Tuesday Tunes 40: Phil Spector


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 😉

 

Tuesday Tunes 39: Au Revoir Seventies Albums


Although they were separated by the Christmas break I’ve now shared three collections of Seventies albums with you, and feel it may be time to move on. The Sixties and Seventies were my formative years for music, and they were great times in which to grow up. But I guess most people think that about the music of their teens and twenties, even if they have the misfortune to have missed out on the times I had! Before moving on, I hope you’ll indulge me for one last session from back then – for now, that is, as there are still so many great albums from those days that I haven’t featured. Yet.

I thought I’d start today with something rousing, and they don’t come much better than this:

That was the second track on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, released in November 1971. Officially the album doesn’t have a title, but is generally known, for obvious reasons, as Led Zeppelin IV, and also as Four Symbols, after the symbols that each band member chose for the inner sleeve illustrations. The album reached #1 here in the UK but only #2 in the US. Despite that apparent ‘failure’ it is their best selling album – over 37m to date – and is one of the all time best sellers by anyone in the States. The album is noted for containing the band’s ‘signature tune,’ Stairway To Heaven, but I wanted to give you this one instead. If you want a great version of Stairway, try here.  This track was released as a single in some countries, but not here – the band never released singles in the UK while they were making new records. It only reached #47 in the US, which may go some way towards explaining why they didn’t like singles!

This is the second time I’ve featured Led Zeppelin in this series, and today’s next tune is also from a band making a return appearance:

That was released in May 1970, as the lead single for Free’s album Fire And Water, which came out the next month. It is the song that made the band a huge success: it was #2 here in the UK for several weeks that summer, and also reached #4 in the US. The album was also a British #2, and #17 in the US. It is still one of my all time favourites, and every track is brilliant. I could have given you any of them, but decided to go for the one you may well know.

Today’s third song is also from 1970. This is something of a rarity, as it is on an Elton John album, but wasn’t written by him and Bernie Taupin:

That, simply, is beautiful, made even more so by the background sounds of the surf and happy children’s voices. The song was written by Lesley Duncan, who plays the guitar and provides the harmony vocals. and remained the only song on one of his albums not written by him until his eleventh album, Blue Moves, in 1976. It comes from Elton’s Tumbleweed Connection album, released in October 1970 – his second album of the year (and third in total), following on from Elton John in April. If the movie Rocketman is to be believed, Elton and Bernie had written a huge number of songs together before his career took off, and wanted to record as many as possible. This one was written as a concept album, based around country and western/Americana themes, and reached #2 here in the UK and #5 in the US. None of the tracks was released as a single, apart from Country Comfort, and that was only in Australia, New Zealand and Brazil, for some reason. Rod Stewart recorded that one too, on his album Gasoline Alley. Lesley Duncan was much in demand as a songwriter and session singer around that time, notably for Dusty Springfield and Pink Floyd, as well as Elton. Despite this song being covered more than 150 times – including by David Bowie – her solo career never took off and after marriage she moved to the Isle of Mull and lived a happy life, mostly known locally as a gardener, until her passing in 2010.

Whilst I’m in the mood for beautiful songs, how about this one:

That was the final track on side one of Rumours, back in the days when music came on 12 inch slabs of plastic. You may have heard of the album – it has sold over 40m copies worldwide. Released in February 1997, it has become one of the all time best sellers, having reached #1 in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and The Netherlands. The story goes that the song was recorded solo by Christine McVie, who wrote it, in an extended session, in order that they could get it all in one take.  It wasn’t released as a single in its own right, but was the B-side of Dreams, which was #1 in the US and Canada, but only got to #24 here in the UK. As you can see from the video, it has been the closing song for Fleetwood Mac’s shows, performed by Christine in the way it was recorded. Given that the band were going through some relationship issues at the time the song was written, you can still sense the emotion pouring out of her as she sings. It is, in my view, one of the most beautiful songs ever written, even if Eva Cassidy did destroy it!

My next one for today is also from a band I’ve featured before, because I have loved them since their early days in the Sixties. This song was on their eighth album, Seventh Sojourn, released in late 1972. The slight discordance in the title’s numbering is due to their not having counted their first album, from their early pop group days. This version is a recording from a live performance with the World Festival Orchestra at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2000:

The orchestral setting really brings out the beauty of the song, and rounds out the sound in a way that adds something to the original recording – I think it’s lovely, and it still brings a tear to the eye now. The album reached #5 here but was the band’s first to reach #1 in the US. This track was released as a single in April 1972, ahead of the album, peaking at #13 here and #29 in the US. It was written by John Lodge, who takes the lead vocal.

I really must be in the mood for beautiful songs today, as this final one is another such. In the early Seventies Stevie Wonder dropped the ‘Little’ from his recording name, and produced a string of great albums that demonstrated his growing maturity. My favourite of these is Talking Book, which was released in October 1972. The best known tracks from it are the singles Superstition and You Are The Sunshine Of My Life, but the stand out track for me has always been the one which closes the album:

I think that is incredibly good. Like Songbird it has also suffered, in my eyes, from widespread publicity given to an inferior copy, in this case by Art Garfunkel. The original may not always be the best – but it often is! The song was written by Stevie and his sister-in-law Yvonne Wright, and he plays all of the instruments on the recording. The singer begins from a dark place, but still retains hope for his future: we could all use such optimism and positivity right now, I believe. I can’t think of a better, more uplifting way to bring this stage of my collection of Seventies albums to a close.

I’ll be back next Tuesday, once I’ve thought of what to do next in this series. As I said earlier, there is still so much I could share from the Sixties and Seventies, but I think it’s the right time for a change of tack. There is plenty of good music being released now, and there are still the four intervening decades to consider, so I’m not lost for choices!

Take care, obey the lockdown rules if, like us, you have them at present. If not, do take sensible precautions – you can’t see the virus but it’s lurking there. Above all, stay safe and well.