Here’s a little something that just sort of popped up out of the blue the other day when I routinely searched for some Spector-related stuff online.
Music journalist Steve Escobar has a website where he has published a few of his interview with musicians – and lo-and-behold; if you’re a fan of Spector as well as the 60s LA recording scene, there are a few interviews on there that would be of interest.
Off you go; Brian, Glen, Hal, Jackie, Johhny, and Nancy are all ready to tell you a bit about their musical adventures…
Brian Wilson (proving once again he’s not the most talkative interview subject!)
While Phil Spector’s 60s productions are always praised as groundbreaking and intricate, many wall of sound connaisseurs also tend to focus on his overlooked 70s output.
Limited as this output was, Spector’s projects from the era still underlined his role as the true auteur and sonic mastermind of each record. Yet, the former Tycoon of Teen was clearly at a creative crossroads, seemingly looking for a new direction for the wall of sound.
His approach had already seemed a bit passé by the end of the 60s. As he entered the new decade, Spector faced the fact that the record-buying teenagers of the early-to-mid 60s who had brought stardom to him and Philles had now grown up. Should his new music reflect this change or should he stay true to the old tried and tested formula? In the end, he chose, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, to do both – the productions became more delicate and often at a slower pace which lessened the expected impact from a new Spector production. On the other hand, the tracks were still cut at Gold Star studios with the regular team of brilliant session musicians, the iconic Wrecking Crew. Technology had changed – the mono that had propelled Spector’s bombast through speakers throughout the 60s had been surpassed by stereo, dreaded by Spector because it lessened the full impact of his productions.
A time of change, then. But luckily one that still brought us some great new Spector productions with the likes of John Lennon, George Harrison, Cher, Dion, Darlene Love and Leonard Cohen. And then there’s the puzzling one-off single by Jerri Bo Keno that came and went in 1975 on Spector’s short-lived label Phil Spector International. Who was this unknown singer giving it her all on a catchy song written by Jeff Barry and Phil Spector?
I decided to find out more and succesfully contacted Jerri who luckily was more than willing to sharing her memories of her short stint as Spector’s latest discovery. It’s a shame the project only lasted one single because the release was very promising and had the collaboration continued with similar singles, there might have been a chance of tapping into the surge in nostalgia that hit in the mid-to-late 70s; a topic I have blogged in depth about here: https://cuecastanets.wordpress.com/2015/08/02/that-70s-wall-of-sound/
Jerri is still in the music business and currently has a single out that Cue Castanets readers definately should check out. ‘Every Time You’re Near’ has a great melody and is beautifully sung by Jerri, – it is a lovely song that would have fit right in the Bacharach/David songbook.
Let’s turn to Jerri and learn what she remembers about her time recording for Spector…
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Jerri; please tell us a little about how you got your start in the music industry? Which projects had you worked on before recording with Phil Spector?
I came from a musical family growing up in a house full of music and dance. My Dad, Tony Bocchino, was a Jazz Musician and singer, and my sister, Chrissy Bocchino, was well known for her dancing and choreography on Broadway and TV.
Before I was signed to Phil, I was a singer/songwriter trying to establish myself in the LA scene. I spent a lot of time at the Whiskey A Go Go on Sunset Blvd to get my name out there. I did a lot of session work and toured with a group called The Tootsie Rock Revue.
How did your path eventually cross with Spector’s? Did you sign with him right away or had you been acquainted with one another for some time?
I brought my singer/songwriter tape to Jeff Barry at A&M Records. He said he had a friend that might be interested in me but did not tell me who. One year later Jeff asked me if I would be interested in meeting Phil Spector, and I said of course! We arranged a meeting at Phil’s house. When I arrived, Phil took me over to the piano and asked me to sing “Be My Baby”. He signed me on the spot! I reminded him of Ronnie (Spector).
Once you got in Phil’s house, it was very difficult to leave. I would spend hours and hours there singing and talking! I began hanging out at his house regularly. There was always a good show going on and the cast of characters was fascinating, but I especially cherished my time alone with him because I saw a Phil Spector the rest of the world rarely witnessed. I also loved to sit with Phil and his mother, because they loved to disagree on all kinds of subjects!
Do you remember how you first heard ‘Here It Comes (and Here I Go)’? Was it in the form of a demo recording, and if so, sung by whom, or did Spector basically sit at the piano and play you the song?
Phil, Jeff and I were at Phil’s house, where I always rehearsed, and Phil played it on the piano and taught me the melody. I never had a demo to rehearse with. Phil didn’t do things in a traditional way which I got used to! I had no idea how this was going to sound until I got into the studio with the band. I would sit on the piano bench and sing with him for hours.
What do you remember from the ‘Here It Comes’ session? Were you present while the backing track was recorded or did you only come in afterward to record your lead vocal?
There were basic tracks, but Phil would go back and redo things regularly. You know what a perfectionist he was in the studio!
We recorded everything at A&M Studios, and at first, Phil had me in a booth, but he wasn’t happy with the sound. Then I sat on a stool in the middle of the studio, singing live with the musicians. What an amazing experience! I also sang on the backgrounds of my record and all the other records he was working on at that time.
Among collectors and Spector connoisseurs, ‘Here It Comes’ is widely regarded as the closest Spector ever came to jumping aboard the impending boom in disco music.
Did the two of you ever discuss the feel of the track? Its rhythmic, danceable beat seems tailor-made for the dance floor.
Phil never discussed how he came up with this beat but was adamant about his Wall of Sound. I think he was creating all the time and would attempt new things as they came to him.
However, I do remember in the 80’s when Phil came to NYC and called me to hang out for the evening. Paul Schaffer and I took him to a popular dance club where he threw a fit. He hated the dance beat and wanted to know where the lyrics were! Obviously wasn’t a fan of Disco!
The sparsely orchestrated ‘I Don’t Know Why’ ended up on the B-side. How do you feel about this song and its recording?
I get so many people that love that song! I actually think it was just a throwaway song for Phil. I enjoyed singing it, though! Would love to record this song again!
As we know, only one single was issued. But did you record other songs while with Spector? If so, I’d be very interested in whatever info you can share. Were they full-blown Wall of Sound productions or rough demos? Do you remember any song titles?
While my record was out, Phil got in the near fatal car accident which prevented him from recording for a very long time. We did not have anything else recorded, unfortunately.
What a shame. Following up on the previous question; did you participate on any other Spector sessions as a backup-singer?
Yes, I had the pleasure of working with LA’s best singers, like Maxine Willard and The Waters for all the Wall of Sound sessions. Most memorable were Dion’s and Cher’s songs.
How did your association with Phil Spector come to an end?
When Phil had his near-fatal accident, it put him out of commission. I actually got a phone call that he had died, and I panicked but soon after that initial shock, his assistant called asking me to come to the house to see him. He had suffered serious head and scalp injuries and was so concerned about the loss of his curly full head of hair which he was always so proud of.
Sadly because of this accident and his poor health, he didn’t record for a long time and we never worked together again.
What have you been up to since the mid-70s and ‘Here It Comes’?
I have done a lot of session work for all kinds of artists for all kinds music including singing with John Lennon when he and Phil were recording the Rock ‘n’ Roll album, certainly a highlight of my career.
I was in the group El Coco singing the hit “Let’s Get It Together” and was a featured singer on David Benoit’s Heavier Than Yesterday album singing “I Wish Right Now Would Never End”.
I was also a member of a group called The Downtown Girls in the 80’s and we had a European hit. I recently did backgrounds for Anita Ward’s new record “Another Bad Mistake” and The Village People’s Randy Jones’ current record, “Hard Times”.
I worked live with Toni Basil and The Lockers getting a chance to be a part of her astonishing choreography. She is one of the most creative performers I have worked with and best friends with my sister! I recently have done live shows with Joey Molland from Badfinger, Mark Farner from Grand Funk Railroad, Anita Ward and The Searchers. I always love performing live.
I had a single released a couple of years back called “My Love Is Yours” on Young Pals Music working with the very talented Ayhan Sahin and have a new single that just came out called “Everytime You’re Near”, written and produced by Peitor Angel for Buon-Art Music. Peitor and I will be recording a couple of new songs for an EP this year!
Jerri; thank you for shaing your thoughts with us. I’d like to end with a question I ask everyone I interview for Cue Castanets; could you please share with us your personal top 5 Spector-produced tracks?
I would have to start with my record –
“Here It Comes (And Here I Go)”. I love the track!
My all-time favorite – “Be My Baby” – The Ronettes
Leiber/Stoller,… Pomus/Schuman,… Goffin/King,… Mann/Weill,… Barry/Greenwich,… Bacharach/David,… even a cursory study of label credits on classic 60s US pop singles quickly reveals how the very best of the era’s songwriting came from a bunch of dynamic duos. Some of these songwriting partnerships or husband-and-wife teams almost became household names in themselves along with the acts they wrote for or produced… well, household names at least among music connoisseurs.
But dig deeper than the most well-known Brill Building names and you’ll find more duos worthy of praise and exploration of their work; one could mention Bonner/Gordon,… Wine/Levine,… Sloan/Barri,… Boyce/Hart and none the least Anders/Poncia.
The latter duo, consisting of childhood friends Pete Anders [Peter Andreoli] and Vini Poncia, is one of my all-time favorite songwriter partnerships. These guys could do it all! Sing, write, produce – everything. Despite doing all this at a frantic pace their work was no run of the mill operation.
Find a single with an Anders/Poncia label credit and you can be sure that there are something a bit unusual about it. The song might all of a sudden take an interesting turn or throw in an unusual chord – topped with hooks galore and killer vocals. No wonder Phil Spector took notice of these noble knights of quirky chord progressions and considered them worthy of stepping in when Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s work with Spector had run its course.
When I started this blog the very first person I reached out to for an interview was Pete Anders – besides being a big fan of his work with Vini, I also hadn’t seen him reminisce about his life in music in any interviews and I thought it could be interesting if he’d be willing to do so on Cue Castanets. Peter was up for it but sadly his health problems and passing prevented the interview to take place. When I heard about this I paid my respects to the memory of Peter here:
Luckily, Peter’s partner-in-crime Vini Poncia has recently followed up on Peter’s acceptance of an interview and answered the questions I had prepared,… which makes perfect sense seeing that Peter and Vini always did what they did best together, – recording perfect pop in any genre, be it doo wop, rock’n’roll, girl group, wall of sound, Beatles knock offs, surf pop, sunshine pop – you name it!
