Archive for Phil Spector

Be My Baby – The Ronettes and Phil Spector

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on January 17, 2021 by telescoper

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).