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Phil Spector, whose murder case is the subject of an HBO movie Sunday, deserves no special sympathy or mercy because of his key role in pop music. The man who mounted the Wall of Sound built his own prison with the 2003 slaying of actress Lana Clarkson, the crime he was convicted of six years later.
But there are reasons his trials made headlines and spurred a flick starring Al Pacino, far beyond the bizarre fright wigs and far beyond years of troubling behavior that long ago exited the realm of mere eccentricity.
The songs and sounds Spector helped create changed popular culture – and the joy his music inspired offers a stark, fascinating juxtaposition to the torment he later wrought. Fans are left to grapple with how to appreciate life-embracing music produced by a convicted killer.
Spector emerged as an unlikely leader of the girl group revolution of the early 1960s, as The Crystals buoyantly expanded the musical vocabulary of youth with “Da Doo Ron Ron,” and The Ronettes’ made a teenage all-or-nothing plea to “Be My Baby.” His odd genius surpassed clever vocal arrangements. Spector’s layering of instruments – his signature “Wall of Sound” – imbued seemingly simple pop tunes with an orchestral majesty and authority that presaged the Beatles’ melding of rock with classical music influences. He made music for teenagers sound important.
Spector filled the Righteous Brothers’ “You've Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” with a soulful lament that still resounds nearly a half-century later. He slathered a coating of urgency on “River Deep – Mountain High,” complementing Tina Turner’s by turns subtle and searing vocal. His strongest legacy may be "A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector," whose stellar lineup stars Darlene Love’s classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” probably the best pop holiday song of them all.
Still, by some accounts – most prominently Paul McCartney’s – he saturated the Beatles’ “Let it Be” with overproduction, particularly in the strings that flooded “The Long and Winding Road” (in 2003, McCartney produced “Let it Be... Naked,” a stripped down version of the final original album released by the group). Spector produced some solo Beatle efforts, including George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.” He went punk with his last gasp by producing the Ramones’ “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.”
Spector’s musical story, at least as major pop force, ended there, more than three decades ago. But sadly, he’s now better known for the infamy he produced, from his star-crossed marriage to Ronnie Spector to the senseless Clarkson murder. It’s difficult, at times, not to think about all that when listening to his music. Pacino’s performance seems likely only to add to the image Spector created as crazy and violent.
The saving grace of Phil Spector, though, was that he wasn’t a performer – but he helped his singers shine like few other producers before or since. His music offers an enduring opportunity to celebrate the artists who brought his vision to life as he likely spends the rest of his behind bars.