Phil Spector’s Best Records: The Wall of Sound, Broken Down, from the Ronettes to the Ramones
As loathsome as he may have been as a human being, the eccentric and obsessive genius of Phil Spector — pronounced dead on January 16, at age 81, while imprisoned for life for a 2003 murder — cannot be ignored. Spector crafted the role of record producer (to say nothing of his songwriting skills) into something iconic and cinematic, building his treasured Wall of Sound aesthetic brick by brick, with wind-swept orchestration, booming and steady rhythms, luxuriously multi-layered vocals and soulful, operatic melodies as his sand and cement.
Here are but a few of Spector’s signature, greatest moments.
“To Know Him is To Love Him” – The Teddy Bears (1958)
Spector’s self-formed “band” was nothing more than him and a few friends finding an early excuse to test his mettle as a producer and a writer. Its processional pace and hymnal melody, combined with its unsteadying sweet-and-sour vocal harmonies, acted as the shape of things to come.
“Spanish Harlem” – Ben E. King (1960)
Though Spector merely co-wrote this Latin-tinged track, putting music to the words of Jerry Leiber (who co-produced the song with his usual writing partner, Mike Stoller), the song introduced Phil’s epic, street-operatic ideal.
“He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” – The Crystals (1962)
The obvious choice would be to pick the revved-up “He’s Rebel” (written by Gene Pitney) from November 1962 in which to represent Spector’s predilection for syncopated boom and bad boy-driven lyricism. But the controversial Gerry Goffin/Carole King number “He Hit Me” got there first by a few months in ironically romanticizing abuse, set to a heavenly harmony.
“Be My Baby” – The Ronettes (1963)
Though sung by what seemed like a tight choir of street angels, the Spector-produced co-write with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich put the sensual, savvy voice of Ronnie Bennett (soon to be Ronnie Spector) up front, beyond the song’s complex layers of orchestration, thus creating Phil’s and his Philles Records label’s first true “star” beyond the man himself.
“Why Do Lovers (Break Each Other’s Heart)” – Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans (1962)
Released in 1962, but not successfully charted until ’63, this neo-doo wop cut, produced and co-written by Spector with lead vocals by the divine Darlene Love, showed off a lighter touch in terms of its theatricality and rhythm. Yet its melody and message are as heavy and memorable as any of Spector’s heartbroken hits.
“A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records” – Various Artists (1963)
Of course, Spector was the king of pre-Beatles teens and their obsession with the 45. So why not turn the Spector-ian grandeur of one single into an LP’s worth of toweringly soulful singles with his label’s artists and the merriest time of the year? This is where David Letterman’s annual obsession with “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and Darlene Love started.
“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” – The Righteous Brothers (1965)
Turning away from his usual success with female vocalists, producer and co-writer Spector (with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil) crafted a sweeping, emotional and halting arrangement around the equally soaring and passionate and vocals of Bobby Hatfield and Bill Medley. “Unchained Melody” and “Ebb Tide” followed suit for Phil and the Brothers, but the “Feelin’” started here.
“River Deep – Mountain High” – Ike & Tina Turner (1966)
You could write a book about how the swell of Spector’s multi-layered brass, reeds and strings were set against a pulse that rose incrementally to meet Tina Turner’s nice-and-rough growl … and failed on the charts. That single book, however, couldn’t speak the necessary volumes to that track’s continued power and innovation.
“Black Pearl” – Sonny Charles and the Checkmates, Ltd. (1969)
Usually ignored by Spector-ians, this catchy track maintains the Technicolor widescreen scope of his Wall of Sound finest, pared down to smaller. smooth-R&B male-harmony scale. Had he maintained this transitional tone, who knows where Spector could have gone on the soul or pop charts.
“Let It Be” – The Beatles (1970)
Given the often unhappy job (unless Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” documentary is the truer record of the time) of creating an album from its abandoned “Get Back” sessions, Spector controversially spruced up the Beatles’ near-final tapes with plushly filmic strings and horns, in turn, cutting the tension. Is it always great? No. Dynamic? Yes. And certainly an intriguing historical footnote for all concerned.
“All Things Must Pass” – George Harrison (1970)
Stealing “My Sweet Lord” from the Chiffons’ 1963 “He’s So Fine” (a meta Spector-like hit if ever there was one) aside, three albums’ worth of solo Harrison was unleashed on the world. The cushiony wall of sound surrounding his tense and holy melodies (“What Is Life,” “Isn’t It a Pity”) sounds as rich now as it ever has.
“Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” – John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band (1970)
“Instant Karma!” is a different kettle of fish from the rest of Lennon’s solo-album output, with a crisp, echoing drum beat, a convivial spiritual riff, and something unbound for both producers, Lennon and Spector. Though they ignited similar flames on “Power to the People,” it’s a shame such raucous tones and vibes couldn’t be carried through their full albums together.
“Born to Be with You” – Dion (1975)
Well past each man’s hit-making prime, Dion and Spector made a messy but ebullient case for bringing the doo-wop so prevalent to their start into the then-present, as well as showing off their love of sly blues and folk. Worth looking up if you don’t know it.
“Death of a Ladies Man” – Leonard Cohen (1977)
Some would argue that taking the gypsy folk bard of existential ennui and poetic distress, removing him from his usual skeletal sonic format, and giving him lush accompaniment was a tumultuous disaster. But Spector’s experiment paved the way for Cohen to open up his sound to the spare synth-phonics of “I’m Your Man” years later.
“End of the Century” – Ramones (1980)
Bone-dry, two-chord, street-wailing cheetah New York City rockers given the wall of sound treatment at a time when spare punk was moving into the glossy new wave? Love the sound or hate it, this is Joey Ramone and company at their most impassioned and somehow graceful.