Tell me: How does someone go from producing songs for the Beatles and the Ronettes to killing an actress in his mansion? Phil Spector is credited as one of the most influential figures in pop music history. He invented the Wall of Sound, after all.
So, how did he go from being THE producer of the 1960s and ‘70s to the most famous inmate in the California State prison? Well, folks, that’s what we’re all about – getting into the nitty-gritty of who’s who in music. Let’s take a look into the remarkable, tragic, and mysterious life of Phil Spector.
Phil Spector was the famed record producer, musician, and songwriter who became known for his innovative recording practices in the 1960s and ‘70s. While producing records for artists like The Ronettes, Ike and Tina Turner, and the Beatles using his Wall of Sound, his early fame was eclipsed by his insanity. I mean, just look at that hair.
Spector went from being the go-to guy to a hermit, who spiraled into drugs, isolation, and erratic behavior. His final contribution to the tabloids? Getting accused of first-degree murder in the killing of actress Lana Clarkson. He was sentenced to 19 years but served 12. COVID-19 got him.
Okay, so now that you know the very, very short version of Spector’s story, you might be intrigued (at least I hope) to know more about this bizarre individual. And let me tell you, the man had no shortage of strange – but true – stories to tell. One was from an incident in 1958, just when he was starting out.
Before he became a famous producer, Spector formed the group The Teddy Bears. The kid (he was in his late teens) had written, arranged, played, sung, and produced To Know Him Is to Love Him, the best-selling record in the country in 1958.
While on tour with The Teddy Bears, 18-year-old Spector was confronted in a men’s urinal. He was short, thin, and both unable and unprepared to defend himself. The poor guy was then urinated on by four street kids. The incident was so humiliating and scary that he hired a bodyguard to hang around, and even bought a gun, which he kept with him at all times from that day on.
Either way, his first act didn’t last long (one year) as they were a one-hit-wonder. Spector moved on to bigger, better things, like meeting Lester Sill and Lee Hazelwood and forming The Spectors Three, a pop trio.
The Spectors Three eventually found themselves in legal battles over the label, particularly Spector and Sill. But in 1963, Spector had to deliver a new song that he was still contractually obligated to produce. What did he make? A six-minute “dance” track by the Crystals called “(Let’s Dance) The Screw.”
It was an odd number to say the least; the chorus consists mainly of Spector chanting the words “dance the screw” slowly over a monotonous beat. The same thing goes for the other side of the track, “Part Two.” As the story goes, Spector was basically trying to “screw” Sill out of his obligational hit record. The record was hand-delivered to Sill.
The Spectors Three wasn’t a complete failure, because that’s how Spector met his first wife, the lead vocalist of the group. She clearly made an impact on the guy since he named a record company after her: Annette Records. Spector married his LA girl, Annette Merar, in 1963.
At the time, they were living in New York and discussed getting married in LA, but Spector insisted it had to be done in New York, giving little notice and not enough time for her family and friends to make it there for the wedding. Their wedding night supposedly ended in tears, after which Spector flew off to LA.
“Phil was just not available as a husband, partner, or friend,” Merar recalled. “As soon as we were married, everything started going to hell.” The marriage lasted only a year. Merar discovered that Spector was having an affair with Veronica (Ronnie) Bennett, the lead singer of the Ronettes.
As condolence money (I guess?) Merar was sent $100,000. The affair isn’t too surprising, though, considering Spector was managing and producing the girl group. Spector married Bennett in 1968 and the two adopted a son, Donté Phillip Spector.
Get this: as a Christmas present, Spector surprised Ronnie by adopting twins, Louis Phillip Spector and Gary Phillip Spector. Some biographers say that Ronnie adopted Donté on her own, while others say they adopted him together.
A few months later, Spector comes home with two more babies. Now, bear in mind that this may totally be hearsay (but rumors are still fun, no?), but story has it that Spector kept a glass coffin, like the one Snow White had, in the basement of his mini castle in Los Angeles…
In 1971, he allegedly led Ronnie’s mother, Beatrice, to it to warn her that it’s where he would put her if she ever tried to leave him. The man clearly had some issues with jealousy. Another story holds that Spector locked Ronnie inside the mansion and refused to let her leave for months in 1972.
