Classic Soul – Phil Spector, He’s A Rebel
By: Barry Tate,
July 11, 2000 8:39 AM
I’ve been totally immersed in reading the biography, "He’s A Rebel" (written by Mark Ribowsky) about the legendary record producer, Phil Spector. This is one hell of a book. Written straight-up about one very peculiar but gifted little man who could only communicate with the rest of humanity through his music. Because he didn’t know how to do it any other way. I grew up on a lot of his music. And until he came along, I never thought of a record producer as an ‘artist’ per se.
Reading about his abusive family background (father committed suicide, mother dominated the household, pushy lunatic sister) had obviously far-reaching ramifications on this fellow. Like most gifted people that are brilliant and creative but short in physical stature, Spector was a tyrant in the studio, building layer after layer of his legendary "Wall Of Sound". Here was a producer who put together something so rare and unique, for the first time, a producer stepped out front. Most groups, like the Ronettes, Dixie Cups, Darlene Love (Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon films) and even the Righteous Brothers, were simply tools used-and then discarded-to showcase Phil Spector’s sound. But they all had to cope with a lot of madness from him.
This man did some truly hideous things to people he worked with, and supposedly cared about. He made deals with both artists, promoters and industry giants, only to then break them if they were not to his advantage in the final wash. Spector screwed so many writers-including the famous Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil and Gerry Goffin-Carol King songwriting duos from the Brill building days. He literally destroyed the Blossoms and the Ronettes, picking off (and eventually living with) Ronnie as his vulture’s prize while still a married man. He promised her many times he would record her solo to get her to drop divorce proceedings, only to sit on the masters. One of his biggest hits ever, "You’ve Lost That Lovin Feelin" by the Righteous Brothers, was (and still is) a tour de force, but when Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield started enjoying their long-overdue success in ’65, Spector ripped them a new one in the press, putting them down as "mediocre singers, simply tools to express HIS ‘! artistic vision’ that had no real talent with out him to guide them". Far as Phil was concerned, he MADE the Righteous Bros, as he had ‘made so may other groups.
Spector was his own worst enemy. He couldn’t stand anyone having a greater success than him. He demanded loyalty, yet he gave none at all in return. He couldn’t openly express himself to others, and never attempted to write lyrics because of this inability to ‘feel’, so he hid behind a Wall Of Superiority. This was a Napoleon-complex asshole who left tractor-treads across your back. Remarkably, people still clamored to work with him, willing to withstand the verbal abuse. Just to be able to say they worked with a ‘legend’. Many thought he was ‘certifiable’. And in his inner soul of demons, he thought perhaps even he was crazy, yet he3 remained both compassionless and conscience had no part in his public projected persona.
And when the tides of the late ’60s changed, he couldn’t change with them. Stuck in the same "Wall Of Sound" groove, having alienated practically everyone (especially DJ’s and programming directors at radio stations across the country) who was anyone in the music industry, he recorded his grand opus "River deep, Mountain High" with Tina Turner. This was going to be his big finale.
It should have been his greatest achievement. The session was a nightmare for all who played on it. It cost a then unheard of $22,000. 60+ musicians. Just for one song. When it was released, it hit no. 88 on Billboard, then FELL OFF the charts!. Today, it’s considered a classic track, and I personally love it. But then, in 1966, it was too Black for white Pop airplay, and too Pop-sounding for the Soul/R&B stations. It was grossly overproduced (even Ike Turner said that!) and the stations, at that point so sick of Mr. Pompous Egotist, actually backlashed Spector by refusing to play the song. (It actually went to No. 1 in England).
As is widely known, Spector went into depression, hung out with Lenny Bruce who at that point was close to overdosing and took much of his rejection by the record industry out on Ronnie, his then wife. Which turned her into an alcoholic. Then, he starts hanging out with John Lennnon and picks up many of John’s ‘bad habits’. But, Phil-stale for a few years now-needed a hit bad and made a tremendous comeback with Lennon’s "Instant Karma" single, the "Imagine" LP by Lennon, the "Let It Be" Beatles swan song and the "Bangladesh" LP for George Harrison. But certainly not with out the usual Phil Spector drama. Paul McCartney was said to have absolutely hated what Spector had done to the unfinished "Let It be" masters. But Phil was given some pretty poor tracks to resurrect, as none of the Beatles really gave a sh-t at that point. Spector did the best he could under those circumstances. All the Beatles later agreed Spector had done remarkable job overseeing the finishing touches on what’s now considered a masterpiece.
Only years later did Paul -and many other industry observers- agree that Phil had created something of a milestone at the end of road for a supergroup. Phil was back.
Ultimately, he received a Lifetime achievement award from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. Which goes to show you how forgiving the music industry can be if you consistently deliver the goods.
To me, this is an absolutely fascinating story. I highly recommend this book.
Barrington S. Tate