Phil Spector, music producer convicted of murder, dies at 81 after contracting COVID-19
Phil Spector died Saturday of natural causes, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said.
For all the hit songs he drove up the charts, for all the power and wealth he amassed, for all the admiration he drew as he rearranged the pop music landscape, there was a darkness deep in Phil Spector’s soul that would forever shadow his genius.
Even as anthems such as the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin‘” erupted from radios across America, the acclaimed record producer was a brooding, manic man with a white-hot temper and a fondness for gunplay, all of which would manifest itself on a winter morning in 2003 when he fatally shot actress and nightclub hostess Lana Clarkson in the foyer of his castle-like mansion in Alhambra.
Dispatched to prison after being convicted of second-degree murder, Spector died Saturday while in custody in a Northern California hospital where he was being treated, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He was 81.
Spector was hospitalized after becoming ill with COVID-19, said a source familiar with his medical condition who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter. Before he was transferred to a hospital, Spector had been an inmate at the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, which specializes in housing medically vulnerable people with existing health conditions, the corrections department said.
“It’s a sad day for music and a sad day for me,” said Ronnie Spector, the producer’s former wife and muse. “The magical music we were able to make together was inspired by our love. I loved him madly and gave my heart and soul to him.”
But Ronnie Spector added: “Unfortunately Phil was not able to live and function outside of the recording studio. Darkness set in. Many lives were damaged.”
Though Spector’s exact cause of death was not announced, California prisons have been hard hit by COVID-19 and are in the midst of another surge. At least 60 inmates have died of the disease since Dec. 25, including one of America’s most prolific serial killers, Samuel Little.
At the California Heath Care Facility, where Spector was housed, 582 prisoners have tested positive, and at least 10 have died. The medical examiner in the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office will investigate Spector’s death, the corrections department said.
Decades removed from his days of glory, Spector was twice tried for Clarkson’s death, the first trial ending with a hung jury and the second with a conviction.
Clarkson died of a single gunshot wound to the mouth on Feb. 3, 2003, just three hours after meeting Spector at the House of Blues, the Sunset Strip music club where she worked as a hostess.
Prosecutors said Clarkson had her purse slung over her shoulder and “was ready to leave” Spector’s hilltop home, known as Pyrenees Castle, when he shot her. They described her murder as the culmination of “a very rich history of violence” toward women, with at least five women alleging Spector had menaced them with guns in the decades leading up to the shooting.
“Lana Clarkson was a warm, compassionate, kind, loving woman who would be 58 years old now,” her family said Sunday in a statement. “Her energy, brightness and love of life have sustained her family since her murder 18 years ago.”
Spector’s subsequent second-degree murder trials laid bare the producer’s erratic mood swings, darkening depression and isolation from an industry he once seemed to rule. He was ultimately sentenced to 19 years to life in prison. Stripped of his flamboyance and tassel of dark hair, he appeared to be just another senior citizen in prison photos — a balding man with a pair of hearing aids.
But in his prime, Spector was brash, driven and as much a star as the artists he produced. He made the top 10 chart 14 times between 1958 and 1965, created a signature sonic avalanche in the studio known as “the Wall of Sound” and — record by record — revolutionized popular music.
In the studio, Spector awoke pop music from its early-1960s doldrums and crafted a sound that would influence record-making for generations, informing the music of such acts as the Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and David Bowie.
Though Spector appeared to be out of steam when his first hit era ended in 1966, he returned from seclusion in 1970 to collaborate with the Beatles, producing solo works by John Lennon and George Harrison and reassembling the music that became the group’s “Let It Be” album.
“Nobody, it’s fair to say, ever wrought deeper changes in the way the rock industry looked, felt, behaved.... To come out of a vacuum and force such changes at such speed, with such totality — even now it’s hard to conceive the force and self-belief it must have taken,” author Nik Cohn wrote after spending time with Spector in 1969.
Spector was praised by friends for his wit, passion and intelligence, but he was also identified early as a complex and troubled man. In an interview with journalist Mick Brown less than two months before Clarkson’s slaying, Spector talked about psychological struggles, saying that he was taking medication for schizophrenia and characterizing himself as bipolar. He said he had “devils” inside him.
“People tell me they idolize me, want to be like me, but I tell them, you don’t want my life,” Spector said. “I’ve been a very tortured soul. I have not been at peace. I have not been happy.”
Harvey Philip Spector was born Dec. 26, 1939, in the Bronx. His father, Benjamin, an ironworker, died by suicide when his son was 9, and three years later his mother, Bertha, moved to an apartment in Los Angeles’ Fairfax district with Spector and his older sister, Shirley.
Sickly and slightly built, Spector was a social misfit during his first years at Fairfax High School, and at home he endured a stormy relationship with his mother and his sister, who later was committed to a mental institution.
The three bickered constantly, often blaming one another for Benjamin’s suicide. Bertha was controlling and protective, discouraging her son from having company and going out. Later, she would frequently sit in the studio lounge with a sandwich for him during his recording sessions, but he would ignore her presence.