Ronnie was able to eventually escape, assisted by her mother, barefoot and slipping past the barred windows, barbed-wire fences, the attack dogs and the bodyguards. Marriage? This sounds more like a hostage situation.
Here’s a shocker – the marriage didn’t last. Spector and Ronnie got divorced in 1975, but not without a legal battle. Charges were made that Ronnie had a drinking problem, and Spector ended up getting custody of the three kids.
But who really did the raising? Apparently, several of Spector’s bodyguards. Spector was apparently a bitter second-time divorcee at the time, and it’s obvious by the fact that he wrote “F*** You” on all of Ronnie’s alimony checks. Sweet guy…
In many ways, her marriage to Spector was a death sentence for her career. In her 1990 memoir, Be My Baby, Ronnie wrote about her imprisonment in his California mansion and the years of psychological torment he subjected her to.
According to Ronnie, he ruined her career by forbidding her to perform, hence the kidnapping in her own home. She also admitted to surrendering custody of their children because Spector threatened to hire a hitman to kill her. Their sons, Gary and Donté, also claimed that their father “kept them captive” as kids.
Meanwhile, Spector liked to have drinking competitions with John Lennon. In 1973 in LA, Spector recorded with Lennon for his (contractually obligated) oldies cover album, Rock and Roll. Lennon let Spector feel free as a producer for the first time, and, boy, were the sessions wild.
The two men would spend time out-drinking (and out-drugging) each other. They would scream at one another over the ruckus of Spector’s wacky production tactics. If you want, you can hear samples from this infamous session on Lennon’s Anthology box set.
The party atmosphere must have made Spector feel the need to wave his handy dandy handgun around. He was seen waving the gun during these sessions, threatening the Beatles’ roadie, Mal Evans, and even shooting it into the air.
In December, both Lennon and Spector abandoned their collaborative project. But since the studio time was already booked by his production company, Spector kept the tapes until the following summer, when Lennon reimbursed him (through his own record label).
Speaking of guns…
The little guy had a thing for carrying guns around. Rumors circulated for years that he threatened members of the Ramones with his gun during their recording sessions. In 1979, Spector forced the band to play the same guitar chord relentlessly, over and over again, for eight whole hours.
He mixed it into the song “Rock and Roll High School” until he got it to sound the way he wanted it to. Of course, it got to the point that the extremely frustrated band tried to leave, and as Dee Dee Ramone recalls, the crazed producer pulled a gun on him.
Spector reportedly kept them at gunpoint in his home. Afterward, he disappeared with the Ramones’ tapes for six months. Drummer Marky Ramone made a comment, partially clearing up the rumor.
In 2008, he said that Spector’s guns “were there, but he had a license to carry. He never held us hostage. We could have left at any time.” After his collaboration with the Ramones, there was a break in Spector’s life. He pulled back and didn’t do much for ten years or so. It was during this hiatus that he secretly got married.
Spector fell in love with his assistant, Janis Zavalos, and supposedly married her without telling his friends. He also hid the fact that he had had two children with her in 1981. For the first time, he was a biological father.
That’s when he seemed to shift. Later on, he said that during this time in his life he was being treated for bipolar disorder (while some say it was really schizophrenia). He, Janis, and the kids moved out of Beverly Hills to Pasadena. Then he found out that his late manager had been embezzling from him.
In 1989, Spector was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He went to the ceremony drunk and embarrassed himself during his acceptance speech. He entered with three bodyguards, all of whom had their hands carefully placed on their guns.
They stood there as Spector started to make a long, rambling, hard-to-understand speech before falling off the stage. The man was spiraling fast. Those close to him pointed their fingers at the traumatic disappearance of his father when he was a boy.
