In the Booth with Phil Spector
One day (either late 1961 or early 1962), I was with Lester Sill at his office on Sunset; we were going over a new song of mine when the telephone interrupted us. It was Phil Spector asking Lester to join him at Harmony Recording Studios in Hollywood. I figured even a musical genius likes moral support and to ask for other opinions once in a while. Since I was with Lester when the call came, he invited me to join him in the studio booth to watch while Phil put the finishing touches on "Uptown."
Phil was already a well known producer, so I felt fortunate to be invited to watch him work. There were two musicians in the studio when we arrived and Phil was busy adding flamenco guitar to the record's introduction. I was immediately impressed with his intensity - he knew exactly what he wanted to hear. Once he was satisfied with the guitar work, it only took one take for the percussionist to successfully add castanets.
Flamenco guitar and castanets gave the arrangement a Spanish flavor which impressed me and demonstrated Phil's originality. As I watched him, I remember thinking,"This guy could cut hit records anywhere. He doesn't need to be at Gold Star with Stan Ross or Larry Levine (Stan's cousin) or anyone else." Although he had a slender frame physically, to me he became a giant when he got behind the producer's microphone.
After staying in Los Angeles for a while, Phil returned to New York for reasons unknown to me. The next time I saw him in town, I couldn't help noticing his changed appearance. He had grown a goatee and now wore a dark suit and tie. This was unusual, for West Coast independent producers those days usually wore t-shirts and jeans.
These changes, which Phil apparently adopted while in Manhattan, were striking and set him apart as an individual with style. I also remember he almost always wore a certain cologne, the name of which I can't remember. It was a little sweet smelling, but I bought a bottle of the stuff.
Some of the music people started growing goatees and upgrading their wardrobes due to Phil's influence. Maybe they thought some of Phil's genius would rub off if they imitated his appearance. Anyhow, he was definitely a style trendsetter for many of us.
Steve Douglas was a long-time friend of Phil's and began contracting the musicians for him here in Los Angeles, calling all the musicians for the record dates. Because of Steve's friendship with Jack Nitszche and Sonny Bono, Jack became Phil's arranger and Sonny Bono worked as the record promotion person for Spector. That's how the business was back then.
Because of my friendship with Steve, Jack and Sonny, I was privileged to sit in the booth with Phil while he recorded many of those wonderful sessions at Gold Star. Phil did things I never thought of doing. Instead of using a single bass on the basic track, he would have four people playing bass in unison. Instead of one guitar, he would have five or six playing the same rhythm, and so on. This use of so many instruments was a blessing to the musicians and their wallets. Many became wealthy as a matter of fact.
This production technique magnified the sound of the instruments, which bled into the other microphones in the studio, and helped create the famous "Wall of Sound". Another ingredient that added to the "Wall" sound was the famous Gold Star echo chamber designed by David Gold, Stan's partner.
Phil would take a tape of the session home, or over to Lester's office and listen to it over and over again. Then, deciding what to add, he would call Hal Blaine, or any other musician he needed, back into the studio to overdub and "sweeten" crucial points within the record. This was very effective and enhanced the backgrounds greatly. Of course, some producers - myself included - could not afford to do such things. Phil had become so successful that money was no object.
Because of the "Wall of Sound," the great material Phil had access to, and the wonderful artists who performed the songs, the hits churned out of Gold Star. Some of them I can remember off hand are "He's a Rebel" and "Da Doo Ron Ron" by the Crystals; "Be My Baby" by the Ronnettes; "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah" by Bob E. Sox & the Blue Jeans; and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" by the Righteous Brothers. Also Phil's classic album, "A Christmas Gift for You".
I recall the night Phil scheduled the session for "He's a Rebel" and feeling the anticipation while sitting in the booth next to him. There was always an air of excitement and a lot of noise in the studio at Gold Star during his sessions. Especially at the beginning, before the recordings began. Jack Nitszche would be going over the parts with the musicians and some would be tuning up their instruments or practicing their part.
Once, during this initial chaos, I heard Al DeLory fooling around on the piano with an interesting "riff". A few moments later, Phil also overheard. "What's that?" Phil asked over his mike. Al said it was a little musical tidbit that just came to him. "I want that for the introduction on this record," replied Phil, "Don't forget it."
That "riff" became the introduction that set the tone for the whole arrangement of this huge hit record. People throughout the world recognize that piano introduction, all because Phil overheard Al fooling around on the piano, waiting for the session to begin. And that's how many things were created right there in the studio.
When I sat in on the session for "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah" (a rock version of an old Academy Award-winning song), I heard Tommy Tedesco ask Phil between "takes" what Phil thought of a particular sound he could now create on his guitar. Phil was always ready to listen to new ideas from the musicians even when he was in the middle of the session.
Tommy played the new sound and, after hearing a few bars, Phil laughed and said he thought it was the "dirtiest guitar sound" he'd ever heard, which was a huge compliment.
Tommy's "dirty" guitar ended up as the lead instrumental break and helped turn the record into a big hit in the 1960s. The songwriter, Ray Gilbert, was so thrilled on hearing this updated version of his song that he gave Phil a beautiful gift; an expensive wristwatch with an inscription thanking Phil for recording it.
These are just a few examples of the way these classic records were made. So much was created in the studio and sometimes Phil would take hours to get what he wanted. He strived for perfection and yet wanted the background tracks to have a natural feel. More than once, I heard him do over twenty-five "takes" on a song and then decide one of the first had the best feel and use that early version.
Phil Spector knew what he wanted because he heard the record in his head before he got to the studio. And he would not let the musicians quit until he turned that music into reality. However, like I said, many of the things that happened in the studio, either by accident, or from suggestions from the musicians, were like whipped cream on his musical cake. It was all magic.