The legendary record producer Phil Spector was drafted in to work on The Beatles’ abandoned Let It Be project, which was released as their final album. After the group’s split he worked on solo recordings by John Lennon and George Harrison.
He was born Harvey Philip Spektor on 26 December 1940 in the Bronx, New York City. Following his father’s suicide in 1949, his family moved to Los Angeles, California in 1953, where he learned the guitar and discovered a passion for music.
At 16 Spector performed Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Rock Island Line’ at a talent show at Fairfax High School. Soon after he formed a group, The Teddy Bears, with three friends from school – Marshall Lieb, Harvey Goldstein and Annette Kleinbard. Spector began visiting local recording studios, and was mentored by Stan Ross, producer and co-owner of Hollywood’s Gold Star Studios.
In the spring of 1958 The Teddy Bears recorded ‘Don’t You Worry My Little Pet’, a song written by Spector, at Gold Star. Spector produced the recording, which helped them sign a deal with Era Records. At the following session they recorded another Spector-penned song, ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’, a title inspired by the epitaph on his father’s gravestone.
‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ sold more than a million copies in 1958, and reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Following its success the group signed to Imperial Records, but their next single ‘I Don’t Need You Anymore’ was not a success. The group split up in 1959 after increasingly declining fortunes.
‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ was recorded by The Beatles at their audition for Decca Records on 1 January 1962. The group had performed the song in their live shows for some time beforehand.
We recorded ‘To Know Her Is To Love Her’, the Phil Spector song, and a couple of our own; we virtually recorded our Cavern stage show, with a few omissions.
After The Teddy Bears’ success, Spector began to hone his production skills. He co-wrote Spanish Harlen with Jerry Leiber, which became a hit for Ben E King. Spector also worked as a session musician, and produced recordings for a number of artists, including The Top Notes’ original version of ‘Twist And Shout’.
In 1961 Spector formed a record company with Lester Sill, which they named Philles Records. Spector signed The Crystals to the label, and their first two singles, ‘There’s No Other (Like My Baby)’ and ‘Uptown’ were chart successes.
Spector continued to work with other artists in a freelance capacity, and was briefly the head of A&R at Liberty Records. There he heard the song ‘He’s A Rebel’, which was due to be released by Vicki Carr on Liberty, but Spector took the song to Gold Star and recorded it with Darlene Love on vocals. It was released on Philles by The Crystals, and became a chart-topper.
By this time Lester Sill had left Philles. Spector formed a new act, Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans, which featured singers Darlene Love and Bobby Sheen. The group had a series of hits in 1963, the same year The Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’ reached number two, and the album A Christmas Gift For You was released.
Spector’s production trademark was the Wall Of Sound, which involved densely layered instruments playing carefully orchestrated parts. Spector described the process as “a Wagnerian approach to rock and roll: little symphonies for the kids”. He was dismissive of stereo, and preferred single releases to albums.
A crack troop of core musicians on his recordings came to be known as The Wrecking Crew, which included session players such as Hal Blaine, Steve Douglas, Carol Kaye, Glen Campbell, and Leon Russell. Jack Nitzsche worked as Spector’s arranger, and Sonny Bono oversaw the performances. A range of songwriters were also employed, including Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Gerry Goffin and Carole King.
In 1963 Spector married Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett, the lead singer of The Ronettes. They adopted three children, and remained married until 1974. Ronnie later claimed that Spector prevented The Ronettes from touring with The Beatles out of jealousy.
In September 1963 The Beatles all moved into a flat together, at 57 Green Street, London. Although John Lennon and Paul McCartney moved away soon afterwards, George Harrison and Ringo Starr moved into a different flat in the same building. On 28 January 1964 Lennon and Harrison attended a party held by influential DJ Tony Hall, who also lived on Green Street. At the party they met Spector and The Ronettes. Harrison and 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.
In 1964 The Ronettes appeared on a bill in San Francisco with The Righteous Brothers. Spector was impressed by the duo and signed them to Philles; ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’ became the label’s second number one in early 1965, and three more major hits followed for the group.
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.