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Phil Spector: A passionate life

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(Screenshot via YouTube)

Genius music producer Phil Spector, whose life was like a Shakespearean play, has died from COVID-19 complications at the age of 81.

He was born as Harvey Phillip Spector on 26 December 1939 in the Bronx (a borough of New York City) and began his career in 1958 with The Teddy Bears, penning a number one single called ‘To Know Him Is to Love Him’. He got the idea from the gravestone of his father, who committed suicide in 1949.

Spector went on to become one of the most successful music producers in history, placing 24 records in the top 40 between 1960 and 1965 alone. He became known for inventing the “wall of sound” in the recording studio — a muscular, mind-blowing experience that had rock music writers reaching for new superlatives to describe it.

In 1960, when Spector was just 21, he founded Philles Records and became the youngest American in history to run a major record label. One of his earliest hits was ‘He’s A Rebel’ by the Crystals, which reached number one on the charts.

By 1963, Spector had produced another hit called ‘Be My Baby’ by the Ronettes and became romantically involved with lead singer Veronica Bennett.

More hits followed. When the Ronettes played at the Cow Palace near San Francisco, Spector became enamoured of the support act – the Righteous Brothers – and took over their contract. In early 1965, the band released ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ and it scorched up the charts, eventually reaching number one.

‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ is listed as the record with the most U.S. airplay in the 20th Century.

Spector said:

”The records are built like a Wagner opera. They start simply and they end with dynamic force, meaning and purpose. It’s in the mind, I dreamed it up. It’s like art movies.”

In 1966, Spector was sure he was onto a winner when he approached the successful Ike and Tina Turner and signed up Tina on her own — no Ike. The resulting song, ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ is arguably the best thing Spector ever produced. Tina’s soaring voice was a perfect foil for the “wall of sound” Spector had spent his entire career developing. However, the song was not commercially successful and struggled to hit 88 in the United States.

In later years, Spector continued to produce albums and formed close working relationships with former Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison. Much of their post-Beatles solo work was produced by Spector.

As the 1970s progressed, Spector became a recluse and suffered severe injuries following a 1974 car crash. In 1977, Spector produced and co-wrote an album for Leonard Cohen called Death of a Ladies’ Man that happened but nobody likes to talk about it. In 1979, Spector produced an album for The Ramones called End of the Century, which was equally fraught.

Nonetheless, Spector was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.

In 2003, Spector was arrested for shooting nightclub hostess Lana Clarkson after a night of heavy drinking. After a lengthy trial, he was sentenced to jail and remained there as he started developing COVID-19 symptoms — coughing, shortness of breath and inability to swallow or eat. He eventually succumbed to the virus.

Spector’s death prompted a flood of tributes.

Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys wrote:

‘He was everything. The biggest inspiration of my entire life.’

Spector’s former wife, Veronica Bennett, said:

‘Unfortunately, Phil was not able to live and function outside of the recording studio. Darkness set in; many lives were damaged.’

Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.

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