Phil Spector: Hear 15 Essential Songs
He was convicted of murder and died an inmate in California, but the producer’s work in the early 1960s is an inextricable part of pop music history.
By Jon Pareles
Phil Spector died Saturday as an inmate in California, convicted of the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson. By then, other facts had emerged about his volatile, erratic, gun-toting behavior, notably in Ronnie Spector’s 1990 memoir, “Be My Baby,” which detailed his abuses during their seven-year marriage. Some listeners may well decide that all of his music is poisoned. But it is also inextricable from pop history.
It was decades earlier, in the early 1960s, when Spector made the hits that he famously described as “little symphonies for the kids,” packing brash innovation into three-minute melodramas, treating adolescent romance as a universe of rapture and tragedy.
He brought dozens of musicians and singers into the studio to perform together, doubling parts for heft and impact and pushing mixes to the brink of distortion, to create his Wall of Sound. He gathered songwriters who could convincingly capture female longing and desire for his girl groups to deliver. And he found singers — many of them ambitious Black teenagers — who would supercharge those songs with gospel spirit.
After his prodigious hit-making streak in the early 1960s, Spector found admirers eager to work with him during the 1970s: the Beatles (collectively and individually), the Ramones, even Leonard Cohen. Then Spector withdrew from music almost completely for the next decades. But through the years, countless others — among them the Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, the Walker Brothers, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Abba, Meat Loaf and Bleachers — would emulate the thundering beat, chiming chords and lavish percussion of his Wall of Sound. “I still smile whenever I hear the music we made together, and always will,” Ronnie Spector told Billboard in an interview after Spector’s death. “The music will be forever.”
Here in chronological order are 15 of his most distinctive tracks.
The Teddy Bears, ‘To Know Him, Is to Love Him’ (1958)
Spector’s first hit turned the inscription from his father’s gravestone — “To know him was to love him” — into a present-tense declaration of love. The production, pre-Wall of Sound, is minimal and haunting. Annette Kleinbard sings over Spector’s gentle guitar strumming, joined by hushed backup vocals and a muffled drumbeat. Her diffidence falls away in the bridge, as her voice leaps to declare, “Someday he’ll see that he was meant for me.”
The Crystals, ‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)’ (1962)
In this creepy 1960s artifact written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the singer takes a jealous lover’s violence as proof of his affection. The masochistic premise is underscored by a cowed-sounding lead vocal, a skulking arrangement and the way the word “hit” arrives on a dissonant note. It’s even creepier given Spector’s later actions.
Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, ‘Dr. Kaplan’s Office’ (1962)
Not wasting any potential hits, Spector often placed instrumentals on the B-sides of his singles. The flip side of “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Heart?” was named for Dr. Harold Kaplan, who was Spector’s psychiatrist during the 1960s, constantly on call. Some Spector B-sides are clearly studio jams, but this is a full-fledged arrangement, with a swaggering saxophone-section melody, lots of handclaps and, partway through, somebody’s maniacal laugh.
Darlene Love, ‘(Today I Met) the Boy I’m Gonna Marry’ (1963)
Darlene Wright, who would become Darlene Love, was the lead singer of the Blossoms, the vocal group Spector swapped in for the Crystals to record “He’s a Rebel” and used to back up the Ronettes and original Crystals. She fully earned billing on her own for “(Today I Met) the Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” showing no doubt whatsoever about her expectations for marriage while the arrangement peals around her like wedding bells.
The Crystals, ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ (1963)
The combination of songs written with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, Spector’s productions and the youthful voices of the Crystals and the Ronettes led to the pinnacles of the Wall of Sound era. Love at first sight translates into two minutes of pure euphoria in this song, which can’t even find words for the joy: only nonsense syllables, “Da doo ron ron.” Behind the Crystals’ exultant harmonies, triplets gallop on piano and build on drums like a racing heartbeat.
The Crystals, ‘Then He Kissed Me’ (1963)
The opening guitar lick is a harbinger of folk-rock, and clattering castanets immediately join in to carry this chronicle of girl-group wish fulfillment from first dance to infatuation to proposal, each stage ratified with a kiss “in a way I’d never been kissed before.”
The Ronettes, ‘Be My Baby’ (1963)
One of rock’s bedrock beats — played by Hal Blaine and imitated ever since — opens a Barry-Greenwich-Spector song that’s both plea and promise. Veronica Bennett, later Ronnie Spector, soars above the band with a voice that’s wiry, vulnerable and utterly sure that her love is the answer. The Ronettes would spend decades battling Spector in court for their share of the royalties.
The Crystals, ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’ (1963)
Santa might as well be riding in on a souped-up steamroller in this full-throttle version of the song, pumped by saxophones and awash in glockenspiel — an arrangement Bruce Springsteen would turn into an annual concert staple of his own.
The Ronettes, ‘(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up’ (1964)
A steady, stomping beat trudges along as Bennett sings about breaking up and inevitably making up; “I belong to you and you belong to me,” she insists. But there’s a false ending and then a new, uncertain episode. Enveloped in wordless harmonies, she’s no longer so sure things will work out, and during the fade-out she implores, “C’mon baby, don’t say maybe.”
The Righteous Brothers, ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ (1964)
The romantic abyss opens wider and wider as Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, the Righteous Brothers, come to terms with the end of an affair in a song written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil with Spector. They note the growing signs of estrangement as strings swell over an implacable beat and the desperation grows unbearable. Before the end, they’re both howling, “Baby! I need your love!”
Ike and Tina Turner, ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ (1966)
Spector’s run as a nonstop hitmaker ended — inexplicably — with the magnificent bombast of “River Deep, Mountain High,” which he wrote with Barry and Greenwich. Spector was determined to make a masterpiece, and the production piled on everything in his arsenal: band, horns, strings, maracas, “doot-do-doot” backup vocals — behind no less than Tina Turner revving up to full rasp before the first chorus. Whatever made the song’s first American release peak at a dismal No. 88 on the Billboard Hot 100 has long been forgotten.
John Ono Lennon, ‘Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)’ (1970)
“Instant Karma” starts off relatively low-fi, with Lennon’s voice, a not-quite-in-tune piano and a rudimentary backbeat. But Spector’s production makes everything sound larger than life, Lennon soon works himself up to a shout and a full choir materializes behind him; it was never as casual as it seemed.
George Harrison, ‘What Is Life’ (1970)
George Harrison’s 1970 album “All Things Must Pass” was produced by Spector and Harrison, and “What Is Life” spurs Harrison with his own Wall of Sound, with walloping drums, a buzz-bomb guitar line, massed horns and strings and a very busy tambourine.
Leonard Cohen, ‘Death of a Ladies’ Man’ (1977)
One of greatest mismatches ever of songwriter to producer, Leonard Cohen’s album “Death of a Ladies’ Man” made Cohen raise his voice to barely hold his own against Spector’s kitchen-sink excesses. But the stately, nine-minute title cut is a grand anomaly for both of them: leisurely, orchestral, at once grave and slightly kitschy as Cohen contemplates the sexuality, revelation, metaphysics, disillusionment and comedy of a “great affair.”
The Ramones, ‘Rock ’n’ Roll High School’ (1980)
The last album Spector produced before decades of retirement was the Ramones’ “End of the Century,” by all accounts a collision between the Ramones’ usual quick-and-dirty recording methods and Spector’s painstaking perfectionism. But they shared a commitment to concision and drive, and Spector-style touches — huge drums, doubled guitars, layered vocal harmonies, a mid-song key change — only add to the two-minute blast.
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