Phil Spector died Saturday as an inmate in California, convicted of the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson. By then, other facts about his volatile, erratic, armed behavior had emerged, particularly in Ronnie Spector’s 1990 memoir, “Be My Baby,” describing his abuses during their seven-year marriage. Some listeners may decide that all of their music is poisoned. But it is also inextricably linked with pop history.
It was decades before, in the early 1960s, that Spector made the hits he famously called “little symphonies for the kids”. He packed brazen innovations into three-minute melodramas, treating youthful romance as a universe of rapture and tragedy.
He brought dozens of musicians and singers into the studio to perform together, doubling up the parts for power and impact, and pushing mixes to the verge of distortion to create his wall of sound. He collected songwriters who were able to convincingly capture the female longing and the desire of his girl groups. And he found singers – many of them ambitious black teenagers – who would infuse these songs with gospel spirit.
After his amazing track record in the early 1960s, Spector found admirers eager to work with him in the 1970s: the Beatles (collectively and individually), the Ramones, even Leonard Cohen. Then Spector withdrew almost entirely from music for the next few decades. But countless others over the years – including the Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, the Walker Brothers, the Jesus and Mary chains, Abba, Meat Loaf, and Bleachers – have had the thunderous beat, ringing chords, and lavish drums of its Wall of Mimicked sound. “I still smile when I hear the music we made together and I always will,” Ronnie Spector told Billboard in a post-Spector interview. “The music will be forever.”
Here in chronological order are 15 of his most distinctive tracks. (Listen here on Spotify.)
The teddy bears, “To know him is to love him” (1958)
Spector’s first hit turned the inscription on his father’s tombstone – “To know him was to love him” – into a present day declaration of love. The production in front of Wall of Sound is minimal and haunting. Annette Kleinbard sings over Spector’s gentle guitar playing, accompanied by muted backup vocals and a muffled drum beat. Her reluctance falls on the bridge when her voice jumps and explains, “One day he will see that he was meant for me.”
The Crystals, “He hit me (it felt like a kiss)” (1962)
In this creepy 1960s artifact by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the singer takes the violence of a jealous lover as evidence of his affection. The masochistic premise is underlined by a cowardly sounding lead voice, a sculking arrangement and the way the word “hit” arrives in a dissonant note. It’s even creepier given Spector’s later actions.
Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, ‘Dr. Kaplan’s Office ‘(1962)
Spector didn’t waste potential hits and often placed instrumentals on the B-sides of his singles. The downside of “Why do lovers break each other’s hearts?” was named after Dr. Named Harold Kaplan who was Spector’s psychiatrist in the 1960s and was constantly on call. Some Spector B-sides are clearly studio jams, but this is a full-fledged arrangement with a boastful melody in the saxophone section, lots of hand claps, and a crazy mad laugh.
Darlene Love, “(Today I met) the boy I’m going to marry” (1963)
Darlene Wright, who would later become Darlene Love, was the lead singer of the Blossoms. The Spector vocal group traded in for the Crystals to record “She’s a Rebel,” and supported the Ronettes and the original Crystals. She earned the reckoning for “(Today I have) the boy I’m going to marry” on her own. She showed no doubt about her expectations of the marriage as the arrangement rings around her like wedding bells.
The Crystals, “Da Doo Ron Ron” (1963)
The combination of songs written with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, Spector’s productions, and the youthful voices of the Crystals and Ronettes led to the highlights of the Wall of Sound era. Love at first sight in this song means two minutes of pure euphoria that cannot even find words for joy: just nonsensical syllables, “Da doo ron ron”. Behind the jubilant harmonies of the crystals, triplets gallop on the piano and build on drums like a racing heartbeat.
The crystals, “Then he kissed me” (1963)
The opening guitar lick is a harbinger of folk rock, and rattling castanets immediately help carry this chronicle of the fulfillment of girl group wishes from the first dance to falling in love to the proposal. Each step was affirmed with a kiss “in a way that I would never have been kissed before. “
The Ronettes, “Be My Baby” (1963)
One of the rock beats of rock – played by Hal Blaine and imitated since then – opens up a Barry Greenwich Spector song that is both a plea and a promise. Veronica Bennett, later Ronnie Spector, hovers over the band in a voice that is wiry, vulnerable, and absolutely certain that their love is the answer. The Ronettes would spend decades fighting Spector in court for their share of the royalties.
The crystals “Santa Claus is coming to town” (1963)
Santa Claus might as well ride a pimped-up steamroller in this full-throttle version of the song pumped by saxophones and flooded with chimes – an arrangement that Bruce Springsteen would make his own annual concert staple.
The Ronettes, ‘(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up ‘(1964)
A steady, pounding thump trudges along as Bennett sings about breaking up and inevitably catching up. “I am yours and you are mine,” she emphasizes. But there is a wrong ending and then a new, unsafe episode. Wrapped up in wordless harmonies, she is no longer so sure that things will work out, and while fading out she begs, “Come on baby, maybe don’t say.”
The Righteous Brothers, “You Have Lost That Loving Feeling” (1964)
The romantic abyss continues to open when Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, the Just Brothers, grapple with Spector about the end of an affair in a song by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. You notice the growing signs of alienation when the strings swell over an inexorable beat and the despair becomes unbearable. Before the end they both cry: “Baby! I need your love!”
Ike and Tina Turner, “River Deep, Mountain High” (1966)
Spector’s run as a non-stop hitmaker ended – inexplicably – with the great bombast of “River Deep, Mountain High,” which he wrote with Barry and Greenwich. Spector was determined to create a masterpiece, and the production focused on everything in his arsenal: tape, horns, strings, maracas, backup vocals “doot-do-doot” – behind no less than Tina Turner who is in front the first chorus turned to full rasping. Whatever hit the song’s first American release peak at a somber number 88 on the Billboard Hot 100 is long forgotten.
John Ono Lennon, ‘Immediate Karma! (We all light up) ‘(1970)
“Instant Karma” begins relatively softly, with Lennon’s voice, a piano that is not quite in tune and a rudimentary backbeat. But Spector’s production makes everything sound bigger than life, Lennon soon works his way up to a scream and a full chorus materializes behind him; it was never as casual as it seemed.
George Harrison, “What is Life” (1970)
George Harrison’s 1970 album “All Things Must Pass” was produced by Spector and Harrison, and “What Is Life” spurs Harrison on with his own wall of sound, featuring walloping drums, a buzz-bomb guitar line, massaged horns and strings, and one very busy tambourine.
Leonard Cohen, “Death of a Lady Man” (1977)
Leonard Cohen’s album “Death of a Ladies’ Man” was one of the biggest mismatches between songwriter and producer. Cohen raised his voice to barely hold his own against Spector’s excesses in the sink. But the stately, nine-minute title cut is a major anomaly for both: leisurely, orchestral, serious and slightly cheesy at the same time, while Cohen considers the sexuality, revelation, metaphysics, disenchantment and comedy of a “big deal”.
The Ramones, Rock and Roll High School (1980)
The last album Spector produced decades ago of retirement was the “End of the Century” by Ramones, a collision between the usual fast and dirty recording methods of the Ramones and Spector’s meticulous perfectionism. But they shared a commitment to precision and drive, and Spector-esque touches – huge drums, double guitars, layered vocal harmonies, a key change during the song – only add to the two-minute explosion.