Phil Spector: Mad Genius, By Kurt Loder

Producer who changed sound of pop music long known to be erratic, violent.

The arrest of the renowned record producer Phil Spector on a murder charge on Monday was one of the most startling true-crime bulletins out of the music business since the similar arrest, in 1961, of country star Spade Cooley, for kicking to death his estranged wife in front of their 14-year-old daughter.

There have been many great rock-and-pop producers — Rick Rubin, for example, who’s done some of the best of the Red Hot Chili Peppers albums; and Butch Vig, best known for his work with Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins. But none of them has changed the sound of popular music as much as Phil Spector did. Over the years since he made his greatest records, however, Spector has become an increasingly odd and isolated character.

Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1940, Spector became a jazz piano and guitar prodigy. After his father committed suicide, and he moved with his mother to Los Angeles, he scored his first hit record with his own group, the Teddy Bears, in 1958. The song was called “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” a phrase taken from his father’s tombstone. (It was also a 1987 hit, in a trio version, by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt.)

Spector went on to create and record some of the greatest girl-group and post-doo-wop records of the early 1960s — the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and “Baby, I Love You” among them. (These songs have subsequently been covered by everyone from the Beach Boys to Patti Smith and the Ramones).

Spector’s records were recorded in a style that became known as the “Wall of Sound.” Working in a very small Hollywood studio called Gold Star, he would assemble massive groups of studio musicians — three guitarists, two bassists, two or three pianists, drummers, percussionists — to create an enormous mono sound that would burst through radio speakers of the time like rock and roll thunder. These epochal hits (later saluted in a famous three-minute Steadicam shot in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”) heralded an era in which the producer became the star. They were so universally popular that the writer Tom Wolfe, then at the height of his own pop-analytical powers, was motivated to profile Spector, in a 1965 magazine article, as “The First Tycoon of Teen.” Spector was only 21 years old, and he was a millionaire. At the time, he said, “I have a tremendous yearning — a yearning to be respected, a yearning to be accepted. I see this in teenagers — a yearning to do things, to be someone, to be important and to be recognized.” His own work, he said, “is an emotional music for an emotional generation.”

The Ronettes had started out as go-go dancers at a New York discotheque called the Peppermint Lounge (one of the Beatles’ first stops on their first visit to the U.S. in 1964). Spector eventually married Veronica (Ronnie) Bennett, the group’s leader. Much later, in a 1983 documentary by filmmaker Binia Tymieniecka that aired on England’s Channel Four (from which I will liberally quote hereafter), she said of her ex-husband: “I think Phil was a very normal person at the beginning of his career. But as time went on, they started writing about him being a genius. And he said, ‘Yeah, I am a genius.’ And then they would say, ‘He’s the mad genius.’ And so he became the mad genius.”

In 1966, Spector made what may have been the greatest record of his career, “River Deep – Mountain High,” by Ike and Tina Turner. (Actually by Tina Turner — Ike wasn’t invited to participate.) The record bombed, and Spector was stunned. His wife, Ronnie, said he became abusive, keeping her a virtual prisoner in their mansion and, at one point, threatening to have a hit man kill her. She once told me that she and Cher — who was at the time married to Spector acolyte Sonny Bono — would secretly sneak out to rendezvous at a sidewalk mailbox and share lamentations.

Phil Spector moved on. He did a cameo as a cocaine dealer in the 1969 hippie-hit movie “Easy Rider.” He produced the John Lennon hit “Imagine,” and the ex-Beatle’s classic Plastic Ono Band album. He also produced George Harrison’s first post-Beatles solo outing, All Things Must Pass.

But his last even semi-substantial hit (and “hit” is putting it too grandly) was the under-appreciated 1980 Ramones album, End of the Century. The Ramones — a great American band who’d never had a hit — figured Spector was the guy they needed, because he was a producer from the era they most revered. Phil was not appreciative. “If you need a big-name producer,” he said, “go find one. If you want Phil Spector to produce you, then I’ll consider it.” (Modesty was a concept with which he was unacquainted: He once referred to other producers as “amateurs, students and bad clones of yours truly.”)

Spector’s collaboration with the Ramones was ill-starred. Johnny Ramone complained that Phil spent 12 hours contemplating the opening chord of “Rock and Roll High School.” And Dee Dee Ramone said, “He wasn’t the most friendly guy I’ve ever met. He tried to be friends, but then he had guns on him, and he wouldn’t let me out of his house for a couple of days. I never met anybody [else] like him and I hope I never do.”

The subject of Phil and guns inevitably arises in any discussion of the man. Guns, and bodyguards, with guns of their own. At his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, he walked out onto the stage surrounded by three very heavy-looking gentlemen, each of whom had one hand stuck menacingly into his tuxedo jacket — gripping a gat, apparently. Phil, who was obviously ripped, yammered on and on about this and that — so long that the late, ill-tempered show producer, Bill Graham, ran out onstage and slammed a note onto the speaker’s podium encouraging him to shut up and move on. Spector finally relented, and reeled off to leave the stage. There were a few steps to walk down, however, and when he reached the last one, he stumbled, and went hurtling off into the arms of whoever caught him.

Spector, in his long latter-days, became a famous recluse. He did contemplate making a comeback in the mid-’90s, after seeing Celine Dion singing a version of “River Deep – Mountain High” on TV one night. But after spending a month in the studio with the singer, he stormed off, ranting about Dion’s handlers and their lack of respect for his legendary talents. (“You don’t tell Shakespeare what plays to write,” he groused, “or how to write them.”) He recently told the British writer Mick Brown that he was taking medication for schizophrenia (“But I wouldn’t say I’m schizophrenic”). “I have devils inside,” he said, “that fight me.”

All of Phil Spector’s greatest work is collected in a 1991 box set called Back to Mono. It’s still available. I gave it five stars in a Rolling Stone review at the time, and believe me, it rules. If John Frusciante of the Chili Peppers is now investigating this kind of music — very much based in black vocal harmonies — I think that’s a sign it may never die. But then I think it’ll never die anyway. As for Phil Spector himself, one of the great creators of rock and roll music, I wish him the best in his latest turmoil (see “Producer Phil Spector Arrested In Connection With Slaying” ). But I recall that Spade Cooley got life.

Kurt Loder