I would like to thank Peter and Vini’s friend Rick Bellaire for conducting this interview on behalf of Cue Castanets July 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island. Rick is the archive director for the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame; www.RhodeIslandMusicHallofFame.com
So, please put on your favorite Anders/Poncia tune, sit back and enjoy Vini’s answers to my questions.
Vini, thank you for taking the time to do this interview for Cue Castanets.
You and Peter first met each other in the vocal group The Videls out of Providence, Rhode Island in the late ‘50s. Did the two of you “click” right away as creative partners or was it something that slowly evolved?
We actually first met before The Videls when we were in junior high school. I was on the touch football team from my middle school, Esek Hopkins, and we played against Nathanael Greene Middle School in 1956. Their quarterback was Peter Andreoli. After the game, we talked and hit it off right away. We had all the same interests – sports, girls and mainly music and guitars.
We started to hang around and tried to write songs. We weren’t that prolific. The Videls were started by our friend Bobby Calitri and Peter replaced the lead singer in that group in 1957. They had five singers and a guitarist. I formed a four-piece instrumental band called The Del Rinos with another friend of ours, Frank Spino, who played drums. in 1958, I replaced one of the singers AND the guitarist in The Videls and that became the classic five-piece lineup.
“Mr. Lonely” appears to be the first “Andreoli-Poncia” written song. Is that so?
It was the first released song. We had written a few things and sometimes made demos at our local TV and radio repair shop where the owner had a small recording studio in the backroom. But nothing happened with those songs.
How did the two of you work on songs together from then on? Did one of you, say, mainly write the words and the other the melody / chords? Or did it change from song to song?
We both wrote lyrics and melodies. We’d sit together and try to come up with stuff or we’d bring each other ideas – titles, a bit of melody – as a starter.
In general, we mainly wrote together. We also wrote some folk songs during the early days of The Videls and had a duo on the side we called The Royalty Brothers – like The Everly Brothers.
Even from the early Videls recordings I hear Peter as a very skilled singer with a distinctive vocal style. Who would you say were his biggest influences when you were starting out?
Jimmy Beaumont from The Skyliners, Johnny Maestro of The Crests, Jackie Wilson. Those were his role models and heroes, but Peter was so good that he got to join that club!
Let’s talk about your work while at Philles.
How did your writing relationship with Phil Spector come about? Was his interest piqued by one of your song demos (if so, which one?) or were you teamed up with him?
Paul Case who ran Hill & Range, the publishing company where we worked as songwriters, was Phil’s friend. Phil would test his masters on Paul’s shitty stereo – he figured if they sounded good on a bad record player, they’d sound good anywhere!
During one visit, Paul knowing that Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry were kind of on the way out with Phil, especially because of the arrangement between Phil’s publishing company, Mother Bertha, and Lieber and Stoller’s Company, Trio Music where Jeff and Ellie were signed, said, “Listen to my friends from Providence,” and played Phil some of the stuff we’d done for Snuff Garrett, Bobby Vee, Doc Pomus and one of our records, “Hand Clapping Time.” Phil liked what he heard and told Paul to have us bring him some song ideas.
“The Best Part of Breaking Up” is one of many great songs from that period.
There’s a story going around that you and Peter only had the title/catch phrase for the song (“The best part of breaking up is when you’re making up”) when you pitched the song to Spector and that he immediately sensed a hit from the title alone, asking you to write it. Is this true?
The magic really began in New York when we would bring him Ideas. Yes, we had started it, but we had more than the hook. Phil heard it and he went right to the piano. I had my guitar. Phil helped us finish the first verse. He also wrote the pre-chorus: “Tell me why…” Then he said go home and write the second verse.
We regrouped once all the lyrics were finished and then we started arranging it and getting ready to record it in California.
What was it like to work with him and seeing your songs get the Wall of Sound treatment in the studio?
Well, we played and sang on all the sessions so we were right in the middle of it. For “Best Part,” we were ready, then Phil came up with the bridge and Jack (Nietzsche, Spector’s arranger) worked it right into the song.
In general, we were involved in every aspect of the writing and production, but it really came down to Phil. But he had a LOT of help! He had Hal Blaine, Leon Russell, Steve Douglas…Peter and I were in awe of the process. We had front-row tickets at the “genius” record-making process. On the other hand, we expected nothing less because we came in after Phil had already established his genius at record-making. That blueprint had already been drawn up as far as Larry Levine and engineers and Jack and the charts and the musicians.
Are there any particular songs from that time you’re especially fond of?
The stuff with Darlene has a soft spot in my heart. We were trying to think outside the box: “Strange Love,” “Quiet Guy,” “Stumble and Fall.” They were three very different kinds of songs, not Crystals-esque. We were writing songs for HER which would be different than what she did with the group or on her other sessions for Phil. We wanted to show her growing as an artist.
Darlene Love has actually mentioned numerous times that “He’s a Quiet Guy” is her favorite Philles-era song. I tend to agree. It’s a fantastic piece of work. So it was written directly for her? Did you participate at the session?
Yes, it was written specifically for her and we were on the session.
I’d also like to ask you about “Hold Me Tight.” I absolutely love Peter’s vocal on this recording, credited to The Treasures.
Whose idea was it to rework, and in my opinion vastly improve, a Beatles song so radically? Did Spector record anything else with you on lead that has remained unreleased?
It was Phil’s idea. He said, let’s go make a big, bombastic version of a Beatles tune – cover a Beatles song and give it the “Phil Spector” treatment. Even though there’s no production credit, Phil produced the record and we were the artists instead of simply the composers or arrangers.
We went through the same process he used with every other record. The only difference was it came out on one of his subsidiaries, Shirley Records. And, no, there’s nothing unreleased.
One of your more obscure songs while with Spector is “You’re my Baby’”by Gene Toone & The Blazers, a fun throwback to your street corner doo wop background set to a marching beat. I really love this song.
The feel and beat of it reminds me of an unreleased Philles-era track called “Pretty Girl’”sung by Spector himself. Were you and Peter involved in that song? It has the same type of marching beat and funny lyrics that, among other things, goes: “My name’s Philip and incidentally I ain’t going steady. But you’ve got something that get’s me thinkin’ I may be ready.” There’s a prominent use of harmonica throughout and the chorus goes “You’re so fine. So fine. What’s your number? You’re so fine.” Do you remember this song/production?
I remember it, but we had no involvement.
“Do I Love You” – that bass riff in the intro is pure genius. Do I detect a bit of a Motown influence in that song?
Phil wrote the bass riff. I think I remember him playing that riff early – back in New York – on the left hand of piano when we were writing it. We were certainly aware of what was coming out of Motown and were incorporating certain ideas into what we were doing. They were doing the same thing with Phil’s stuff.
I’ve heard rumors of an unreleased Ronettes track wittten by you and Peter called “Someday (Baby).” Do you remember this one? Did Spector record more songs of yours than what was eventually released?
No recollection. We had an early song with Peer/Southern called “Someday Baby,” but we never brought it to Phil.
There’s of course also The Lovelites. You and Peter did some fantastic stuff with this group – “When I Get Scared” on the Phi-Dan label and the not officially released “Please be my Boyfriend” and “He’s My Eddie Baby.” All great productions!
What would you say you learned as producers from your association with Phil Spector?
The importance of the song and how to “record” arrange meaning thinking of how the RECORD would sound as opposed to just arranging for an orchestra or band. I have one adage from Phil I used to repeat all the time which is simplistic in nature, but he always used to say, “You have to write the best song you can write and you have to make the best record you can make with that song. You cannot have a great song and make an inferior record and can’t make a great record with an inferior song.” You have to be able to discern the difference.
The one other thing he told me that I always used to tell everybody was, “You may not like what you hear on the radio as a hit record or a #1 record – it may not be ‘your kind’ of record – but you better know WHY it was a hit.”
Following up on The Lovelites and “Please Be My Boyfriend” specifically – was that song written by you and Peter? It has never been disclosed who wrote it as an acetate label and sessions sheets don’t feature writing credits.
Also, there’s a version floating around credited to The Crystals. Many believe that the demo isn’t sung by the Crystals but by an unknown group. Do you recognize the voices? This version has puzzled collectors for decades!
I’m not sure, but I think it’s a song we wrote and recorded when we were back working in New York after we were done working with Phil.
We used to record at Broadway Recording Studios at 1697 Broadway in Manhattan. I think it’s a demo and that it’s not Darlene or The Crystals. It could have been any one of the young, black girl groups we used hire to sing our demos. We definitely produced it in the Phil Spector mode – but it was a bad imitation. We may have worked on it with The Lovelites, but not completed it.
You left Spector and Philles Records for Leiber and Stoller’s Red Bird label in 1965. Your first master there was the legendary “New York’s a Lonely Town” under The Tradewinds moniker. A sizeable hit.
How did you come up with this great idea for a song? Did you offer it to Spector before releasing it on Red Bird? Many of the Tradewinds songs have an obvious Beach Boys influence. How did you feel about what Brian Wilson was doing at the time? Did you ever meet him in LA?
Surf music was a huge market then. We heard a ton of it working in L.A. and loved what The Beach Boys were doing. We knew some of them. Brian used to stop in at the Spector sessions to hang out and check out what Phil was doing.
We started the song in L.A. and finished it when we returned to New York. We cut a demo looking to place it with another artist, but when we finished, we knew we had something big and that we should release it ourselves. We went back into the studio and turned the demo into a master. We offered it to Phil first as a courtesy and he knew it was a hit, but he passed on it because he had a bunch of stuff of his own ready to release. So, we brought it to Jerry and Mike and they picked it up.
On Kama Sutra and later Buddah you recorded fantastic stuff under quite a few names: The Tradewinds, The Innocence, The Good Times, etc. But you also released Peter’s first solo single, the majestic “Sunrise Highway” backed with “Baby Baby.” Why a solo single at this time?
Well, the obvious reason is that it features Peter’s incredible vocal. The other reason is that you don’t want to release too many things under the same name one after the other.
We just used the different names as a way to get more records out faster. It was just another “Anders & Poncia” record under a different name. And it also wasn’t the first solo record.
Back in 1962, after The Videls and before The Tradewinds, we released two singles under two different names on two different labels at the same time. Peter’s was “I’m Your Slave” on Corvair and I was “Vince Parelle” on Elmor with “Walk Away.” Nothing ever happened with them which is probably why you didn’t know we’d released “solo” records before.
