Phil Spector, Freaky Genius of Rock, Is Alive If Not Well and Searching for Gold Once More
It’s the middle of the night but in the endless noon of a Sunset Strip recording studio the little man is wearing windshield-size shades, jiggity-bopping all over the place, shrieking obscenities through a mike at the band, running one palsied hand over the sound-track mixing console, the other through the Brillo pad he passes off as a haircut. He bangs a white cane on the control booth glass, and the musicians look up, but do not respond. They know this is the man’s style and they must endure it. (For a moment picture this weirdo arriving at Fairfax High, Los Angeles, late ’50s. To be cool, figure that he’s pegged his pants so tight his feet are turning blue, worked a wildcat of oil into his ducktail, shackled on the clunkiest ID bracelet Woolworth’s ever sold—and still he’s an obvious nerd from all the way across the cafeteria.)
“George!” his voice is shrill, reedy.
“Yes, sir?” an ox of a bodyguard snaps to his side.
“Get the posters, George, and put them up on the wall.”
George returns from the Rolls-Royce and tapes up the posters. In Day-Glo lettering they read,
WE LOVE PHILLY
It is clear to everyone watching the antics of this freaked-out 34-year-old that they are being exhorted to adore not the City of Brotherly Love but none other than the cane-rattling producer himself, the Bronx-born nebbish who became a millionaire music mensch at 21, the Tycoon of Teen, the single most potent force during rock’s golden age: ladies and gentlemen—PHIL SPECTOR!
Bodyguard George stands at the ready with cigarette lighter and shots of scotch. His master resonates in a St. Vitus dance to the throbbing Spector sound. Suddenly he is transfixed by his own image, begging of the mirror at the rear of the control booth: “Hey, do I look okay? Hey, is my face okay?”
Valid question. For the last 18 months rumors of two horrendous—some at first thought fatal—automobile wrecks have coursed along the showbiz grapevine. The details are unverifiable because of Spector’s notorious passion for secrecy—electrified fencing surrounds his 21-room Beverly Hills redoubt and attack dogs prowled there until neighbors brought suit to end the ceaseless barking. The first accident is believed to have occurred between Los Angeles and Phoenix in February 1974 and to have been followed a few months later by a second smash-up in L.A. Spector reportedly spent two months in a hospital for plastic surgery on his face and head, contributing to his bizarre concern for his looks and his fixation with mirrors. There was a fearful symmetry to the rumors that Phil had died. The title of his first hit record—To Know Him Is to Love Him—was lifted from the inscription on his father’s gravestone in Beth David Cemetery, Long Island.
Phil was 17, and still in high school, when he scraped together the ragtag unknowns he called the Teddy Bears and the $40 it took to produce To Know Him Is to Love Him—Spector himself banging a guitar and crooning in the background. Instantly a teen pan alley classic, it sold 1.2 million copies. Spector reckoned on netting $20,000, but assorted industry types bled off $17,000 of the swag. So Phil was still nowhere—except L.A., home for him and his mother, Bertha, since his father had died in the Bronx eight years earlier. He tried UCLA for a while but ran out of money and took a job as a court stenographer. But a year later he was headed for New York to see if the French lessons Bertha had given him could be parlayed into work as an interpreter at the U.N.
Today he claims fluency in no fewer than 17 tongues, but Phil never made it to the U.N., having fallen in with a bunch of musicians in a bar the night before his job interview. Later that year, 1960, he wrote the rock anthem Spanish Harlem—”Bobby Kennedy’s favorite song!” crows Phil—which muscled him a post at Atlantic Records, then almost exclusively a rhythm and blues label. Only 20, Phil headed A&R (artists and repertoire) for the company and quickly concluded that “95 percent of the music business is heavily infiltrated by morons. If they hadn’t been so greedy and vicious, I wouldn’t have tried to control them.”
Control them…? Spector quickly wrapped the music industry around his jeweled pinkie. Splitting from Atlantic, he soon became a freelance producer for talents like Connie Francis, Elvis Presley, Gene Pitney. He founded his own label—Phillies Records—in October, 1962. Phil was not quite 22. The kick-off chartbuster He’s a Rebel (the Crystals) was as good an analysis of Spector’s revolutionary market strategy as it was a paean to the grease-gun grooming and surly ways of the rutting hoodlum adulated in the song. Where other companies would strew a dozen or more records in the direction of airplay, thankful if even one took off, Spector chose to produce only what he judged a surefire hit and then bet his company’s last dollar promoting his hunch. While his Crystals joyously chorused that their rebel would “never ever be—oomph—any good,” Spector was sheer dynamite. Of 20 subsequent releases by instant stars like Darlene Love and the Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, the Ronettes, Spector struck gold with an unbelievable 18 of them, each selling over a million.
It was much more than market strategy, of course. It was an ear and an eye for talent—and almost total creative control over the recording, even if a name artist was involved. That produced the Spector sound, sometimes described as a “wall of sound”—a studio technique that fattened strings, percussion and adolescent voices into Wagnerian proportions, often with reverberating echo chambers, and somehow meshed the banshee whole into three minutes of sought-after plastic.
