Phil Spector: Why do lovers break each other’s hearts?
Dreams Come True, Dreams Die Hard
Phil Spector Considered Anew
By David McGee
Periodically there’s a rumbling and lo, reissues of Phil Spector’s productions appear. It has happened again in 2011, as Legacy Recordings and EMI Music Publishing have teamed on a four-CD reissue in honor of the 50th anniversary of the founding of Philles Records, the label Spector launched with music business executive Lester Sill in 1961 and which was the home for the bulk of the work on which his legend rests. Spector himself, of course, now rests in the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison (SATF) in Corcoran, California, serving 19-to-life for the February 3, 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson. It was the sorry spectacle of his trial, when he showed up in court in a variety of fright wigs, that allowed the general public at large to get a steady diet of the disturbing behavior exhibited over the years—especially in his relations with women--by the former “First Tycoon of Teen” (as Tom Wolfe memorialized him in a 1964 Esquire magazine piece that found its way into his book The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby).
These new Legacy reissues—The Ronettes, By My Baby: The Very Best of The Ronettes; Darlene Love, The Sound of Love: The Very Best of Darlene Love; The Crystals, Da Doo Ron Ron: The Very Best of the Crystals; and the required course of Wall of Sound: The Very Best of Phil Spector, containing 19 titanic examples of the Wall of Sound operating at peak hit efficiency.—are full of the joy, the exuberance, the promise, the hope exuded by the young artists under Spector’s command. The grisly circumstances of Spector’s final undoing, and trial testimony about his abusive, sometimes threatening behavior towards various females in the past—following Ronnie Spector’s earlier accusations of her former husband’s controlling nature and verbal abuse, and an adopted son’s claim of having been abused by Spector--now shadow this music like, as the poet W.H. Auden might say, rolling thunder at a picnic. Has any major music figure done more to undermine his fans’ hallowed memories of when the music first moved them, and why? It’s not the Ronettes’ fault—Ronnie still sounds as alluring and vital as ever when “Be My Baby” comes on; it’s not the Crystals’ fault—“Uptown” remains one of pop’s most stirring moments; it’s certainly not Darlene Love’s fault, the most valuable designated hitter on the Spector team, who could be the voice of the Crystals, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans and herself all at once, and has actually ennobled herself in establishing a solo career that, though inextricably bound to her Spector tenure, has always been about her magnificent voice and her sunny personality, in stark contrast to the looming darkness and megalomaniacal outbursts enveloping Phil himself as the years rolled on.
The basic primer on Phil Spector’s recording history. Behold.
The first great Spector reissue spasm occurred from 1975-77, starting when Malcolm Jones assembled a series of high quality retrospectives for the Phil Spector International label—six volumes in all, including single volumes devoted to the Ronettes (The Ronettes Sing Their Greatest Hits), the Crystals (The Crystals Sing Their Greatest Hits), Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans; a 14-track edition of the basic Spector texts in Yesterday’s Hits—Today; and two amazing volumes of Rare Masters featuring unissued or obscure recordings by the Spector artists. Jones also did a splendid 1975 reissue of Phil Spector’s Christmas Album (albeit without the original cover showing all the artists in Yuletide splendor) and in 1976 added to the catalogue a 20 Greatest Hits compilation with a then-controversial cover shot showing a bald-headed man whose face is obscured by an ice cream cone that’s been smashed into it, the cone now sticking out where his nose should be. No explanation, by Spector, Jones or anyone else, has ever been forthcoming about the reasons for such a hostile cover. In 1977, the Warner/Spector label released a double-vinyl gatefold edition of Phil Spector’s Greatest Hits, containing all the usual Philles suspects but also including Spector productions for other artists on other labels pre- and post-Philles (e.g., the updated doo-wop of Curtis Lee’s “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” Ben E. King’s magnificent “Spanish Harlem,” the Paris Sisters’ velvety “I Love How You Love Me,” “Black Pearl” by Sonny Charles & The Checkmates, among others).
