Phil Spector, the monumentally influential music producer whose “Wall of Sound” style revolutionized the way rock music was recorded in the early 1960s, died Saturday at the age of 81. Spector’s life was tumultuous and ultimately tragic; as groundbreaking as his studio accomplishments were, those achievements were all but overshadowed by his 2009 conviction for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson.
Spector’s death was confirmed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “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,” officials said in a statement. “His official cause of death will be determined by the medical examiner in the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office.”
Spector adopted what he famously referred to as “a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll,” calling the hit records he assembled in the Sixties for artists like the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love and the Righteous Brothers “little symphonies for the kids.” His productions were dense and orchestral, accumulating layer upon layer of guitars, horns, keyboards, strings and percussion, often with multiple instruments playing the same note in unison. The songs he selected were dizzyingly romantic, typically written by the greatest of the Brill Building songwriters, and his classic recordings relied on the brilliant contributions of a set of musicians dubbed the Wrecking Crew – drummer Hal Blaine’s four-beat intro to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” is one of the most distinctive song intros in rock & roll history.
Spector’s classic recordings spurred his contemporaries to become more ambitious in the studio. “He’s timeless,” Brian Wilson said of Spector in 1966. “He makes a milestone whenever he goes into the studio and this has helped the Beach Boys evolve.” A decade later, Bruce Springsteen would seek to recapture the grandeur of Spector’s productions on Born to Run. “Phil’s records felt like near chaos, violence covered in sugar and candy … little three–minute orgasms, followed by oblivion,” Springsteen said in his 2012 South by Southwest keynote speech. “And Phil’s greatest lesson was sound. Sound is its own language.”
“A genius irredeemably conflicted, he was the ultimate example of the Art always being better than the Artist, having made some of the greatest records in history based on the salvation of love while remaining incapable of giving or receiving love his whole life,” Stevie Van Zandt wrote on Twitter.
Since 2009, Spector had been imprisoned on second-degree murder charges, with the producer serving a 19 years-to-life sentence following his conviction for the 2003 murder of Clarkson, an actress who met Spector while working as a hostess at Los Angeles’ House of Blues. Clarkson accompanied Spector home to his Alhambra mansion in the early morning hours of February 3rd, 2003; soon after, Spector’s chauffeur, waiting outside the mansion, heard what he thought was a gunshot. As the chauffeur would later testify at the producer’s murder trial, Spector emerged from the mansion and said, “I think I killed somebody.”
Harvey Philip Spector was born in the Bronx on December 26, 1939. His father died by suicide when Spector was nine years old. Spector moved to Los Angeles with his mother in 1953, and within a few years, he was playing in jazz groups.
Spector formed the Teddy Bears in 1958 with high school friends Marshall Lieb and Annette Kleinbard. Spector took the title of his first production, “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” from the inscription on his father’s gravestone. It was a Number One hit, but the group’s subsequent singles, as well as their sole album, The Teddy Bears Sing!, flopped and the group quickly dissolved.