The music producer and convicted murderer Phil Spector has died at the age of 81.
Spector died on 16 January 2021 of complications relating to Covid-19, according to his daughter Nicole. On 31 he was transferred to San Joaquin General Hospital in French Camp, California, on 31 December, and was intubated days later.
He had been sentenced to 19 years to life in April 2009 for the second-degree murder of Lana Clarkson, a 40-year-old actor and nightclub hostess whom Spector had shot and killed at his Los Angeles mansion on 3 February 2003. An initial trial in 2007 ended without a verdict, but he was convicted after a retrial.
Spector began his music career in 1958 with The Teddy Bears, and wrote their US number one single ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ – a song recorded by The Beatles at their January 1962 audition for Decca Records.
In 1961 he co-founded Philles Records, and throughout the decade wrote and produced hit singles for acts including The Ronettes, The Crystals, Darlene Love, Ike & Tina Turner, and The Righteous Brothers. He became famous for his Wall of Sound recording technique, in which he layered identical instrument parts and added heavy echo to create a dense, rich sound.
His hits often used the Wrecking Crew, a team of Los Angeles session musicians who played on hundreds of top 40 hits. Jack Nitzsche was Spector’s arranger, and his range of songwriters included Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
On 28 January 1964 John Lennon and George Harrison attended a party in London held by influential DJ Tony Hall. There they met Spector and The Ronettes. Harrison and Ringo Starr also met him on at least one subsequent occasion at Hall’s home.
Phil Spector was one I was thrilled to meet. The DJ Tony Hall also lived on Green Street and when he had Phil and the Ronettes staying with him, George and I went over to meet them.
The Beatles met Spector again on their first flight to America, on 7 February 1964.
He’s as mad as a hatter. The first time I met Phil, we were all on a plane going to New York and that’s when we realised how crazy he was because he ‘walked to America’. He was so nervous of flying he couldn’t sit down, so we watched him walk up and down the length of the plane all the way.
As their careers hit new heights in the 1960s, The Beatles’ path crossed Spector’s a number of times.
We met a few people through Phil Spector. We met The Ronettes, which was very exciting, and various others, such as Jackie De Shannon, a great songwriter, and Diana Ross and the rest of The Supremes. They were people we admired and as we went on we met them all – all the people who were coming up as we were coming up. It was a matey sort of thing.
In 1970 The Beatles’ business manager Allen Klein brought Spector to England.
I think that Phil Spector approached Allen Klein and was trying to get some work, or somehow he was hanging out with Klein – probably because he knew Klein was in with The Beatles. I think Klein suggested to us that we should get Phil Spector to come and listen to the tapes of Let It Be.
Phil Spector made the kind of records that I like: the wall-to-wall sound. I was a big fan of his, and we had spent some time with him in the early Sixties, when he was in London. So I was all for the idea of getting Phil involved. Also, he’d been through a bad patch and he’d given up making music, and I think he was trying to get back into it. I saw it as a way of helping him back on his feet.
Harrison invited Spector to produce John Lennon’s single ‘Instant Karma!’ The two former Beatles were impressed with Spector’s work, and invited the producer to rework the abandoned Get Back/Let It Be session tapes from January 1969.
The recordings had been mostly produced by George Martin, and were intended to show The Beatles without studio trickery or overdubs. At least two attempts were made to turn the tapes into an album before Spector’s arrival.
I didn’t like Phil Spector’s Let It Be at all. I’d always been a great admirer of him. I always thought his recordings were fantastic – and he actually created some great sounds. But what he did with Let It Be was to do all the things, and not so well, that we hadn’t been allowed to do; and I kind of resented him for it, because to me it was tawdry. It was bringing The Beatles’ records down a peg – that’s what I thought. Making them sound like other people’s records.
I like what Phil did, actually. He put the music somewhere else and he was king of the ‘wall of sound’. There’s no point bringing him in if you’re not going to like the way he does it – because that’s what he does. His credentials are solid.
Upon completing his work he sent each of The Beatles an acetate copy, along with a long letter explaining his decisions and promising to make any requested changes.
That made me angry – and it made Paul even angrier, because neither he nor I knew about it until it had been done. It happened behind our backs because it was done when Allen Klein was running John. He’d organised Phil Spector and I think George and Ringo had gone along with it. They’d actually made an arrangement with EMI and said, ‘This is going to be our record.’
EMI came to me and said, ‘You made this record originally but we can’t have your name on it.’ I asked them why not and they said: ‘Well, you didn’t produce the final thing.’ I said, ‘I produced the original and what you should do is have a credit saying: “Produced by George Martin, over-produced by Phil Spector”.’ They didn’t think that was a good idea.
Paul McCartney wrote to Klein on 14 April 1970 detailing his objections. He demanded that the “strings, horns, voices and all added noises to be reduced in volume”; “vocal and Beatle instrumentation to be brought up in volume”; and “harp to be removed completely at the end of the song and original piano notes to be substituted”.
