march 2012

‘When I go into a recording studio I make art, and I changed rock & roll into a form of art, and I made the rock & roll music and the role of the producer credible.’

Once There Was a Producer…

By David McGee


Phil Spector Records/Legacy

Phil Spector Records/Legacy

February brought more bad news for Phil Spector. Without comment, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the legendary producer’s appeal of his second-degree murder conviction. Dennis Riordan, Spector’s attorney, claimed his client’s constitutional rights had been violated during the trial for the 2003 death of actress Lana Clarkson when prosecutors used the trial judge’s comments about an expert’s testimony, effectively making the judge a witness for the prosecution. Riordan also argued the constitutional right to confront witnesses did not permit the prosecution to introduce at trial a videotape of statements made by the judge at a pretrial hearing that never were subjected to cross examination. The appeal came in the wake of two trials in 2007 and 2009, the former resulting in a mistrial, the latter in a guilty verdict with a sentence of 19 years to life in the California state prison system. Spector is serving his sentence at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison (SATF) in Corcoran, California. Although located in Corcoran, SATF is a separate facility from California State Prison, Corcoran. Spector will be 88 years old before becoming eligible for parole.

spectorGiven the likelihood that Spector will never produce another record in his life, the various 2011 reissues from Phil Spector Records/Legacy Recordings marking the 50th anniversary of Philles Records, the label Spector founded with partner Lester Sill in 1961, stand as a lasting monument to his troubled legacy--the highest highs he achieved as a producer, the reason he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, notwithstanding his fine work pre- and post-Philles. (The first four of those reissues, overviews of the Ronettes, Darlene Love, and the Crystals, along with a various artists anthology titled Wall of Sound: The Very Best of Phil Spector) were reviewed in our March 2011 issue.) The last of these reissues goes far towards closing the gap between a domestic Spector catalogue heavily weighted towards greatest hits packages of Spector-produced recordings and a British market that has been well-served with Spector product beyond the enduring hits. The first batch of reissues began that process but the concluding titles in the 50th anniversary outpouring may well tilt the scales slightly in favor of the U.S. market. Notably, the six-CD box set Phil Spector Presents The Philles Album Collection includes some of the non-single or B sides that have made the 1975-77 Wall of Sound reissues from Phil Spector International, assembled and annotated by Malcolm Jones, the Gold Star standard, if you will, of the Spector oeuvre. In addition, for those more focused on hits, a new double-CD, 35-track Essential Phil Spector entry is a more complete Spector experience than the once-essential 1977 Warner Bros. double-vinyl Phil Spector’s Greatest Hits, embracing as it does great pre-Philles singles such as one-hit wonder Curtis Lee’s updated doo-wop on 1961’s “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” and Ben E. King’s incandescent “Spanish Harlem,” among others, plus the incredible--and under-represented in Spector reissues--Righteous Brothers recordings as well as the last towering Spector-produced ‘60s single, “Black Pearl,” by Sonny Charles and the Checkmates, released on the A&M label. (Now out of print, 1991’s four-CD box set, Phil Spector: Back to Mono, is obviously the go-to Spector resource.)

Apart from the Ronettes’ first album, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes featuring Veronica, a label all-star collection, Philles Records Presents Today’s Hits; and an oddity even the Brits have overlooked, Phil Spector Presents Phil’s Flipsides (with the Phil Spector Wall of Sound Orchestra), four of the seven albums in the Philles Album Collection are essentially about Darlene Love, Bobby Sheen (as Bob-B-Soxx) and two incarnations of Crystals.

The Crystals, ‘Then He Kissed Me’

The story goes: The original Crystals lineup of high school friends Barbara Alston, Mary Thomas, Dolores "Dee Dee" Kenniebrew, Myrna Girard and Patricia "Patsy" Wright—all hailing from the Ocean Hill Brownsville section of Brooklyn—caught the attention of big band musician Benny Wells, who took them to the Brill Building in search of a recording deal, which he landed 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 uncannily like another Alston, Shirley Alston of the Shirelles. No sooner had their first single become a hit than did a pregnant Myrna Girard bow out. 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.”

Complications ensued 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 hard 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 included in the album collection, 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, 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 Peete (soon to become Darlene Love), fronting her group the Blossoms, all of whom Spector had summoned to Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, his new home base, for the “He’s a Rebel” session. With Love’s proud vocal complemented by forceful percussion, eager handclapping and a spunky Steve Douglas sax solo, the story of a gal’s affection for a bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks went to #1. Spector has claimed he wanted to cut the song before anyone else could get it out, meaning Vicki Carr, who he knew was recording her own version.

From the He’s a Rebel album, the title song, as performed by the Darlene Love-led Crystals

Having moved permanently to Los Angeles and to Gold Star, Spector then began using the New Yor-based Crystals--or rather lead singer La La Brooks--and Darlene Peete and the Blossoms interchangeably, cutting Brooks’s 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.

