On the late Phil Spector: Separating the man from his music…tough, isn’t it?

(January 19, 2021).  In its entry for notable deaths due to Covid-19, Wikipedia lists the following under the column of “Occupation” for the late Phil Spector: “Hall of Fame record producer, musicians and convicted murderer.”

He’s listed among everyone from world leaders to sports figures and from authors to playwrights.  There are theologians, activists, researchers and scientists.  Even politicians and police reformers show up.

Famous record producer Phil Spector died on Saturday, January 16, 2020. He was 81.

Yet Phil Spector’s entry stands out.  Among the hundreds of people on this list, except for a handful of criminals denoted solely as “serial killers” (four to be exact), Spector is one of only three “convicted murderers” listed and he’s the only one of those who has a real occupation included alongside his criminal notoriety (the others are listed solely as murderers).

So Phil Spector is the only celebrity among those listed who has his criminal legacy appended to his artistic one (I’m almost willing to bet that other people on this list had at least one serious criminal conviction to go with their noted profession, albeit not mentioned).

In the online mag The Globe and Mail, writer William Grimes titled his tribute “Phil Spector, famed music producer and murderer, dies at 81.”  Separately, writer Brad Wheeler of that same publication asked in a titular article published Sunday (Jan. 17), “Was Phil Spector a murderer who produced records or a record producer who murdered?”

In online music groups I belong to, many members struggled with how to commemorate the legacy of a man whose contributions to music are legendary among legends, but whose decades-long devolution before our eyes culminated in the ultimate crime – the taking of one’s life – in February 2003.  The remarks in one Facebook group in particular became so vitriolic and polarizing that it caused a moderator to shutoff all further comments in any post related to Spector’s passing on Sunday, a move with which I agreed.

It’s hard for devoted music fans to navigate this tough dichotomy of our favorite artists as mere human beings, all of whom in one way or another are flawed – just like we are.  Granted, very few of us are pushed to the brink of committing murder, not that Spector was “pushed,” but he must have felt he was.  

Yet, if and when one of us is so inclined, there’s typically a heavy price to pay – heavier even than the 19-year prison sentence handed to Spector some six years after he committed his most heinous act…one that left his victim’s teeth splattered on the ground as she sat slumped over in a chair and dead from a gunshot.

Spector died Saturday (Jan. 16) from Covid-19 in the hospital prison he was set to be released from in just eight years.  He was in the last half of that 19-year sentence he was serving for killing Lana Clarkson, a woman he’d met on February 3, 2003, at a House of Blues in California.  He shot her in the mouth in the wee hours of that morning after taking her to his home – something later revealed in testimony to be a pattern (both taking prospective partners home on the first night of meeting and the threatening of their lives with guns pointed at them at close range if they rebuffed his advances).  He was also reportedly fond of using the same bizarre gun-threat gesture to get the kind of performances he wanted out of the recording artists he produced, but that could be more myth than fact.

Yet despite this disturbing later (and apparently earlier) chapter of his life, Spector is often remembered in mostly favorable terms, often regarded as a musical genius by anyone who worked with him or who covered him during his heyday from the late 1950s through the 1970s, and even beyond.

In fact, Spector often escaped some of the cancel culture rhetoric that accompanied fellow troubled artists and Svengali-like producers such as Michael Jackson and R. Kelly, respectively.  To me, this represented a bit of a double standard – one that bears exploring a bit here.  

When Jackson’s previous child molestation accusations were resurrected in a 2019 documentary that aired on HBO, calls for the banning or boycotting of his music ran rampant, despite the fact that Jackson had never been convicted of any crime.  (The airing of the HBO special actually had the opposite effect and streams of Jackson’s songs spiked in the weeks following its premier.)

Similarly, R. Kelly’s music was all-but-shunned by the industry when stories resurfaced of his alleged sexual involvement with (and imprisonment of) young underage girls in the 2000’s and beyond.  Kelly has been locked up in an Illinois jail without bail since 2019, pending his court case.

Like those two, especially Kelly as producer, Spector’s fingerprints were all over a boatload of huge hits by artists of his era.  And like them, Spector was long rumored to be the perpetrator in very abusive situations, most notably at the expense of his second wife Ronnie Spector, who finally (and luckily) escaped her husband’s wrath in 1974 after years of what she called a torturous, abusive situation where he held her captive and sequestered her at their home with the threat of killing her if she ever dared to leave.

Phil Spector and Ronnie Spector

Yet few, if any, people in and around the industry called for the boycott of Spector’s music during the height of his criminal trial (or even in the years where he was rumored to be perpetrating the disturbing acts of abuse later detailed by his ex-wife).

