Phil Spector, the producer whose groundbreaking “Wall of Sound” recording technique powered some of the biggest songs and acts in music before he was convicted of a 2003 murder, died Saturday at an undisclosed hospital. He was 81.
He had been diagnosed with Covid-19 several weeks ago, but official cause of death will be determined by the medical examiner in the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office.
The Wall of Sound was a meticulous and layered approach to recording, smacking a listener with a dense, almost symphonic array even on basic rock ‘n’ roll tunes. It made Spector one of rock music’s first auteurs and one of its most successful producers in a thriving era for pop music. Among his many clients were the Ronettes, the Beatles, Ike & Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, the Ramones, the Righteous Brothers, John Lennon, Yoko Ono and George Harrison. Countless other recording artists emulated Spector’s approach, making him one of the most influential studio producers of all time.
But Spector fell from grace when he was incarcerated for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson at his home in Alhambra, east of Los Angeles. Spector, who was known to brandish firearms, claimed his gun went off accidentally. He was tried twice for murder after an initial mistrial, finally convicted in 2009 and sentenced to 19 years to life in California state prison. He was incarcerated at the California State Health Care facility in Stockton at his death.
Spector would have been eligible for parole in 2024.
Born Harvey Phillip Spector in the Bronx, on December 26, 1939, he started his music career as a guitarist and vocalist with the Teddy Bears, writing their 1958 hit “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” which hit No. 1 just after his 19th birthday. That led to Spector co-founding Philles Records, making him at 21 the youngest record label owner in the US at that point.
The 1960s were a heyday for Spector, as he wrote and produced for the Ronettes, the Crystals, the Righteous Brothers and Ike & Tina Turner. He usually would work with a house band known as “The Wrecking Crew” on such classic songs as “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’,” “Unchained Melody,” “Be My Baby,” “River Deep, Mountain High,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “He’s a Rebel” and many more.
“You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’,” which Spector also co-wrote with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, was the most-played song of the 20th century, according to performing-rights group BMI.
His recordings inspired legions of burgeoning rockers and producers including the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who was fascinated with “Be My Baby” and adopted the Wall of Sound technique for the classic 1966 album Pet Sounds and the landmark single “Good Vibrations.”
Spector briefly retired in 1966, but returned in 1969 to produce the Beatles’ final album, Let It Be, and the first solo album by George Harrison, the triple-LP All Things Must Pass — which earned Spector two Grammy noms — and John Lennon’s first two post-Beatles sets, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Imagine. Spector went on to win an Album of the Year Grammy for the star-laden live disc The Concert for Bangla Desh and also helmed Lennon’s Rock & Roll.
At that point, he was widely acknowledged as one of the top record producers in pop history, having helmed 18 US Top 10 singles for various artists. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1997. He also received the Recording Academy’s Trustees Award at the 2000 Grammys, and several of the records he produced are part of the Grammy Hall of Fame.
He was married to Ronettes singer Ronnie Spector from 1968-74.
But personal demons again derailed Spector, and by the late 1970s, he had become known as much for his eccentricity as his body of work. Tales of him brandishing guns, doing drugs and insisting on marathon sessions abounded.
He was badly injured in 1974 in a Hollywood car crash, thrown through the window of the vehicle and almost dying at the scene. He took hundreds of stiches to his head in the accident, which has been cited as the reason he began wearing a strange assortment of wigs in his later life.
From the 1980s through the early 2000s, Spector was sporadic in his recording activity. He worked with Celine Dion (a project from which he eventually was fired ) and the group Starsailor. But he threw many parties in and around his Alhambra mansion and was often seen out and about in Hollywood.
On February 3, 2003, police were called to the Spector mansion and found actress Clarkson’s body. Spector claimed the former House of Blues hostess died when his gun accidentally went off. Spector remained free on bail while awaiting trial, which begin in March 2007 and was televised.
However, by September, the judge declared a mistrial because of a hung jury, with a reported 10-2 split and only two votes for conviction.
His retrial in 2008 was not televised, with the result this time a conviction in April 2009. He was immediately taken into custody and had remained incarcerated until his death.
Clarkson, who lived in Venice, CA, made her acting debut in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, starred in Roger Corman’s Barbarian Queen, appeared briefly in Scarface and guested on numerous TV series during her 20-year acting career.
Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.