Phil Spector, Music Producer and Convicted Murderer, Dies at 81

Phil Spector
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Phil Spector photographed in 1965. 

Phil Spector, the sonic craftsman who pioneered an extravagant “Wall of Sound” production style he applied to hits for the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers, the Beatles, and many others, died on Saturday, Jan. 16, at Stockton’s California Health Care Facility, California State Prison, where he’d been serving a 19-year sentence for a 2009 murder conviction. He was 81.

His death was confirmed in a press release by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Per the release, he was pronounced dead of natural causes around 6:35 p.m. at a local hospital. The San Joaquin County medical examiner will determine an official cause of death.

Spector in the 21st century may be associated with madness and murder. But in the early ‘60s, pop’s first auteur became famous for supervising all aspects of the recording process, including lyrics, composing, arranging, producing, conducting, playing, mixing, and even owning Philles Records, the label that released smashes like the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel,” the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” He did this all in his early ‘20s with a dense, echo-laden technique he later brought to the Beatles’ final album, Let It Be, as well as John Lennon’s “Instant Karma!” and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. Merging pop, rock, R&B, and various Latin grooves with the orchestrations of classical music, Spector created “little symphonies for the kids” that have influenced musicians as diverse as Brian Wilson, My Bloody Valentine, and Amy Winehouse.

"He had a mighty influence on my generation -- and every generation afterward," Dion tells Billboard in a statement. Spector produced the turbulent sessions for the artist's 1975 album Born to Be With You, an album that has since become a classic, one that musicians have cited and celebrated. "We take so many of the techniques of recording for granted, and we forget who invented them. Phil did, and I can testify to that. I was blessed to work with him. When he arrived at Warner Brothers, he requested specifically to work with me. I’m grateful for the records he made with me."

Born December 26, 1939, in the Bronx to first-generation Jewish immigrants, Spector was raised in Los Angeles following his father’s suicide. At Fairfax High School, he assembled his group the Teddy Bears, who recorded his self-produced “To Know Him Is to Love Him.” After it reached No. 1 in late 1958 right before his 19th birthday, Spector apprenticed with songwriting/production duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; he co-wrote Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem” and played the guitar solo in the Drifters’ “On Broadway.” Following hit productions for the Paris Sisters and others, Spector teamed with former Lieber/Stoller promotion man Lester Sill to create Philles Records. Within the first year, Spector bought Sill out to become the label’s sole owner at age 21, which also placed him among rock’s earliest self-made millionaires.

Featuring youthful but tough vocals, extravagant arrangements mostly created by Jack Nitzsche, massive performances by L.A.’s “Wrecking Crew” of session musicians, and instantly memorable tunes by top composers (including Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, Cynthia Weil, Barry Mann, Carole King, and Spector himself), Philles singles by the Crystals, Darlene Love, the Ronettes (fronted by Spector’s future wife, Ronnie Spector), and their peers ruled early-to-mid-’60 jukeboxes and AM radio waves. Tom Wolfe rightly dubbed him “The First Tycoon of Teen” in 1965.

But by the middle of ‘66, when self-contained rock bands had replaced most Brill Building-dependent vocal acts, every subsequent Philles single faltered. Following the relative failure of what he considered his crowning achievement, Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High,” Spector shuttered Philles and took a sabbatical. By ’69, he bounced back with Checkmates, Ltd.’s equally exquisite “Black Pearl.” Although his orchestral overdubs on the Beatles’ Let It Be famously infuriated Paul McCartney, Lennon and Harrison enlisted him for several albums, including Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, as well as Harrison’s The Concert for Bangladesh, a benefit set with Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, and others that earned Spector a 1973 Grammy for Album of the Year.

The next year, Spector survived a near-fatal car crash and launched Warner-Spector Records, but his Midas touch once again faltered. After controversially lavish productions for Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man and the RamonesEnd of the Century, he co-produced Yoko Ono’s mournful Seasons of Glass in 1981, then essentially retired. Rumors of his seclusion circulated for decades, then intensified in 2003 when actress Lana Clarkson was found dead in Spector’s Alhambra mansion; in 2009, he was sentenced for murder in the second degree.

Spector’s real-life dramas made some of his records, like the Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” even more unsettling. But the exultation of his initially flopped 1963 holiday album, A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records, has only intensified with time. Many musicians have better reconciled their private lives and public art, yet few have approached the sweeping, simple joy of “Da Doo Ron Ron.”