#65: Phil Spector, "Back to Mono (1958-1969)" (1991)

65 Back to Mono.jpg

I’ve been reading a Phil Spector biography for close to a decade.

Mark Ribowsky’s book He’s a Rebel is wonderful (and does a great job laying the groundwork to show what could have led Spector to later be found guilty of murdering actress Lana Clarkson). I just have always had things come up that have stopped me from finally finishing it (much like this piece).

Sometimes I wonder what piques my interest around Spector. Maybe it’s because without Spector, we don’t get the concept of a household name producer. Quincy Jones, Butch Vig, Jimmy Iovine, Mark Ronson, Rick Rubin, Kanye West, the Neptunes, Darkchild, Timbaland, T Bone Burnett, Brian Eno: these are all names we know because of Phil Spector.

The music he produced shaped the early ‘60s American pop music landscape and inspired several musicians, from the Beatles to Brian Wilson (who would go on to work with him) to Bruce Springsteen (if Mike Appel hadn’t produced the song “Born to Run” it could’ve been a Phil Spector record). Spector’s production style came to be known as the “Wall of Sound,” characterized with layers of multiple instruments (three pianos, five guitars, two basses, etc.), echo, mic spill (i.e. one guitarist’s riff bleeding into another microphone meant for another instrument), and, of course, mono recording.

The Wall of Sound is a perfect analogy for Phil Spector’s production calling card. It both describes what you heard in each of those mono recordings but also alludes to the structure that hid the countless musicians and production staff behind Spector’s name.

Many of the songs, often attributed to groups like the Crystals, were actually sung by Darlene Love and the Blossoms (see “He’s a Rebel,” “Da Doo Ron Ron Ron,” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”). Singer Bob B. Soxx’s Blue Jeans were comprised of the Blossoms. In fact, if Darlene Love wasn’t singing lead on a Phil Spector record in the first half of the ‘60s, she was almost always singing background.

The orchestrations were almost always performed by the same group of session musicians, otherwise known as the Wrecking Crew. The lineup almost always consisted of Carol Kaye on bass guitar, Hal Blaine on drums, Tommy Tedesco on lead guitar, and a plethora of other session musicians who would go on to play on almost every ‘60s American pop record recorded in Los Angeles and would ultimately be the musical foundation behind the Beach Boys’ masterpiece, Pet Sounds. Some of the other notables on these records included Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, and Dr. John.

Behind the sound booth with Spector, you had Larry Levine as the sound engineer and Jack Nitsche putting together the arrangements that would be performed by the singers and the aforementioned Wrecking Crew. Music and lyrics were written by a large group of songwriters that contributed to a genre to what would be known as the Brill Building Sound, named for the building where many of these songs were composed. The Brill Building Sound’s songwriter teams from this era included Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich—even Spector himself wrote many of the hits.

If you look at the personnel credits for the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” it reads as an all-star collaboration: Darlene Love, Sonny Bono, and Cher on backing vocals, Hal Blaine on drums, Leon Russell on keyboards, Tommy Tedesco on guitar, and Carol Kaye on bass.

Hollywood has done a great job putting out documentaries that chronicle the unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll. There was a 2002 documentary on Motown’s session musicians, aka the Funk Brothers, titled Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Tommy Tedesco’s son released a documentary a few years ago on the Wrecking Crew. 20 Feet From Stardom, a documentary on background singers and whose main subject is Darlene Love, won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2013. Despite these documentaries and later recognition, it’s still Phil Spector’s name that’s on this compilation, and none of these documentaries’ subjects.

Why does Phil Spector get a “Best of” album, but the Wrecking Crew only gets a fan-made playlist on Spotify? There are no hour-long Time-Life informercials for Carol Kaye or Hal Blaine boxed sets featuring aging rock stars. Many of the Brill Building songwriters made names for themselves outside of the shadow of Spector (most notably Carole King), but a regular person on the street wouldn’t recognize Ellie Greenwich or Cynthia Weil’s names, despite them being responsible for a chunk of their life’s soundtrack.

Is it fair to call something a “Phil Spector Record” when there were several other common denominators on so many of the records? We celebrate Phil Spector’s genius the way we celebrate a Steve Jobs or an Elon Musk. They were ultimately the ones with the vision and drive to orchestrate the production, but it’s the sum of the parts that created the art. Steve Jobs had the idea for the iPod, but it’s Jony Ive who came up with the sleek white product design and Steve Wozniak’s engineering team that created Apple’s first computers.

Would Phil Spector have been Phil Spector if he had never met Darlene Love or if the Wrecking Crew musicians didn’t continue taking the gigs? Would his genius have shone as brightly if the Ronettes (fronted by Spector’s then-wife Ronnie Spector) hadn’t sung “Be My Baby”? Would the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” have been the most-played song on American radio during the 20th Century if the Wrecking Crew hadn’t been playing the orchestration and Cher and the Blossoms weren’t on background vocals?

Despite never having their own greatest hits compilation, those background singers, songwriting teams, sound engineers, and the Wrecking Crew’s legacy live on in the musicians that continue to reference them. While writing this piece, the legendary Hal Blaine passed away at the age of 90. Upon his passing, tributes came from Brian Wilson, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Spector, the Monkees’ Micky Dolenz, Nancy Sinatra, Toto’s Steve Lukather, Rosanne Cash, and even the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith. Bruce Springsteen has yelled out his name when Max Weinberg played a Blainesque drum riff during an E Street Band show.

Ultimately, these musicians, background singers, and production crew members will never be household names, but their legacies will live on in an E Street Band drum solo or even some of HAIM’s harmonies, and maybe that was Spector’s point. You may not know Hal Blaine, but if someone beatboxes that opening line to “Be My Baby,” you recognize it. The Wall of Sound ultimately hid its own foundation under a perfect monochrome wallpaper, but it was built to be indestructible.

—Emilie Begin