After bringing a (temporary?) halt to my revisits to the Sixties and Seventies I had been intending to revert to my habit of choosing a theme for these posts, and had actually decided on one for this week. However, when the news broke on Sunday that Phil Spector had died the day before I changed my plan: one of the biggest record producers of the period when I was growing up deserves a post to himself.
Spector is recognised as one of the most influential figures in the world of popular music: as well as producing – with his famous ‘wall of sound’ approach – he was also a songwriter, and scouted many of the acts who performed on the records he produced. He was a troubled figure, though, given to bouts of mental illness, and as you probably know he was, at the time of his death, serving a sentence of 19 years to life in prison, imposed in 2009 for the second-degree murder in 2003 of the actress Lana Clarkson, best known for her roles in five films directed by Roger Corman – the swords, sorcery and sex genre.
As a Brit growing up and getting interested in music during the Sixties, there is only one place I could begin this, with a piece of quintessential Spector:
Although that was credited on the record as being by Ike and Tina Turner it was actually just Tina. Spector didn’t want Ike involved with it, and bought him out of his previous recording contract to get what he wanted. The story goes that Spector’s perfectionism meant that the recording took hours, leaving Tina drenched in sweat and having to take off her shirt and sing in her bra! The song was a massive hit here in the UK in 1966, when it got to #3, but only made it to #88 in the US. I’ve never understood that, as it is, I think, a masterpiece of its genre. Despite saying that he was pleased with the critical reaction to the record Spector began to withdraw from the record industry: he was absent for two years after this and only made sporadic returns – about which there will be more, later.
My second tune is one for which Spector was a co-writer, as well as producer. Given its age – it came out in 1963 – I was a little surprised to find a delightful ‘live’ performance from that era:
It is just a simple girl meets boy story, and the lyrics are in keeping with Spector’s wish not to make them ‘too cerebral.’ The title was actually just a set of nonsense words to fill in the gaps, but Spector liked them and kept them in. That was a good decision: they make the song the little gem that it is. The reference to ‘Bill’ is actually a friend of Spector – Bill Walsh – who happened to drop into the office while the song was being written. It peaked at #3 in the US and #5 here, and I think it’s great!
My next choice for today is another of Phil Spector’s co-written songs, but is one that he didn’t produce – that role was undertaken by the other co-writer, Jerry Leiber, and by Mike Stoller:
Apparently there is a demo version on which Spector played guitar when they pitched the song to the record company: a real rarity! This was Ben E King’s first hit record after leaving The Drifters and is, I think, really reminiscent of an era when pop music concentrated on the simplicity of its tunes. Again, it is one I’ve always liked – despite the fact that it was one of my Mum’s favourites. I wish I’d shared that snippet with her when I could. It reached #10 in the US but didn’t chart here, though it did manage to struggle to #92 after a re-release of Stand By Me became a #1 in 1987. You may well know the cover version by Aretha Franklin, and it was also recorded as an album track by Cliff Richard – no doubt you’ll be pleased to know that I have made absolutely no effort at all to find his version!
The final Sixties song in today’s selection is one that was a massive hit everywhere:
Talk about a pop classic! The enhanced sound on that video really brings out the majesty of the song, which was another of my Mum’s favourites, and another for which I also had a liking. The song was written by Spector, along with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Spector produced the record – which is cited by some as being the epitome of the wall of sound – I’d challenge that with Tina Turner! The song reached #1 in both the US and UK in early 1965, and has also charted on four further occasions here in the UK, including #10 in 1969 and #3 in 1990. There have been numerous cover versions, including those by Dionne Warwick, Hall & Oates and Long John Baldry, but the most successful was the competing version released by Cilla Black, which charted at the same time here. The two record companies had a friendly battle over the versions, which involved the Righteous Brothers being flown over for a week of publicity. It worked: Cilla Black only got to #2, which in my view was far higher than her weedy effort deserved anyway.
I said earlier that Spector withdrew for a couple of years after River Deep, Mountain High. His return was notable for his co-production of two early solo albums by former Beatles. The first of these to be released was George Harrison’s triple album, All Things Must Pass, in November 1970. From this track you can clearly hear Spector’s wall of sound influence:
That video was released much later – in 2002 – and features Emma Rubinowitz and Esteban Hernandez, from the San Francisco Ballet. I think it’s lovely. It was created following the 30th anniversary remastered release of the album, which I bought on CD despite already having the original vinyl version: it was well-worn! On its 1970 release the album reached #1 in both the UK and the US, as well as in Australia, Canada, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden. The recording of the album took much longer than anticipated. George had to take frequent breaks to visit his mother, who was dying of cancer at the time, and they had to contend with Spector’s erratic nature. As Wikipedia tells it:
‘Harrison later referred to Spector needing “eighteen cherry brandies” before he could start work, a situation that forced much of the production duties onto Harrison alone. At one point, Spector fell over in the studio and broke his arm. He subsequently withdrew from the project due to …. “health reasons”.’
It’s still a masterpiece in my eyes, though, and is probably my equal favourite solo post-Beatles album, alongside my next choice for today.
This last one is another on which Spector was co-producer. Here is the title track, which I think you may have heard before:
Spector is credited with influencing the lusher song arrangements compared with Lennon’s first solo album, and the whole thing is, in my view, a triumph. The album was released in September 1971, and was #1 in the UK and the US, as well as in Australia, The Netherlands, Japan and Norway, and #2 in Canada. This song was released as a single in the US, reaching #3. It was subsequently released in the UK in 1975 to promote the compilation album Shaved Fish, when it reached #6, and it became a UK #1 in 1980 following Lennon’s murder. Its beauty lies in the simplicity of its message, which is perhaps even more relevant today. It is probably a forlorn hope, but I think they could do a lot worse than blast this out over the PA system in Washington tomorrow, where I think it needs to be heard. Mind you, if any of the retards are turning up for a repeat performance of their previous effort I doubt that they’d listen: most of them don’t appear to be capable of rational thought.
I hope you haven’t minded me diverting back to the Sixties and Seventies again, but I think Phil Spector’s musical influence merited a mention. There will be more tunes next Tuesday, and who knows what the news may have thrown up as a theme by then! Stay safe and well, and do what your government tells you, if you can make sense of it 😉