A natural musician, Spector was at ease with the accordion, French horn and guitar and played at parties and dances with schoolmates and other friends. After graduating from Fairfax High in 1957, he continued to work on music while he studied to be a court reporter at Los Angeles City College.
He approached the owners of Gold Star, a small recording studio at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Vine Street in Hollywood, and paid to record an original song with some Fairfax friends and a younger member of their circle, singer Annette Kleinbard.
The group, the Teddy Bears, hooked up with the small label Dore Records and recorded “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” an atmospheric, melancholy ballad written by Spector. The title sentiment ran deeper for Spector than for most of the record’s teenage fans. He took it from the inscription on his father’s grave: “To know him was to love him.”
The single got off to a slow start, but in 1958, it hit No. 1 on the charts, with sales of more than 1 million.
The Teddy Bears soon faded away. Spector, determined to focus on producing, signed with the respected record business veteran Lester Sill, who sent him to New York.
There, Spector established important alliances with such figures as Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun, publishing kingpin Don Kirshner and many of the songwriters who would later supply him with hit material, including the teams of Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich.
Spector produced three top 10 hits — Ray Peterson’s “Corrine, Corrina,” Gene Pitney’s “Every Breath I Take” and the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me.” In 1961, he and Sill founded Philles Records, a company designed to give the partners full creative control and distribution independence.
Their first signing was the Crystals, a vocal quintet from Brooklyn whose Philles hits included “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)” and “Uptown.”
“He’s a Rebel,” Spector’s first No. 1 record with Philles, was also credited to the Crystals, though the singers were actually an L.A. session trio known as the Blossoms. That billing illustrated Spector’s priorities: The song and the production took precedence over the artists.
During his 1962 flurry of hits, Spector honed his fabled Wall of Sound methodology. Up to half a dozen guitars strummed chords in unison. Then came two, and sometimes three or more, pianos. In the small Gold Star studio, the instruments bled together, the texture so thick that the horn and string arrangements were almost subliminal, absorbed into the great sonic mass.
A firm drumbeat and dramatic flourishes — castanets, chimes, maracas — added to the grandeur. Yet Spector was able to keep the focus on the lyrics of youthful love and desire, sung with soulful fervor by his interchangeable vocalists, including the Crystals’ Barbara Alston and LaLa Brooks, the Blossoms’ Darlene Wright (later Darlene Love) and the Ronettes’ Veronica Bennett, better known as Ronnie.
He fostered a core of studio musicians who became known as the Wrecking Crew, many of them highly respected jazz and session players. Among his regulars were Don Randi, Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, Hal Blaine, Sonny Bono and Oscar-winning arranger Jack Nitzsche.
A driven, demanding perfectionist, Spector presided over sessions that were part party, part endurance test, part psychodrama. He would take the tapes home and labor on the mixing process for weeks.
The record often regarded as Spector’s first masterwork was 1963’s “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes, a New York trio whose lead singer, Bennett, utterly fascinated the producer.
Spector bought out Sill in 1962 to become Philles’ sole owner. In six years, he had gone from high school nobody to the hottest name in popular music.
Spector reveled in his celebrity, dressing flamboyantly, flaunting his success and delighting in public confrontations. He hobnobbed with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in London, surrounded himself with bodyguards and was the subject of one of Tom Wolfe’s earliest pieces of “new journalism,” “The First Tycoon of Teen,” a portrait of youthful excess.
Things tailed off commercially for Philles in 1964, but Spector came roaring back with a white soul-singing duo from Orange County called the Righteous Brothers. Their epic lament “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'“ reached No. 1 in early 1965 and eventually was proclaimed the most played song in the history of radio.
Three more Righteous Brothers hits led Spector to his culminating work of the ’60s, a record whose ambition and grandeur cemented his artistic legacy and whose commercial failure drove him into seclusion.
Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep — Mountain High” subjected singer Tina Turner to his most ornate and tempestuous production, and she responded with a fierce, frenzied performance. The idiosyncratic record took his sound as far as it could possibly go, and when it stalled at No. 86 on the U.S. chart in 1966, Spector walked away. Philles became inactive, and its owner retreated to his Spanish-style mansion in Beverly Hills near the Sunset Strip.
Spector was hit hard by the 1966 drug overdose death of controversial comedian Lenny Bruce, a close friend and artistic hero. He sampled the film world, serving briefly as producer of his friend Dennis Hopper’s ill-fated “The Last Movie.” He later appeared as a cocaine dealer with Hopper and Peter Fonda in “Easy Rider.”
After he divorced, Spector married Bennett in 1968. It was a turbulent relationship, and the singer would later allege that she was virtually a prisoner in their home, subjected to abuse and threats by her combustible husband. The couple divorced in 1974. A well-known teetotaler through his early career, Spector began to drink heavily.
He finally returned to music and produced Lennon’s 1970 single “Instant Karma,” then stepped in to salvage the music the Beatles had recorded for their final album.
The group had abandoned the tracks as the members moved toward their breakup, and Spector snipped, spliced and augmented the recordings, adding strings and horns to several songs. His lush orchestration on “The Long and Winding Road” was a polarizing arrangement. Paul McCartney hated it, and the reviews were mixed, but the song was a No. 1 single, and the album, “Let It Be,” also topped the charts.
