The Voices Of Black Women Were Essential To Phil Spector's Wall Of Sound
Phil Spector, who died on Saturday at the age of 81, has long been hailed as one of pop music's most influential producers, the man who created the wall of sound and gave us songs like "He's a Rebel," "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Be My Baby." As an African American woman who loves listening to these rock and roll classics, I usually find myself focusing on the voices of the African American women who collaborated with Spector on these and other iconic recordings and thinking about the often harrowing stories they have told about working with him. Starting with Darlene Love (who changed her surname from Wright to Love at Spector's insistence) and continuing on to Dolores "La La" Brooks of The Crystals, Veronica Bennett (later known as Ronnie Spector) of The Ronettes and Tina Turner, these vocalists benefited from and helped to consolidate Spector's genius, even as they contended with the domineering behavior that is intertwined with and integral to his legacy as a masterful music producer.
In the early 1960s, when Spector was honing his craft, rock and roll was an interracial frontier, a context where African American women singers received opportunities but often found themselves working with white, male producers who exercised control over their careers. The women who brought their vocal skill to Spector's productions experienced manipulation and erasure, practices Spector routinely employed to minimize their contributions and help advance the narrative of his singular, solitary genius. Spector augmented his professional stature through recordings that relied on these women and their ability to deliver the vocal sound his records required, but for the most part he was uninterested in contributing to the professional stature of the women themselves. In his mind, he was the star of these records. To my mind, it is crucial to pay tribute to the creative labor of the Black women whose voices are such an essential part of Spector's wall of sound.
Before reaching the age of 25, Spector had achieved financial and chart success with the emerging girl group sound, leading writer Tom Wolfe to call him the "Tycoon of Teen." Attentive to pop music trends, Spector built on the practice of marrying orchestral instrumental arrangements and rock and roll vocals that had already proved successful on the charts for African American acts like The Drifters, a male vocal group produced by Spector's mentors Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in the late 1950s, and The Shirelles, the quartet whose 1960 hit "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," produced by Luther Dixon, ushered in the girl group sound. Working out of Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, Spector developed his own variation on this theme. He extended sonic depth and density by working with an enormous orchestra — two pianos, two drums kits, as many as five guitars and three basses, as well as large horn and string sections — and recording at high volume, forcing the studio meters into the red zone that most producers assiduously avoided, then overdubbing and mixing these almost distorted tracks to produce the loud, echoey wall of sound that became his celebrated contribution to rock and roll. Spector selected material written by professional songwriters, notably the teams of Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, worked with a core group of talented studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew and turned to African American women with powerful voices who could hold their own against the booming instrumental tracks. Usually clocking in at under three minutes long, these explorations of youthful love and desire were what Spector called "little symphonies for the kids."
Darlene Love began her partnership with Spector in 1962, when she came to the attention of Lester Sill, Spector's business partner and co-founder of their label Philles Records. In a hurry to record the song "He's a Rebel," but unable to cut the song with the vocalists they had under contract, the New York-based group The Crystals, Sill and Spector turned to Love, who lived in Los Angeles. Spector was racing to release his version of the Gene Pitney-penned tune before a version recorded by Vikki Carr could come out and pre-empt his sales. Spector paid Love a flat fee and triple scale to record the song and to allow him to release it under the name The Crystals. The arrangement, made without consulting with The Crystals, was indicative of the power producers had over artists. Describing her experience recording with Spector in her memoir, Love recalled that Spector encouraged what Love calls "the low, growling side of my voice, the righteous indignation and in-your-face testimony that I usually saved for church." Accentuating vocal Blackness in the early 1960s was a daring move in the segregated U.S., but it paid off. Although the Philles label version of "He's a Rebel" came out a few days after Carr's, it was the version that radio preferred. It went to No. 1 on the pop charts in the fall of 1962.
As Love tells it in her memoir, singers were interchangeable cogs in Spector's pop music machine and she was treated accordingly, recording hit songs but not getting public credit for her work. In 1962, with Fanita Barrett and Bobby Sheen, she recorded "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," a cover of the song from the Disney film Song of the South. Once again erasing Love's name but this time without her permission, Spector released the song under the name Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans and sent the trio out on tour to support the song, which reached No. 8 on the pop charts in January 1963. When Love recorded "He's Sure the Boy I Love," her next Philles project, Spector promised the song would be released under her name. It wasn't. Love learned that Spector had changed his mind the first time she heard the song played on the radio and the deejay announced it as "the new smash" from the Crystals.
Although furious at being duped, Love understood that Spector was focused on his chart success, not her solo career and probably reasoned that a record by a recognized artist was more likely to get airplay, especially a follow-up to a big hit like "He's a Rebel." Love recalls that when she confronted Spector about the change, he told her that she would have her chance with the next single. The Blossoms recorded the song in question, "Da Doo Ron Ron," in 1962. When it came time to release the record, however, Spector stripped away Love's voice, which he felt sounded too old for the song, and had the Crystals' La La Brooks sing over the track. The version featuring Brooks went to No. 3 on the pop charts. As Love's producer, label owner and manager — at least to the extent that he could send her out on tour — Spector had a monopolistic level of control over her career and it was clear that his chief concern was not for her success as an artist, but how he could use her considerable vocal talent to support his enterprise. His actions affected the level of recognition and remuneration Love was able to receive at the time and they impact the legacy she has been able to build in subsequent years — although high-profile correctives such as the 2013 documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom have brought her well-deserved attention.