Spector’s friends believed that one trigger of his mental condition was death. You see, Spector’s father committed suicide in 1949, when he was ten years old (more on this later). Men close to Spector had died over the years, including Lenny Bruce (his close friend) in 1966, John Lennon in 1980, and his songwriter friend Doc Pomus in 1991.
It’s not clear why, but Spector and Zavalos split up. Not long afterward, one of their children, 9-year-old Phillip Spector Jr., passed away from leukemia. The death of his son left him inconsolable.
Spector later said that “The most obscene and vile word in the language… is dead.” Many believe that the events that led to the murder of Lana Clarkson in 2003 started around this time. First, he left his home in Pasadena, declaring: “If I owned both hell and Pasadena, I’d sell Pasadena and live in Hell.”
By the end of the ‘90s, even more crazy things were being reported. Time Europe reported that Spector would strut around his estate in Alhambra, California, in complete darkness, wearing only a Batman costume. Who knows, maybe it was the castle…
Spector and Ronnie’s adopted sons, Gary and Donte, told strange (but hopefully untrue) tales of forced isolation in the late ‘70s. In 2003, they told London’s Daily Mail that their father had blindfolded Gary and molested them both.
Both Gary and Donté stated that they were “forced to perform simulated intercourse” with his girlfriend. “I was blindfolded and sexually molested,” Gary stated. “Dad would say, ‘You’re going to meet someone,’ and it would be a ‘learning experience’.” Donté declared that he comes “from a very sick, twisted, dysfunctional family.”
About a month before Lana Clarkson was shot and killed by Spector, the producer met a woman in her 20s named Rachelle Short. The two married in 2006, while he was on bail and awaiting trial. Three years later, Spector was incarcerated in California State Prison, three hours north of LA.
The two met in February 2003, a month after he met Clarkson, a B-movie actress, in a Hollywood nightclub and took her home for drinks. On February 2, Clarkson was shot in the face in his castle’s hallway. She died instantly.
Spector initially denied involvement, but the jury saw things differently. In 2009, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 19 years to life. It didn’t help his cause that Spector’s driver testified that when Spector came out of his estate that night, he literally said, “I think I killed someone.”
Clarkson was an actress with a bit of stardom from her mostly unknown movies, like Barbarian Queen. At the time of her death, she was working as a hostess in the VIP section of Sunset Strip’s House of Blues.
On the last night of her life, Spector walked into the bar. We know now that Spector was in the dumps. On that very night, he had already been through two awful dates and drank simply too much tequila. After the second date left, he started chatting with Clarkson.
By the early morning hours, he convinced her to come home with him. When they arrived at his castle of a house, the driver heard Clarkson say, “This won’t be long. Only one drink.”
The same driver testified that he had heard a shot some time later. Then he saw a dazed Spector come out. He told him, “I think I killed someone.” He was even holding a gun and had blood on his hands. The police found the actress in Spector’s front hallway, with a gunshot wound in the mouth.
Her handbag was still over her shoulder, suggesting that she wanted to leave – or that she had never even taken it off in the first place. Spector told police that the shooting was an accident.
Between the murder and his imprisonment, Spector was allowed out on bail and was free to travel to New York. Remember, this was pre-MeToo. Spector and his lawyers tried to make a case that Clarkson was a has-been – a failed actress and that she had “decided to commit suicide” in Spector’s hallway.
Even if Clarkson was depressed, she worked steadily through 2001, until an accident left her with two broken wrists and an interrupted career. This helped the Spector team create courtroom chaos and effectively delay the trial for years, causing scenes and firing lawyers.
During the trial, which started in 2007, six women testified that their visits at Spector’s house ended with his refusing to let them go. They were literally held at gunpoint. There was a resulting mistrial, and everything started over.
Meanwhile, he was producing an album for his new wife, 26-year-old Rachelle, who became a vocal defender of Spector’s innocence. The name of her debut album was “Out of My Chelle.” Once Spector was finally convicted in April 2009, Rachelle took over managing his affairs. But once he decided that she was spending too much of his money, he divorced her from jail in 2018.