I’ve heard rumours of an unreleased album borne out of the sessions for the Anders & Poncia single “So It Goes” b/w “Virgin to the Night” on Kama-Sutra. Any truth to this? If so, why was it scrapped?
Yes, it’s true. We worked very closely with Artie Ripp who ran Kama Sutra and Buddah and the three of us decided we should take a crack at writing something for Broadway.
The idea was that instead of it being a standard musical having one long story with songs inserted into the narrative, we would write a song cycle about different aspects of American life and each song would have its own presentation on stage – little vignettes. We wrote, I believe, fifteen songs for the project which was called “Of Love And Life” and story-boarded all the ideas.
We rented costumes and built sets and did a series of photographs illustrating what each of the story-songs would look like on stage. We recorded demos for all the songs but not finished masters – mostly guitar and voice. The cast album would have been an Anders and Poncia album.
Artie shopped the idea around, but it was an expensive proposition and there were no takers. The idea was put on hold and we recorded two of the best songs, “So It Goes” and “Virgin,” and that became our next single. We left Buddah shortly after that to go to California to work with Richard Perry whom we had worked with at Kama Sutra/Buddah early on.
We worked on the Tiny TIm stuff and we gave another one of the songs from the project to Tim. It’s “Christopher Brady’s Ole Lady” which is on “Tiny Tim’s 2nd Album.” After that, we cut “The Anders & Poncia Album” with Richard for Warner Brothers and included “You Don’t Know What To Do” from the play and that was it. Just the four songs. We didn’t do any more work on the play or on the rest of the songs.
A final question; you and Peter were involved in so many one-off singles that some were bound to fall through the cracks.
A particular favorite of mine is “Thinkin’ ‘bout Me” by The Fairchilds from 1968. What a stunning song and great production – should have been a hit! You and Peter are listed as producers along with your old Videls buddy, Norman Marzano. What do you remember about this song? Was The Fairchilds an actual group or just you guys recording? I think I hear Peter singing background vocals?
The Fairchilds was the group name for The Tradewinds minus me and Pete – a side project. Peter and I go all the way back to The Videls with Norman Marzano and Bobby Calitri. Then they became The Tradewinds with me and Peter.
When we couldn’t go out on tour because we were needed in the studio, we formed a “road” version of the group which included Jim Calvert and Paul Naumann. So, when nothing was happening with our records, we tried to keep the guys busy and they helped us with different projects and we were all signed to Kama Sutra as writers.
We got an offer to produce a record for A&M. So, Norman, Jimmy and Paulie named themselves The Fairchilds and wrote a couple of songs. Peter and I helped them produce the single and, yes, that’s Peter singing with the group. Nothing happened with the record and it was back to business as usual.
Fascinating to learn the story about this great single.
Vini, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. I’m sure Cue Castanets readers will find your recollections as interesting as I have.
The element of Cue Castanets I’m most proud of is the backlog of interviews I have steadily built up since starting the blog little more than a year ago. It’s always fascinating to gain some insights about Spector’s productions or likeminded music from those in the know and share it with fellow music fans – and it is a key element of my blogging that I feel makes Cue Castanets somewhat pick up the baton from the legendary Phil Spector Appreciation Society and their newsletters and fanzines.
Since my blog is a one-man operation with only a few occasional, and much-appreciated, guest posts, it’s been important for me to feature opinions from other people on here via interviews as much as possible. Why not check out the list of past interviews via this link to see if you’ve read them all?
I’m very pleased to be able to add yet another interview to the blog; this time with music historian Domenic Priore whose work I’ve enjoyed for many years.
Domenic is truly a capacity when it comes to 60s Los Angeles / California music lore – he has written about the Beach Boys and dealt extensively with Brian Wilson’s fabled ‘Smile’ album in his fascinating fanzine publication Dumb Angel Gazette that came out in the late 80s. Further Gazettes were later issued before Domenic eventually branched out into books on the 60s California surf pop scene, the LA Sunset Strip and Pacific Ocean Park.
To this day, Domenic’s book ‘Pop Surf Culture’, written with fellow music aficionado Brian Chidester, remains one of my all-time favorite books and one that I find myself flicking through several times each year. If you haven’t checked out Domenic’s work yet, you should really do so.
Since Domenic is also a big fan of the Wall of Sound, Sony Legacy hired him to write the liner notes for their 2011 ‘The Essential Phil Spector’ 2-CD compilation. With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to feature some of his views in interview-form for Cue Castanets.
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So Domenic, what’s your earliest associated memory with the Wall of Sound & Phil Spector? Was there a specific song that made an impression on you and won you over, so to speak?
The Ronettes, when I was a little kid. I remember hearing “Be My Baby” during a summer vacation to New York City in 1963 (we drove there from Los Angeles, partially on Route 66), then “Baby I Love You” and later “Walking In The Rain,” … which I remember being in pre-school and running down the stairs in front of the big brick schoolhouse and doing some kind of Gene Kelly “Singing in the Rain”-type dance on the stairway, because I associated “Walking in the Rain” with “Singing in the Rain” when I was 4.
You’re one of the leading experts on Los Angeles pop history having researched the city’s history extensively and written some fine books on the subject. How would you briefly characterize Spector’s significance and influence in Los Angeles music circles; both in terms of his ‘sound’ and the way he went about building up Philles Records?
Well, he really consolidated the idea of the Wrecking Crew, I mean, some of them had played together on other things but in 1963 you get them playing on “Be My Baby” (Ronettes) and “Surf City” (Jan & Dean) and pretty soon Brian Wilson starts to use them as well.
But it was more than the musicians, but the sound design concept; that was the key. Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound had romantic, ethereal elements to it, as well as direct things, like a strong beat, or a noisy atmosphere similar to Frank Gaudia’s party-room production on the Gary U.S. Bonds single “Quarter To Three”.
All those things got mixed into a big pot, and some of it actually had to do with Hollywood movie soundtrack production motifs. You got to figure Phil’s closeness to the Big Screen Spectaculars and the grandiose sound of that… there was a reductionist exercise Phil did taking that down to a 45 that also came on strong with the rock ‘n’ roll core not found then in movie soundtracks. Ultimately Jack Nitzsche, who arranged Phil’s records, becomes a soundtrack-maker later on, so this played well in context.
Nitzsche also did tremendous work outside of the Philles sides, including a session with Phil, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at RCA Music Center of the World at 4 a.m. in the morning that became “Play With Fire”. Andrew Loog Oldham explained to me that this was the moment The Rolling Stones went from being a band who covered R&B styles to becoming the kind of group who could write expansive things like “Paint It Black,” “Ruby Tuesday” and “We Love You”.
So it’s really hard to sum up Phil’s overall influence on not only the L.A. scene but on things like The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
During Spector’s heyday, LA was thriving with young, exciting bands playing the clubs at Sunset Strip, a scene you’ve devoted a whole book to, the brilliant “Riot on Sunset Strip – Rock’n’roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood.” What would have been some of Spector’s favorite haunts, if any?
We know that Phil worked with The Modern Folk Quartet on “This Could Be The Night” which was the theme to The Big T.N.T. Show. He also orchestrated things like that amazing live rendition of Petula Clark’s version of “Downtown” there at the Moulin Rouge. That is a most incredible piece of footage.
From what I hear, Phil also sang on stage with The Modern Folk Quartet at The Trip, and there was a legendary meeting written up in the L.A. Free Press about Phil meeting Bob Dylan at the Fred C. Dobbs coffeehouse across the street from The Trip. Some kid put “Let’s Go Get Stoned” by Ronnie Milsap on the jukebox and supposedly that led to Dylan’s writing “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35”.
So you can say Phil was definitely on the scene. He was also parodied in “The Cool Ones” and parodied himself on that episode of “I Dream of Jeanie”.
Brian Wilson has often referred to Spector’s records as a primary influence in expanding the sound and artistry of the Beach Boys. You’ve met both Brian Wilson and Phil Spector. What, in your opinion, are their biggest similarities and differences?
Well, I didn’t meet them in the ’60s and you have to remember they are tremendously different people now, compared to then, when they were making their best records, without question.
Brian Wilson seems to have been able to “let go” of what began as a competitive nature, whereas Phil seemed obsessed with competition.
In the end, the ’60s were not about that old “me vs. you” thing, it became about cross-pollination, getting together, and making changes for the better. Brian Wilson clearly reached for this, whereas Phil Spector may have wanted those things to happen, but personally was more wound up within the old-fashioned competitive mode.
Besides Brian Wilson, numerous LA-based producers took notice of the Wall of Sound and tried to go for a similar feel on their own 60s output. Are there any specific producers or releases of the time that you’d like to highlight for whatever reason?
In the Revised Edition of “Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood” I have a section where I boil it down to four record producers who stood above all the rest in L.A., and they would be Phil Spector, Jack Nitzsche, Brian Wilson and Lee Hazelwood.
Nitzsche and Hazelwood actually worked together a bit on brilliant things like The Wildcats “What Are We Gonna Do in ’64” but you have to look at things like Lee Hazelwood’s production on “Some Velvet Morning” (Nancy Sinatra) and Jack Nitzsche’s “Expecting to Fly” (Buffalo Springfield) to really get the big picture there.
Darian Sahanaja, later of the Brian Wilson band and The Wondermints, did a pretty thorough article in the first issue of Dumb Angel Gazette back in 1987 that is still the best guidebook to Nitzsche’s coolest records.
The odd thing with Nitzsche is that he is not always credited as producer but you know those records have his stamp. Brian Wilson, it’s pretty obvious things like “Beach Boys Today!” and “Pet Sounds” have that Phil Spector tone, though with “Pet Sounds” it really becomes a Brian Wilson sound on that one. I think Nitzsche, Wilson and Hazelwood took out some of the noise and brought more clarity into the so-called Wall of Sound.
Speaking of Wall of Sound influenced music, if you have some personal Spector soundalikes from any era you’d like to recommend Cue Castanets readers to check out, by all means, please do!
I always think of “My One and Only Jimmy Boy” by The Girlfriends and “Ooh Chang A Lang” by The Orchids for some reason, and then “Dream Baby” by Cherilyn (Cher)… the 45 version, the one on the LP doesn’t have the right mix, remember that. There are a ton of Phil Spector influenced records and I might be forgetting about a few favorites of course, but those three are the ones I think about first.
I’d like to dwell a bit on Spector’s output again. How do you feel about the stereo versions of the 60s productions that have crept out? I dig them myself but I know other fans really dislike them because of their simple stereo separation.
