Phil Spector, the influential music producer whose “Wall of Sound” style revolutionized the way pop and rock music was recorded in the early 1960s, has died while serving a prison sentence for murder. Spector’s death was confirmed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, who wrote on their website: “California Health Care Facility inmate Phillip Spector was pronounced deceased of natural causes at 6:35 p.m. on Saturday, January 16, 2021, at an outside hospital. His official cause of death will be determined by the medical examiner in the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office.” (According to TMZ, Spector died of COVID-19 complications). Phil Spector was 81.
Adopting what he referred to as “a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll,” Spector produced 20 top 40 hits between 1961 and 1965, including the Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’, the Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’, and the Crystals’ ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’. He went on to work with the Beatles, Ike & Tina Turner, and the Ramones, while artists ranging from Beach Boys to Bruce Springsteen would seek to recapture the grandeur of Spector’s dense and orchestral aesthetic in their music.
Born on December 26, 1940 in New York City, Spector and his family moved to Los Angeles in 1953. A few years later, he formed the Teddy Bears with high school friends Marshall Lieb and Annette Kleinbard. He wrote their US No. 1 single ‘To Know Him Is to Love Him’, but the group disbanded after their follow-up singles and their sole album, The Teddy Bears Sing!, flopped. While recording the album, Spector was introduced to Lester Sill, a veteran L.A. producer who was a mentor to two successful songwriters and producers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Sill arranged for Spector to go to New York and work as an apprentice to Leiber and Stoller, and he ended up co-writing Ben E. King’s ‘Spanish Harlem’ with Lieber and played guitar on the Drifters’ ‘On Broadway’. His first official production credit was for Ray Peterson’s 1960 version of ‘Corinna, Corinna’, which became a top 10 hit.
In 1961, Spector and Sill co-founded Phillies Records. Having scored successful hits with vocalists such as Curtis Lee, Bobby Darin, and Gene Pitney, he wanted to focus on an all-female vocal group and managed to secure to the Crystals for his new label. A year later, the Crystals’ scored Philies Records’ first Number One single with ‘He’s a Rebel’. Following a series of singles with different groups, Spector released the Christmas album A Christmas Gift to You from Philles Records in 1963, featuring the Crystals, the Ronettes, Darlene Love, and others. In 1966, Spector signed Ike & Tina Turner to his label’s roster, but after the duo’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ failed to achieve similar commercial success, he became disillusioned by the industry and secluded himself in his mansion for two years.
In 1968, Spector married Ronnie Bennett. In her 1990 memoir, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life as a Fabulous Ronette, she alleged that Spector kept her imprisoned in his mansion, forbidding her to perform and threatening to kill her if she left. In 1972, she managed to escape by running away from the house barefoot with the help of her mother.
After returning to music in 1969, Spector produced John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and The Concert for Bangladesh, and the Beatles’ Let It Be. In 1974, he barely survived a car crash in Hollywood, and the severity of his injuries forced him to take a hiatus from music. Three years later, he produced Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man and the Ramones’ End of the Century; Spector allegedly held the Ramones hostage at gunpoint early on in the recording process, but Marky Ramone later denied that ever happened.
Spector was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, at which point he had effectively retired from the music business for almost a decade. In 1995, he agreed to produce a Celine Dion album, but the project was derailed after he reportedly fell out with the singer’s production team.
In 2003, Spector was arrested and charged with second-degree murder after actress Lana Clarkson’s dead body was found in his Alhambra, California mansion. Following an initial mistrial, Spector was retried and convicted of second-degree murder. In 2009, he was sentenced to 19 years in North Kern State Prison in California.