Phil Spector is a creep. He has a gun fetish. He has a Napoleon complex. He's cruel and vindictive. His father killed himself when Phil was nine. At 17, Phil wrote a song about it: "To Know Him Is To Love Him."
He's probably a murderer. He's also a genius, and a towering figure in American popular music.
Without Phil Spector, there'd be no "Pet Sounds," no "Sgt. Pepper." The whole notion that rock and roll could be more than juvenile "race music" — that it could be serious music, with artful production and string sections and complex layering — started with him. I've studied his life and his work, and here are the five songs that best explain his influence:
5. "He's A Rebel" - The Crystals
Did you know this was written by Gene Pitney? Though credited to The Crystals, it was actually performed by Darlene Love and studio backup singers. I've always loved the fast drum roll intro, the tinkly piano phrases, and the beefy saxophone. The vocal modulations are sophisticated. This song is a little spare by Spector standards – there's no string section, but it's one of his best, and a highwater mark for the Girl Group sound.
4. "Spanish Harlem" - Ben E. King
Bobby Kennedy called this his favorite song. And why not? Listen how the percussion unfolds. Listen how the orchestral strings lead straight into jazzy sax solo. The repeating marimba hook line is memorable without ever becoming annoying. And Ben E. King sings with wonderful restraint. Exotic, poignant, and completely urban.
3. "Be My Baby" - The Ronettes
I hate that I can't place this song at #1 – it's truly one of the greatest rock songs in the canon. Hal Blaine's drumming absolutely drives the song forward, and Ronnie Spector sings with an irresistible, desperate yearning that elevates puppy love to a Shakespearian sonnet. It's got that fabled Wall of Sound – strings, guitar, dense percussion – all mixed in mono to sound great on AM radio.
2. "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" - The Righteous Brothers
Phil Spector once characterized his productions as "mini symphonies for the kids." This 1965 hit epitomizes his ambitions. By now, Spector was cocky enough to produce this song as a slow, complex arrangement, at 3:45, a good bit longer than most AM pop songs (Spector famously mislabeled the length of the song "3:05" so radio program directors wouldn't reject it).
1. "River Deep, Mountain High" - Ike & Tina Turner
George Harrison called this "a perfect record from start to finish." Sting claims he lost his virginity while this song played in the background. Phil Spector considers this his best work, but American audiences weren't so sure: upon release, the record was a flop. Maybe it was just too much. The lyrics are Freudian. Tina Turner sings like a woman possessed. The studio musicians also sound possessed, desperately trying to keep up with the intensity. To us whities, it sounds like black gospel church service descending into some sort of mysterious African voodoo ceremony. But what voodoo! This song reeks of dangerous love, the kind of love Tina felt for Ike (even as he was beating her), and the kind of love that drove Phil Spector to madness. Yes, this is a pop song, but listen a bit deeper and you'll realize that it's so much more.