The only thing I remember hearing in stereo is The Ronettes album which is okay but inferior to the mono pressing. I think people who prefer stereo most likely don’t know how to dance, or, you know, don’t get out much.
Ouch! Take that, you stereo-philes! ;-)
There’s also the question of the Spector tape vault, – whether or not there is more stuff tucked away on those fabled tapes. Do you think there are more unreleased 60s recordings than what has eventually came out on the wonderful Rare Masters vol. 1 and vol. 2 collections? According to rumors at the time of their issue, there was at least enough material for a third volume?
I’m not too sure of what does exist, I mean, in the ’70s they did a pretty good job of getting things out there like “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine” and most likely the best things are already out there.
There is a Harry Nilsson vocal that Phil produced during the mid-’60s, a demo for “Let Me Go,” which is a Righteous Brothers-type thing that was later released by Pat & Andre.
What is really interesting is just listening to the Phil Spector sessions which have to be considered historical. You’ll never get sessions like that again, and hearing him in the studio direct things like “Be My Baby” or sessions from the Christmas album is an education.
I recall hearing some MFQ sessions that were pretty interesting and I think there was more than “This Could Be The Night” though I don’t think the MFQ sang … those would be incomplete but fascinating.
How do you feel about Spector’s 70s productions? As with the 60s stereo versions, these productions tend to divide the waters with some really loving them and others finding them un-imaginative and tired. How do you feel about this phase of his career?
Something in the ’70s, unimaginative and tired? Nahhhhh…. not the ’70s!
I’m being facetious, of course. The ’70s were notorious for not having the kick the ’60s did, for being bombastic, self-absorbed, bland, all those things that led to punk rock becoming the most important movement to emerge since The Beatles came out.
Phil’s work with The Ramones on “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio” can be considered AS GOOD as the things he did during the ’60s… the message in the lyrics of that song summed up so much, and were similar to those in Elvis Costello’s “Radio, Radio”. Phil, I think, and The Ramones, probably felt those lyrics deep down in their souls, this was really a song they could get behind the meaning of, when they say ‘we need change and we need it fast’… how horrible did broadcast music become after, say, 1971?
You’ve got to figure “(Do You Remember) Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio” is a statement, and that’s what made the best records of the ’50s or ’60s stand out, whether it was “Rock ‘n’ Roll is Here To Stay,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” or “Give Peace A Chance”.
When you listen to the Nilsson tracks, the Cher tracks, yeah, they lack life, but in another sense I find them interesting to listen to. Maybe it’s a good thing Phil didn’t do much during that period. The Jeri Bo Keno record was probably the best mid-’70s thing, in fact, but that only harks back to his early stuff, without matching it. It is appealing… for that depressed musical era.
His work on “Imagine” and “All Things Must Pass” is still unquestionably great, prime-era style, as we saw with “Black Pearl”. “Instant Karma” is my favorite John Lennon solo record, but also keep in mind those were all prior to 1972, when navel-gazing material such as Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally” was the order of the day. It was a mediocre time for music, and tough for Spector to really fit in to that with the Cher or Nilsson tracks cut during that period.
It’s tough also to comment on the Leonard Cohen and Dion albums because they come out of that more flaccid frame of mind, prior to one final return to greatness for Phil with The Ramones. In fact, few of the rockers from the ’50s or ’60s really understood why punk rock was necessary, so the fact that Phil made a great record with The Ramones, easily the most influential band since The Beatles, is to his credit.
Thank you for your insights, Domenic. I’d like to ask you one final question; one I end all my interviews with. Could you please share with us your personal top 5 Spector productions? I know it’s a grueling task but it would be interesting to see which songs are among your favorites.
“River Deep, Mountain High” is up there, “This Could Be The Night” is up there, “Baby I Love You,” “He’s A Rebel” without question… does “Home of the Brave” by Bonnie & the Treasures count?
Sure, I’ll let that one slip under the radar even though we have Jerry Riopelle to thank for that gem. But it remains perhaps the most convincing, high quality Spector soundalike ever.
Again, thank you for taking your time to talk with Cue Castanets.
Considering the legacy of Spector’s Wall of Sound recording technique there have been remarkably few attempts at dissecting his sound and widespread influence on screen. Sure, due to the tragic events of the Lana Clarkson case, a large number of Court TV-like screen portrayals of Spector have come and gone, mainly using his musical legacy as a mere backdrop to his portrayal in light of the Clarkson case.
There was also the 2013 David Mamet-instructed Phil Spector TV movie that had Al Pacino don several wigs and proudly display ‘Back to Mono’ buttons in order to breathe life into a character that today sadly seems more widely known for his inner, sinister demons and love of guns than his past musical achievements. Personally, I was very disappointed by the Mamet TV movie which I had pretty high hopes for as something that would focus not only on the case itself, but also dwell on Spector’s past and the music we all love. The little attention that part of his story got in the movie was indeed disappointing. It was basically a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it type of moment.
In my book, Spector’s output with his Philles roster is every bit as groundbreaking as the iconic releases by, say, the Beatles, the Beach Boys or Elvis – musical giants whose fans have had a multitude of music documentaries and TV or theater movies to look into through the years. Not so for Spector fans – which is hardly surprising since the former Tycoon of Teen is known to be notoriously difficult to work with. Anyone wanting to do some sort of documentary or movie about him and his music should be determined to go through a lot of trouble and dead ends.
Which makes the 1983 Spector documentary ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ all the more remarkable. You may have seen it? If not, it was finally released officially on DVD in 2009, long after it’s 1983 screenings on British TV and an obscure afterlife as a grey-area bootleg among collectors. Here’s a link for the current version out there:
I have always wanted to know more about this interesting, but puzzling documentary which is about Spector, his music and influence but without his direct participation. Instead, the viewer is treated to short anecdotes and voiced opinions about Spector by a wide range of former collaborators, contemporary producers or artists he has worked with.
In all honesty, even though I’ve enjoyed watching and re-visiting this documentary through the years, I find the flow and choice of scenes at times both puzzling and fragmented. It also seems more aimed at the average viewer instead of a hardcore Spector geek which of course means that any Cue Castanets reader probably won’t learn anything new seeing it.
Then again, put on your ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ DVD reissue and you’ll see Leiber & Stoller, Stan Ross and Larry Levine as well as other important people within the Spector legacy share their thoughts and views on him, however brief. This alone makes the documentary interesting. And then just try to imagine how difficult it must have be to even undertake such a project, especially one about as notoriously reclusive and troubled an individual as Spector! It gives me a headache just to think about it.
Prior to the airing of ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ there was a bit of hype around the documentary in the old Philately fanzines, only to be replaced by a sense of disappointment after it’s run. I guess the hardcore Spector fanbase had hoped for more new info and perhaps even Spector’s direct participation after many years of silence. Alas, it was not to be – but it wasn’t for a lack of effort by the people behind the documentary. You will learn this by reading the following interview which I’m very pleased to publish here on Cue Castanets. I’ve managed to contact the director of the documentary, Binia Tymieniecka, in order to hear more about this obscure project. Luckily, Binia was all up for sharing her recollections about ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and gladly answered my questions.
Enjoy – and don’t forget to search out the DVD reissue if you haven’t seen Binia’s documentary before.
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Binia, going back to the time before you undertook the task of making a Spector documentary, could you describe what your background in film was?
My adventures in film are quite unusual. After graduating at the Royal College of Art (where I studied sculpture), a close friend encouraged me to apply for the position of head lecturer in film studies at Portsmouth Polytechnic. Although lacking any formal training or experience in filmmaking, my interest in cinema, my background in Fine Art and a fair amount of blagging were enough to secure the post.
Weekends, evenings and any other spare time were spent in learning fundamental filmmaking techniques, studying film theory and improving my knowledge of the history of world cinema. As a result, not only was I able to stay one step ahead of my students, I also fell in love with the film medium and after three years I decided that my ambition lay in making my own films rather than teaching others how to make theirs.
Tell us a bit about how the whole Spector documentary came about? Whose idea was it, – who commissioned it? And how did you become involved?
My first success as a director was in persuading LWT (London Weekend Television) to finance a 60 minute documentary film ‘Soviet Art’ for their weekly flagship programme ‘Southbank Show’ headed by Melvyn Bragg. As an unknown director the film was given a shoestring budget and I acted as producer, researcher, writer and interviewer as well as being the director.
Nearing completion of the film, Tony Cash, my executive producer at LWT asked what my next project would be – without hesitation I replied that I wanted to make a film about Phil Spector. Tony was less than enthusiastic and said ‘no one is interested in that has-been’. Unknown to him, his throwaway comment gave me the determination to turn this idea into reality. I cheekily replied – ‘It will be called Da Doo Ron Ron – so watch out for it’
On transmission, ‘Soviet Art’ was well received by the critics and established my credentials as an independent director. As a subject for a film, Phil Spector was about as far away from ‘Soviet Art’ as is possible to imagine, but I was only really interested in making films about subjects that I was passionate about.
From my teenage years onwards I had loved Phil Spector’s music (and still do) and became intrigued by his reputation for being a recluse, an eccentric, litigious and shy of media attention. Possibly, it was the obstacles that faced the project combined with my love of the music that made ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ an obvious choice for my next film – and certainly no one else had tried and succeeded before. So what could possibly go wrong?
How did you establish contact with Spector? Did you meet him directly or did you only have contact through his secretary? Do you know how he felt about the project and the final results?
Quite predictably, making contact with Spector was a torturous and time consuming exercise. Months of requests and attempted negotiations with his aides and secretaries failed to make any progress and it was only after a meeting in London with Marty Machat, (his lawyer and close confidante) that Spector agreed to see me to discuss the proposed film.
That meeting is a whole other story but his response to seeing the completed film was to issue legal writs against myself, Rodney and several of the interviewees. Spector’s capacity for litigation had already become part of music industry folklore and I would have been disappointed if he had reacted in any other way.
Even though he doesn’t feature in the documentary, upon seeing it the first time I gathered it must have somewhat met with his approval since you were able to use full-length versions of some of his iconic hits.
He’s been notorious for turning down usage of his music on screen and in cinema so that was some feat. Could you tell a bit more about the music licensing involved?
Marty Machat had homes in both LA and London and split his time between the two. This allowed a good working relationship to develop between us and resulted in favourable licencing terms for the use of music.
In spite of his apparent hostility to the project, I think that Spector realised that the film might generate additional record sales and more income for himself. Almost certainly, Marty would have obtained Spector’s approval of the proposed licencing terms before granting them to me.