Spector died three years later, in January 2021, at the age of 81. According to his daughter, Nicole, his death was due to complications from COVID-19. He had been diagnosed with the virus in December 2020. He would have been eligible for parole in 2024.
Although he reportedly died of the virus, Spector’s physical and mental health had been deteriorating for years. Back in 2005, he testified in a court deposition that he had been treated for bipolar disorder for eight years.
His testimony stated that: “No sleep, depression, mood changes, mood swings, hard to live with, hard to concentrate, just hard — a hard time getting through life. I’ve been called a genius and I think a genius is not there all the time and has borderline insanity.”
In the first criminal trial for the murder, a defense expert and forensic pathologist named Vincent DiMaio declared that Spector might be suffering from Parkinson’s disease. “Look at Mr. Spector. He has Parkinson’s features. He trembles,” DiMaio stated.
Spector may have led a wild and crazy ride of a life, but he was never thought of as a killer before 2003. For about three decades before the murder, he was mostly out of the public eye. Suddenly, the man who was synonymous with the Wall of Sound was facing murder charges and people were seeing his photo (and his crazy hair) in every magazine and newspaper.
It’s not far off from other famed tales of people whose genius borderlined with madness. The only thing with Spector is that he made his madness frighteningly obviously, you know, with all of his gun pointing.
Spector’s Wall of Sound consisted of one to three pianos, four to six guitars, and as many bassists, drummers and percussionists as possible – all playing together, perfectly in sync, and recorded with the utmost care. The result was a tsunami-like wall of sound, hence the name.
He basically expanded the sound of pop. Think of “Da Doo Ron Ron” by the Crystals or “Be My Baby” and “Walking in the Rain” by the Ronettes. Then there was a series of hits by the Righteous Brothers, like “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and Tina Turner’s “River Deep — Mountain High.”
Harvey Philip Spector was an awkward, withdrawn kid. One of his high school friends called him a “birdy guy, a twerp.” But his friends pretty much knew that he had highly volatile relationships with his mother and sister, which only gave the “twerp” a darker side to his personality.
Even in the early days, Spector was something of a megalomaniac; he would tell his friends all kinds of tall tales. He reportedly stalked his girlfriends and later treated professional collaborators with disrespect. The twerp basically thought of himself as a genius from the get-go.
He was a true musician, after all. Professional session players he worked with said Spector could easily have had a career as a jazz guitarist. If anyone was off pitch, he would immediately stop a recording session.
His knowledge and affection for R&B and the genre’s Black artists was deep. Many of his collaborators recalled Spector being a man of unending energy, humor, and enthusiasm. He could keep a room of musicians engaged while also putting them through the grueling process of his productions.
But the darkness was always there. It wasn’t too hard to see his lack of empathy for others or the way he controlled women. You could tell that he was obsessed with his looks and had feelings of inadequacy.
In other words, the guy was a living, breathing, example of Little Man Syndrome, equipped with all the typical emotional scab-picking, jealousy, and cruelty to others. Those who paid attention noticed it, and those who knew him well knew that it stemmed from losing his father early on in his life.
Spector’s parents, Benjamin and Bertha, came from families of Ukrainian immigrants. And since both sides of his family had a Ukrainian last name that was converted to Spector when they arrived in the US, people have suggested that his mother and father were actually related. (Do what you will with that information…)
Spector himself even said once that his parents were first cousins, but that was mentioned in a conversation later on in his life. In his old age, he was known to ramble on for hours, saying all sorts of true and not-so-true stuff.
Spector was born a day after Christmas in 1939 and grew up in the Bronx. As a child, he was riddled with ailments, like asthma and an allergy to the sun, not to mention a domineering and overprotective mother. Why his father killed himself is unknown.
One morning, Benjamin Spector went to work in Brooklyn, parked his car, and ran a hose from the exhaust pipe into the interior of his running car. The family was shaken up, and Bertha moved her two kids, the young Harvey and his sister Sharon, to Los Angeles.