Allen Klein decided – possibly having consulted the others, but certainly not me – that Let It Be would be re-produced for disc by Phil Spector.
So now we were getting a ‘re-producer’ instead of just a producer, and he added all sorts of stuff – singing ladies on ‘The Long And Winding Road’ – backing that I perhaps wouldn’t have put on. I mean, I don’t think it made it the worst record ever, but the fact that now people were putting stuff on our records that certainly one of us didn’t know about was wrong. I’m not sure whether the others knew about it. It was just, ‘Oh, get it finished up. Go on – do whatever you want.’ We were all getting fed up.
However, Let It Be was released on 8 May 1970 without McCartney’s changes being made. The work on ‘The Long And Winding Road’, in particular, was a point of contention which angered McCartney for many years; in 2003 Let It Be… Naked reversed many of Spector’s changes, presenting the songs in their original, unadorned fashion.
Phil Spector was unrepentant about his work on Let It Be, and adopted a typically combative approach when asked about McCartney’s objections:
Paul had no problem picking up the Academy Award for the Let It Be movie soundtrack, nor did he have any problem in using my arrangement of the string and horn and choir parts when he performed it during 25 years of touring on his own. If Paul wants to get into a pissing contest about it, he’s got me mixed up with someone who gives a shit.
Let It Be was a huge commercial success, topping the charts in the UK and US. ‘The Long And Winding Road’ was also a number one single in the US. John Lennon later defended Spector’s work on the album, suggesting that the songs would have remained unreleased without his input.
When Spector came around, it was like, ‘Well, alright, if you want to work with us [laugh], go and do your audition, man.’ And he worked like a pig on it. He’d always wanted to work with The Beatles and he was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit – and with a lousy feeling to it – ever. And he made something out of it. It wasn’t fantastic, but I heard it, I didn’t puke. I was so relieved after six months of this black cloud hanging over.
Lennon Remembers, Jann Wenner
The following year he co-produced Lennon’s ‘Power To The People’ single, and the chart-topping Imagine album. Spector also worked on Harrison’s ‘Bangla Desh’ and Ronnie Spector’s ‘Try Some, Buy Some’, written by Harrison, and recorded the chart-topping triple album The Concert For Bangladesh – for which he used up to 44 microphones during the live performances.
Phil is, I believe, a great artist. But like all great artists, he’s very neurotic. But we’ve done quite a few tracks together, Yoko and I, and she’d be encouraging me in the other room and all that. And we were just lagging, and Phil moved in and brought in a new life to it because we were getting heavy.
Lennon Remembers, Jann Wenner
Further work with Lennon included the 1971 single ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ and the 1972 album Some Time In New York City. The following year he began work on Lennon’s Rock ‘N’ Roll album, although the pair’s relationship drew to an end during the sessions amid accusations of wild behaviour. Spector is said to have brandished a gun in the studio, and later disappeared with the tapes; Lennon eventually completed the album himself.
Spector became increasingly reclusive after suffering severe head injuries in a car accident in March 1974. Earlier in the year he had established the Warner-Spector label, and the following year he set up the Phil Spector International label with Polydor.
Recordings with Cher, Dion, Leonard Cohen and The Ramones followed, with varying degrees of success, but critical and commercial acclaim – as with many of his recordings – grew in the years after their release. A 1977 compilation of his Philles recordings led to a reappraisal of many of his earlier songs.
In 1981 he worked with Yoko Ono, producing Season Of Glass, her first album after the death of John Lennon. However, his reclusive nature increased during the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in few recordings. In 1989 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
On 3 February 2003 Spector was arrested on suspicion of murder after the body of 40-year-old nightclub hostess and actress Lana Clarkson of Los Angeles was found at his California mansion. Clarkson, who had been shot, was pronounced dead at the scene. On 20 November Spector was indicted for her murder, and in September the following year was ordered to stand trial in Los Angeles.
Spector claimed that Clarkson’s death was an “accidental suicide”. He was released on $1 million bail while awaiting trial, which began in March 2007. He was charged with second-degree murder, but in September 2007 the judge declared a mistrial after the jury announced that it could not reach a verdict.
In April 2009, following a five-month retrial, a second jury unanimously found the 68-year-old Spector guilty of second-degree murder.
Also on this day...
- 1981: UK single release: Woman by John Lennon
- 1980: Paul McCartney is arrested in Japan for marijuana possession
- 1970: John Lennon’s Bag One exhibition is raided by police
- 1967: Joe Orton begins writing a script for The Beatles’ third film
- 1965: Live: Another Beatles Christmas Show
- 1964: The Beatles reach number one in America
- 1964: Live: Olympia Theatre, Paris
- 1963: Radio: Here We Go
- 1963: Television: People And Places
- 1957: The Cavern Club opens in Mathew Street, Liverpool
Want more? Visit the Beatles history section.