Be My Baby – The Ronettes and Phil Spector

I heard this afternoon of the death in prison of convicted murderer and music producer Phil Spector. He was 81 years old and was suffering from Covid-19. I have to say I have found a lot of the reporting of his demise has been reprehensible, talking about how his career was “marred” by the fact that he murdered actress Lana Clarkson. I’m surely the family and loved ones of Lana Clarkson have a different opinion about whose lives were “marred” …

Nevertheless, Phil Spector’s legacy as a record producer is undeniably immense. He produced over a hundred hit singles many of them having a trademark sound that others tried and failed to copy.

When Spector started out as a producer a normal recording session involved having the band and vocalists perform together in the studio. Spector adopted the approach of having very large backing groups – often with double or treble instruments and backing vocals – which he recorded separately, adding the lead vocals later. That is the way pop records have been made for a very long time now but it was quite unusual in the early sixties. The arrangements weren’t very complicated: many musicians just played in unison for some or all of the track. When it was all mixed (often with a lot of reverb) the layering effect was to make it difficult identify individual instruments – hence the term “Wall of Sound“. In classic Spector tracks you will find that it’s often in the chorus or when a big key change occurs that the full force of this wall appears. It’s a tremendously effective device, even if you know it’s coming.

Phil Spector came onto the music scene at about the same time as the pioneering British record producer Joe Meek. I’ve heard it said that they influenced each other or even that Spector stole Meek’s ideas. I don’t think that’s true at all. Both were very original but they worked in very different ways and Spector never favoured the distortions that Meek frequently exploited.

When I heard Phil Spector had died two tracks sprang immediately to mind. One was You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling by the Righteous Brothers and the other was this one. I searched for it on Youtube and found this fascinating recording from the session that created it. The track is Be My Baby by the Ronettes. The lead singer Veronica Bennett later married Phil Spector and became Ronnie Spector. They separated in 1972 amid allegations of psychological abuse by her husband.

In this video you can hear several takes of the relatively simple backing track (without backing vocals or lead singer or the string section that appears in the final mix heard right at the end) and there’s some interesting discussion between the producer and drummer (the excellent Hal Blaine). Spector liked to use unusual percussion – tambourines and castanets feature prominently on this track – but he wanted the drums to be simpler to begin with. Later on he asks Blaine to “make me an ending”. He promptly produces lots of great work, most of it sadly doomed to be faded out. If you’re interested the tune is based on two chord progressions: I – ii – V7 and the I – vi – IV – V progression that was ubiquitous in music from the 1950s. The completed track is less than three minutes in duration, but it’s a classic.

You’re probably wondering why I picked this one. Well for one thing it’s almost exactly as old as me! The other reason is that I hadn’t heard it for a while and it struck me very hard just how much of an influence it must have been on Amy Winehouse…

R.I.P. Lana Clarkson (1962-2003).

19 Responses to “Be My Baby – The Ronettes and Phil Spector”

  1. It’s a tremendously effective device, even if you know it’s coming.

    As the actress said to the bishop.

  2. Spector had said many times that he was crazy, and stories about him confirm that. His father committed suicide. His older sister is mentally ill. That might have contributed to his behaviour to some extent.

    Joe Meek also suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and in his later life his behaviour became very bizarre, taking recording equipment to graveyards to record ghosts and so on. He was also a murderer, killing his landlady then himself. Meek certainly claimed that Spector stole his ideas, but that was probably part of his much larger problem with paranoia. (To some extent that was justified, since being gay and rich at that time in England meant that he would have been an easy target for blackmail, which he definitely feared.)

    Hal Blaine probably holds the record for having played on more records than anyone else.

    • telescoper Says:

      It’s possible that substance abuse played a role in the Spector case. On the other hand he was convicted of second-degree murder rather than manslaughter which just suggests lack of premeditation rather than diminished responsibility.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    The big six Spector tracks:

    And then He kissed me
    Be my baby
    Da do ron ron
    River deep mountain high
    Unchained melody
    You’ve lost that loving feeling

    Brilliant.

    • Dave Carter Says:

      Very unclear that Spector produced Unchained Melody. Bill Medley, a Righteous Brother, says he did.

      • telescoper Says:

        He actually played on this version:

        (That’s him on the left…)

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Thank you! I’ve done some online reading (which the world calls ‘research’…) and learnt plenty about it. I hadn’t even known that there were two versions by the Righteous Brothers, or why it got its name. To say that the arrangement of the 1965 version owes a lot to Spector’s influence would be an understatement, though.

        As I recall I first heard the Goons’ version at this very blog!

      • I recall hearing that there were some people who used the word like later generations used cool or bad or hot or groovy, e.g. that’s a righteous shirt you’ve got on.

        The Oak Ridge Boys are named after the national lab, because they used to play there often.

        The Carpenters just used their surname, as do the Corrs.

      • Dave Carter Says:

        Robson and Jerome’s version was unforgettable, however hard we try.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        It’s something to try hitting the high notes on in the shower. Reminds me of other big ballads with high notes: Nilsson’s Without You, and Bridge over Troubled Water.

      • telescoper Says:

        It’s very popular at Karaoke which is unfortunate because it’s a bit too hard and it usually crashes and burns.

    • telescoper Says:

      It wasn’t all good though. Phil Spector also produced John Lennon’s “Imagine” which I think is one of the worst records ever made.

      • No wall of sound there. He also produce All Things Must Pass by George. Maybe those had to do with the feud with Paul, who didn’t like how Spector handled Let It Be (prompting Let It Be … Naked decades later).

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Band on the Run for the best post-Beatles music, including a sharp Lennon parody in Let Me Roll It.

      • Dave Carter Says:

        Interesting. There are people writing articles elsewhere who regard Imagine as one of his masterpieces, and River Deep Mountain High as overblown rubbish. Tastes differ I suppose.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        It’s not the production that is the problem with Imagine!

      • telescoper Says:

        Agreed. It’s just a dreadful song.

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