By Victoria Balfour David Lustig
February 06, 1989 12:00 PM

Perhaps it was the promise of applause that lured him. Big, swelling sound, a “Wall of Sound” after all, has always been close to Phil Spector’s heart. And the applause that greeted the renowned, reclusive record producer when he made a rare public appearance at the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies in New York proved thunderous indeed.

First came a brief film that highlighted some of the Spector tunes that no one of a certain age will ever forget: “He’s a Rebel,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Be My Baby.” Then, Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun took the podium and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, he is here.” Slowly, timidly, the tiny, tuxedoed man at the front of the Waldorf Astoria ballroom attempted to climb the stairs to the stage, but his legs proved no more reliable than a newborn colt’s. Bodyguards rushed to his aid, and Spector, propped up on each side, managed to negotiate the ascent. Then, weaving drunkenly, he headed toward Tina Turner at the presenters’ mike. “I don’t get it,” he said, gazing at the award. The audience laughed nervously. “I’m very sorry to have missed the inauguration,” he went on. “Mr. Bush, I think that you did very good and I’m going to vote for you next time…. Tina Turner is the best. Don’t believe the things they say about her because they’re all true. Where is the inauguration? God bless you. The credibility factor has really changed.” And then the great Phil Spector wobbled off the stage and was gone.

It was an infinitely sad moment, but sadder still, perhaps, was the fact that Spector’s inebriated ramblings came as no surprise to his friends and fans. Once the most influential producer in rock and roll—a boy wonder who forever changed the way music was made—Spector, now 48, has spent the past two decades perfecting a demented, Howard Hughes-style isolation. From behind the iron gates and barbed wire fences of his Beverly Hills mansion have trickled stories of his obsession with firearms and karate techniques, his brutal treatment of his three adopted sons and his increasingly desperate alliance with the bottle.

There have been rumors too, now and then, that he is planning a brilliant comeback. In 1980 he emerged long enough to produce a mildly successful album for the Ramones. So there were some that night at the Waldorf who wanted to believe that his performance was less pathetic than it appeared. “He was just scared to death, and he had a few drinks to get himself together,” says Darlene Love, whose rich vocals fueled several of Spector’s ’60s classics. “He’s very shy, you know. What he was saying didn’t make any sense, but that’s Phil Spector. It probably wasn’t supposed to.”

So little in the life of Harvey Phillip Spector has made sense. Born in the Bronx, Phil was devastated at the age of 9 when his father, an ironworker, committed suicide. His mother, Bertha, soon moved Phil and his sister to Los Angeles and eked out a living as a seamstress. Phil—according to a classmate, “a nebbish, shy underdog type of guy” at L.A.’s Fairfax High School—found solace in songwriting. One night in his 17th year, he composed the song he felt sure would make him famous, taking its title from his father’s tombstone: “To Know Him Is to Love Him.” “He called me up and sang it to me right over the phone,” recalls Carol Connors, who joined Spector and Marshall Lieb in a group they named the Teddy Bears to record the tune in a two-track studio. It soared to No. 1.

On the strength of that success—and in hopes of escaping his domineering mother—Phil headed for New York. The Teddy Bears fizzled, but the scruffy 19-year-old Spector managed to endear himself to such hit makers as Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and he was soon song-writing among the greats, including Beverly Ross, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. After “Spanish Harlem,” a Latin-flavored number he co-wrote in 1960, hit the Top 10, Spector found himself, still 19, heading the Artists and Repertoire division of Atlantic Records.

Those who knew him then say that it was self-doubt more than ego that fueled Spector’s ambition. “Phil was very insecure,” Beverly Ross told Mark Ribowsky, whose biography of Spector, He’s a Rebel, is due out in March. “He was always trying to prove that he could win this or do that…maybe to his mother or maybe to his dad. It seemed like he still had a relationship with his dad.” Whatever his motives, Spector quickly developed a reputation as a sly manipulator—though he saw things differently. “Ninety-five percent of the music business is heavily infiltrated with morons,” he once said. “If they hadn’t been so greedy and vicious, I wouldn’t have tried to control them.”

But they were, and he did. Leaving Atlantic in 1961, he founded his own company, Philles Records, and began to develop his signature sound, the songs he liked to call “little symphonies for the kids.” Spector recorded hit after smash hit—”Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Be My Baby,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ “—by cramming as many rhythm instrumentalists as he could into a studio and working them to the bone until he liked what he heard. And that was just the first day—he did the same with the vocalists the next day and with the string section the next. Then he mixed all three tracks to produce his dense Wall of Sound.

“I don’t think Phil wanted his musicians creative,” Larry Levine, Spector’s longtime recording engineer, has said. “He wanted them tired so they’d play what he wanted them to play. Then he could meld it all together into that sound that was Phil’s.” Though the singers he transformed into stars—the Crystals, the Ronettes—never lasted long and rarely saw much money for their efforts, Spector was a millionaire many times over by the time he was 25.

And then, almost as precipitously as it had grown, his empire started to crumble. In 1966 Spector, now resettled in Los Angeles, wrote and produced a song called “River Deep, Mountain High” for Ike and Tina Turner. He believed it was his crowning achievement, but, although it was a hit in London and is now considered a minor classic, Americans at the time weren’t buying it. Spector, addicted to a steady diet of accolades, angrily closed down Philles Records. He worked sporadically after that—producing Let It Be for the Beatles and four albums for John Lennon, among other things. But his symphonic sound seemed anachronistic in the psychedelic era, and Spector was unable or unwilling to change.

