THE SPECTOR SOUND

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Perhaps the only notable popular music genre to have originated with, solely maintained by, and finally terminated at the whim of one individual, the Spector Sound (or "wall of sound," the name by which it was more widely known) referred to the productions of Phil Spector. Born in New York on December 26, 1940, Spector's love of popular music--particularly rhythm and blues and the rapidly emerging rock 'n' roll--inspired him to form a group, the Teddy Bears, in his Los Angeles high school and to record one of his compositions, "To Know Him Is To Love Him" (according to legend, inspired by the inscription on his father's tombstone).

The record, released by the Dore label in August 1958, raced up the national singles charts, remaining in the Top Ten for eleven weeks, including three weeks in the number one position. This unprecedented debut netted the group only three thousand dollars, convincing Spector of the need for a new set of guidelines to assist in navigating the music industry jungle. Alan Betrock listed these rules in his book, Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound:

(1) Music must be emotional and honest.

(2) Create a sound on record that no one can copy or "cover."

(3) Make sure you get your money.

(4) There's never a contract without a loophole.

 

Rule number four provided an escape from his Dore contract on the grounds that group members were minors and their arrangement had not been sanctioned by either their parents or court of law. Finding that his hit had opened other doors to the industry, Spector became a studio apprentice for a succession of publishing houses and record companies, including Jamie/Trey and Atlantic/ Atco.

Following a string of production successes in the early 1960s--including Ray Peterson's "Corrina, Corinna" (1960), Curtis Lee's "Pretty Little Angel Eyes" (1961), Gene Pitney's "Every Breath I Take" (1961), and the Paris Sisters' "I Love How You Love Me" (1961)--he formed a record company (Philles) with Lester Sill in which artistic control would rest entirely in his hands. In short order, Spector was acquiring material from leading Brill Building firms such as Aldon and producing records for a growing stable of recording acts.

The first notable chart successes for Philles were by the Crystals, a black female quartet. However, Spector refused to be bound by the normal conventions of record making, often employing musicians on a per session basis to match the sounds he had within his head. In this manner, his first number one hit, the Crystals' rendition of the Gene Pitney composition, "He's a Rebel," was actually recorded by Darlene Love, backed by the Blossoms.

By early 1963 it was evident that Spector had found the system he wanted for making truly creative recordings which, due to their intelligent lyrics and preponderance of musical hooks, also possessed huge sales potential. Betrock describes the elements of this formula, which was, in actuality, a style of recording rather than a specific sound (the sound tended to vary significantly from record to record):

For starters, Spector would take as long as necessary to get what he wanted.

It may have taken hours for the drum sound, or hours for the blend of guitars,

but Phil would stick at it. Sometimes it would come quickly, but often the

sessions went on for sixteen hours straight or until everyone just couldn't play

or listen back anymore. Sometimes he would record the same song with

different arrangements or at different tempos, or use the same track and try

out different vocalists until just the right combination was found. Often, finished

or close-to-finished recordings would never be issued--despite the fact that

everyone close to Phil said they were hits--because they just didn't meet Phil's

standards....All of Spector's records during this time were made on 3-track

machine, and then mixed down to mono for singles releases. Spector did not

like stereo, and his recording style was not geared to make stereo masters.

He wanted everything to blend together, to rise and fall together without the

prominence of any one sound or instrument; others would try to get a clean

sound on all their instruments, to try and isolate those individual sounds--

Spector wanted just the opposite....Most of the time was not spent in actual

recording, but in getting sounds, balances, microphone placements, and so

on, all blended just the right way....When it was time to record, all the music

would be recorded on one track. The guitars, basses, pianos, horns, percussion,

and drums would be blended together on that track incorporating the amp sounds,

room leakage sounds, and [the studio's] echo chambers. If Phil could get one

musical track recorded in one lengthy session, he was satisfied. Another day

and a second track would be used for the vocals, and another day and the final

track would be used for strings. Then the mixing would begin. One would think

that with only three tracks to mix together, it would be a simple process, but

mixes took hours, and sometimes days....When it was all over, everyone waited

to see when, and if, the record would come out.

 

While the Crystals' classic hit recordings may have been instrumental in laying the foundation of the Spector legend, the group's unhappiness over their royalty earnings and the management of their career caused a breakdown of the working relationship between the two parties. Spector soon focused his attention on other acts, most notably the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers.

 

By 1966, however, he found it increasingly harder, in the face of changing musical tastes combined with the realignment of working relationships between artists and record company personnel (i.e., the most successful performers were demanding complete control of the creative process, from songwriting to studio recording and production), to retain his hitmaking edge. The failure of perhaps his most ballyhooed release, Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High," to penetrate beyond the lower reaches of the charts, drove him into a self-imposed retirement. He would occasionally return to studio production if a particular project suited him (e.g., rescuing the Beatles' Let It Be sessions from oblivion). However, with his greatest work well behind him, the Spector touch appeared to be all too mortal.

 

Top Artists and Their Hit Recordings

Alley Cats--"Puddin N' Tain (1963)

The Beatles--Let It Be (1970)

Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans--"Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah" (1963)

Checkmates, Ltd. (featuring Sonny Charles)--"Black Pearl" (1969)

The Crystals--"There's No Other (Like My Baby)" (1961); "Uptown" (1962); "He's a Rebel" (#1; 1962); "He's Sure the Boy I Love" (1963); "Da Doo Ron Ron" (1963); "Then He Kissed Me" (1963)

Curtis Lee--"Pretty Little Angel Eyes" (1961)

Darlene Love--"(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry" (1963); "Wait Til' My Bobby Gets Home" (1963)

The Paris Sisters--"I Love How You Love Me" (1961)

Ray Peterson--"Corinna, Corinna" (1960)

Gene Pitney--"Every Breathe I Take" (1961)

The Righteous Brothers--"You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' (#1; 1964); "Unchained Melody" (1965); "Ebb Tide" (1965)

The Ronettes--"Be My Baby" (1963); "Baby, I Love You" (1963); "(The Best Part of) Breakin' Up" (1964); "Do I Love You" (1964); "Walking in the Rain" (1964)

The Teddy Bears--"To Know Him Is to Love Him" (#1; 1958)

Ike and Tina Turner--"River Deep-Mountain High" (1966)