“Art is a game” – Phil Spector (1939 – 2021)

Phil Spector, creator of the “wall of sound” recording style in the 1960s and producer of dozens of influential records including”You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” by the Righteous Brothers, died January 16, 2021 while serving a prison sentence for murder. He was 81.

Success arrived early.

Starting with his own ballad “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” recorded in 1958, he became a millionaire by age 25, and ultimately produced 18 million-selling records for The Crystals, the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers, Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, George Harrison and John Lennon.

Spector’s signature wall of sound style featured densely orchestrated arrangements recorded by an army of studio musicians and then overdubbed with distortion and echo. The resulting sound reproduced forcefully on the car radios and jukeboxes of the era.

“The records are built like a Wagner opera,” Spector told The Evening Standard of London in 1964. “They start simply and they end with dynamic force, meaning and purpose. It’s in the mind, I dreamed it up. It’s like art movies.”

The 1964 “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” sung by the Righteous Brothers, may have marked the peak of the wall of sound. He produced “Let It Be” for The Beatles in 1969, “All Things Must Pass” for George Harrison in 1970 and “The Concert for Bangladesh” in 1971.

Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys called him “the biggest inspiration in my entire life.”

John Lennon, for whom he produced “Imagine” in 1971, called him “the greatest record producer ever.”

Biographer Richard Williams observed that Spector’s vision of the recording session single-handedly “turned the producer from an obscure backroom boy … into a figure whose function paralleled that of a film director.”

“Art is a game,” he told the New York Times in 1966. “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.”

In later years his behavior became increasingly erratic, marked by heavy drinking and an obsession with guns. In 2003 a nightclub hostess, Lana Clarkson, was found dead of a gunshot to the head at his Los Angeles home. He was convicted of her murder in 2009.

Related reading, viewing and listening

Tom Wolfe wrote about Spector’s early success in an essay, “The First Tycoon of Teen,” which is published in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline BabyThe Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965).

Read the 1966 Rolling Stone interview

New York Times obituary