Cut to 1991, and ABKCO issues one of the finest of all early box set CD anthologies in Phil Spector: Back to Mono. Sixty tracks comprised the first three CDs, and a high percentage of those were hits; the fourth CD was Phil Spector’s Christmas Album in its entirety. Well-annotated for fans who cared about the studio minutiae, the accompanying booklet also included a smart essay about the Spector life and legend by New York Daily News’s David Hinckley.
And if you are so inclined, the import market offers an exhausting number of Spector anthologies, both of the familiar material and of rarities. (The Malcolm Jones-squired reissues of 1975-76 are now the latter category, as The Crystals Sing Their Greatest Hits volume of original Phil Spector Wall of Sound series is selling used on Amazon for $100.) So here we are twenty years after Back to Mono, and the Spector oeuvre lives again on four new discs. All but completists will likely be content with Wall of Sound: The Very Best of Phil Spector. It’s a record that’s hard to stop, from the opening cautionary roar of The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel,” on through to cut 19, the explosion of senses and sensuality that is Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.” In between, you can guess, are Ronettes classics (“Be My Baby” is right up front, “Walkin’ In the Rain” about midway through, the effusive “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up” comes later and proves a perfect setup for Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans’ “Not Too Young To Get Married.”); The Crystals monuments (“Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me,” the soaring “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”); Darlene Love on her own with the soulful workout on “A Fine, Fine Boy,” the thrilling anticipation of “”Wait ‘Til My Bobby Gets Home,” and leading Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans in the exquisite doo-wop-based pure pop, piercing wisdom and palpable ache of “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Heart” (“why do lovers break each other’s hearts/oh, tell me why can’t lovers finish what they start”), a Spector-Greenwich-Tony Powers classic; and breaking up the tidal wave of female exuberance, the Righteous Brothers’ towering “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” the 16th track and positioned to remind you heavily the Philles-era Spector relied on the sound of the female voice in his self-described “little symphonies for kids.” He did far better by women on record than he did in his personal life (and that observation should be extended to the writers he worked with in crafting these amazing songs, notably Ellie Greenwich, and her husband/collaborator Jeff Barry; Carole King, and her husband/collaborator Gerry Goffin. Cynthia Weill, and her husband/collaborator Barry Mann). Maybe it was the extra male in the mix that made the difference, because Ms. Greenwich, while often describing Spector humorously to yours truly as “crazy,” also was energized artistically by his intense approach to songwriting.
As she explained to Roy Carr of New Musical Express, in his liner notes for the Phil Spector International volume of The Ronettes Sing Their Greatest Hits: “No matter what happened, Phil was the boss. Both Phil and I were stronger on the melodies than the lyrics, while Jeff was just the opposite.
“Really it was a hodgepodge way in which the three of us wrote all those songs, because Jeff, Phil and I were all spewing out ideas simultaneously. Many times Jeff was banging on something. I was working at the piano, Phil was in another room having his regular French lessons and strumming a guitar. Suddenly, Phil would hear something that appealed to him, dash into the room, and before we knew what was happening, we’d written a new song.
“In those days, we actually wrote records. We knew before we went into the studio what they would eventually sound like. Sometimes they turned out even better.”
The twin vocal pillars of the Spector sound were New York City-born Ronnie Spector (Veronica Bennett) and Los Angeles native Darlene Love (Darlene Wright).
With her sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley, Ronnie formed the Darling Sisters, who were obscure background singers until they found Spector, and he them, and rose from doing backgrounds on his records into the center ring. With her beehive hair and bee stung lips, and a smoldering but restrained sexuality, Ronnie looked the part she sang—the young girl in various predicaments or ecstasies of love. Born in 1943, she was older than the high school students who became her most ardent fans in the early ‘60s, but she sounded like one of them, especially to the boys, who lusted after her from afar but with abandon. There was a reason Steve Van Zandt once referred to Ronnie as “the queen of our hearts.” All those Spector-Greenwich-Barry and Spector-Mann-Weil songs the Ronettes sang spoke to the teen culture. To the credit of this Legacy series producer, Rob Santos, the material on Be My Baby: The Best of The Ronettes, though drawn mostly the officially released catalogue, does include some telling tracks from the Phil Spector International Rare Masters, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 releases that show the trio credibly tackling, deeper, more lyrically ambitious material, including “Here I Sit,” an unreleased number written by Spector and Harry Nilsson; another track released for the first time on Rare Masters, Vol. 2 and included here is “Everything Under the Sun,” co-written by Gary Knight and Bob Crewe, the latter being otherwise engaged in employing his own take on the Wall of Sound in his productions for The Four Seasons. “Everything Under the Sun” is a fine Ronettes performance, but what’s really fascinating is that the melody and the whole roiling soundscape sound like the understated template for Ike & Tina’s “River Deep, Mountain High”—speed up the Ronettes track, and add the heated urgency of Tina Turner, and look what you get. It’s not outrageous to suggest that what we get in the lone Ronettes disc is a single disc overview the Phil Spector Wall of Sound Series provides in three albums.
