you forget it, boy. You livin’ in the house we paid for, you drivin’ a Cadillac we got, man. It’s ours. You stole it from us.”

You heard that from the beginning of time. All the Drifters were gettin’ was $150 a week and they never got any royalties. It wasn’t that Atlantic didn’t pay them; it was that everybody screwed everybody in those days. I mean I was in the Teddy Bears and what did we get – one penny a record royalties!

What has disappeared completely is the black groups, other than what you have comin’ out of Motown and your other few – and I don’t mean Stax-Volt because I don’t consider that what I’m talking about. The group on the corner has disappeared. It’s turned into a white psychedelic or a guitar group, there are thousands of them. There used to be hundreds and hundreds of black groups singin’ harmony and with a great lead singer and you’d go in an record them.

You used to go down to Jefferson High or 49th & Broadway and could get sixteen groups. Today you can’t find them; they’re either involved in the militant thing or they just passed, like it’s not their bag anymore, or like it’s just disappeared. It’s not the big thing to get together after school and harmonize. And it used to be a real big thing. It was very important. I guess they just got tired of knocking on record doors, and they saw that a whole new regime had taken over.

This is why you have the music business dominated in the black area by just two companies. Because there is just really no place for them to go. They’ve just sort of disbanded. Other than Motown you don’t see any groups, colored groups. The Dells happened for a while on that Cadet label from Chicago or whatever. That’s where black something has affected it. I don’t know if it’s black militancy or whatever, but something has definitely effected the complete destruction of the black groups that used to be dominating the record industry.

How has that changed the music?
It’s changed the music drastically. It’s given birth to English groups to come along and do it like Eric Burdon. It’s also given birth for the Stones and the Beatles to come along and do it – not that they wouldn’t have done it otherwise – but the first place the Beatles wanted to see when they came to America (cause I came over on the plane with them) was the Apollo Theatere.

As bad as a record as “Book of Love” by the Monotones is, you can hear a lot of “Book of Love” in the Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do It the Road.” I think you hear a lot of that dumb, great-yet-nonsensical stuff that makes it – even though it’s silly. It’s got the same nonsense.

I believe that the English kids have soul. Really soul. When I watch Walter Cronkite or Victory at Sea, or You Are There – any of those programs, I see bombs flying all over England and little kids running. Now that’s probably Paul McCartney running. You know, ’cause that’s where the bombs fell. They say soul comes through suffering. Slavery for the blacks. And gettin’ your ass bombed off is another way of gettin’ some soul, so I would say that these English cats have a lot of soul legitimately. You’re gonna have Dave Clark in there who don’t know too much about it, and just like you’re gonna have a Rosy and the Originals in America who don’t know too much about it.

What do you think of groups like Sly and the Family Stone or the Chambers Brothers who have such a large white audience, almost primarily white?
The Chambers Brothers have been around so long that they’re just like a group I think of as “having” to have made it – a must. In other words, if they hadn’t made it, it would be as much of a crime as Roy Orbison not being a star today or the Everly Brothers not making it today. It was criminal that they weren’t big before.

The fact that they appear for white audiences is, I think, only because black music – if there can be such a phrase – or music as interpreted by black people – is a lot more commercial than music interpreted by white people.

The biggest English records are really when they are imitating. It’s much more commercial when Eric Burdon sings a black copy. Just like Al Jolson was much more commercial when he did the black face than he ever was than when he went out and sang “My Yidishe Momme.” They love “mammy” with the black face – Stephen Foster, I mean. Which is probably why the black people resent so much of America. “We are the most commercially imitated people, we write and sing the most commercial music and yet we are the least talked about and the most oppressed.”

So the black man got to figure that may be the reason he’s passed from the musical scene to a large extent. Now when I say passed, I really mean passed. I mean it’s as good as Sam Cooke being dead. You don’t hear Ben E. King or any of the real soulful music anymore, and that was really commercial music, and it was good music.

I don’t remember where we were. You asked me something.

The Chambers Brothers.
I don’t know why they appeal to white people really. I would imagine that if you went into a black Baptist church, you’d dig it a whole lot because it’s groovy music. I don’t know why they are more commercial. I don’t know even if they do appeal to a larger white audience than the black audience.

Being on Columbia Records has a lot to do with it. White people hear them much more. You don’t see colored people going into a store sayin’, “Let me have the Columbia Master Works series number 129.” Or just like you wouldn’t see any of the young cats doing it. It’s just not their bag.