That said, although the financial terms were favourable, other conditions restricted use of the music (and therefore the film as well) to one broadcast and one repeat broadcast only. The survival of the film beyond those broadcasts is largely thanks to the unauthorised copies made by bootleggers and die hard Spector fans alike.
Did you in any way have access to the Spector tape archive or had the chance to listen to unreleased recordings? For decades Spector fans have obsessed about what may – or may not – be still lurking in the Spector tape vault.
No. And I doubt that Spector would have kept recordings of sessions that he didn’t consider worthy of commercial release.
I may be wrong but I think his extraordinary obsession with perfection would lead him to erase or destroy everything except for the final master tapes. Possibly some tapes of unreleased recordings remain in the hands of studio engineers, session musicians and the like but I think that the notion of a central tape vault of unreleased recordings is a rather fanciful idea.
Aside from these thoughts, it should be remembered that in those days professional quality magnetic tape was not cheap and in many studios it was common practise to erase and reuse anything that was’nt considered worth keeping.
Having legendary LA scenester and KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer do the running commentary about Spector and the people interviewed was a great touch. How did Rodney get involved? Was he also helping your team establish contact to your interview subjects?
I first met Rodney after filming had already started, – I seem to remember that it was Nino Tempo who suggested I contact him.
Rodney lived, breathed and slept music and we struck up an immediate friendship and rapport. His reputation as a DJ was already legendary and because his love of music was so genuine he was respected and well liked by many of the big shots in the music industry.
Without doubt, Rodney’s endorsement of my project helped to open many doors. Right from the outset I wanted to avoid the usual scripted commentary style of documentary but as filming progressed it became obvious that the various different interviews and elements needed a narrative to create a cohesive whole.
The idea of using Rodneys voice and DJ persona as a device to link everything together was one of those flashes of imagination type of moment. He quickly agreed and towards the end of the filming schedule we spent several hours together recording the clips of voice over that are used in the film.
Do you remember if there were anyone you unsuccessfully tried to interview for the documentary? As is, the list of people involved is rather impressive! How much time did you actually spend in the US filming?
Right up until the last day of filming I never gave up hope that Spector might agree to be interviewed. But apart from him, most of the interviewees on my ‘must have’ list were happy to participate – some with great enthusiasm.
Tina Turner agreed to be interviewed but did not appear simply because she was ‘out of town’ at the time. Tom Wolfe and Andrew Loog Oldham were also on my list but were not available during the three week filming schedule.
I was very keen to interview Jack Nitzsche and he agreed, but only on the basis that Spector himself had to be present at the interview. The reason for this condition was never explained but I doubt that he feared Spector and more likely he wanted to use the interview as a means to settle a few old scores – but only if he could do so on a ‘face to face’ basis. Needless to say, Spector declined the invitation and the interview never happened.
Aside from the above, I think I fulfilled my original wish list of interviewees and added a few more in the process.
In the documentary there’s a short clip of 60s Spector rehearsing a song along with the Darlene Love-led Blossoms, ‘Every Evening when the Sun Goes Down.’
According to the ‘Philately’ fanzine at the time, the song was supposedly made up for the occasion and the clip from a mid-60s Spector documentary. Do you remember this clip and where you got it from? I’ve seen it used several times various places after its use in your documentary but I suspect those usages stem from yours?
I’m reluctant to explain the source of the clip you mention but you are right to say that it has been reused (without permission) by other documentary makers. The same applies to at least two other clips of B&W footage included in the film.
I have to say, that scene with the Ramones is priceless! I find Dee Dee’s description of how Spector would only let him play his pinball machine for a few minutes hilarious! Now, that’s rock’n’roll excess! Looking back, is there a particular part of the film you’re especially pleased with?
The Ramones interview is my favourite part of the film too!
It was also pivotal to the project – Unable to provide any firm guarantee that Spector would participate in the film, raising finance was always going to be difficult. Channel Four TV were enthusiastic but they too wanted to see Spector’s signature on a contract or agreement.
I heard that the Ramones were planning a UK tour and by pulling a few strings and calling in favours I managed to arrange crew, equipment and film stock to interview the band before their London gig in Hammersmith.
I showed the unedited footage to my contacts at Channel Four TV and on seeing it they agreed to finance the project – with or without any guarantee of Spector’s participation. As to the interview itself, well, it was agreed that the band would give me 30 minutes of their time before they started the sound check.
Late afternoon and as promised, they shuffled into the venue, bleary eyed, half asleep and looking for coffee or maybe something stronger. Being aware of the minutes ticking by, I said ‘Okay boys, stand up straight, hands by your sides and look at me’ and I went straight into the first question. Needless to say, they were great.
Other parts that I am fond of (for differing reasons), are Darlene Love singing on the beach, interviews with Albert Goldman and also Leiber & Stoller. The biplane aerobatics sequence set to music is also something that I think worked out well.
I’ve read in the old ‘Philately’ Spector fanzines from 1983 that you edited the film down from 17 hours worth of footage to the 90 minute version that was aired. Do you remember what kind of footage was left out? Did you for instance interview people whose perspectives didn’t make it to the final version?
The film was made on a shooting ratio of 10:1 – i.e. We shot 900 minutes of film and edited it down to 90 minutes – or thereabouts. I’m fairly sure that the film included a part of each and every interview we filmed.
Maybe I should check my own archives but I don’t think there were any true gems of footage that I left out from the final cut.
… and judging from the inside information in ‘Philately’, it would seem that you and the producer Patrick Lacy had your hands full dealing with Spector and his eccentricities. Care to share any anecdotes?
Yes, it’s true that Spector gave us the ‘run around’ for many months. Meetings would be set up – and then cancelled at the last moment, and this continued until Marty Machat got involved.
Patrick Lacy (producer) received news that Spector had agreed to see us so we immediately flew to LA before he changed his mind. On arriving at Spector’s mansion, the door was opened by George – his butler come bodyguard, a slab like faced man rather like a character from ‘The Munsters’.
In the hallway stood a rather tatty looking Christmas tree (this was July), and the whole place was dark. We were shown into a drawing room and told to wait. On one of two long tables, an assortment of children’s toys had been arranged in several neat rows complete with a sign, ‘Do Not Touch’. On the second table stood a large fish tank – the water too murky to see through but enough movement to suggest that something was lurking inside. Neither of us were too keen to find out what type of creature it might be.
We waited… and waited… then George reappeared to tell us that ‘Mister Spector will see you now’. We stood up and in walked a small figure of a man. He wore a black ‘Beatle cut’ style wig that somehow didn’t seem to move with the rest of his head – It was a comic sight and I had difficulty in keeping a straight face.
The game was up when he asked us which BBC programme we worked for. We explained that the film would be financed by Channel Four TV – a new British TV company… Spector lost it, and said he had been duped and started shouting at us to get out.
Having travelled from London for this meeting I wasn’t about to leave easily, I asked him what difference it made whether the film was financed by BBC or Channel Four but he wasn’t willing to explain – instead he told us that unless we left immediately he would ask George to bring a gun and ‘I will have you both for trespassing’. At that point, George politely suggested that he would show us ‘off the premises’. And that was the end of my first and only meeting with the legendary Phil Spector.
Finally, something I always ask for in any interview. Could you list your personal top 5 Spector productions?
My Top Five Spector productions – difficult to answer because I love so many but…
The Ronettes – ‘Do I love you’
The Ronettes – ‘When I saw you’
Darlene Love – ‘White Christmas’
John Lennon – ‘Be my Baby’
The Ramones – ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’
But ask me the same question next week and I will probably give you a totally different answer!
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions, Binia.
I hope you enjoyed the recent interview with Wrecking Crew member Don Randi about his session work with Phil Spector and Brian Wilson. If you haven’t read the interview yet, just scroll down and enjoy his insights.
Hot on the heels of Don’s stories, I’m glad to be able to publish yet another interesting interview. This time with Jason Brewer who is the main songwriter and band leader of one of the coolest groups to emerge in recent years, the Explorers Club. If you’re enough of a music geek to spend your time reading my ultra-nerdy posts on Cue Castanets, my guess is that you already know these guys. If not, then oh boy, are you in for a pleasant surprise!
Anyone who follows the blog will know that I’m as much of a Beach Boys / Brian Wilson fan than I am a fan of Spector’s Wall of Sound approach. So I was simply blown away when I first came across songs by the Explorers Club at MySpace back in 2007. Who would have thought that a young group from Charleston could channel everything great about the Beach Boys and other iconic 60s pop in their own music?
To date, Jason Brewer and a revolving line up of Explorers Club members have issued two albums and some one-off singles,… and for anyone checking in here, all of their output is essential listening. Please support these guys! They are in the midst of wrapping up their third album; keeping the flame alive and really deserving all the success they can get.
Here, then, is an interview with Jason about his influences, insights about Explorers Club songs as well as some info on their upcoming album. Along the way, you’ll find embedded youtube videos with some of their stellar work to enjoy.
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First off Jason, I’d like to hear about how you started out playing music? Had you been in any other bands before you formed the Explorers Club?
I started playing guitar when I was 11 and then started writing my own songs when I was 14. I was in a few bands growing up but nothing too serious.
I had a band in college that was influenced by garage rock called 1984. But I didn’t feel professional enough to really go for it until Explorers Club started in 2005.
You’ve obviously been very influenced by Brian Wilson & the Beach Boys, but what other artists and genres have made an impression on you? Is there anyone in particular you’d like to single out?
I would say that there is a wide spectrum of music that has influenced me from the Beatles to Jimmy Webb to Burt Bacharach to Neil Young to Phil Spector to the Band to Nilsson and many others. Brian Wilson is far and away my biggest influence.
I do have a few modern inspirations – not in sound as much as just “these guys are brilliant and I want to do what they do” – like john Davis from Superdrag, Starflyer 59, Noel Gallagher, Rufus Wainwright and many others.
Back to the Beach Boys and that whole realm of 60s LA studio pop that Brian Wilson was in the center of along with people like Phil Spector, Jack Nitszche, Burt Bacharach, Curt Boettcher and others;
… as a musician of today, how does the music of that era resonate with you? Any specific thoughts about the difference between music then and now?
All of that music is the biggest influence on me.
The whole LA / Wrecking Crew sound is just magical. The brilliant records made then are the very pinnacle of rock and roll. Rock has not equaled that era. The LA music scene from the 1960s had such a creative and genre expanding sound that just resonates with me on many levels.
