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Music / Phil Spector

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Spector at the control board, circa The '60s.

"People tell me they idolize me, want to be like me, but I tell them, 'Trust me, you don't want my life.' I've been a very tortured soul."

Harvey Phillip "Phil" Spector (December 26, 1939 – January 16, 2021) was an American record producer, songwriter, and convicted murderer, active from 1958 to 2003.

Born in the Bronx, New York, he became famous in The '60s for pioneering the "Wall of Sound", a production technique that relied on large groups of musicians playing heavily orchestrated parts to yield a dense, full sound, specifically optimized for the top 40 AM radio of the day. Because of how dense the end result of this technique always sounds, criticisms of overproduction aren't uncommon to hear when discussing his portfolio.

Spector's credits include recordings by numerous Girl Groups (The Ronettes, The Crystals), Ike and Tina Turner, The Righteous Brothers, The Beatles' Let It Be, John Lennon's first three solo albums, George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, The Ramones' End of the Century, and Leonard Cohen's Death of a Ladies Man. Moreover, his production style has served as an important influence on several subgenres of Alternative Rock, such as Chamber Pop and Shoegazing.


However, chances are you mostly know him for being totally 100% batshit insane; there's a reason he's at the top of our "Producers from Hell" list after all. Aside from allegedly threatening five artists with loaded guns and stealing the tapes of Lennon's Rock 'n' Roll album at gunpoint, there's also the part where he showed his then-wife Ronnie Spector a coffin and threatened to kill her if she left. The culmination of Spector's violent behavior was his conviction for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson, who was found dead of a gunshot wound in his mansion in 2003. Spector was sentenced to 19 years to life and would've been eligible for parole in 2025. He ultimately died in prison of COVID-19 in January of 2021, at the age of 81. The last album he was credited on was 2003's Silence is Easy by post-Britpop band Starsailor, and even then, they almost immediately booted him off after he produced two tracks.


The story of his murder trial was turned into the 2013 HBO movie Phil Spector, directed by David Mamet, with Al Pacino playing Spector.

