Legendary record producer (and convicted murderer) Phil Spector has died

Phil Spector, who roared to fame producing a series of major hits in the 1960s has died. The cause of death? COVID, apparently.

Spector was diagnosed with COVID-19 about a month ago while serving time (19-to-life) for the murder of Lana Jane Clarkson at his home on February 3, 2003. He was transferred to a hospital and had apparently recovered enough for him to sent back to prison. But then there was a relapse and despite being sent back to the hospital, he died Saturday. He was 81. (The California Department of Corrections insists the cause of death was natural causes.)

Spector’s run began with the release of “To Know Him is to Love Him” by the Teddy Bears in 1959.

Spector was on his way, producing hits like “You’ve Lost the Lovin’ Feeling,” “Unchained Melody,” and “You’re My Soul and Inspiration” for the Righteous Brothers. There was also a long string of girl group hits, including “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes.

Other acts included The Crystals, Bob B. Sox and the Blue Jeans, and one of my favourite songs of the era, “River Deep Mountain High” from Ike and Tina Turner.

“River” is a great example of Spector’s Wall of Sound production technique, this idea of layer upon layer of music (often using the famous studio group known as The Wrecking Crew) funneled into a mono mix. He somehow managed to tame the parts of up to three dozen musicians into something that actually worked for the ears and the soul.

His records sounded HUGE and sounded great on AM radio. An amazing feat, considering that Spector would have been using two-, three- and four-track recorders. Stereo recordings? Pish. As far as Spector was concerned, a single channel was all you needed coming out of the speaker.

Check out this partial list of hit singles:

  • The Crystals, “He’s a Rebel”
  • The Crystal, “Da Doo Ron Ron Ron”
  • The Crystals, “Then He Kissed Me”
  • Darlene Love, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”
  • The Ronettes, “Walking in the Rain”
  • The Ronettes, “Baby I Love You”
  • Righteous Brothers, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling”
  • Righteous Brothers, “Unchained Melody”
  • Righteous Brothers, “Ebb Tide”
  • John Lennon, “Instant Karma”
  • John Lennon, “Imagine”
  • John Lennon, “Power to the People”
  • George Harrison, “My Sweet Lord”
  • George Harrison, “What Is Life”
  • Ramones, “Rock’n’Roll High School”
  • Ramones, “Do You Remember Rock’n’Roll Radio”

Later in the 60s, Spector was brought in to producer the Beatles’ Let It Be after they decided they’d gone as far as they could with George Martin. The result was a record that polarized almost everyone included with the project after Spector decided to retroactively add strings to songs like “The Long and Winding Road.” If you’re interested, there are “naked versions” of Let It Be stripped of the orchestral arrangements.

Despite what happened with Let It Be, George Harrison hired Spector to produce All Things Must Pass. And who co-produced John Lennon’s Imagine album? Phil Spector. In fact, Spector was in the studio for three Lennon solo albums and two Harrison records plus the Concert for Bangladesh soundtrack.

As huge fans of his work in the 60s, The Ramones were thrilled to work with Spector on the End of the Century album. That record was supposed to the Ramones’ big break. Instead, it got bogged down in weirdness with Spector bullying the band into doing what he wanted, sometimes (it is alleged) with a pistol nearby. He blew through a budget of US$120,000, far, far higher than any other Ramones album.

Legend has it that Spector made Johnny Ramone play the opening chord to “Rock’n’Roll High School” dozens (hundreds?) of times before he got the tone he wanted.

By the time the 80s rolled around, Spector was pretty much a recluse, perhaps caused by a near-fatal car accident on March 31, 1974, when he was launched through the windshield. Had an attending cop not detected a faint pulse, Spector might have died on the road that night. He ended up with 300 stitches to the front of his head and another 400 to the back. After that, Spector started wearing wigs, perhaps to hide the scars.

His production worked slowed down, too. He produced Season of Glass for Yoko Ono in 1981, tried to work with Celine Dion (the project was canned), and last worked with the British band Starsailor in 2003 on their Silence is Easy album.

Deep into his Norma Desmond years, he spent most of his time at the Pyrenees Castle, his mansion in Alhambra, California. On the night of February 3, 2003, waitress/actress Lana Jane Clarkson was brought to his house. She ended up dead under circumstances that are still unclear. What’s not disputed is that she died as a result of a gunshot wound to her head and that the gun belonged to Spector.

Spector was free on bail until the murder trial began on March 18, 2007, sticking to his claim that Clarkson’s death was “an accidental suicide.” That was followed by a mistrial (the jury deadlocked 10-2 for conviction). The retrial began on October 20, 2008 and lasted until April 13, when, after 18 days of deliberation convicted Spector of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 19-to-life. He would have been eligible for parole in 2024.

Here’s me talking about Phil on Global News AM640 Monday morning.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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