When I heard so many of those records as a kid it was like being transported to another planet. I still get that exciting feeling whenever I hear the Wall of Sound or the Beach Boys or a great dramatic Bacharach ballad.
How many instruments do you play by the way? When I listen to the Explorers Club albums I get the feeling that all of you guys combined are like the Charleston Wrecking Crew!
Well, I play guitar and some keyboards. The band is actually now based in Nashville, TN with a couple guys in Atlanta and Charleston as well.
The guys in the band are truly top notch and I feel so lucky and honored to work with them on our music.
Do you collectively work out the songs and arrangements or are the songs more or less fully formed when you get together to rehearse them?
I usually come in with the overall idea and then together we play the basic track based on the original idea – sometimes we add parts collectively and sometimes I already have musical arrangements finished.
I try to not bring in half baked ideas but you never know when you will have a magical creative moment collectively.
On this new album we are finishing up, our guitarist Mike took some basic ideas I had for our harmony vocals and came up with some brilliant arrangements. The songs themselves are usually done before we record but there is usually room to try different sounds in the studio.
Those vocal harmonies on both your albums are gorgeous! Must take some time perfecting them?
On everything we have done the vocals are the hardest part!
I have done some arrangements on my own and a lot of them with Mike Williamson who now plays guitar in the band.
I’d like to dwell a bit on the main theme of the blog, Phil Spector & the Wall of Sound. Do you remember when you first became aware of his music?
From a very young age I remember hearing Righteous Brothers and Ronettes records on the radio.
But it all really came together for me when I got the Back to Mono box set about 15 years ago. It just blew my mind! It made me understand how Brian Wilson was so influenced by that music.
Is there a particular Spector production that has made a profound impression on you?
I would say my two favorites are ‘Be my Baby’ and ‘You Baby’ by the Ronettes. Two amazing records!
Certainly can’t argue with that. I’ve always been really fond of ‘You Baby’ myself.
There were some cool tributes to the Wall of Sound on your first album, ‘Freedom Wind.’ Most notably on ‘Forever’ but also the opening seconds of what may be my favorite song of yours, ‘Don’t Forget the Sun.’
I remember the first time I heard it, I went “Why, that’s the opening seconds of ‘You Baby’ right there!” Could you tell a bit about how you went about faithfully recreating the Wall of Sound on those songs and others? Was it just a case of trial and error?
I tried to blend that intro with some other cool percussion instruments. We wanted to give a nod to that song and also create a really cool groove at the top. I had specific designs for that intro.
Listening to the two Explorers Club albums, every track reminds me of the 60s LA studio scene heyday. You guys seem to spend a lot of attention to detail as well as work out arrangements worthy of full-blown Wrecking Crew sessions.
In terms of your arrangement or production philosophies what would you say you’ve learned from studying the work of Brian Wilson, Spector or others?
The main thing is the combination of sounds. Finding unique blends of basic instruments to create a unique sound.
Brian was the master of voicing parts for just the right blend which he got from Spector but in my mind perfected. Brian took that Spector influence to a higher level.
You broadened up your sound a bit with your second album, ‘Grand Hotel.’ When I first heard it, it struck me as a very diverse and loving tribute to the late 60s & early 70s soft pop / A&M Records sound?
Totally! Those records of the soft pop A&M era were amazing. It is this perfect blend of reverb and dry sounds that is really hard to get sonically.
One of the continuing features on my blog is my obsession with Spector soundalikes. There were so many talented people hanging around Gold Star during those iconic Spector sessions, many of whom emulated the Wall of Sound themselves, often to great results. Jack Nitszche. Brian Wilson, Sonny Bono. Nino Tempo – and later on, a lot of recent artists have built upon the sound like you have with your two albums.
Are there any Spector soundalike tracks old or recent that you’d like to single out for whatever reason? Maybe other modern acts that you feel would appeal to fans of classic 60s pop?
I haven’t heard too many modern acts like that except maybe Camera Obscura – I’m sure there are some others. But truly – a lot of modern acts are nowhere close to that amazing sound.
Check out my ongoing ‘Modern Spector Soundalike’ feature on here then. You might discover a few modern tributes to your liking.
Some time ago, I interviewed Andy Paley about his work with both Spector, Brian Wilson and others and we got to talk a bit about the fantastic one-off single you and Andy collaborated on, ‘Don’t Waste Her Time.’
That song is incredible and so well-produced! Could you tell a bit about the song’s genesis and working with Andy?
Andy is the greatest. He is one of the best collaborators I have had. We truly just sat down one afternoon and knocked that song out at his house in LA.
I imagined Ronnie Spector singing it with Brian Wilson producing. Explorers Club just recorded a new version for our new album. The original version I recorded with the great Mitch Easter.
Yeah, about that much anticipated third album… What can we expect from it? How would you describe the sound and feel you’ve gone for this time around? Is there a release date yet?
No release date yet. I’d say that this record is closer to our first album but has its own very unique sound.
You can expect a lot of harmonies and some new sounds from us. It is sort of a mix of Sunflower-era Beach Boys along with a ton of surprises arrangement-wise. It is by far our best record.
Wow! Sunflower is my favourite Beach Boys album so I can’t wait to hear what you guys have come up with.
Finally, I hope you’ll be up for listing your personal top 5 of Phil Spector productions.
The Ronettes – ‘Be my Baby’
The Ronettes – ‘You Baby’
Modern Folk Quartet – ‘This Could be the Night’
The Righteous Brothers – ‘Just Once in my Life’
The Ronettes – ‘I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine’
Jason, thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions.
One of the great things about keeping this blog is that I get the chance to discuss the Wall of Sound and Phil Spector with key people who have interesting insights. If you do a search for ‘interview’ via the search function on here, you’ll find quite a few I’ve done so far. I really enjoy doing these as I tend to learn something new each time – and I hope you readers out there appreciate the interviews as well.
No matter what, I’m sure you’ll dig the following one with none other than pianist Don Randi of the legendary Wrecking Crew! Don has literally played on thousands of recordings, including some of the biggest hits of the 60s. His piano playing adds to the rumble on the majority of Spector’s iconic Philles-era output as well as on later recordings. Don has a book underway about his life in music with the highly relevant, tongue-in-cheek title ‘You’ve Heard these Hands.’ Undoubtedly, everyone has heard his piano at some point due to the incredible and versatile productivity of the Wrecking Crew.
I’m very honored that Don would take the time to answer questions for Cue Castanets about his work in the studio with Spector as well as indulge us with other stories from his longstanding career in the music business. It came about after I posted about Don’s upcoming book a while ago. Don and his collaborator, Karen Nishimura, were very open-minded towards my follow-up request for an interview for which I am very grateful. I also can’t thank my friend and fellow Wall of Sound-fanatic Anthony Reichardt enough for helping me out with the interview, including adding a few highly relevant questions.
Let’s travel back in time then to 1960s Los Angeles and hear some stories about Don’s studio work with Spector and others.
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Don, first off; do you remember what was your very first session with Phil Spector? Were you already onboard at his first LA session, ‘He’s a Rebel’ in 1962, with what would be become known as the Wrecking Crew?
We were actually called the Wall of Sound. We weren’t the Wrecking Crew yet – the Wrecking Crew name came three years later, maybe four years later. Originally, we were the Wall of Sound – for Phil – that was the sound the other producers wanted. That made us so in demand. And I think the first record was ‘He’s a Rebel’, – that was right at the beginning of me recording with Phil.
I was hired by sax player, Steve Douglas. Steve, who went to high school with Phil, actually introduced me to Phil Spector a few years before that recording session. And I knew Steve Douglas because he played with me occasionally in a jazz band that I had.
How did Spector in general strike you in the studio? I’ve heard that he worked you guys hard, letting you play on and on for hours before recording actual takes?
Yes, he did work us really hard. I would love to say I was the only piano player but there were three or four of us, and sometimes five! Sometimes only two, but most of the time there were three or four of us playing piano; five guitar players, two basses – one acoustic and one electric bass, one drummer and some percussion. And then of course the horns. So it was interesting because that was basically the band and we all fit in one room at Gold Star Studios.
Is it true what Hal Blaine writes in his book about Spector always letting the tape roll while you guys were warming up before actually recording takes? If so, there must be tons of tapes in the Spector tape vault.
I don’t think he let it run all the time, it was not a constant thing. I know he had tape echo running along with the Gold Star echo chamber but I don’t think there was another tape running.
A few session takes has been floating around amongst collectors. They give the impression that there was a good, friendly vibe on those sessions, jokes flying back and forth?
Oh absolutely! That was the start of us getting called the “Wrecking Crew.” The tag meant the guys in the session were always messing around, “Be careful, or they’ll wreck your date!” Which happened later on because we would take time-outs. We had to! We would just have to lighten it up because we were working so hard. Especially with Phil! And not a lot of people realize that he appreciated a great joke too. Phil was one of us.
Now, in terms of the Wall of Sound; did you as musicians recognize it as a very specific and influential ‘trademark sound’ while you were in the middle of perfecting it during the early to mid-60s?
I think perhaps we did a little bit. We didn’t know too much at the beginning of a session. Working with Phil’s songwriting and his direction was great so that really helped a lot. It really did. Phil Spector contributed a lot. He liked to have a steel grip on production while getting to the right sound. We would go take after take and when it got to a certain point that was sounding good, we knew that was what he wanted.
Did you feel as if you were making history on those sessions?
I’ll tell you something very funny. The first time I realized that was when I was in my car, listening to “He’s a Rebel” – the final mix. Phil liked to mix the way it was going to sound in the car. He would go down to these little, tiny speakers that were almost the same as those car speakers. And he would mix that way. So I was driving in my car and said “Oh my god, that’s the first hit record I’ve played on.” And after that of course, lots!
The music was very influential, but we didn’t know that at the time. We know it now but back then we were so busy making so many records – one after another after another. And for me, I kept going like that right up to the end of the eighties. I was that busy. Producers would still call me in for sessions.
The Wall of Sound was of course a huge meshing of sounds; several guitars strumming in unison and for instance, like you’ve pointed out, three or four pianos playing together.
As a highly skilled musician with a jazz background how did you feel about playing this way? In a sense, you and the other Wrecking Crew members served in a musical cogwheel rather than each instrumentalist standing out like I suppose you’d been used to playing jazz? Did that affect you in any way?