Phil Spector provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: He was just as cruel to his children as he was to everyone else. His two adopted sons, Donte and Gary, claim that he kept them confined in their home and even subjected them to sexual abuse at the hands of a girlfriend.
  • Blatant Lies: Despite all evidence to the contrary, he insisted that he didn't wear a toupee.
  • Broken Ace: The defining producer of '60s pop, while also suffering from severe mental problems.
  • Brooklyn Rage: He was born and raised in the Bronx and possessed a famously short fuse.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: He's regarded as one of the greatest record producers of all time. He's also regarded as completely, mouth-frothingly insane, up to and including the murder conviction.
  • The Cameo: As a cocaine dealer in Easy Rider.
  • Christmas Songs: The 1963 album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector,note  regarded by many as his masterpiece, features "Wall of Sound" arrangements of Yuletide favorites performed by such artists as The Ronettes, The Crystals, and Darlene Love. It also influenced many future pop/rock Christmas recordings over the next several decades (with Wizzard's "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday", Elton John's "Step Into Christmas", and Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" being the really obvious examples).
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Phil certainly had, shall we say, an interesting way of thinking. David Mamet made this a central element of the HBO film.
  • Cool Shades: Wore these often.
  • Control Freak: Disagreeing with him about any aspect of an album was a good way to send him into a rage; he was particularly domineering of Ronnie Spector during their marriage, only allowing her to leave the house once a month and threatening to kill her if she tried to leave him.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: He threatened to murder Ronnie Spector if she ever left; other women he was linked with reported similar instances of pathologically jealous behavior.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: His father committed suicide when he was nine, his mother was very domineering, and he was subjected to bullying throughout his childhood and adolescence.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: He was fond of pulling loaded guns on people at the slightest provocation.
  • Domestic Abuser: Ronnie Spector claims that Phil kept her secluded away in their home, even surrounding it with barbed wire fencing and guard dogs, and subjected her to years of physical and psychological torment before she got away. Other women he dated have described similar abusive behavior.
  • Dodgy Toupee: He was fond of wearing these, though nobody dared bring it up around him. It's believed that he began doing this to cover up scars from a near-fatal car accident he suffered in 1974.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: His first hit as a performer, the Teddy Bears' "To Know Him is to Love Him", is a spare Doo Wop influenced ballad. His first big hits as a producer, before he developed the Wall of Sound, were a sappy pop ballad ("I Love How You Love Me" by the Paris Sisters), an orchestrated version of an old Blues song ("Corrina Corrina" by Ray Peterson), and an uptempo Doo Wop number ("Pretty Little Angel Eyes" by Curtis Lee).
  • Echoing Acoustics: A critical part of his "Wall of Sound" production style, meant to evoke a chamber orchestra sound with popular music.
  • Everyone Is Christian at Christmas: Spector (whose birthday was December 26) was Jewish, but produced one of the definitive Christmas albums.
  • Evil Is Petty: After Ronnie Spector left him due to his horrible treatment of her, he did all he could to hurt her career and generally make her life hell, keeping her out of the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame for years and withholding royalties as much as possible.
  • Gun Nut: Both during his lifetime and after, Spector was quite notorious for several stories involving him, loaded guns, and musicians.
    • John Lennon was at the receiving end of Spector's bizarre and rather dangerous antics with guns several times when he was working on the album Rock 'n' Roll in 1973. During recording, Spector routinely showed up late, usually high as a kite, dressed in elaborate costumes, and always armed with a gun. At one time, Spector, while dressed a surgeon, allegedly as a prank, fired his gun in the control room, inches from the former Beatle's ear. An outraged Lennon responded with "Phil, if you're going to kill me, kill me. But don't fuck with my ears. I need 'em." Another time, Spector pulled his gun and chased Lennon through the hallways of the studio, while screaming threats. Matters with the album got even more complicated when Spector at one point stole the master tapes from the studio at gunpoint and then disappeared with them for several months.
    • He repeatedly threatened to shoot Leonard Cohen point-blank in the face (according to Cohen, Spector was wielding a crossbow at one such incident).
    • He once used a gun to force the The Ramones to stay at his place for an entire night and listen to music he considered genius. One member (accounts vary whether it was Dee Dee or Johnny Ramone) got fed up with this and left with the comment: "What are you going to do, shoot me? Go ahead. I'm leaving. Goodbye."
    • Debbie Harry, the lead singer of Blondie, was once invited over to Spector's mansion in the late '70s to discuss a studio collaboration, as he hoped to make a comeback. When the discussion turned sour, Spector suddenly stuck a gun in one of Harry's boots and said "Bang!" Harry wisely took it as a sign to get the hell out of Dodge.
    • And of course, there is the fact that Lana Clarkson, whose murder Spector was convicted for, was found dead from a gunshot to the mouth.
  • Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow: After being imprisoned, his legendary wild hair turned into a skullet. By 2017, he had gone completely bald. He got a little bit back in his final years and grew a beard to boot.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: As noted above, Phil was as famous for his explosive temper as he is for his musical genius.
  • Insufferable Genius: An example where the "insufferable" part overshadowed his genius. As Ronnie Spector wrote upon learning about his death, “Unfortunately Phil was not able to live and function outside of the recording studio. Darkness set in, many lives were damaged.”
  • Kick the Dog: His horrific physical and psychological abuse of Ronnie Spector during their marriage certainly qualifies. Even after she escaped him, he still did all he could to hurt her career, keeping her excluded from being inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame for decades.
  • Long-Runners: Had a producing career that spanned just over 44 years.
  • Lyrical Cold Open: "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' " is one of the most famous examples, and he used it as a trademark for most of his further songs with The Righteous Brothers.
  • Mad Artist: Perhaps a little too mad if his murder conviction is any indication.
  • The Napoleon: He stood at about 5'4" and his short fuse and abrasive personality are legendary. A few people have said that he wore lifts in his shoes.
  • Record Producer: This trope's patron saint, for better or worse.
  • Self-Plagiarism: The Righteous Brothers' follow-up to "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' ", "Just Once in My Life", has an almost identical structure. "Unchained Melody" and its successor "Ebb Tide" are also really similar.
  • Signature Style: The "Wall of Sound", in which he used complicated mixing techniques and effects like reverb, alongside arrangements that utilized large numbers of musicians, to produce a dense style in which it's often hard to pick out any individual instruments. (In fact, it's the drumming, usually by Hal Blaine, that typically stands out in the mix).
  • Teen Genius: He was a millionaire with twenty consecutive hit songs by the age of twenty-one.
  • The Tyson Zone: The man was so crazy that some particularly outrageous stories about him are at least somewhat plausible. This trope may in fact have played a role in his 2009 murder conviction; he had such a colorful history of borderline-psychopathic behavior that him killing someone would've been as typical as buying groceries.
  • The Un-Smile: Just about all of the photos of him released after his imprisonment had him putting on a very forced-looking smile.