I think that Columbia doesn’t really get them played on R& B stations, because it doesn’t say “this is a new Chambers Brothers album.” It just comes in a Columbia package with Tony Bennett and Andy Williams and they sort of put it, you know, I mean you can’t hear Jocko or Rosco or any of them getting all excited about – “Oh, a new shipment from Columbia came in today, any free goods runnin’?” I mean there ain’t gonna be any free goods or money inside. So, I mean they ain’t gonna get too excited.

The Chambers Brothers play white audiences; they dig Melodyland. You don’t see them very often in the same parts of town that you see the Four Tops when they come. The Four Tops do the Coconut Grove, but they also do Joe Louie’s Club on 189th Street, keepin’ cool with him. Maybe the Chambers Brothers paid dues so long that they’re a little bit tired of payin’ dues. They just sort of want to make it, and if it means makin’ it before the white kids – then they’re gonna make it. I don’t really feel that the Chambers Brothers have really been recorded right yet; they haven’t really hit it yet for me. I mean they’re groovy, but their records havn’t hit it yet.

What artist do you really feel has not been recorded right that you’d like to record?
Bob Dylan.

How would you record him?
I’d do a Dylan opera with him. I’d produce him. You see he’s never been produced. He’s always gone into the studio on the strength of his lyrics, and they have sold enough records to cover up everything – all the honesty of his records. But he’s never really made a production. He doesn’t really have to.

His favorite song is “Like a Rolling Stone,” and it stands to reason because that’s his grooviest song, as far as songs go. It may not be his grooviest message. It may not be the greatest thing he ever wrote, but I can see why he gets the most satisfaction out of it, because rewriting “La Bamba” chord changes is always a lot of fun and any time you can make a Number One record and rewrite those kind of changes, it is very satisfying.

I would like him to just say something that could live recording-wise forever. I would have enjoyed recording John Wesley Harding in its own way. He doesn’t really have the time nor do any of his producers necessarily have the ambition or talent to really overrule him or debate with him. I would imagine with Albert Grossman there is a situation of business control just like it would be with Elvis Presley and Colonel Parker. Assume that there is no control, then somebody should be much more forceful. Maybe nobody has the guts, balls or the ambition to get in there, but there is no reason unless Dylan didn’t want it. But there is a way he could have been made to want it.

There is no reason why Dylan can’t be recorded in a very certain way and a very beautiful way where you can just sit back and say “wow” about everything – not just him and the song – just everything.

How would you have done John Wesley Harding?
There is a way to do it. He’s so great on it and he is so honest that it’s just like going into the studio with twelve of Steven Foster’s songs. There’s so much you can do. There is so much you can do with Dylan; he gives you so much to work with. That’s probably why he sells so many records without trying so very had in the studio.

It’s also probably why the Beatles . . . well it’s obvious that Paul McCartney and John Lennon may be the greatest rock and roll singers that we’ve ever had. They may be the greatest singers of the last ten years – they really may be! I mean there is a reason for the Beatles other than the fact that they’re like Rogers & Hart and Hammerstein, Gershwin and all of ’em. They are great, great singers. They can do anything with their voices.

So to pat them on the back doesn’t mean anything. It’s really from the great background they had – of digging so much all their lives – that not only did they get that great gift of writing, but they have the great talent of singing; which is really where it’s at. When you can get in and sing “Rocky Raccoon” that way, you know that he knows how to sing better than anybody else around, because he can switch right into “Yesterday.” They’ve got a great gift, and for me it’s much more than just sayin’, “the Beatles, the Beatles, the Beatles.”

I would like to record them a certain way because, again, other than what they do themselves – there’s nobody. I don’t know how influential their producer is, and I am sure they have a great deal of respect for him and he’s the fifth Beatle and all that, but I don’t think he thinks the way I would think. Their ideas are so overpowering that you just sort of just go along with them and you’re gonna end up with somethin’ groovy. I don’t think it was necessarily his idea to put “King Lear” on the end of that one record. Which did or did not have to be in the record.

I think Mick Jagger could be a lot of fun to record. It’s not just the big artists; I think Janis Joplin leaves a lot to be desired recording-wise. How well she can sing when she’s way up front – I don’t know. How well she would sing under different circumstances I don’t know.

But the one that really would be the most satisfying probably would be Dylan because I could communicate with him and justify what he really wants to say – no matter what it is – musically, which is something that you don’t see very often happening today.

Many of the artists today just sing, they don’t really interpret anything. I mean the Doors don’t interpret. They’re not interpreters of music. They sing ideas. The Beach Boys have always sung ideas – they’ve never been interpreters. The Beatles interpret; “Yesterday” meant something. Whereas “Good Vibrations” was a nice idea on which everybody sort of grooved. That’s what I feel is missing in the Chambers Brothers – the interpretation.

