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Phil Spector, lionized producer of 1960s pop and convicted murderer, dies

Phil Spector, a music producer and songwriter who dominated pop charts in the early 1960s, died Jan. 16. (Video: Reuters)
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Phil Spector, a music producer and songwriter who came to dominate the pop charts in the early 1960s with his bombastic-symphonic “wall of sound” in hits such as “Be My Baby” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” and whose long record of disturbing personal behavior culminated in a murder conviction in 2009, died Jan. 16. He was 80 or 81, based on competing biographical information.

California state prison officials announced that Mr. Spector, an inmate at a prison facility in Stockton, died at an “outside hospital” but did not provide further details. The statement said the cause will be determined by the medical examiner in the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office. Media reports said Mr. Spector had contracted the novel coronavirus.

In his career’s twilight, Mr. Spector was found guilty of fatally shooting actress Lana Clarkson in 2003 at his sprawling neo-Gothic chateau east of Los Angeles after a night of drinking. After a mistrial, he was retried and convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 19 years to life in prison.

It was a tragic coda to a life of vast creative accomplishment that had long been shadowed by Mr. Spector’s reputation for unhinged and abusive behavior. He produced 18 records that each sold more than 1 million copies and, in an industry interested principally in turning out profitable records, he had broad latitude to indulge jarring habits, which included a tendency to brandish guns in recording studios.

After a bleak childhood marked by his father’s suicide, he had emerged as one of the most precocious musical talents and pop tastemakers of his generation. He was a professional singer-songwriter in his teens, had his own music label, Philles Records, at 21 and was a millionaire by 25. Writer Tom Wolfe immortalized him in the mid-1960s as “The First Tycoon of Teen.”

His artistic legacy rested on what was dubbed the wall of sound, a loud, lush, multilayered musical palette that he achieved by stuffing a cramped studio with pianos, guitars and drums.

The booming but controlled effect — elaborately and minutely planned for maximum dramatic effect — influenced an array of performers, most prominent among them Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and members of the Beatles. The Beatles coaxed Mr. Spector out of retirement to produce their final album, “Let It Be,” in 1969, and later the megahit debut solo albums by John Lennon and George Harrison. Lennon once called him “the greatest record producer ever.”

He was defined in the public imagination as the mercurial genius behind such songs as the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron.” He also helped shape the sound of performers as varied as Tina and Ike Turner, Leonard Cohen, Dion, Cher and the Ramones.

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Mr. Spector was a creative director more than a producer, choosing musical material, orchestrating arrangements, conducting vocalists and session musicians, and sometimes exhausting them with his heavy-handed oversight of the recording process.

“When you see a Kubrick movie, you tell me how many times you immediately remember the cast,” he told Melody Maker in 1977. “One? Two? It’s the same with Fellini, and that’s what I wanted to do when I directed a recording. Singers are instruments. They are tools to be worked with.”

He discovered a group of New York City high school girls, the Crystals, whose debut single, “There’s No Other (Like My Baby),” reached No. 20 on the charts in 1962. The single “He’s a Rebel,” also credited to the Crystals, topped the charts the same year, establishing Mr. Spector as a star-making impresario.

He was also a calculating businessman who used singers as pawns to advance his career. “He’s a Rebel” was actually sung by a promising young vocalist named Darlene Love and her group, the Blossoms, because he wanted to rush it out before a competing version hit the airwaves, and the Crystals were unavailable.

Love told the New York Times in 1993 that Mr. Spector promised her triple the union wage but no royalties and that she agreed to those terms. “The song was cute,” she said, “but I didn’t think it would be much of a hit.” She said that he also promised that the Blossoms’ next record, “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” would be credited to them. But then he released it, too, as a Crystals recording, and it climbed to No. 18 on the charts.

Love’s career foundered for a time, but she eventually made her way back to the studio, without Mr. Spector, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.

In 1964, Mr. Spector’s label released what many music writers consider his commercial and artistic masterpiece, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin,’ ” co-written by Mr. Spector, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and sung most indelibly by the Righteous Brothers.

Bob Stanley, a music journalist and author, described the release as a “dam-busting thing of extraordinary size and power. The vocals are angry, accusing, pleading; by the end all the flash and noise is reduced to one solitary bassline, before a final crescendo — ‘bring back that lovin’ feelin’ ’ — and a fade into depthless introspection.”

The song topped the charts for weeks in the United States and England, where Cilla Black also had a huge success with the ballad.

Two years later, Mr. Spector co-wrote and produced Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep — Mountain High,” whose commercial failure in the United States sent him reeling. The recording, which did very well in England, was eventually acclaimed as a watershed of pop soul.

Mr. Spector was intrigued by the new sounds emanating from England and, on a visit to London in 1964, wound up in a recording studio with the Rolling Stones playing maracas on their self-titled debut album.

In short order, Motown and the so-called British Invasion spearheaded by the Beatles and Stones eclipsed his wall of sound. He exited the music business for several years, explaining to the New York Times in 1966: “Art is a game. If you win that game too regularly, it tends to lessen your motivation. That’s why I’ve lost interest in the record business. If I stayed at it I would just be playing for public approval, not for what suits me.”