The Ronettes, ‘Be My Baby,” Shindig, 1965
Out in California, Darlene Wright was growing up singing in church, and eventually auditioned for and won a spot in an all-girl group, The Blossoms. As background singers, the Blossoms fashioned quite a resume, backing Sam Cooke on a host of numbers (including “Chain Gang” and “Everybody Likes to Cha-Cha-Cha”), as well as adding their smooth harmonies to Shelley Fabares’ “Johnny Angel,” to Doris Day’s pop confection “Move Over Darling” and yukking it up with Bobby “Boris” Pickett on “Monster Mash.” What Spector found in Darlene Love was a young woman who could belt with unusual maturity and assertiveness, while retaining a swinging soul feel in her vocal attack. She credits Spector with making her sing melody—“and with conviction.” Unlike the waifish Ronnie Spector, Love had an athletic figure, curvy, solid but graceful too. Unlike the vulnerable Ronnie, Love seemed always on top of things emotionally—there’s a triumphant strut to her bold acceptance of her bad boy in the Gene Pitney-penned “He’s a Rebel” and an outpouring of pure, celebratory zeal in another of her Crystals incarnations, singing lead on Mann-Weil’s “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”; on her own single, “Wait ‘Til My Bobby Gets Home,’ a Spector-Greenwich-Barry tune, a scenario that might be a weeper for Ronnie, a moment of vulnerable longing, is for Love an occasion when absolute certainty reigns; she’s sure her boy is coming back with a heart full of love for her, and is fine with counting the hours ahead of his arrival. As on the Ronettes disc so it is here, with the familiar fare supplemented by some choice cuts from the Phil Spector Wall of Sound Rare Masters volumes, notably the frantic Spector-Greenwich-Barry entry, “Run, Run Runaway,” and a superb, somewhat dark “Strange Love,” a tune written by Spector, Vince Poncia, Jr. and Pete Andreolo on which Love’s gospel roots are most evident. (Both recordings had been previously unissued until showing up on Rare Masters.) For good measure this disc also includes a couple of non-Spector-related Blossoms tracks from 1965, both recorded for the Reprise label and produced by Jimmy Bowen, who was at that time also producing Frank Sinatra, plus a 1975 Spector production of Love digging into Mann-Weil’s “Lord, If You’re a Woman,” previously available only on the import Darlene Love Masters.