Four or five years ago . . . Sam Cooke interpreted, I have a feeling that a lot of it is the producers’ fault, and a lot of it is the . . . the fact that everybody is runnin’ a little too scared today. Nobody really knows, nobody really knows what Janis Joplin can do except Janis Joplin, and I don’t necessarily think she puts her faith in anyone or would have anyone direct her.

What did you think of Beggar’s Banquet?
Well, they’re just makin’ hit records now. There was a time when the Stones were really writing contributions. See that’s a big word to me – “contributions.”

What were the songs at the time.
“Satisfaction” was a contribution. They’ve had a few contributions. See there’s a difference: other than one or two numbers, Johnny Rivers is not a contribution to music, he never will be, he never can be. I don’t care if all the Johnny Rivers fans say “boo.” Just like Murray Roman will never be a comedian. There’s just certain people that just don’t have it. Moby Grape will never be a contribution. There are a lot of groups that will never be a contribution. ‘Cause if you listen to just one Muddy Waters record you’ve heard everything Moby Grape’s gonna ever do. Or if you listen to one Jimmy Reed record you’ve heard everything they may want to do.

The big word is “contribution,” and the Stones lately have not been – although they have been writing groovy hit things – contributing anymore. You have a time when they were contributing all of it. Everything was contribution. They’ll go down as a contribution. They’ll be listed as a contributing force in music. An important influence. It’s not a put down on them, because nobody can keep up that pace.

If some of these groups, and some of the people in the business would dig athletics they would see more the reasons for themselves than they do now. Like Sonny Bono will never know what happened when it’s all over. He’ll never know why it happened, because he didn’t know what happened to make it happen. So he won’t know what happened to make it fail. But if you go out and you watch athletics and you watch a winning team lose, you watch them accept the failure. You see why they didn’t win, and it makes sense. You sort of put things in perspective to yourself.

The people in today’s business really don’t do that. They don’t know why they’re making it – they just dig it, but athletes never do that. You never see athletes go crazy. They know tomorrow it’s all over; one bad tackle, one bad jump and it’s all over, and you’re dead and nobody cares about you anymore.

In the record business they just try, try forever and ever and ever. They don’t plan nothin’. Motown, as marvelous as their recording company is . . . I mean, I’ve said it before: they have invented the Mustang body or the Volkswagen body and there isn’t very little they can do wrong with it. They’re gonna keep groovin’, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they release one percent of what they record. If they release twenty things a month, you can see how much they’re recording and how much they don’t release. Their studios are goin’ 24 hours a day. Because they know that’s what their strategy has to be.

The other people in the industry, like Ahmet . . . I love Ahmet. When I first went to New York, he took care of me, and I love him. I mean he has no strategy. He calls up his office and says, “How many records we sell today?” I mean he can’t know everything that’s out there.

We had dinner with him one night and somebody said, “Ahmet, I’d really like to get the Bee Gees,” and Ahmet said, “Well man, you know, I can’t, you know, do anything man cause they’ve got this Stigwood somebody and anyhow man, he’s a very difficult man to deal with. Anyhow the Bee Gees ain’t gonna be nothin’. Man, the Cream, you know, got two records in the top ten albums and you know that I’d never even heard of the group. But the very best group, the best that gonna be the biggest group in the world is the Vanilla Fudge.” He didn’t even know, man. Because what’s he care if it’s Vanilla Fudge or Cream.

Like the Cream are breakin’ up, and he said, “like man you have to do a final album for me.” They said, “Why man, we hate each other,” or somethin’ like that. Ahmet said, “Oh no man, you have to do one more album for me. Jerry Wexler has cancer, and he’s dyin’ and he wants to hear one more album from you.” So they go in, make the album and he says, “Like man, Jerry Wexler isn’t dyin’, he’s much better, he’s improved.”

He’s just jivin’ like that ’cause it’s a lot of fun and he’s a great business man.

Like when I met Otis Redding the first time. Otis says, “Hey Phil” – man, I loved Otis – we were just gettin’ along famously talking, having dinner and he says, “How long you been knowin’ Omelet?” I just sort of laughed ’cause he said “Omelet,” and I know his name is Ahmet not “Omelet.” And I said, “About seven years.”

And he said, “Omelet is just too much, he’s too much.”

I said, “Yeah he sho’ is.” Afterwards, I went over to Ahmet and said, “Ahmet, how long you been knowin’ Otis?”