In fact, more often than not, Spector’s bizarrely abusive behavior in the years and decades leading up to the murder of Clarkson was often dismissed by those he worked with – and music fans and observers alike – as part of his enormous genius, with his victims viewed as collateral damage, none of whom, thankfully, suffered the same fate as Clarkson.

In fact, some of the most prominent figures in the music industry even sought out Spector to produce their work – members of the Beatles among them – despite common knowledge of his reputation and the alleged toxic behavior attributed to him. 

Even Ronnie Spector, in her Facebook post just hours after his death, recalled the artistic part of his legacy fondly, stating: “I still smile whenever I hear the music we made together, and always will.  The music will be forever.”

The Ronettes were employed by Spector under his Philles label in the early 1960s and recorded several hit singles, including their biggest, “Be My Baby” (pictured top left) in 1963.

Indeed, his infamous “wall of sound” studio technique – honed at his famed Goldstar studios in L.A. – powered hits by everyone from The Crystals and Ronettes in the 1960s to the Paris Sisters and the Righteous Brothers that same decade.  The impending Beatles breakup in the late 1960s facilitated, in part, Spector’s connection to that group – both collectively and individually – and he was credited with producing their last No. 1 hit, “The Long And Winding Road,” as well as the first No. 1 by an ex-Beatle – “My Sweet Lord” – both in 1970. 

It was the two deceased ex-Beatles with whom Spector worked most closely.  In addition to albums produced for George Harrison, he produced some of John Lennon’s biggest hits, including “Instant Karma (We All Shine On)” and “Imagine.”

Spector was also at the helm for perennial holiday nuggets like Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the latter of which reached the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time earlier this month in the wake of the 2020 holiday season.

Phil Spector and George Harrison collaborated in the production of Ronnie Spector’s “Tandoori Chicken” on the Beatles’ Apple label in 1970.

His production of The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” – a No. 1 hit in 1965 – was determined to be the 20th century’s most played song on radio and television, according to music publishing company BMI.  Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album, which Spector produced, is still the biggest-selling album by any of the four solo ex-Beatles.

The 1966 Ike & Tina Turner classic “River Deep, Mountain High” is considered by many to be Spector’s greatest masterpiece, despite its low-charting performance (one that sent the producer into a two-year hiatus and a downward spiral that many believe was the beginning of his downfall).  The song’s iconic status has been cemented with its entry into several halls of fame and its recognition by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

Admittedly, applying the R. Kelly/Michael Jackson-like boycotts to a catalogue as vast as Spector’s is a difficult proposition when one recognizes that Spector was mostly a behind-the-scenes producer whose name only appeared in the fine print of his records and whose voice never fronted any of those songs.  Boycotting them would be the equivalent of banning all the Beatles’ records if George Martin had been convicted of murder, despite the lack of complicity by the Fab Four.  In other words, why would you punish the Righteous Brothers or the Ronettes or even the Beatles for Spector’s crime?

Still, with a catalogue so vast and so important to the American musical landscape, it’s hard to separate the man responsible for such great music from the man who caused pain in so many lives.  As Ronnie Spector said in her Facebook remembrance: “Unfortunately, Phil was not able to live and function outside of the recording studio.  Darkness set in, many lives were damaged.”

Lana Clarkson was murdered by Phil Spector in 2003. He was convicted of her murder and began serving a 19-year sentence in 2009.

Indeed they were, and one life – Lana Clarkson’s in particular – was lost.  Still, in the wake of his death, many writers, artists and fans struggle with how to reconcile the two parts of Phil Spector that informed his legacy most – the calculating musical genius who was responsible for the success of so many artists and who influenced countless others, and the menacing Svengali-turned-murderer who ended up spending the rest of his life in prison.

In the end, Spector was ultimately taken down by the virus that doesn’t discriminate when it comes to claiming its victims, whether they be politicians, front-line workers, musicians, and, yes, even murderers.

Phil Spector (1939-2021)

DJRob 

PS: I, for one, have immensely enjoyed Spector’s productions all my life and will continue to do so just as I have that of other disturbed artists with troubled pasts (and futures), but Spector’s passing is just the latest reminder that it is often hard to separate the flawed man (or woman) from the genius musician.  

Despite this reminder, and as with any other artist with this kind of duplicity, I choose to continue to enjoy Spector’s music, because it’s what makes me happiest and I like it no less today than I did 20 or 30 years ago. 

DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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2 Replies to “On the late Phil Spector: Separating the man from his music…tough, isn’t it?”

  1. It’s a very difficult question, should we keep on celebrating the music of people who had a “shady” (to say the least) life? I actually think we should, I think great music is much bigger than the people who make it. People are small and weak and can be unbelievably mean or downright evil. But art is far above them. So I think we should continue appreciating the songs for their value. Forget about the men, but remember their art.

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