The Crystals, ‘He’s a Rebel.’ The real Crystals, Barbara Alston singing lead, mime to the hit track cut by Darlene Love and The Blossoms
Although Darlene Love’s history is entwined with the Crystals’ story, there really was a Crystals group sans Love, and quite a good one. Comprised of Barbara Alston, Mary Thomas, Dolores "Dee Dee" Kenniebrew, Myrna Girard and Patricia "Patsy" Wright—all hailing from the Ocean Hill Brownsville section of Brooklyn—the gals came together under the auspices of big band musician Benny Wells, who took them to the Brill Building in search of a recording deal, and got one when Spector encountered them. They were recording immediately upon graduating from high school, cutting a Spector-Leroy Bates number, “There’s No Other Like My Baby,” in 1961 that rose to #20 on the pop chart and peaked at #5 R&B. Apart from the big sound behind them, the Crystals sounded like an updated version of the ‘50s Teen Queens of “Eddie My Love” fame, with Alston taking the longing lead vocal and sounding ucannilly like another Alston, Shirley Alston of the Shirelles. No sooner had their first single become a hit than did Myrna Girard bow out owing to her pregnancy. Kenniebrew’s mother recommended as a replacement a 13-year-old gospel-trained singer in her after-school program at P.S. 75, one Dolores “La La” Brooks. With Brooks in the lineup, Alston delivered a dramatic, seasoned vocal on Mann-Weil’s Latin-flavored “Uptown,” one of the first rock ‘n’ roll records of the Civil Rights Era to deal explicitly in class issues, as the singer’s impoverished beau, “lost in an angry land” downtown, gains his dignity, and his gal’s admiration, when he comes back “uptown, where folks don’t have to pay much rent/and when he’s there with me, he can see that he’s everything.” For all the talk of the Wall of Sound’s battering force, Spector’s restraint here is remarkable for its nuance—the strings lay back in the verses, as Alston lays out the narrative, then build in quiet intensity in the choruses; a delicate, shuffling rhythm persists along with insistently clacking castanets, over which Brooks delivers a proud, grand statement of love transcending what in most accounts would be despairing circumstances. Alston is equally effective on Jack Keller-Larry Kolber’s “What a Nice Way to Turn 17,” a lovely, blues-tinged ballad about a young couple snuggling up after the candles have gone out and everyone else has gone home, a remarkable performance of sustained, simmering passion, sultry and yet so innocent at the same time. Things began to get complicated with the Crystals’ next single, an ill-advised Goffin-King account of, well, rough love in the form of “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss).” Even in the rather unenlightened year of 1962, this was a tough sell—the single bombed, Spector panicked. (The Mann-Weil team came up with another unfortunate tune that same year in “Please Hurt Me,” a track from the Crystals’ Twist Uptown album in which a girl expresses her willingness to put up with all manner of deception and betrayal from the boy she loves, all the while knowing he’s going to dump her, an eventuality she’s eager to accept. A therapist’s field day is this one.)
The next thing the Crystals knew, they were on tour, and their new single came on the radio—“He’s a Rebel,” a Gene Pitney-penned tune. Fine, except that gospel-influenced lead singer was not Barbara Alston. It was, in fact, Darlene Love, whom Spector had summoned to Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, his new home base, and with her other Blossoms in tow they tore up “He’s a Rebel,” with Love’s proud vocal complemented by forceful percussion, eager handclapping throughout and a spunky Steve Douglas sax solo. It went to #1. Spector’s story was that he wanted to cut the song before anyone else could get it out, perhaps knowing that Vicki Carr was recording her own version of it at that time.
The Crystals in a rigorous studio session with Phil Spector, cutting ‘Uptown,’ part 1
The Crystals in a rigorous studio session with Phil Spector, cutting ‘Uptown,’ part 2
Now the producer hit his stride, doing all his work out of Gold Star, with the cream of L.A. players forming his Wall of Sound orchestra (in an interview with Dr. John in 1981, he told me how excited he was to be asked to play on a Spector session, until he walked into Gold Star and saw how many musicians were there for the same session. “I couldn’t figure out why he needed twelve guitar players on a single song,” the good Dr. said.) and his trusted engineers Larry Levine and Al Ross working technical wonders to get the sound Spector heard in his head onto tape. The result is what we hear on Wall of Sound: The Very Best of Phil Spector, but the immediate impact of the move to Gold Star was to split the Crystals, with La La Brooks cutting vocals at Gold Star in L.A. backed by Love and the Blossoms (and sometimes with arranger Sonny Bono’s wife Cher added to the mix), then returning to New York to teach the material to the legit Crystals so they could perform on the road. Love sang lead on another pulsating Crystals single, the Mann-Weil celebration that is “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” which charted #11 pop and #18 R&B, but after that Brooks took over and what a run she had with a string of Spector-Greenwich-Barry gems: “Da Doo Ron Ron” (#3 pop, 1963) with its great, sputtering Steve Douglas sax solo; the thundering “Then He Kissed Me” (#6 pop, 1963); a florid, booming anticipation of incipient romance, “I Wonder”; an urgent lover’s plea, “Little Boy”; and “All Grown Up,” a swinging, surf guitar-driven emancipation proclamation with sly, passing musical references to Chuck Berry’s “Almost Grown” (#98 pop, 1964).