He said, “Oh, about three years.” I said, “And you mean he calls you ‘Omelet’?”

So he says, “That’s right man. You know he calls the office all the time and he asks for Omelet, and they don’t want to hurt his feelings by telling him my name is Ahmet.”

Otis was not a dumb colored cat. You know he was a smart cat and knew what was happening. If he ever knew that Ahmet’s name was not Omelet, he would have been real upset, you know. And none of the stecretaries told him ’cause they thought, “Oh, man, maybe a dumb spade.” And also they loved him and didn’t want to put him down, but he’d get on the phone with Jerry Wexler and he’d say, “How’s Omelet do-doin’?” Wexler would say, “Oh, Omelet’s fine Otis, Omelet’s doin’ real good, Otis.” The poor guy called him Omelet all his life.

{Note: Phil Walden, Otis’ close friend and personal manager, says Otis knew Ahmet’s real name, but thought it was a laugh to call him “Omelet.”}

But they love Ahmet for that, because he looks like Lenin, he has his beard and he’s sophisticated and he come on and he jives all these cats and he goes to Harlem and he cooks and he smokes the shit and everybody digs him.

Several years back we were all sitting around with some colored group, and one of them said, “Shit man, your contract ain’t worth shit.” We were in a restaurant, and Ahmet looks around to make sure nobody’d hear us. The guy said, “Mercury gonna give me seven percent, you only give me five percent. That’s like jive-ass.” Ahmet said, “Not so loud.” And he said, “Yeah man, I can’t sign your contract for five percent when I can get me seven percent over at Mercury.”

And I was just sittin’ back waitin’ for what Ahmet was gonna say to this cat. The guy has the Mercury contract with him, and it does say seven percent. And he’s got Atlantic’s cockamamie contract for five percent. Now, he’s got Ahmet up a wall, he’s trapped, and Ahmet knows he’s trapped, and we’re all sittin’ around, and Ahmet hit him with a line: Ahmet said, “Man, listen man, you know what. I gonna give you 15 percent, but I ain’t gonna pay you.” The guy said, “What?” Ahmet said, “That’s what they gonna do. They gonna give you seven percent but they not gonna pay you, and I gonna give you five precent and pay you. Now that’s a big difference isn’t it?” They guy said, “That’s right – never thought of it that way. That makes a lot of sense. I’m gonna sign with you Ahmet, I gonna sign with you Ahmet.”

What about Jerry Wexler?
I don’t know. It’s funny ’cause Jerry Wexler and I never got along, and we only really started to communicate when Lenny died, because he suddenly realized that he loved Lenny very much, and if Lenny and I were that close, it was time to break the ice between him and myself. So in the last few years we’ve communicated a great deal and talked. Jerry has a good time and jives a little bit, but his contribution really is the early music – all those records he did – like “A Lover’s Question,” “Shaboom.” That’s the Jerry Wexler that for me really changed and set the standards for the recording industry.

I don’t know how much he’s a part of Aretha. I don’t really get into it or care. I enjoyed Dusty Springfield‘s record, and I don’t listen to music too much today ’cause I’m not inspired by a lot of it. A lot of it is a lot of crap. There is so much coming out on Atlantic, they got, so many hits that I don’t know what Jerry does and what he doesn’t do.

I know that he is a brilliant businessman, and what he’s done with Aretha is sparkling – what can you say? She was dumped from company to company, and he did make it happen. In many ways he’s like Ahmet in another area. He just gets in that studio and if it’s right. . . . To sum up Jerry Wexler: As a producer he knows when something is right, and he can wrap some of these young punk producers around his little finger.

But to show you how sophisticated the kids are today, Jerry goes down South and cuts something and comes back up. Everybody listens to it. Ahmet says, “Too many highs in that record. It’s shrill.” Jerry says, “You’re crazy, man. It’s a groovy record – a smash.” Ahmet says, “I don’t know man. It’s awfully shrill. Somethin’ the matter with the mikes down there.” He says, “You’re crazy, Ahmet. Man, you can go ask anybody.”

And nobody knew what to say. It was like a standoff.

“What about the song?” Jerry asked. Ahmet said, “Well, the song’s good, but it’s just too piercing. There’s something wrong with that record.” So he says, “Let’s go downstairs and find some kids on the street.” So they go downstairs and find three long-haired kids with boots on, comin’ home from school.

And Ahmet says, “Say, man, I work for Atlantic Records and we want you to hear a record.” So the guy says, “Okay.” He says, “Man, we’ll buy you some hamburgers and stuff.”