No, it didn’t because you could play jazz your whole life and call yourself a jazz musician but we needed to earn money! The rock ’n’ roll game was money. Unfortunately, most people in other countries around the world in those days appreciated jazz more than people in America did.
Rock ’n’ roll was a way to make a living and you got to express yourself – not like you were playing ad-lib of course but to a point. With Phil, it was more structured than with most other producers.
Was Spector open towards letting you guys come up with riffs or musical flourishes that would benefit the tracks? I’m wondering how much spontaneity or how many on-the-spot decisions went into the iconic Spector productions you took part in? If that did happen, you may remember some examples?
I think very little. Very little. We were given chord sheets that Jack Nitzsche wrote. Basically, we were playing what they call rolling eights or sixteenth notes and most of his charts were the same on every song, just about.
It got more interesting when the Righteous Brothers came in. One of my favorite albums that Phil ever did – a favorite of mine because it was a departure – was the Phil Spector’s Christmas album. I think it’s the most outstanding Christmas album of all time.
Well, we can agree on that!
Looking back, are there other particular Spector sessions you look back on as especially rewarding or noteworthy?
Yeah, the first time I met Ronnie Spector and working on those Ronettes sessions. I fell in love with Ronnie first because she was so delightful and easy to work with – it was a real pleasure.
Through the decades there have been many rumors about full-blown Spector productions that went unreleased – and during the mid-70s a whole batch of great Philles-era productions did indeed come out on the two ‘Rare Masters’ LPs.
Fans speculate that there may be more in the Spector tape vault. Do you remember if you played on something that, to your knowledge, has never come out?
Yes, I do. It was something we recorded with Phil Spector – meaning with Phil himself singing! It was this thing we did and I loved it. It was in the style of a corrido which is a Mexican polka. He did this thing and the artist was called “the Little Prince.” And that was Phil!
The Little Prince?
Yeah. That was a fun record. I don’t think Phil ever released it. We had a ball making it. That one was hilarious!
Interesting! There were actually a couple of recordings of Spector singing that didn’t see a release. One is “Down at TJs” which was for a television show that never took off. And it’s a really huge Wall of Sound record from about 1966. And then there was another one for the Lucy show, “Lucy in London.” He actually sang the vocals on those two tracks.
It could very well have been something I could have played on. I don’t particularly remember those tracks but it could possibly be.
We can’t discuss Phil Spector, the Wrecking Crew and the Wall of Sound without mentioning the great Jack Nitzsche. How would you describe the working relationship between him and Spector?
Jack was a very close friend of mine. He was a part of my life at the beginning of my association with Phil Spector. My wife and I lived near Jack Nitzsche and his wife, Gracia.
There was a time when Phil Spector, Jack Nitzsche, Sonny Bono and I did everything together. We’d go out to restaurants and jazz clubs, buy our suits at the same place, whatever. We hung out together. We were buddies and a team. In my book “You’ve Heard These Hands” I describe a situation when we took Phil to the airport that’s hilarious. You’ll get a kick out of that when you read it.
But Phil was a character. What can I say? He was a lovable character – eccentric. We didn’t talk to each other for maybe nine or ten years after the Righteous Brothers left Philles Records. Which was no fault of mine. But I was still playing sessions for the Righteous Brothers – for MGM Verve Records. Phil got so angry with me when he found out. He called me and said, “How could you do that?” and I said, “Hey Phil, that’s my job! You wanna put me on salary? I’d be glad to do it. I’ll be your private piano player!”
Speaking of Jack; he arranged a great single by you, “Baby, You Don’t Understand Nothin’,” from 1965.
Now, that’s a great song!
You released some great solo singles during that period, recordings like “Mexican Pearls” and your stellar take on “Spanish Harlem.”
It seems that all that creativity in Gold Star studios couldn’t be contained on Spector’s productions solely? Other people such as yourself took on that whole sound and did it on their own.
I’ll tell you, – it’s really hard to classify that much, you know? Jack Nitzsche was one of the best arrangers around. He was a very talented composer –that’s why he was such a good arranger. He realized it later on, when he did films and received an Oscar.
Jack was also a scholar. He knew what he was doing. I think sometimes he took on way too much work. It was very demanding and Jack just couldn’t keep up with it all the time. It would catch up to him and a lot of that work got done by other people at that point. I know Ray Pohlman would handle some work. I would help him out, too. But it was just that Jack was so damn busy.
In terms of “Baby, You Don’t Understand Nothin”’ you have previously revealed that you originally wrote it for the Righteous Brothers and that you did a demo with Glen Campbell doing the lead vocal.
When you did a demo was it just a simple, little demo or a full-blown recording?
It was a simple demo. Just like maybe two or three of us. The production wasn’t there. But I’m glad you brought that up because some of the greatest recordings we will never hear, that are hit records by other artists, BIG records – are the demo versions that Glen Campbell sang!
One of my favorites is one that was written by Red Steagall and Donny Lanier. It was called, “‘Here We Go Again”; it went, “Here we go again / She’s back in town again / I’ll take her back again.” It was a country record and Ray Charles recorded it. And other artists did it. Ray Charles and Norah Jones did it again. It was a hit eight different times with different artists.
But the best version was done by Glen as a demo at studio B at Gold Star. It was dynamite! Glen played guitar, I played piano, Al Casey was there… It was great. You’d sit there with the biggest smile on your face and you knew that at some point Glen had to break through as a solo artist. Somebody was going to recognize this and say, “Hey, wait a second! This guy sings too damn good!” And thank god Glen did break through.
Gold Star must have been a magic place, – yet, the studio was so small and I imagine it must have felt crammed inside with all you guys gathered for a typical Spector session? In your opinion, what was so special about Gold Star?
Well, the first thing that was so special was that they had great engineers there. Between Stan Ross and Larry Levine, especially. They were dynamite engineers and they had the patience and the austerity, so to speak, to handle Phil Spector. Which they needed to have because he could be relentless.
Also, there was the echo chamber at Gold Star – that funky echo chamber – that nobody else had. That was so important and a good part of it.
But I think it also had to do with the fact that we were going with one track – it was mono! That’s the key point for me – how they did get all those musicians, all those wonderful people, recorded on one track. The way recording is done today is so completely different. I mean, it’s not even close to the way we did it at Gold Star back then. Everybody being in that same room together became part of that Phil Spector sound. He knew what he wanted. It wasn’t actually that crammed. I mean, it was small but not that small.
It’s fascinating to know that the console only had twelve inputs. And they managed to make those gargantuan records with just that!
I’m going to tell you a quick story. I was teaching a class at MI talking about the record business and the Wall of Sound and I said, “You know, in the beginning it was mono.” And some kid in the class let out a loud sigh, “Ooooh”, and everybody turned around and looked at him. I said, “Are you okay?” and he then says, “You know, my dad had that!”
He didn’t know what I was talking about. He only knew that mono (mononucleosis) was a disease, not monaural. That’s about it.
The kids today!
I’d also like to ask you about Brian Wilson. He was very inspired by the things Spector did in the studio. And you played on sessions with both of them. What would you say were their similarities and differences as producers?
I would say that the similarities were that they both are geniuses. They both knew what they wanted. Brian’s approach was much more musical while Phil’s approach was much more technical.
Brian hired a lot of us for his sessions. He’d let us be a part of his records where we would experiment or come up with ideas. During a session Brian would say, “Oh, that’s not good. Oh, that was great. Let’s do that!” There’s a video on YouTube of Brian and me. He was having a problem on “God Only Knows” and I just said, “Brian, let’s play those chords really short.” And when he heard the word “short” he looked at me, gave me a big smile and said, “That’s it!” Because we were holding the notes down too long on that one section of “God Only Knows” and it works much better when they’re shorter.
Yes, it’s amazing to listen to those Pet Sounds session tapes. That creativity – oh my god!
“God Only Knows” is such a marvelous song. Before Pet Sounds, I did several sessions for Brian but at one particular session we went in, sat down and the music in front of us was completely notated – everything was ready to go. It was a session we did at TTG studios in Hollywood. On the music the title was “Help Me Rhonda.” We played it through and after the first take I just sat there and said “if that’s not a number one hit, nothing is!” I just knew it. It was great!
What I didn’t know until just a couple of years ago was “Help Me Rhonda” had been recorded a few months before with Leon Russell at the piano and other Wall of Sound musicians and the Beach Boys. At the previous session, Brian and his dad got into such a fight over Brian’s direction of the song. It was included on an album, but when the version I worked on was completed it was released as a single.
If you compare with the earlier version, which was on the Beach Boys ‘Today’ album, you can certainly tell that this later version was the one with the magic touch. Like you said, you can hear that right away.
Spector’s recording schedule became more erratic during the 70s. He produced a few singles by Darlene Love, Cher and Jerri Bo Keno and albums by Dion and Leonard Cohen. Did you participate in some of those 70s sessions?
I remember participating in the Leonard Cohen sessions. And the ones with Darlene.
I also know that you took part in Spector’s aborted recordings with Celine Dion during the 90s. As far as I’ve heard, new versions of ‘River Deep Mountain High’ and ‘Is this What I Get for Loving You, Baby’ were recorded but never came out after there was a falling out between Spector and Celine Dion’s management. What do you remember about those sessions?
That’s a sore point … Phil blew a golden opportunity for me. Had he not decided that he was going to “play” Celine and her husband, I could have been making hit records with Celine Dion as we speak – it could have gone on forever.
Celine really liked the musicians. She came out to the piano, sat down next to me, a total stranger – and at that point Celine had already become a big star – and started telling me all the stuff I had played on! And then her husband, Rene, came up to me. They were the most gracious, lovely people. There was no way anyone was going to come between them artistically, but Phil certainly did try. Phil ended up alienating Rene and he never wanted to work with Phil again.
I’ve read about those sessions and now you’re talking about them. I hope that before they stick me in a box and put me in the ground I’ll hear those recordings at some point. From what I’ve heard they’re supposed to be great!
I don’t think you ever will. I don’t think Celine will allow it, unfortunately.
At the session, Celine asked me, “Would you be interested in joining our band?” I said, “Oh wow, certainly. Certainly!” So after they had that big row, I thought to myself, “You know, I’m going to call her up.” The problem at the session had nothing to do with me. It was between Rene and Phil.
So I left a message for Celine and Rene and heard back from their office – not from them personally – that they didn’t want to have anything to do with anybody who had anything to do with Phil Spector. Unfortunately, Phil could aggravate people to the point where they’ve had enough.