Spector stayed on in London and produced Lennon’s first two solo albums as well as Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” and the Grammy-winning “The Concert for Bangladesh.” But by now, Spector was no longer the star in the studio. Though there were distinctive Spector touches, especially in Harrison’s debut, he tailored his technique to the music, abandoning his big sound on Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band” and “Imagine.”
Back in L.A., Spector undertook the production in Los Angeles of Lennon’s album “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which turned into a chaotic, alcohol-fueled fiasco infamous for Spector’s firing a gun at the studio ceiling.
Spector struck a partnership with Warner Bros. Records in the mid-’70s and worked with Cher, Darlene Love and Dion DiMucci. More notably, he produced Leonard Cohen’s “Death of a Ladies’ Man,” the raucous, contentious sessions yielding an eccentric hybrid of Cohen’s poet-pop and Spector’s bombast.
His last complete album production was the Ramones’ 1980 release, “End of the Century.” He then withdrew again.
In his first formal interview in 14 years in 1991, Spector explained his seclusion and his efforts to emerge in the late ’80s.
“I needed to get a focus,” he told The Times. “For a long time, I just didn’t know how I wanted to spend my life.... It was after Elvis died and John [Lennon] ... and there was all that disco, and you just sort of lose interest for a while.…
“I just said, ‘I’m going to turn this around.’ ’Cause if I really am any kind of genius, I should be able to do [at least] that.”
Spector’s return began tentatively, when he appeared at a 1988 Nashville ceremony honoring “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” whose recording by Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton was named BMI’s song of the year.
In 1989, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he compiled “Back to Mono,” a box set anthology of his recordings that came out in 1991.
Though deeply affected by the death of his 10-year-old son, Phil Jr., from leukemia, Spector seemed socially outgoing again, without the bodyguards and confrontational attitude that had punctuated his forays in public as a younger man. He began hosting an annual party at an old-fashioned bowling alley in suburban Montrose, and he regularly held court in his home with friends.
But everything darkened again the night of Feb. 2, 2003, when Spector went out on the town in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Witnesses recalled Spector downing cocktails as he moved from restaurant to restaurant.
He ended the evening at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip, where Clarkson worked as a hostess. At closing time, she helped him to his car, and after some persuasion she agreed to accompany him to his home after her shift.
On the way to Spector’s castle-like estate in Alhambra, Clarkson told his driver, Adriano De Souza, that she planned to leave after one drink.
De Souza was sitting in the black Mercedes-Benz in the estate’s driveway when he heard a popping sound about 5 a.m.
According to the driver’s trial testimony, Spector emerged from the house holding a handgun.
“I think I killed somebody,” he said.
When L.A. County sheriff’s deputies arrived, Spector had to be subdued with a Taser.
“Nobody’s taking my gun,” he reportedly said.
Clarkson’s body was sprawled in a chair. Her broken teeth lay scattered around the foyer and a nearby stairway, and blood was smeared on the wood railing of the stairway and the back door handle. Detectives also discovered blood on a man’s coat in an upstairs dressing room and found a blood-soaked cloth in a bathroom near the foyer, court papers said.
Spector was booked on suspicion of murder and released on $1-million bail.
According to testimony before a Los Angeles County grand jury, Spector told police that he shot the actress by “accident,” but he later changed his story and said she had killed herself.
Clarkson had appeared in small roles on television series including “Three’s Company,” “Night Court” and “The A-Team,” and she was a cult heroine after playing the title role in the 1985 period adventure “Barbarian Queen.”
At Spector’s trial for second-degree murder in April 2007, defense attorney Bruce Cutler argued that Clarkson was despondent over the state of her career and contended that her death was an “accidental suicide.”
Prosecutors disputed that portrayal and emphasized Spector’s history of threatening women with guns, but the jury deadlocked. A second trial opened in 2008, and this time Spector was convicted.
On May, 30, 2009, he received a mandatory life sentence, with eligibility for parole in 2028. He was 69 at the time.
Before Spector’s sentencing, Clarkson’s mother, Donna, a constant presence at both trials, told the judge that her heartbreak over her daughter’s death was intensified because of the way she was portrayed in court.
Donna Clarkson, dressed in a black suit adorned with a ribbon of leopard skin — her daughter’s favorite fashion accent — said she often wanted to interrupt the proceedings to defend her daughter’s memory.
“I am very proud of Lana and the wonderful and special person she was,” she said. Her voice choking, she added: “All our plans together are destroyed. Now I can only visit her in the cemetery.
“I miss you so,” she whispered.
Four months after Spector was sentenced, Sony Music Entertainment and EMI Music Publishing announced a licensing deal to reissue records from the Philles catalog through Sony’s Legacy Recordings.
Despite that revival, Spector knew too well that a bad ending could overshadow a revolutionary body of work.
“I don’t want to be Elvis, or Lenny Bruce,” he said in an interview in the early 1990s. “Do you think people will remember their genius or the way they died on the bathroom floors?”
Cromelin is a former Times staff writer. Times staff writers Harriet Ryan and Steve Marble contributed to this report. Anna Gorman, a former Times staff writer, also contributed.
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