Phil Spector, Prod Wall of Sound 'producer convicted of murder, dead at 81

Phil Spector, Prod Wall of Sound 'producer convicted of murder, dead at 81

Phil Spector, a monumentally influential music producer whose “Wall of Sound” style revolutionized the way rock music was recorded in the early 1960s, died Saturday at the age of 81.

Spector, who transformed pop with his "wall of sound" recordings, worked with the Beatles, the Righteous Brothers and Ike and Tina Turner.

In 2009, he was convicted of the 2003 murder of Hollywood actress Lana Clarkson.

His death was confirmed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

Spector’s life was tumultuous and ultimately tragic; as groundbreaking as his studio accomplishments were, those achievements were all but overshadowed by his 2009 conviction for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson.

Spector’s death was confirmed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, “California Health Care Facility inmate Phillip Spector was pronounced deceased of natural causes at 6:35 p.m. on Saturday, January 16, 2021, at an outside hospital. His official cause of death will be determined by the medical examiner in the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office.”

Spector produced 20 top 40 hits between 1961 and 1965, AFP news agency reports. His production methods influenced major artists including the Beach Boys and Bruce Springsteen.

His life was ultimately blighted by drug and alcohol addiction, and he all but retired from the music scene during the 1980s and 1990s.

In February 2003, actress Lana Clarkson was found dead at his house in Alhambra, California with a bullet wound to her head.

Following an initial mistrial, Spector was convicted of second degree murder and given a sentence of 19 years to life. 

Spector adopted what he famously referred to as “a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll,” calling the hit records he assembled in the Sixties for artists like the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love and the Righteous Brothers “little symphonies for the kids.” His productions were dense and orchestral, accumulating layer upon layer of guitars, horns, keyboards, strings and percussion, often with multiple instruments playing the same note in unison. The songs he selected were dizzyingly romantic, typically written by the greatest of the Brill Building songwriters, and his classic recordings relied on the brilliant contributions of a set of musicians dubbed the Wrecking Crew – drummer Hal Blaine’s four-beat intro to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” is one of the most distinctive kick offs to a song in rock & roll history.

“He’s timeless,” Brian Wilson said of Spector in 1966. “He makes a milestone whenever he goes into the studio and this has helped the Beach Boys evolve.” Spector’s classic recordings spurred his contemporaries to become more ambitious in the studio.  A decade later Bruce Springsteen would seek to recapture the grandeur of Spector’s productions on Born to Run. “Phil’s records felt like near chaos, violence covered in sugar and candy … little three–minute orgasms, followed by oblivion,” Springsteen said in 2012. “And Phil’s greatest lesson was sound. Sound is its own language.”

Harvey Philip Spector was born in the Bronx on December 26, 1939. His father committed suicide when Spector was nine years old. Spector moved to Los Angeles with his mother in 1953, and within a few years he was playing in jazz groups.

Spector formed Teddy Bear in 1958 with high school friends Marshall Lieb and Annette Klein Bird. From an inscription on his fathers gravity, Spector took the title of his first production, To Know Him Is Love To Love. It was a number one hit, but the groups subsequent singles, as well as their only album, The Teddy Bear Sing !, flopped and the group quickly disbanded.

When he was 18, Spector caught the eye of veteran L.A. producer Lester Sill, who instructed Spector to go to New York and work with Sill’s former proteges, the successful songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Spector co-wrote Ben E. King’s hit “Spanish Harlem” with Lieber and played guitar on the Drifters’ “On Broadway.” But it was as a producer that Spector would make his biggest impression, helming Ray Peterson’s hit version of “Corinna, Corinna,” Gene Pitney’s “Every Breath I Take” and Curtis Lee’s “Pretty Little Angel Eyes.”

In late 1961, Spector and Sill formed Philles Records.

The personnel change worked: The new Crystals’ first single, the million-selling “He’s a Rebel,” became Philles’ first Number One single. Just a year after forming the label, Spector bought out Lester Sill’s share. At 21 years old, Phil Spector was a millionaire.

Though Spector’s focus was on crafting 45 rpm singles, at the end of 1963 he released his only classic LP. A Christmas Gift for You From Philles Records, which featured all the label’s artists, and consisted largely of well-known Christmas songs, such as the Ronettes’ ecstatically reworked “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” The standout track, however, was a new song written by Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich: Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” which has become a holiday standard in its own right.

Spector had become rock & roll’s first superstar producer – “the first tycoon of teen” as a Tom Wolfe profile famously dubbed him. Spector held his own against the British Invasion of 1964, producing even more hits for the Ronettes, and the following year, he turned his attention to a male duo called the Righteous Brothers. The group’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” sold over two million copies and became Philles’ third Number One hit.

In 1982 Spector married Janis Lynn Zavala and the couple had twins, Nicole and Phillip Jr. The boy died at age 10 of leukemia.

Six months before his first murder trial began, Spector married Rachelle Short, a 26-year-old singer and actress who accompanied him to court every day. He filed for divorce in 2016.

In a 2005 court deposition, he testified that he had been on medication for manic depression for eight years.

“No sleep, depression, mood changes, mood swings, hard to live with, hard to concentrate, just hard — a hard time getting through life,” he said. “I’ve been called a genius and I think a genius is not there all the time and has borderline insanity.”

Linda Deutsch is a retired special correspondent for The Associated Press. The Spector murder trial was one of many sensational cases she covered during her 48-year career as a Los Angeles-based trial reporter.