But he returned in 1969 to produce “Let it Be,” followed by Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” (1970) and Lennon’s “Imagine” in 1971. “The Concert for Bangladesh” soundtrack, which Mr. Spector co-produced and featured Harrison and Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar, among others, won a Grammy for album of the year for 1972.

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Even as he amassed such accolades and successes, Mr. Spector became increasingly erratic. While producing Lennon’s 1975 album “Rock ’n’ Roll,” he fired a gun into the ceiling. He threatened Cohen at gunpoint during a recording session for “Death of a Ladies’ Man” (1977). “Leonard, I love you!” he reportedly said, with Cohen uttering the rejoinder, “I hope you do, Phil.”

Mr. Spector’s first wife, Annette Merar, described him as a womanizer prone to fits of rage. His second wife, Ronnie Bennett, the lead singer of the Ronettes, claimed that he kept her a virtual prisoner in their Alhambra, Calif., mansion. She escaped in 1972 by running barefoot from the hilltop estate. Several of his children, from whom he was estranged, said he abused them.

When Mr. Spector was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, he clambered onto the stage with burly bodyguards, spoke incoherently about the inauguration of President George H.W. Bush and quickly exited. Mr. Spector, who was inducted eight years later into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, seemed to be spiraling into ever darker places.

On Feb. 3, 2003, he was arrested in the fatal shooting of Clarkson, a 40-year-old nightclub hostess and struggling actress who had starred in the low-budget movie “Barbarian Queen” (1985).

Mr. Spector had met Clarkson at her workplace, the House of Blues in Hollywood, the night before her death and invited her to his mansion. She was found slumped in a chair in the foyer of his home, with a gunshot wound to her mouth.

Mr. Spector had come out of his house and, according to police records obtained by the Los Angeles Times, told his driver: “I think I killed somebody.” He posted the $1 million bail and, while awaiting trial for second-degree murder, told Esquire that Clarkson was drunk and suicidally despondent over her career. “She kissed the gun,” he said. “I have no idea why — never knew her, never even saw her before that night. . . . There’s no case. She killed herself.”

Authorities alleged that Mr. Spector ordered Clarkson to sit down, pressed the barrel of the gun against her head and shot her. The shooting led to the first major televised Los Angeles celebrity trial since the O.J. Simpson murder case in 1995.

The trial began in March 2007 and ended that September in a mistrial after the jury deadlocked twice, 7 to 5 and then 10 to 2. The prosecution witnesses had included five women who testified that Mr. Spector had threatened them with firearms.

Mr. Spector did not take the stand. Throughout the trial, he called attention to himself by appearing in various wigs, some of which appeared to defy gravity perched atop his wispy frame.

The retrial began the next year and ended in April 2009 with Mr. Spector’s conviction.

Weeks before Clarkson’s death, Mr. Spector sat for an interview with British journalist Mick Brown for the biography “Tearing Down the Wall of Sound,” published in 2007. Asked about rumors of his alcohol abuse and paranoia, Mr. Spector said he had not been well for years.

“I was crippled inside,” he said. “Insane is a hard word. . . . I take medication for schizophrenia, but I wouldn’t say I’m schizophrenic. But I have a bipolar personality, which is strange. I have devils inside that fight me. And I’m my own worst enemy.”

Obsessed with music

Harvey Philip Spector was born in the Bronx on Dec. 26, 1939, according to his biographer Brown, although prison officials say he was born in 1940. His father, an ironworker, died by suicide when Mr. Spector was 9. His mother moved Phil and his older sister to Southern California in 1953 and worked as a seamstress and later a bookkeeper.

At school, he struggled to fit in. He became obsessed with music, especially rhythm-and-blues. In high school, he began writing songs and organizing singing groups among his classmates, including a trio he called the Teddy Bears.

Just after graduation in 1958, he, Marshall Leib and Annette Kleinbard recorded Mr. Spector’s song “To Know Him Is to Love Him.” The title came from a tribute etched on his father’s gravestone.

The song became a million-selling hit and sat on top of the charts for 23 weeks, leading to an appearance on Dick Clark’s TV dance show “American Bandstand” before the group folded.

Mr. Spector served an apprenticeship in New York with two of his boyhood idols, songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who gave Elvis Presley a string of early hits. He also had a brief tenure as the top “artists and repertory” man for Atlantic Records, co-wrote Ben E. King’s 1961 top-10 hit “Spanish Harlem” and played guitar on the Drifters’ 1963 release “On Broadway.”

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Mr. Spector’s first marriage ended during his affair with Bennett, whom he wed in 1968. They adopted three children before divorcing in 1974. With his longtime girlfriend Janis Zavala, he had twins. Their son Phillip Jr. died in 1991, at 9, of leukemia, sending Mr. Spector into a depressive tailspin.

He married actress Rachelle Short in 2006 and filed for divorce a decade later, accusing her of squandering his fortune while he was in prison. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Amid his murder trials, Mr. Spector continued to give interviews about his life in music. Inevitably, a theme that emerged concerned the forces — liberating and sometimes troubling — behind his creativity.

“You just don’t know what you’re doing that is so important, but you know it’s different and you know it’s important, and maybe that’s what the word genius is, maybe that’s the genie in us, the gene in us,” he told an interviewer in 2008. “It’s the step that makes you able to see above when everybody is seeing on the same level.”

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