PHIL SPECTOR (1939 – 2021)

I didn’t buy many singles as a lad. Those I bought I still have, and of those my very favourite is “Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals. I’ve never been keen on the harsh twang of electric guitars, so the soaring strings on this vinyl disc grabbed me. The girl groups of the sixties are very un-PC, women backed by male musicians, run and indeed owned by male managers, and singing about their love for boys and getting married. But at least they gave a few black American women huge opportunities.

I all but forgot about my collection and indeed 60s music for many years – and then came the arrival of YouTube and music apps, and all the music I had long forgotten suddenly became instantly available. I became hooked again, and now even have a shiny new vinyl player for my old discs. And I started to research some of the people involved back then, and came across Phil Spector and his “Wall of Sound.” In the 1960s he transformed the sound of pop music. Compare the Beatles of “Love me Do” with the sound of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and you can hear the influence, not just of nights high on LSD, but of Phil Spector and his genius.

Phil Spector came from a poor Jewish background in the Bronx. Reading of how he was a small pale scrawny boy, bullied in the playground, it was easy for me to identify with him. I never thought of going into the pop music business, but one of my best friends in the early 1960s, Julian Diggle, used to come to our house and introduce me to his latest faves, and he went on to have a career in the music industry. More recently, thanks to Limmud, I have discovered so much about the huge Jewish role in popular music – the UK dance bands of the 1940s, the managers of pop groups like Phil Spector and Brian Epstein, the crossover composers like George Gershwin, and the Jews of Hollywood, where Phil lived. A few years ago, I met Rowan Atkinson who lived in Hollywood for a while, and he talked to me about what a Jewish place it seemed to him.

Sadly, Phil Spector’s demons overcame his genius. His childhood was very troubled, his mental health poor, and he became paranoid, bad tempered and sometimes violent. He was convicted of murder in 2009 and lived the rest of his life in California State Prison, until he finally caught Covid-19 and died in hospital.

There are few stories which reflect Phil Spector’s Jewish background, but there is a strange anecdote about the time he recorded Leonard Cohen. Apparently Phil waved around a pistol in one hand and a bottle of Kiddush wine in the other. Approaching Leonard, he shoved the gun into his neck and whispered “Leonard, I love you.” Leonard moved the gun to one side, saying, “I hope you do, Phil.” Needless to say, that was the last time Leonard Cohen recorded with him.

His story was a tragic one, and no doubt he was more of a legend in his lifetime than he will be after his death. He worked in an industry with fast shifting sounds and allegiances. Yet the music he produced still inspires – listen to this.