In an event little noted during the early Philles years, Spector served a stint in 1962 as east coast A&R director for Liberty Records in order to raise money for his Philles sessions. Nothing much came of the few records he produced for Liberty, but one did introduce Spector to a former member of the Robins, one Bobby Sheen. In August of that year, Spector had Sheen in the studio with Darlene Peete recording a slow, grinding version of “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” from the Walt Disney film Song of the South. But this “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” was not the stuff of Walt’s dreams, as it blurred the boundary between gospel testifying and physical yearning, serving God and Mammon at once (would it have been a Phil Spector production otherwise?). The single went to #8 in January 1963, and Sheene, Peete and Fanita James found themselves on the road as Bob-B-Soxx and the Blue Jeans, promoting their hit single. The next month, Sheen had a second charting single, not as Bob-B-Soxx but as an anonymous member of the Alley Cats, filing in for his brother-in-law Billy Storm, who couldn’t make the session that yielded the bopping, doo-wop influenced gem “Puddin’ N’ Tain (Ask Me Again I’ll Tell You the Same),” a single that peaked at #43 the same week the Darlene Pete-Blossoms version of the Crystals achieved a #11 hit with the ebullient “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” from the team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, yet another bit of class consciousness in song in which the girl singer trumpets her love for a boy of limited means because “when he holds me tight/everything’s right/crazy as it seems/I’m his, whatever he is/And I forget all of my dreams…” (meaning her dreams of marrying someone “tall and handsome, rich and strong”). A month later, in March, Sheen, Peete and James had another hit as Bob-B-Soxx and the Blue Jeans, with “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Heart?”, one of Spector’s early co-writes with Ellie Greenwich and Tony Powers and not the last Spector-produced song that would describe love as a hurting thing, and in shattering terms to boot: “Tell me, tell me/I don’t understand/Why we always hurt/The ones we love/Tell me, tell me/Where’s the life we planned/Where are the dreams that/We were dreaming of…” howls Peete/Love in the blazing chorus.

The Crystals, ‘He’s Sure the Boy I Love,’ yet another bit of class consciousness in song by the Spector-produced group that delved into such matters more than any of his other artists.

Although as Darlene Love Darlene Peete has been recognized for the stellar singing on all those early Spector sides--and indeed sustains her career on the Spector connection, and good for her--in their day the records themselves, not the names below the song titles, were the stars. No one really knew who the Crystals or Bob-B-Soxx and the Blue Jeans were in the way we knew, say, Elvis or Del Shannon or Connie Francis. This is as Spector would have it, as he told Roy Carr in an early ‘70s interview published in England’s New Musical Express. “When you see a Kubrick movie,” he told Carr, “you tell me how many names you immediately remember in the cast--say of 2001 and A Clockwork Orange. One, two? It’s the same thing with Fellini, and that’s what I wanted to do when I directed a recording session. … I used voices as just another instrument. …singers and instruments. They’re tools to be worked with. … When I go into a recording studio I make art, and I changed rock & roll into a form of art, and I made the rock & roll music and the role of the producer credible.”

You were expecting maybe humility?

The Crystals’ big hits are featured on three albums in this set: Twist Uptown, He’s a Rebel and The Crystals Sing the Greatest Hits. Like most albums from this era, the repertoire consists of the hit single(s) buttressed by covers of hit songs by other artists (such as the nice version of Carla Thomas’s “Gee Whiz,” with its tremulous, starry-eyed lead vocal by La La Brooks, on Twist Uptown) and throw-away B sides (a la the rockabilly-influenced dance number “Frankenstein Twist,” also on Twist Uptown). Spector didn’t exactly extend himself on the Crystals’ second long player, He’s a Rebel, packing it with nine songs from Twist Uptown, but also including the aforementioned masochistic treatise “He Hit Me” and supplanting “Gee Whiz” and “He Hurt Me” from the debut album with the hits “He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.” On “Oh Yeah Maybe Baby,” a Spector-Hank Hunter co-write, the producer fashions a swirling atmosphere redolent with the clacking castanets and crying strings from “Spanish Harlem”; more interesting still, especially given the sociological/topical bent of some Crystals numbers--far more than any other group Spector ever worked with--is his co-write with the great Doc Pomus, a Spector mentor, on “Another Country Another World.” With sweet strings, castanets, a twanging guitar deep in the mix and a deliberate, halting pace, Peete/Love delivers a sensitive, plaintive reading of a girl’s love for an immigrant lad, going against the advice of her friends “who all tell me that I’m wrong/to love a guy that don’t belong.” As in other Crystals songs centered on disenfranchised lovers (disenfranchised economically in “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” disenfranchised by race in “Uptown”), the singer is unyielding, firm in her affection, no matter the consequences. The Crystals were singing about and for the 99 percent when the 99 percent were more like, oh, 30 percent, or less.