His behavior took a downturn as well. He’d always been temperamental and controlling in the studio. “He would introvert and withdraw,” says Sonny Bono, his assistant from 1963 to 1965. “And if he didn’t want to talk, you didn’t talk-but that didn’t mean you could leave.” Spector was equally dictatorial at home. Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett Spector, the Ronettes’ lead singer, whom he had married in 1968 after their affair broke up his first marriage, to Annette Merar, remembers nightmarish years in her words—a “prisoner of Phil.”

“He was very possessive and insecure,” says Ronnie, now 42, in a rare interview. “I married him because I loved him, and I thought maybe he’d be more secure if we got married.” Instead Phil grew ever more tyrannical, keeping his wife quarantined in their 21-room, Spanish-style mansion and canceling her career. “I remember meeting Elvis,” Ronnie says, “and then Phil said, ‘You go upstairs with the bodyguard, and here’s $500 for your birthday.’ I was always in the west wing or the east wing of the mansion, alone.”

When the couple found they could not conceive a child, Phil decided to adopt and demanded that Ronnie help him pretend the child was their own. “My mother was coming to visit, and Phil said, ‘All you have to do is put some padding in there for show,’ ” Ronnie says. After Donté, now 19 and a college student, was adopted, “I went to visit my family in New York,” Ronnie says, “and they were saying, ‘How were those labor pains?’ ” One year later Phil arranged to adopt twin boys without consulting Ronnie.

Despite reports that Phil beat his wife and later his children, Ronnie says he never hit her, “but he yelled so loud he may as well have.” After every argument he would hide her purse and shoes so she couldn’t flee. Darlene Love remembers Spector’s consuming possessiveness. “He got mad at me and Cher once because we took Ronnie out to eat,” Love says. “I said, ‘What is wrong with you? She has to have some entertainment.’ He said, ‘She has entertainment. I have jacks and balls and comic books and things like that.’ ” Ronnie dulled the pain with drugs and alcohol and finally escaped in 1972, divorcing Spector two years later.

His decline proceeded without her. Spector’s recording sessions became vast spectacles that collapsed under their own weight. “Everything had to be bigger than life,” recalls Dion DiMucci, who made an album with Spector in 1975. At one point, he says, “There were 52 musicians in the studio just playing rhythm.” Bruce Springsteen dropped by to play guitar. “Everyone wanted to be close to that kind of magic,” says Dion. But the result, never released in the U.S., was “very muddy, like a dirge. I think he’s a little paralyzed by what he’s accomplished.”

Visiting Spector’s house was, says Dion, “like Mission: Impossible” involving several cars and rendezvous points. Always fascinated with guns, Spector had taken to carrying one to match his day’s outfit—and firing it at will. One day at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Connors remembers, he brandished his weapon at a woman who commented on his “Brillo pad” hair. “That was the day he was banned for life from the hotel,” Connors says.

Such behavior won few friends. Dee Dee Ramone recalls that when he was introduced to Spector in the late ’70s, Phil’s first words were “My bodyguards want to fight your bodyguards.” Whenever Dee Dee and his wife, Vera, visited Spector’s home, they were frisked before passing through the barbed-wire fences and security cameras. “He takes you down to the soundproof room, and he makes you listen to all his greatest hits,” says Vera. “Then he puts on a movie, turns it off in the middle and puts on some more records. You’re not allowed to leave until he wants you to, and he never wants you to.” Says Dee Dee: “He had this huge gold goblet studded with emeralds and rubies, and he was very secretive about what he put in it. I thought it was blood. Then one day he made me have a sip, and it was Manischewitz wine.” As for the guns: “He was a good shot,” says Dee Dee. “I saw him hit a fly at 50 yards.”

La Toya Jackson had a more frightening experience in 1986 when she was summoned to Spector’s house alone to work on some songs. “The lights were dim. There was chamber music playing. I sat alone in this room for two hours.” When Phil did appear, he insisted she sit with him on a tiny piano bench, and things got weirder. “He wouldn’t let me out of the house—I only got away by promising to come back the next day. I was really terrified.”

Yet Spector’s intimates still speak fondly of his wit, his wide-ranging intelligence and his decent, generous side. “He’s got moments when he’s a regular person,” says first wife Annette Merar Tapper, who remained friends with Spector until a few years ago. “He can be so charming and sophisticated.” Gene Sculatti, who has visited the huge new home Spector recently bought in Pasadena, says, “He can give you a discourse on Ben E. King, Edward Al-bee or the Supreme Court with the same ease—he’s been gracious to me.” And Darlene Love, who, thanks to Phil, received no royalties for her Spector hits, tells of calling him 10 years ago when she was down on her luck and asking if he would pay her rent. “I figured he owed me,” she says. “And he actually said yes. I was shocked, but he paid for a year.”

When the Hall of Fame ceremonies were over, Spector invited a few of his old chums to his suite at the Waldorf. As the Dom Perignon flowed, he chatted about the old days but—as usual—refused to be pinned down about future plans. “I asked him to work with me,” says songwriter Gerry Goffin. “He said, ‘I don’t work. I don’t have to work.’ I mean, what do you do after you produce the Beatles? But I wish he’d start making music again.”

Seeming pleased but disoriented by the evening, Spector asked Love, “What does this award mean? What is it all about?” Says Love: “I told him, ‘This means that your peers care about you.’ But he doesn’t believe that people care about him. He really thinks they don’t care. Phil is just so very alone.”

—Kim Hubbard, and Victoria Balfour in New York and David Lustig in Los Angeles