The gun-mad pop genius who died a killer in jail: He was the iconic producer behind the Wall of Sound and some of the greatest hits ever. But Phil Spector, who has died at 81, was also a terrifying and deranged monster, writes CHRISTOPHER STEVENS
Phil Spector created the greatest pop music ever recorded.
Hear his songs once and their dense, immense sound, layered with countless harmonies, is unforgettable – Be My Baby by The Ronettes or River Deep, Mountain High by Ike and Tina Turner.
Of all the giant hits throughout the Sixties produced by Spector, with his hallmark ‘Wall of Sound’, perhaps the finest is You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ by the Righteous Brothers.
Spector, who died yesterday aged 81 from complications linked to a Covid infection, has been acknowledged in the music business for six decades as a genuine genius.
Yet for almost as long, he has been regarded as the most hated man in pop: a thug, a bullying control freak, an alcoholic, a gun nut, a monster… and a murderer.
When he died, he was serving a jail sentence of 19 years to life for the killing of an actress at his California home.
Phil Spector (pictured in 1978) , who died yesterday aged 81 from complications linked to a Covid infection, created the greatest pop music ever recorded
Spector claimed Lana Clarkson was playfully kissing the barrel of his revolver when it was accidentally discharged, in 2003. A pathologist found bruising on the 40-year-old’s tongue, indicating the weapon was forced into her mouth.
After a murder hearing ended in a mistrial in 2007, Spector was found guilty two years later of second degree murder, the US term for manslaughter.
Few who knew the producer were surprised. He had a reputation for gunplay in the recording studio, threatening musicians and stars at pistol point if they failed to obey his instructions to the note.
Songwriter Leonard Cohen, who recorded with Spector in 1977, said that during one late-night session, an argument about the phrasing of a line became so acrimonious that the producer marched out of his booth and held a gun to Cohen’s head until he performed it to his liking.
That wasn’t the only time the Canadian singer and poet found himself a heartbeat away from being shot.
Phil Spector seated in the courtroom on March 23 2009, the last day of the prosecution rebuttal in the case of People v Phil Spector
On another night, Spector weaved across the studio with a pistol in one hand and a bottle of red wine in the other. He flung an arm across Cohen’s shoulder, pulled him tight and shoved the gun barrel against his neck. ‘I love you, Leonard,’ he said.
‘I hope you do,’ Cohen replied.
Cohen was not the only one unnerved by the svengali’s habit of pointing weapons at anyone who displeased him, included John Lennon and The Ramones.
Lennon was recording his 1975 covers album Rock ‘n’ Roll when Spector pulled his revolver from its hip holster and fired a shot inches from the ex-Beatle’s head, into the control room ceiling. A shaken Lennon snapped: ‘Phil, if you’re going to kill me, kill me. But don’t f*** with my ears. I need them.’
Punk bass player Dee Dee Ramone tried to leave the studio after a 12-hour session during which Spector refused to record anything but one chord, played endlessly. The producer aimed his revolver at the bassist’s chest – then deftly stripped and reassembled the gun without ever breaking eye contact.
It sometimes seemed that Spector had pulled a gun on every leading artiste in the business.
Spector had a habit of pointing weapons at anyone who displeased him, included John Lennon and The Ramones. Pictured: Phil Spector with John Lennon
When Blondie’s Debbie Harry approached him about producing a comeback album for her, he took out a handgun, stuck it into the top of her boot and said: ‘Bang!’ After that, Harry said, she couldn’t get out of the room fast enough.
Spector claimed his obsession with firearms began in his teens, after he was beaten up by a gang.
The guns were for protection, he said. But that was far too simple an answer for a man of deep and complex insecurities, who wore two-inch heels to boost his 5’5” height and took medication for schizophrenia even though he had not been diagnosed with the illness.
Days before the killing of Lana Clarkson, he gave his first interview for 25 years and blamed his mental instability on the fact that his parents were first cousins.
‘I would say I’m probably relatively insane, to an extent,’ he said. ‘I have a bipolar personality which is strange. I’m my own worst enemy.’
Born in New York on Boxing Day, 1940, he moved with his family to Los Angeles as a toddler.
Phil Spector (sitting) with George Harrison and the Ronettes
Tragedy struck when he was eight: his father Ben set off for work as usual one morning, but pulled off the road, fed a hosepipe from the exhaust to the driver’s window, and gassed himself to death.
Ben’s gravestone bore the words: ‘To know him was to love him’. Lying in bed and grieving, the boy heard the line in his mind as the refrain of a song.
He formed a high school rock ‘n’ roll band, The Teddy Bears, and recorded it, landing his first No1 hit in 1958. The song became a cover favourite, recorded by artists from Nancy Sinatra and Emmylou Harris to The Beatles and Amy Winehouse.
Spector sang harmonies on that original version, but he soon realised his talent was for shaping sounds, not making them.
After a brief career as a Tin Pan Alley songwriter (co-writing Spanish Harlem, a hit for Cliff Richard and Ben E King), he set up a record company to develop his distinctive, symphonic soundscape – a densely-packed tsunami of music, as if three orchestras and a choir were combining.