The Crystals Sing the Greatest Hits begins with the group’s classic smash “Da Doo Ron Ron” (with La La Brooks’s rousing lead vocal and a powerhouse sputtering sax solo by Steve Douglas) before inexorably flying off the rails. The problem is not in the six cuts from the first two Crystals albums but in four of the five new recordings. The real Crystals deliver a captivating, tenderly harmonized reading of “Look In My Eyes,” a 1961 hit for girl group pioneers The Chantels, but for covers of the Dartells’ “Hot Pastrami,” the Orlons’ “The Wah Watusi,” Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time” and “The Twist,” the vocals were supplied by the then-unrecorded Ronettes. That the resulting album is a mess is an understatement: going against their style in trying to emulate a Crystals sound, Veronica and Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley stumble through the dance numbers--“The Wah Watusi” is a debacle of overwrought arrangement supporting disconnected, strained vocals (if you ever wondered what the Ronettes sounded like completely out of their element, this is the track to study); maybe they get points for being good sports, but Spector did them no favors by having them masquerade as something they were not.

Bob-B-Soxx and the Blue Jeans, ‘Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Heart?’

More concept than actual group, Bob-B-Sox and the Blue Jeans did cut an album’s worth of songs in the wake of “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”’s success, and of course it’s a showcase for more great Darlene Peete/Love singing. Based on the song selection, Spector didn’t seem to regard the Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah LP as a throwaway: the group does the standard “White Cliffs of Dover” (which Bobby Sheen had sung lead on in a doo-wop version with the Robins) in an arrangement similar to the grinding “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” with Darlene taking full advantage of a couple of opportunities for house wrecking gospel shouts; and a spirited rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” is realized as a high-intensity workout with a driving, banjo-heavy arrangement and rousing, hand clapping support behind Darlene’s assertive vocal. A Spector composition, “Dear (Here Comes My Baby),” is fueled by the same sort of pulsating, doo-wop rhythm as “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” which sets up you Sheen’s exuberant vocal, a chorus shouting responsively back at him and a white-hot Steve Douglas sax solo. Not least of all, the album contains two early Jackie DeShannon tunes, both co-written with Sharon Sheeley (an old flame of both Eddie Cochran and Ricky Nelson, who wrote “Poor Little Fool” for the latter). Their “Jimmy Baby” is an interesting, despairing story of a gal bidding farewell to her soldier boy, who ships out but never returns. The song’s bluesy tint sets the appropriate doom-laden atmosphere for Darlene to fully inhabit the character of the girl trying to convince herself, against all available evidence, that her beau has made it back unharmed. DeShannon-Sheeley’s “I Shook the World” is a funky pop-soul workout with overt gospel stylings in the call-and-response choruses buttressing Darlene’s unchained, testifying lead vocal--“I shook the world, I shook the world, I shook the world, I shook the world without love!” she shouts at the end, in a fervent, gospelized attack the likes of which mainstream America would become more familiar with in 1967, when Aretha Franklin adopted the same approach on “Respect.” The Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah album also introduced another Spector innovation in the form of the closing, sax-led instrumental, “Dr. Kaplan’s Office.” Named for the producer’s New York psychiatrist, this 2:11 tidbit served the purpose of being the B side of “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Heart,” its instrumental nature insuring it would not be mistaken for the A side and thus discouraging adventurous disc jockeys from flipping the single. Other cuts of a similar nature would follow during the peak Philles years, about which more later.

The Ronettes, ‘You Baby,’ smolders in a way we had not heard from Ronnie Spector before this…