To the Crystals belongs the honor of participating in the weirdest of all Spector records, although they contributed little to it beyond simple, repetitive verses (“dance, dance, dance/let’s do it/c’mon and do it/to the right/to the left/now front, now back/c’mon and do…). An underground rarity, because it was instantly unfit for release and only a couple of promo copies were ever pressed, “(Let’s Dance) The Screw,” a near-10-minute grind on two sides that doesn’t have much going for it save for a deep male voice interjecting repeatedly, tunelessly, and blandly, “Dance the screw” and a steady groove provided by piano, drums and bass. It was long thought that the male voice was Spector’s; it sounds too old to be Spector’s, though, and the conventional wisdom at present is that it’s Spector’s attorney making his singing debut and sayonara in one fell swoop. The backstory is that Spector and Sill had a falling out after Sill had sold his share of Philles to Spector for $60,000, and Spector subsequently withheld payment, saying Sill owed him that much in royalties for Spector’s work with the Paris Sisters in 1962. Sill took Spector to court, and a judge decreed Sill be awarded all the royalties from sales of the next Philles single, which was slated to be “Da Doo Ron Ron.” Instead, Spector hatched a diabolical plan to put “Da Doo Ron Ron” on hold in order to release a new tune he had written for The Crystals. Spector had a copy of “(Let’s Dance) The Screw” hand delivered to Sill, who seems not to have commented on what it was like to have an expected windfall vanish in less than 10 minutes’ time. “Da Doo Ron Ron,” the Philles single after “(Let’s Dance) The Screw,” soared to #3 pop, and Spector cashed the royalty checks unimpeded.
The Crystals, ‘(Let’s Dance) The Screw, Part 1’
The Crystals’ collection also contains a Rare Masters track previously unissued until it appeared on that release, the unremarkable “Heartbreaker,” but this disc, of all in this reissue, offers the most compelling Spector storyline. With its earliest tracks recorded at Mira Sound Studios in New York, we can hear the Wall of Sound flowering when Spector sets up shop at Gold Star in L.A. to cut “He’s a Rebel,” and stays there, Larry Levine at his side at the board, the awesome lineup of gifted L.A. musicians in front of him, and great singers following his lead.
Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans, ‘Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts’
Two memories haunt me when I listen to these records again. One is best summed up in Lenny Kaye’s informed, heartfelt liner notes for the Ronettes collection. In closing he shares a 2007 encounter with Ronnie Spector and Nedra Talley on the Ronettes’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction night.
Kaye: “It is March 2007, and I’m at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards ceremony in the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, a hundred or so blocks south from where the Ronettes grew up in Spanish Harlem and where tonight they will be inducted into the realm of rock’s immortals. I’m there with my own band, whose leader has often sung “Be My Baby” and is also being honored. As the night rises to its finale, I find myself playing piano next to Nedra, always the Ronette upon whom I had a crush and with whom I share a smile at the surprising turns of fortune that have brought us here. Later, after the event, I dance with Ronnie in a club downtown, thinking of when I heard her voice of love’s promise illuminate my teenage years, and how dreams come true.”
Beautiful dreams, such beautiful, resonant dreams. And then I come down to earth when I remember one of many nights hanging out with the late, great songwriter Doc Pomus in the late ‘70s. We were working on what turned out to be an aborted biography of his life, and met one afternoon in 1979 to go over a list of sources I should interview for the project. Doc was to Phil Spector what he had become to me—a second father. I asked about interviewing Spector, and whether Doc could make a request on my behalf.
It wasn’t the first time he had said it to me, but this time there was an unusual firmness in his voice when he answered. His response was more personal, and it was a message, not simply friendly banter.
“David, I have to tell you,” Doc said emphatically, “this guy is seriously, seriously crazy. You need to know this. He’s out there playing with guns, he’s waving guns around all over the place, he’s scaring people.”
“What does this have to do with interviewing him, Doc?”
“Because, David, some day something bad is going to happen. As sure as I’m sitting here, something bad is going to happen.”
Dreams come true. And dreams do die hard.
The Ronettes, ‘Baby, I Love You’