Phil Spector, one the most important pop record producers of the 20th century, has died, according to a statement from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. At the time of his death, Spector was serving a 19-year sentence for murder in the second degree. He was eligible for parole in 2024. The Grammy-winner and member of the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame was 81.
Despite a triumphant career and tremendous talent, his name will forever be sullied by his murder conviction and stories of abusive behavior.
The Bronx-born, Los Angeles-raised Spector is one of the principal architects of recorded American popular music. His hit-making career began in 1958 with his first Billboard No. 1, “To Know Him is To Love Him,” which Spector wrote for his early vocal group The Teddy Bears. This success led him to an affiliation with producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and the recording of Ben E. King’s hit “Spanish Harlem.”
By 1960 he and partner Lester Sill formed Philles Records, with Spector buying Sill’s stock in 1962, making him the youngest label chief at the age of 21. It was here that Spector perfected his formula, deploying the so-called “Wall of Sound,” a blast of monaural orchestration, performed by a core group nicknamed The Wrecking Crew, which included Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Tommy Tedesco, and many others. His songwriters mainly had offices in New York’s legendary New York Brill Building (hence popularizing “the Brill Building Sound”), and Spector built his fortunes primarily on his “girl groups,” like The Ronettes, The Crystals, and Darlene Love. (He had success with male vocalists, too, like The Righteous Brothers and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans.)
The top-selling records from this period, etched in our collective unconscious, include “Da Doo Run Run” “He’s a Rebel,” “Be My Baby,” “Walking in the Rain,” “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” “Unchained Melody,” and “Baby I Love You.”
Here is an example of this incredible lightning in a bottle.
On November 22, 1963, the same day as the John F. Kennedy assassination, Spector released A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, a collection of holiday songs like “White Christmas” and “Frosty the Snowman” recorded in Spector’s inimitable style, but also new tracks like “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” as recorded by Darlene Love. The album is one of the all-time essential masterpieces of American pop.
Spector was dubbed “The First Tycoon of Teen” by Tom Wolfe in a 1964 essay collected in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, and though music changed considerably by the late 1960s, Spector’s sound maintained its core essence. He recorded Ike & Tina Turner‘s album River Deep – Mountain High in 1966, and then stepped out of the public eye for a few years.