Soon he was a phenomenon, the producer as star-maker, dubbed ‘the first tycoon of teen’ by journalist Tom Wolfe.
He began with The Crystals, a gospel-influenced girl group with a string of hits: He’s A Rebel, Da Doo Ron Ron, Then He Kissed Me.
Aged 22, he signed The Ronettes. Their lead singer was a statuesque woman with beehive hair and eyeliner like an Egyptian queen. Her name was Ronnie Bennett and Spector became obsessed with her.
They recorded Be My Baby, the song becoming mixed up with the producer’s all-consuming sexual passion for the singer. In bed, he kept leaping up every two minutes and 45 seconds, to put the single on again.
Ronnie didn’t realise at first that Spector was already married, to Annette Merar. When she noticed women’s clothes at his home, he told her they belonged to his sister.
The Colt revolver found near Lana Clarkson’s body is seen here in an evidence photo presented during the trial
He insisted on keeping their affair secret, which caused an embarrassing incident at a New York hotel when the house detective assumed Ronnie was a prostitute and tried to throw her out.
A ferociously jealous man, Spector landed The Ronettes a gig as the support act on a Rolling Stones tour – then forced the band’s management to sign legal papers pledging that Mick Jagger and the other Stones would not fraternise or even speak with the girl band.
Ronnie eventually married Spector in 1968 after divorcing his first wife – when his greatest success was already over – and his eccentricities were multiplying.
His Wall of Sound reached its zenith with You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ and another Righteous Brothers classic, Unchained Melody (though pop historians argue over whether he really did produce that song, originally destined to be a B-side).
When River Deep, Mountain High by the Turners flopped on its first release in 1966, an aggrieved Spector retreated to his Hollywood mansion, filling it with memorabilia. For most of the rest of his life, he favoured early-Sixties styles, including a velvet jacket and elevator boots.
He wore toupees and, following a car accident that threw him through the windscreen and left his scalp scarred, a series of bizarre wigs fixed in place with extra-strong glue. At night, Ronnie said, the bedroom reeked of solvent.
Lana Clarkson who was foundshot dead inside Phil Spector’s house in LA
Ronnie was forbidden to have friends. He kept her ‘as a beautiful object,’ said one friend. She couldn’t bear children, so he ordered her to wear a cushion under her dress and fake pregnancies, before adopting three babies including a pair of twins.
Their nine-bedroom house, known as Pyrenees Castle, was surrounded by chain-link fences, with guard dogs roaming the grounds. On rare occasions when she was allowed out alone, she had to keep a mannequin dressed up as Spector on the passenger seat of her car – to deter rapists, he said.
After a terrifying row in 1972, she announced she was going shopping with her mother. In-stead she dashed to LA airport and took the first flight to New York. ‘I knew if I didn’t leave, I was going to die there,’ she said. Spector went on to marry again, briefly, in the Eighties.
Despite his unhinged behaviour, many musicians regarded him as a mercurial genius. In 1968, John Lennon and George Harrison asked him to dust his magic brush over the disjointed Let It Be sessions – although Paul McCartney never did forgive Spector for over-dubbing a full orchestra on to his ballad, The Long And Winding Road.
Stories of his strangeness became legend. One journalist, invited to his house, was shown into a blacked-out room by a servant and told to wait. The man sat in darkness for two hours, until he could stand it no longer and opened a curtain.
The first chink of light revealed Spector in an armchair. He had been there, motionless and silent, the whole time.
In 2003, he met an out-of-work actress at the House of Blues club in Hollywood and tried to befriend her, plying her with drink. She told him her name was Lana, that she was a Marilyn Monroe fan, that she was six feet tall, that she had a bit part in the Al Pacino movie, Scarface. They went back to his mansion.
Previous visitors to the house later told the trial that Spector sometimes tried to prevent people from leaving by force, locking doors and waving guns.
Exactly how Lana died will never be known, but Spector called a friend in panic and said: ‘I think I killed somebody.’
The first trial, at which the producer was represented by a ‘dream team’ of attorneys and forensics experts from the OJ Simpson trial, ended in deadlock, with the jury divided. During the hearing, Spector sported a huge Afro hairstyle.
At the second, which lasted six months, he opted for a blond Beatle wig. The jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to a minimum of 19 years. Yet that was not the end of his bizarrely intertwined romances and musical career.
In 2003, shortly after killing Miss Clarkson, he met a 22-year-old waitress and aspiring singer called Rachelle Short. He attempted to launch her as a star and, when that failed, made her his fourth wife in 2006.
After he was jailed, she went on an alleged spending spree that included a private plane, an Aston Martin and a Ferrari, jewellery and properties. Spector filed for divorce in 2016 and agreed to put Pyrenees Castle up for sale at £4million, splitting the proceeds with his ex.
Their divorce was finalised in 2019. The house where Lana Clarkson died is still on the market.
Music’s 5’5” Mr Big and his array of wigs
Hair today, gone tomorrow: Mugshots in 2009 (left) and 2013 (right) show the extent of Spector’s hair loss
Fuzz effect: Spector’s giant wig worn during his murder trial in 2005 (left) was toned down in 2007 (right)
Beatle mania: Spector also wore blond hairpieces inspired by the Fab Four during the trial
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