Da Doo Ron Ron, Be My Baby, Tonight’s the Night—hit followed hit—and the Spector-acular continued as You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ (the Righteous Brothers) rocketed up the charts, winter, 1965. Not long after that Spector quit New York and the 22nd-story East River penthouse he’d been sharing with his bride Annette—a co-ed at Hunter College—to consolidate his empire on the West Coast where Mom was running the Spector sheet-music subsidiary, Bertha Productions. The move, not unimportantly, also ended his need to air shuttle back and forth between the coasts. Phil had been growing increasingly weird about flying, once shrieking an aircraft to a stop as it taxied out for takeoff, certain “this plane is not going to make it.” The plane returned and it and Spector’s luggage were searched. No other airline would take him as a passenger as a result.
Within a year of settling in L.A. Phil wrote and produced the epochal River Deep, Mountain High for Ike and Tina Turner. With raves from the Beatles and the Stones—with whom Spector had hobnobbed during American tours—the song topped the British charts. But stateside deejays were perplexed: was it R&B (which would automatically limit airplay on white, top-40 stations) or honky pop (absolutely precluding a splash on the soul networks)? Spector called it simply his masterpiece, chastised an indifferent America by huffily interring the Phillies label in 1966 and masked his commercial shortfall with avowals of a quickening interest in moviemaking.
Indeed Spector materialized on the screen in a cameo as the cocaine-pusher in the beginning of Easy Rider, a film in which his heavy investment proved another bonanza. Meanwhile, his marriage to Annette having flatted, Phil took ten to marry the Ronettes’ black lead-singer Veronica (Ronnie) Bennett (who maintains she first met Spector when she dialed a wrong number, Spector learned she was a singer and invited her to the studio the next night). In 1970 he produced the Beatles’ swansong album, Let It Be, waxed ex-Beatle George Harrison’s smash My Sweet Lord and the follow-up recording of the Concert for Bangladesh. John Lennon, for whom Spector remixed the Plastic Ono Band’s Instant Karma, dragooned the master for his 1975 nostalgia release, Rock and Roll.
In January 1974 Warner Records proudly announced that it would issue a new Warner-Spector label. The records started to emerge this year—and bomb! Cher’s release, A Woman’s Story, crumped in February; Cher and Harry Nielson’s A Love Like Yours did no better. To fill his quota, Phil pulled out some old tapes of Lenny Bruce—a close friend whom Spector supported through his awful last years. These days Joe Smith, president of Warner Records, wonders “why we’re not getting a flow of records,” but excuses Spector: “You have to give him a lot of freedom—there’s no other way to work with Phil.”
Or to be his friend, for that matter. An evening with Spector begins at his mansion down a private road in Beverly Hills. Inside the door is a huge and staring poster of Spector’s face. Upstairs, his three adopted kids—their custody recently won from Ronnie the Ronette in a messy divorce proceeding—are sleeping, or trying to, since the mansion’s elaborate stereo system is at full blare. Interspersed with lewd drawings of Nixon on the walls are “wanted” posters of the Watergate gang, though Phil beams as he explains that until recently Chuck Colson was his personal lawyer and that every room in the mansion is bugged and taped. Spector intimates that Colson devised the system and urged its installation. The house has 20-foot gabled ceilings, sunken rooms, a grand piano—and mirrors everywhere. He constantly examines himself and asks, “How do I look? Okay? Really?” He still has a small scar under one eye that he wants plastic surgeons to conceal. “I’m scared as hell,” he says of hospitals, “but I got the best doctors in the whole world.”
The evening’s travels begin. Spector, the bodyguard and a few friends climb into Phil’s new Cadillac and then switch to a Volvo when he announces, “I don’t like this car, everybody get out.” He suddenly brays at his secretary-cum-security blanket: “Jane! Where’s my karate bag?” It contains a couple of revolvers, police badges, a hand mirror and hair spray—and Spector goes nowhere without it. Jane assures him the bag is in the trunk. The first stop is Al Fong’s, a plush Chinese restaurant, where the waiters scurry to the kitchen when they see Phil. He eats nothing, drinks much, his ceaseless and frequently insulting banter delivered in eerily shifting imitations of personalities ranging from Wolfman Jack to Mr. Ed, the talking horse. As a parting fare-thee-well to his favorite noshery, Phil urinates on the sidewalk in front. Later, between narcissistic communion with the mirror and slugs from a bottle of wine, Phil is backseat driving down Hollywood boulevards.(He hasn’t taken the wheel himself since his last crash.) “Rear-end those schmucks,” demands Spector, incensed by a finger-flipping earful of teenagers which has sped past them. A red light mercifully cuts short the kamikaze mission.
Since the Volvo is hers, Jane is driving. She swerves to avoid a car. Phil screams, “I don’t want to get killed again.” Spector hits are blaring from the cassette player. “Stop!” Phil cries over the din, diving out of the car to scour an all-night newsstand for comic books for his kids. Back underway, it’s “Turn left, Jane!” She turns. “No, right!” She obeys. “Speed up!” And as the Volvo finally races onto the Venice pier, it is suddenly quite clear that unless and until Spector orders her to “Stop!” Jane is going to lead-foot Phil and friends right over the pilings and into the roiling Pacific.