The Ronettes, of course, are all tangled up in Spector’s history, beginning with their appearance as faux Crystals on The Crystals Sing the Greatest Hits to Spector taking singers he considered as having limited talent and mentoring them until they became real pros in the studio, and of course finally marrying Veronica Bennett, who became Ronnie Spector, his second wife. The Wall of Sound’s development came into sharp focus on the Ronettes’ recordings, not only as a literal wall of sound in which individual instruments were rarely distinguishable (in stark contrast to some of the great solos enlivening earlier Spector productions) but in the savvy use of effects such as the thunderclaps at the start of “Walking In the Rain,” the percussive castanets and triumphant strings keying the soaring ambiance of “I Wonder” and the iconic drumbeat kicking off “Be My Baby,” a record Brian Wilson has oft cited as being the greatest pop record ever made. The group’s debut album, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes featuring Veronica, is a thunderous Wall of Sound monument, containing no less than five of the greatest singles in Spector lore: “Walking In the Rain,” “Do I Love You,” “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up,” “Be My Baby” and “Baby, I Love You.” No nods to class consciousness or topicality here: the Ronettes were all about loving fiercely, an attitude Veronica projected in the intensity of her vocals, in the vulnerability emitted in her voice’s natural vibrato and in her projection of being an undaunted spirit who believed, Scarlett-like, in tomorrow being another day. The instrumental fury surrounding her mirrored the heated emotions she articulated as a singer even as its heroic grandeur complemented her grace under pressure. For those familiar only with the great Ronettes hits, a couple of the non-single album tracks show Ronnie growing as a vocalist, even at this early stage: “You Baby,” by Spector-Mann-Weil, is a classically styled Wall of Sound love song, its sax solo hearkening back to the Crystals’ days, but the lead vocal, upbeat as it is, smolders in a way we had not heard from Ronnie Spector before, and near the end she utters a quick but incredibly sexy orgasmic sigh as the track fades out; on the penultimate track, the Spector-written “When I Saw You,” a balladic musing on the dawn of new love, with a heavy dose of strings, a church-like choir and prominent percussion, Ronnie delivers the lyric with an unvarnished soulfulness and vulnerability heretofore foreign to her on record. Moreover, the wariness in her voice, even as she testifies so blissfully to all the wonderful things love has done for her, bespeaks a woman who, though falling hard, remains clear eyed enough to recognize there are no sure winners when hearts are in play.

The Alley Cats, with Bobby Sheen (Bob-B-Soxx) on lead, ‘Puddin’ N’ Tain’

Fittingly, Philles Records Presents Today’s Hits includes only one Ronettes song: “Be My Baby”--mainly because it was the group’s only hit at the time of the album’s release, but it seems right anyway. Otherwise it’s a Darlene Love-Bobby Sheen hitfest, via three Crystals hits, three Bob-B-Soxx cuts, four Love cuts and the Alley Cats’ lone claim to fame, “Puddin’ N’ Tain.” Last, least but not the least interesting is Phil’s Flipsides, an entire album, 17 songs totaling 34 ½ minutes, of lively instrumentals recorded by the Wrecking Crew (billed as the Wall of Sound Orchestra) as the throwaway B sides of Philles singles, a la the abovementioned “Dr. Kaplan’s Office.” Often titled after friends in Spector’s orbit--Dr. Kaplan, “Flip and NItty” (that would be Spector himself and his stalwart arranger Jack Nitzsche), “Nino and Sonny” (for Wall of Sound Orchestra regulars Nino Temple and Sonny Bono), “Larry L.” (for his Gold Star engineer, Larry Levine), “Tedesco and Pittman” (guitarists Tommy Tedesco and Bill Pitman”) and so on. Throwaways tracks these may have been, but they’re also pretty cool--we are talking, after all, about some of the best professional musicians in the world. Of note: the evocative, swaying “Git’ It,” with Spector himself playing a moody surf guitar; “Annette,” a Little Richard-style rocker named after Annette Lee Mera, Spector’s first wife, complete with a pounding piano and spiky guitar and someone wailing nonsense syllables for almost all of the track’s 2:28 length; a jazzy sax-and-guitar swinger, “Miss Joan and Mister Sam,” presumably named for Spector’s New York secretary, Joan Berg, with “Mister Sam” being either Spector’s Uncle Samuel or Nino Tempo’s father, Sam LoTiempo; a wonderful, bass-heavy slow blues jam, “Harry and Milt Meet Hal B.,” for Wall of Sound Orchestra members Hal Blaine, Harry Betts and Milton Bernhart, was the B side of one the great Christmas singles of all time, Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” released in 1963 off the ill-fated A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records. The album closes with a song recorded as a legit instrumental, “Torpedo Rock (Surfing Corrido),” an hilarious surf polka--yes, surf polka--that might have made some noise as a novelty record, but Spector shelved it; its first appearance on record (and only appearance until now) was on the British Wall of Sound series entry, Rare Masters, Vol. 1.

A sampling of the B sides Phil Spector recorded with the Wrecking Crew (as the Wall of Sound Orchestra) and featured on Phil’s Flipsides: ‘Git It’ (with guitar solo by Phil Spector), ‘Annette,’ ‘Brother Julius’ and ‘Harry and Milt Meet Hal B.”

Superbly annotated by Billy Vera, The Philles Album Collection houses the wealth of great music Spector and his artists produced between 1961 and 1964, when the collection (but not the label) ends. Though oft-anthologized, the hits are as lustrous as ever, and for those who care, for whatever reason, the lesser-known album tracks speak to the creativity and inventiveness at work in Gold Star Studios during the years in question. Among the many rare photos in the liner booklet are two--only two--showing Spector smiling. You only wish, damn it, that there were more, and more reasons to smile when the name Phil Spector comes up.

For another perspective on Phil Spector, follow this link to our interview with his engineer of choice, Larry Levine.

The Essential Phil Spector is available at

Phil Spector Presents The Philles Album Collection is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024