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Phil Spector, Iconic Music Producer Turned Convicted Murderer, Dies In Prison At 81
Phil Spector, whose “Wall of Sound” style of production undergirded countless pop hits, shot and killed actress Lana Clarkson at his home in 2003.
Phil Spector was viewed as a man with two distinct personas: The late music producer was regarded as a rock ‘n’ roll genius who elevated the genre with his “Wall of Sound” style in the 1960s and created hits for several big names from the Beatles to Tina Turner.
But while Spector made his mark as a revolutionary music producer, the stories of him waving guns at recording artists and being convicted of murder overshadowed his artistry.
California state prison officials said Spector died Saturday at age 81 of natural causes at a hospital. He was convicted of killing actress Lana Clarkson in 2003 at his castle-like mansion on the edge of Los Angeles. After a trial in 2009, he was sentenced to 19 years to life.
The reaction to Spector’s death resurrected some mixed feelings about his life and legacy.
Some lauded his early contributions to rock music, while others struggled to forgive his volatile past.
Beach Boys musician Al Jardine said it would be “nice to remember him only for his songs & production talents.” He said The Ronettes’ song “Be My Baby,” which was produced and co-written by Spector, inspired by Jardine's friend and fellow Beach Boys member, Brian Wilson.
Stevie Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band called Spector a “genius irredeemably conflicted.”
“He was the ultimate example of the art always being better than the artist,” said Zandt on Twitter. He added that Spector “made some of the greatest records in history based on the salvation of love while remaining incapable of giving or receiving love his whole life.”
Meanwhile, “The Price is Right” host Drew Carey took aim at Spector, calling him a “murderer and an abusive maniac.”
“I wish he would’ve gotten the mental health help he so clearly needed, but he didn’t,” the comedian said on social media. “And so instead of (asterisk)just(asterisk) pulling guns on people in anger or for fun, he murdered one of them. Good ear for music tho, I’ll give you that.”
Spector’s former wife, Ronnie Spector, remembered him on Sunday as a “brilliant producer, but a lousy husband.” She was the lead singer of the Ronettes.
“Unfortunately Phil was not able to live and function outside of the recording studio,” she wrote on Instagram. “Darkness set in, many lives were damaged. I still smile whenever I hear the music we made together, and always will. The music will be forever.”
But Darlene Love, who sang some of Spector’s hits from “He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” took a different approach despite her problematic relationship with the producer. She felt sadness after hearing of Spector’s death from her son.
“It was sad because of what Spector did, the wonderful music he created, and he spent nearly 20 years of his life in prison,” said Love, who admitted that Spector tried to “control my talent” during her singing career. She said Spector had a dangerous temperament at times, but she tried to remember the positive.
“I hope people don’t only remember the reason he spent those years in prison, but more or less what he did for rock ‘n’ roll,” she continued. “He changed the sound of rock ‘n’ roll. That’s what brought me to sadness.”
Spector was hailed as a visionary for channeling Wagnerian ambition into the three-minute song, creating the “Wall of Sound” in the 1960s that merged spirited vocal harmonies with lavish orchestral arrangements to produce such pop monuments as “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Be My Baby” and “He’s a Rebel.”
Bruce Springsteen and Wilson openly replicated his grandiose recording techniques and wide-eyed romanticism, and John Lennon called him “the greatest record producer ever.”
But the multiple stories of Spector waving guns at recording artists in the studio and threatening women would come back to haunt him after Clarkson’s death.
Clarkson, star of “Barbarian Queen” and other B-movies, was found shot to death in the foyer of Spector’s mansion in the hills overlooking Alhambra, a modest suburban town on the edge of Los Angeles.
Until the actress’ death, which Spector maintained was an “accidental suicide,” few residents even knew the mansion belonged to the reclusive producer, who spent his remaining years in a prison hospital east of Stockton.
Spector became a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. But ultimately, his recording artists began to quit working with him and musical styles passed him by.
“He self-destructed in the most horrific manner,” said David Thompson, the author of “Wall of Pain: The Biography of Phil Spector,” released in 2004. “But we have to separate the two. There are so many people who were once revered then we find out they did something terrible. It wipes out all of their achievements. I don’t agree with that.”
Thompson said Spector’s biography was one of his toughest to write, because he wanted to solely focus on the music. But while working on the book, he found out about Spector’s conviction.
“That was a hard balance,” he said. “I wanted to write about the music, just what he did, what he created and what he gave us. But you had to sort of balance it with the awful things he did.”