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How Phil Spector invented teen lust and torment.
BY MARY ELIZABETH WILLIAMS | Love, as anybody who's ever been in it knows, can make you sick with feeling. But nobody ever expressed the dizzying fever of romance quite the way Phil Spector did.
In the early '60s, while Berry Gordy was taking the rhythm of youth and giving it Motown's bright, sophisticated sheen, Spector was grabbing up the same elements and pitching them down a black hole of raw emotion and supersaturated orchestration. What spun out the other end was pop music all right, complete with harmonizing vocals, ardent lyrics and lush instrumentation. But it had a new form -- one that replaced the bounce of innocence with the throb of desire.
Spector became a musical artist because he was on fire to express himself, and he became a record producer because he wanted to express himself exactly his way. He first learned about creative control as a teenage member of the 1950s one-hit wonders the Teddy Bears, writing and producing for the band as well as playing in it. The song that put him on the map, a hypnotic lullaby called "To Know Him Is to Love Him," might have sounded like an ode to teen romance. In fact, the song was inspired by Spector's father, a man so driven by his own demons that he committed suicide when his son was only 8. The title of the song came from the epitaph on his grave. "To Know Him" set the tone for Spector's unique brand of hit-making -- taking tunes suffused with great tenderness and injecting them with a blast of utter torment.
Though Spector liked being a musician, he loathed having anyone -- especially industry suits -- tell him what to do. So after the Teddy Bears broke up and he had honed his gifts with a stint at New York's legendary pop factory, the Brill Building, Spector co-founded his own label, Philles. It was there he began to find his groove. Spector continued to play and write, but quickly discovered his real talent was as a musical architect, putting the elements of song together in new and deeply affecting ways.
By the time he was 21, Spector was a millionaire. Within a mere three years, he had produced more than 20 hit singles and given birth to a style bombastically christened "the Wall of Sound." The Jewish kid whose first love was jazz, this reedy little dynamo from the Bronx, had created a noise that was very, very big.
The Wall of Sound was a musical mind-slam; it overloaded the auditory nerves with such sweepingly complex arrangements and such a barrage of instruments that it rendered the individual parts of the whole unrecognizable. Spector called his singles "little symphonies for the kids," but they were closer to opera -- full of romantic Sturm und Drang and more than occasional dips into absolute madness. The Wall was the sound of young love distilled into the three-minute opus -- beautiful and horrible and sweet and suffocating.
To his towering layers of melody Spector piled on lyrics just a little more insistently than anybody else; he added singers whose voices could careen from radio-ready fluff to an anguished wail on the turn of a note. And during the powder-keg tension of the early civil rights era, he had the chutzpah to be colorblind, creating music that refused to be identified by the races of the artists who performed it. It was for his stars the Righteous Brothers (Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield) that the term "blue-eyed soul" was coined, as if the idea of white singers making truly soulful music had not been possible before. But if his music wasn't black or white, neither were the feelings it depicted. Nothing was ever simple in a Phil Spector song.
N E X T_ P A G E .|. He hit me (but it felt like a kiss)
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