Love faded into the background as Spector turned his focus to The Ronettes, a New York City family trio. Spector was immediately taken by the voice of lead singer Veronica Bennett, a young woman of African, Indigenous and European descent. When he first heard her sing it was, as she recounts the story in her memoir, a rock and roll eureka moment. He had found the vocal sound he'd been looking for: a youthful voice laden with the drama and power that could convey teenage emotion without getting lost in the loud instrumental tracks that were his signature. The Ronettes' first single, "Be My Baby," reached No. 2 on the pop charts in the autumn of 1963. Unlike Love, Bennett had not learned to sing in the Black church and she did not carry the gospel sound into her singing. Instead, she possessed a strong, teenage girl's voice that Spector believed would resonate with a teen audience. In "Be My Baby," Bennett conveys a teenage girl's thoughts, hopes and feelings, with an emotional catch in the throat and stuttered "oh, oh, ohs" that signal adolescent passion. The song reverberates with her joyous confidence as she assures the object of her desire that she will make him happy. "For every kiss you give me, I'll give you three," she promises. Bennett's compelling vibrato and knowing attitude helped set the tone for rock and roll vocals for years to come, projecting a sweet sexiness that was central to her image.
In her memoir, Bennett explains that she hears the songs she recorded with Spector as his love letters to her: "You can actually trace our entire relationship through the songs we did together. He courted me while we rehearsed 'Be My Baby,' we fell in love when we recorded 'Baby I Love You,' and we made love after we listened to 'Do I Love You' for the first time." Veronica Bennett married Phil Spector in 1968 and first used the name Ronnie Spector professionally in 1971. Her memoir documents the romance and also provides the appalling details of their union: Phil kept Ronnie isolated in their Beverly Hills mansion and traumatized her emotionally. She turned to drinking in order to cope. She hoped that he would produce another big hit for her but that was not to be. Occasionally, he would record her, but he refused to release the records. By the early '70s, the hits and the romance were in the past. She filed for divorce in 1972. From her professional name to her best-known hits, Ronnie Spector cannot completely separate herself from Phil Spector. This was painfully clear during The Ronettes' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. Ronnie opted not to thank her former producer and husband or mention his name in her acceptance speech, but the evening's bandleader, Paul Shaffer, read
The Ronettes a congratulatory note from Phil, who had taken an epistolary approach to inserting himself into the proceedings.
The Ronettes only appeared on the Billboard Top 40 charts between September 1963 and November 1964. Like so many American rock and roll acts of the early 1960s, they were victims of the arrival of British Invasion bands on American shores. Spector's response to the changing musical times was to expand from the black girl group sound, exercising a level of professional mobility that the women singers he recorded simply did not have. As Ronnie Spector explains in her memoir when accounting for why it took her so long to break up with Spector, "If I put an end to our relationship as lovers, Phil would never record me again. And for a girl singer in the sixties, your producer was your lifeline. If I said bye-bye to Phil, I would've been saying bye-bye to my career." Spector left behind the African American women who had helped him establish his career and began working with The Righteous Brothers, a white southern California duo whose "blue-eyed soul" vocal style carried their Spector-produced 1964 single "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" to the top of the U.S. and U.K. charts.
By 1966, Spector and the Righteous Brothers had severed ties and Spector sought out an opportunity to record with Tina Turner, hearing in her voice a potential for a level of chart success that she and her musical and marital partner Ike Turner had not yet achieved. He believed that he could create a track that would appeal to pop audiences, crossing the African American R&B duo over to the white pop mainstream. In her memoir, Turner recalls rehearsing with Spector every day over a two-week period until she was able to produce every moment and inflection of the song "River Deep - Mountain High" to his liking. For Turner, the process was a revelation; it was the first time she had worked professionally without Ike and she was struck by the ways the song differed in sound and feel from the music she recorded with her husband.
Seeking a crossover hit, Spector melded the soulful power of Turner's vocals, the wall of sound and pop form. Spector was attracted to the raw passion and edge in Turner's voice and he encouraged her to exploit these qualities in the chorus after holding them back in the more moderate verses. Turner loved the record, both for its sound and for the fact that it showed her that she could work independently from Ike. Spector was sure that he had a hit on his hands when he released "River Deep - Mountain High" in 1966, but the American airwaves and record-buying public had other ideas. The song stalled at No. 88 on the U.S. pop charts, an enormous disappointment that led him to a three-year retreat from producing records. When Spector reemerged at the end of the '60s, he worked with high-profile white male artists, producing Let It Be, the final studio release by The Beatles; solo projects for George Harrison, John Lennon and Leonard Cohen and an album for The Ramones, whose lead singer Joey Ramone was a dedicated fan of The Ronettes.
Given Spector's reliance on the voices of African American women to propel the recordings that established his career, it is sobering to consider Darlene Love's characterization of his perspective on vocalists: "The singers were nothing to Phil. He used to say it was about 'his music.' So I'd say, 'If it's all about your music, why aren't you making instrumentals?'" What Spector made, of course, were vocal pop records and his skill, his vision, even his genius as a producer depended on the presence of voices that could meet his elaborate instrumental settings with energy, passion and power. He found the sound his productions required in the voices of women of African descent — Darlene Love, La La Brooks, Veronica Bennett and Tina Turner. These women helped him build his wall of sound. As I revisit the musical contributions of Phil Spector in the wake of his passing, I do so with an awareness that the rock and roll beauty of these records is inseparable from the grim reality of their conditions of production. On these landmark recordings, I hear the sound of Black women's voices as a crucial resource, hitting all the right notes and still waiting to get all of their due.
Maureen Mahon, a cultural anthropologist, is an associate professor in the Department of Music at New York University. She is the author of Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll.
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