Phil Spector, Pop Music Hitmaker Convicted of Murder, Dies at 81

Phil Spector, the music producer who went from the Wall of Sound to the walls of a California prison cell, has died. He was 81.

Spector died on Saturday morning at an outside hospital, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in astatement on Sunday. A medical examiner from the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office will determine the official cause of death. TMZ reported that Spector died from Covid-related complications after being transferred from his prison cell.

Spector made his name in the 1960s with singles by the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love and other performers he discovered. He wrote or co-wrote many of the artists’ songs and released them on his own label, Philles Records.

“Phil’s records felt like near chaos, violence coated in sugar and candy,” musician Bruce Springsteen said in a keynote speech at the South by Southwest music festival in 2012. “And Phil’s greatest lesson was sound.”

Dozens of session musicians, collectively known as the Wrecking Crew, were featured on the recordings. Their performances were captured through echo chambers in mono, or a single track, to produce what was known as the Wall of Sound.

Spector’s success made him “The First Tycoon of Teen,” a description used by author Tom Wolfe in a 1964 essay for Esquire magazine. The story appeared in Wolfe’s first book, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” published in 1965.

Wigs, Handguns

In his later years, Spector had a reputation for erratic behavior. He wore wigs, traveled everywhere with bodyguards and carried handguns that he sometimes fired in recording studios.

His penchant for firearms proved fatal when actress Lana Clarkson died at his home in 2003. He was imprisoned for killing her.

Harvey Philip Spector was born Dec. 26, 1939, in the Bronx, New York, according to his birth certificate. Other sources put his birth a year later, in 1940, and gave his middle name as Phillip. His father, Benjamin Spector, was a steelworker and his mother, Shirley, was a homemaker.

When he was eight years old, he lost his father, who committed suicide by breathing in carbon-monoxide fumes in a car. Afterward, Spector was raised by his older sister, Shirley, as well as his mother.

The family relocated to Los Angeles in 1952. He received his first guitar the following year from his mother as a bar-mitzvah present.

Top Single

Spector attended Fairfax High School, and formed the Teddy Bears with three fellow students in 1958. The group had a No. 1 single on Billboard magazine’s charts that year with “To Know Him Is to Love Him.” Spector wrote the song, whose title came from a phrase on his father’s headstone.

The Teddy Bears split the next year after an unsuccessful album. He produced songs for Gene Pitney and other artists and co-wrote “Spanish Harlem,” a hit for Ben E. King.

Spector founded Philles in 1961 with Lester Sill, a music-publishing executive he met while working on the Teddy Bears album. He bought out Sill a year later to take full control.

Philles had two No. 1 singles: “He’s a Rebel” by the Crystals, with Love as lead singer, in 1962 and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” by the Righteous Brothers in 1962. The Ronettes’ first single, “Be My Baby,” was No. 2 in 1963.

Honored Album

Though Spector favored singles, he released a Christmas album in 1963 with songs by the Crystals, Love, the Ronettes and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. The album was selected as one of the top 500 of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.

Spector withdrew from music in 1966 after “River Deep-Mountain High,” a song by Ike and Tina Turner that he produced, only rose to No. 88 on Billboard’s singles chart. The label was shut down later that year.

A&M Records brought Spector back by signing him to a production deal in 1969. He produced John Lennon’s single “Instant Karma” and was then asked by Lennon and George Harrison to work on the Beatles’ album “Let It Be,” released in 1970.

Lennon collaborated with Spector on the “Imagine” album and three other solo releases. Harrison worked with him on the “All Things Must Pass” album and a live recording of “The Concert for Bangladesh,” the 1972 Grammy Award winner for album of the year.

Spector later produced albums for Dion, Leonard Cohen and the Ramones and two songs for Starsailor, a U.K. band. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.

Fatal Encounter

Clarkson met Spector in 2003 while working as a hostess at the House of Blues nightclub in Los Angeles. Hours later, they went to his house, where she was shot once in the mouth and died. He claimed the death was an accidental suicide.

Spector was tried for Clarkson’s death in 2007. The case ended in a mistrial because of a hung jury. He was tried again in 2009, found guilty of second-degree murder and personal use of a gun, and sentenced to19 years to life in prison.

During the legal proceedings, Spector met and married his third wife, Rachelle Short. She was an aspiring singer who was 40 years his junior.

Barricades Wife

Spector’s first wife was Annette Merar, a high-school classmate who sang with a pre-Philles vocal group called the Spector’s Trio. They wed in 1963 and divorced two years later.

While married to Merar, he had an affair with the Ronettes’ lead singer, Veronica Bennett. The couple married in 1968, and she became Ronnie Spector. Her husband ended her musical career and barred her from leaving their home, among other abuses.

Ronnie Spector left him in 1972 after breaking through a sliding glass door, and the couple divorced in 1974. They had three adopted boys, Donte and twins Louis and Gary.

Spector and a girlfriend, Janis Zavala, had twins in 1982. Their son, Phillip Jr., died of leukemia when he was nine. The other twin was a daughter, Nicole.

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