Spector’s early teens were difficult, to say the least, but it started him on a path to fame. Let’s not forget that he was short, had a “weak chin” and a pronounced Bronx accent. He was obsessive about his looks, especially his hair.
At some point, he started going by his middle name but added an “L” to make it Phillip. Why? Who knows… Either way, his mom insisted on calling her boy Harvey. The Spector family was toxic. If Spector dared to bring a girl home, his mom would glare at her.
If Spector went to a girl’s house instead, Mrs. Spector would call every 15 minutes, demanding he come home. His male friends would witness their bickering and incidents, like the time his mother chased the fleeing teenage boy throughout the house with a knife.
Bertha would tell her son, “Your father killed himself because you were a bad child.” We know this because a high school friend of Spector’s, Mick Brown, wrote it in his biography, Tearing Down the Wall of Sound.
He would then retort by telling his mom, “Daddy killed himself because of you.” According to Brown, they would just attack each other all the time. “There’s a reason for everything, and with Phil the reason he’s the way he is is all to do with his immediate family.”
Knowing all this make us feel bad for the guy, right? But where does empathy end and blame begin? Still, Spector wasn’t all insecurity and inferiority complexes; he also had a fun side when he wanted to show it.
Spector played the French horn in the school band, and there was a point when the kid had an epiphany while listening to sounds coming from the radio. He began to play jazz guitar, and eventually met LA session guitarist Barney Kessel.
Kessel became Spector’s ticket to the elite musician scene in LA. Soon enough, he was running The Teddy Bears and his sister played the role of quasi manager. But Sharon Spector alienated the other Teddy Bear, and Spector took his sister’s side.
Sharon would terrorize singer Annette Kleinbard, and after Kleinbard got into a near-deadly car accident, Spector didn’t even visit her in the hospital. As Spector was learning the ropes of the music business, he was also honing his ruthless chops.
Spector tended to make the more intelligent of his collaborators suspicious of him. Leiber and Stoller, the famed songwriters and composer, thought of Spector as shifty, and “a man on the make.” Yet, somehow, he managed to charm some of the most sophisticated minds of the era.
Spector started walking around the streets of New York and LA wearing a cape and holding a briefcase. Some say he looked like Don Knotts, while others compared him to Jiminy Cricket. By the time he was 21, he was already creating his own label.
Spector and Lester Sill called their label Philles (“Phil” and “Les”). He started assembling his musicians and the birth of his Wall of Sound had officially begun. It was also the birth of the Phil Spector Era.
He had a large pool of seasoned session players, including guitarist Tommy Tedesco, bassist Carol Kaye, drummer Hal Blaine, keyboardist Leon Russell and guitarist Glen Campbell. These guys didn’t start out with a formal name, but they were eventually known as the Wrecking Crew.
Back then, all pop material would be mixed back down to mono — into one single track. The producer and sound engineer had to record the jumble of sound splayed by all kinds of instruments in one room in a way that sounded good. It was a painstaking process.
Drums were a passion of Spector’s and he worked hard to capture a sound that would burst out of the radio and bolster his songs. One of his tricks was to take away the cymbals from the drummers. Spector’s strategy was to keep the players he assembled focused on chords and have them play them in unison.
The players in the room would be in awe of how he managed to take a piano and a harpsichord sound, put them together, and essentially make them indistinguishable.
Over the years, Spector worked (at least tried to) on his public image. The Jewish kid from the Bronx even made a Christmas album in 1963. In fact, he loved Christmas songs. He titled the album, “A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector.”
The 11 traditional Christmas songs – all done in his Wall of Sound style – had one original: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” Would you be surprised to hear that the album wasn’t commercially successful when it came out? Of course not.
His last few years as a free man were miserable. He didn’t see his estranged kids (the adopted boys rarely interacted with him). Donté had reported his father to the police, moved in with his mother, and become a street prostitute.
It seems as though his daughter, Nicole, was the only one who kept in touch with her father. With a life like his, it’s no wonder Phil Spector drove everyone away.
May he rest in peace?