What was it Phil said to the Hollywood Reporter? He was so egotistical about it; “You don’t tell Einstein what to think! You don’t tell Mozart what to write. And you don’t tell Phil Spector how to produce!” Oh, come on Phil!
He was tough. He got mad at me because I worked with the Righteous Brothers, what can I tell you? We didn’t talk for years until we saw each other again at Jack Nitzsche’s funeral. I saw Phil quite a few times after that. I saw him at court and I appeared on Court TV for him. And I hope I get to see him again.
It’s sure been enlightening hearing your stories and I can’t wait for the release of your book.
Yeah, “You’ve Heard these Hands” is going to be enlightening for a lot of people. As a matter of fact, one of the editors that I was working with asked, “Is all this true?” And I joked, “Yeah, unfortunately for me it is!”
Back in the 1960s, I tried to pull it together as much as possible but you know, there was one week I did 26 different recordings sessions! I was the arranger on four of those dates. That’s how busy we were. You didn’t have time to think, so to speak.
This book of yours; when did you start working on that? When did you say “I’m going to write a book?”
Over five years ago but I went through three or four different writers and didn’t get the book done. Then finally I ended up with this woman I’ve known for years. She’s a production person and her name is Karen Nishimura. And she was the one that really got the flow. She wasn’t trying to rewrite what I was saying. That made it a lot better.
In the book are some really interesting stories about the films and the television shows I ended up writing as a musical director, the jazz clubs I played before and during the period I was busy in recording sessions, and about my own club The Baked Potato which I still play at every month.
Really looking forward to it – as I’m sure the readers of Cue Castanets are as well. Don, a heartfelt thank you for taking your time to give this interview!
I’m pleased to be able to share with you yet another interview, – this time with my old Spector buddy, US-based collector David A. Young.
David and I go back at least 12-13 years and have discussed the music in depth ever since establishing contact through the old Spectropop forum. Along the way, David has introduced me to some great tunes, like the two albums issued by Pete Anders and Vini Poncia under their Tradewinds and the Innocence guises.
David’s a hardcore fan and without a doubt one of the top Spector experts and collectors in his country – when a guy has ‘spectorcollector’ as a part of his e-mail address you know he’s serious about his Wall of Sound collection!
Suffice to say, David’s collection of all things Spector and related is extremely impressive and includes acetates, demos and assorted rarities. Although he has downsized it somewhat in recent years, there’s still a wealth of interesting collectibles to make the hearts of Spector fans worldwide race with the ‘Be my Baby’ beat.
Let’s hear what David has to say about his infatuation with the Wall of Sound.
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David, let’s start at the beginning. Do you remember when you became aware of Phil Spector’s music? Was there a specific song that won you over and turned you into a full-blown fan of the Wall of Sound?
My first reaction to that question is that I know for sure it was because of Phil Spector that I became a record collector as opposed to merely a record buyer.
When I was young, department stores sold records, and after 45s that hadn’t sold were returned to the distributor and turned into cutouts, they were bundled in plastic in packages of like ten singles for 39 cents or so and then sent back to the stores for sale as mystery value packs; you could only see the two labels that faced the outside of the package, so you were gambling on whether or not you’d like what was inside.
Through some combination of buying records on purpose and buying them blindly in this way, I noticed that many of my favorites were on the same label — Philles, of course — and had Phil Spector’s name on them.
As a result, I started buying any record I found that said ‘Phil Spector’ on it somewhere. I’m afraid I can’t honestly recall any particular song that put me over the top as you describe, though, whether before or after that realization.
I know that you’ve been active in the fan community through the decades. I remember you telling me about hosting a Spector-themed party at one point. And you of course also were a member of the Phil Spector Appreciation Society – in some of the old PSAS newsletters I’ve noticed that you offered custom t-shirts for sale?
Could you tell a bit about all of this? I’d love to hear about that party and similar fan activity. In our day and age where fans worldwide are just clicks away from the latest news, forums and contact with each other, I find this early sense of a tight-knit fan community very interesting.
I had ‘Phil Spector’s birthday’ parties two years in a row, 1975 and ’76 (cohosted by my roommate[s] at the time). I invited him both times, and once — the first time — his personal assistant, Devra Robitaille, whom you’ve also interviewed for your blog, sent me a note with his regrets.
I also called him every December 26 from about that time to just a few years ago, when the number was disconnected, to wish him a happy birthday. The parties were fun, well-attended events; to bypass having to entertain requests (and to better focus on my partying), I pre-recorded four hours of music, 100% Spector-produced or co-produced, on reel-to-reel tape each time. That way I only had to play DJ once during the festivities, when it was time to turn the tape over two hours in. The trick worked so well that I did it for all my parties for many years, putting together a different program each and every time.
Funny that you mention the t-shirts. If only I still fit into mine; I’ve grown from a size small to a large since then! I gave it to a Spector-obsessed friend years ago when he visited me. It has the famous picture of Phil holding his sunglasses in front of his mouth.
I don’t think I ever actually sold one of them, but something much better happened: people wrote from all over asking if I wanted to trade tapes of rare and unreleased Spector and girl-group recordings instead, and of course the answer was a mutually rewarding yes in each case. I wish I still had all the handwritten letters, track notes, and the reel-to-reel tapes (and, later, cassettes) from those days, but at least I still have the memories.
The Internet sure has streamlined networking, musical and otherwise! Back then, besides people I met in real life – working at record stores helped -, it was those shirts, and the Phil Spector Appreciation Society, that led to my most significant connections.
You’re known as a hardcore collector and even though you’ve sold of parts of your collection by now, I’ll bet it must still be incredibly impressive. Do you have any anecdotes about record hunting? Turning up rare records in unlikely places or at ridiculously cheap prices?
Limiting my answer to Spector records, my two favorite anecdotes are these:
Almost all my original Philles albums, including the fake-stereo ‘Twist Uptown’ by The Crystals and the real-stereo ‘Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica’ were purchased in mint-minus condition from Village Oldies in New York for $100 apiece, reserved through a lucky phone call.
I sent them a payment once or twice a month until everything was paid for, and then the whole package arrived at once. What a day! The Ronettes album has subsequently been autographed by Ronnie Spector and Hal Blaine.
Also, I got unplayed copies of both the Jay and the Americans and the Supremes versions of ‘Things Are Changing’ in their mint title sleeves at a record show from the same guy, who worked at a record wholesale company, for $4 each!
Obviously, he had no idea what he had there, and I wasn’t about to tell him! By then, I already had the Blossoms version, which I got from Jack Fitzpatrick, who later co-wrote the ‘Collecting Phil Spector’ book and whom I’d met through the t-shirt ad.
What are some of your most prized Spector-related items in your personal collection?
I’ve sold lots of the most valuable things over the years, so that’s another conversation, but a number of pieces come to mind that I can’t imagine ever letting go of because of my personal attachment to them.
Along with the aforementioned Ronettes album, there’s the white-label DJ copy of ‘A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records’ with a promotional letter, the copy of ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ on the rare X-125 pressing that Darlene Love autographed to me, and especially the 1987 reissue on Rhino of the Christmas album that Phil signed for me.
By that time I’d placed my ‘happy birthday’ calls so many years in a row that Devra Robitaille called to ask for my address, saying that Phil wanted to thank me for my steadfast devotion. A few days later, the LP arrived in the mail.
Where has your Spector collecting led you beyond acquiring all the different records he produced?
Of course it started with looking at the Spector discographies that existed at the time and, one by one, checking off each release as I obtained it — and over time, the discographies became more and more complete.
Before long, let’s say the first available copy of a record was a DJ copy instead of a stock copy, so I’d have that and then think, “Cool, I’ll get the promo and issue copies of every Spector record.” Then it turns out there are all kinds of label variations: You can have a white, blue, orange, or yellow-and-red label, and the typesetting can be different from one to the next, the logo changes and now may have a thick line or a thin line under it. And that’s just the variations on Philles!
Then there’s having the same release from as many different countries as possible, maybe with a variety of picture sleeves, different B-sides, the EPs, the spelling errors (like the pressing of Phil Spector 2 by Veronica listing ‘Why Can’t They Let Us Fall in Love’ instead of ‘Why Don’t They…’), the reversed labels (as on my stock copy of Philles 123, where the side labeled ‘Stumble and Fall’ plays ‘[He’s a] Quiet Guy’ and vice versa), and on and on.
From there, it spun out of control. My thirst for the Wall of Sound proved unquenchable, so I started seeking out and buying what we now call soundalikes, and as you know, there are both credible and laughable examples of attempts to replicate the Spector sound dating from the ’60s on up through the present.
Before I knew it, I had to have anybody’s cover version of any Spector-related song, whether he had composer credit on it or not (as is the case with, say, ‘He’s a Rebel’ or ‘I Love How You Love Me’). It was bad enough when I’d learn about such covers one way or another and then seek them out, but then eBay came along and I could search by title, discovering literally hundreds of them that I doubt I’d ever have known about otherwise.
Lastly, I started seeking out other releases by artists, especially the more obscure ones,that Phil had produced. You wouldn’t believe how many 45s Kell Osborne or Obrey Wilson, to name just two examples, put out!
Beyond that, like most Spector fans, I’m also wild for the girl group sound in general and have an extensive collection in that genre as well.
Do you only collect records or do you also have old Spector-related fanclub newsletters, posters and similar collectibles? I’ve often wondered how much of this stuff was out there when Philles was active?
I have three boxes full of paper stuff such as you describe. I’ll send along scans of some of the things we’re talking about here in case you want to use them for illustrations.
There’s a bit of everything, though: newsletters, magazines, fanzines, full-page ads from Billboard and Cashbox, sheet music, publicity photos, random articles and pictures … even a typewritten letter from Phil’s sister Shirley to The Teddy Bears and bearing her signature, from when she was managing the group. I have quite a collection of pinback buttons, too, or badges, as our British friends call them.
As far as when Philles was active, there’s not much I can think of besides the promotional materials and ads that came along with new releases, other than that ‘Thanks for Giving Me the Right Time’ clock, which I don’t have, nor do I particularly care about having, given how much it sells for when it does show up.
The two ‘Rare Masters’ compilations that came out in the mid-70s contained a wealth of fully-realised, but up-until-then unreleased Spector productions. Do you think there are more recordings like these left in the Spector tape vault? Have you heard some that other fans have undoubtedly yet to hear?
Well, we’ve yet to see release of ‘Someday (Baby)’ or ‘Padre’ by The Ronettes, and I read a post on Cue Castanets! speculating that they may have recorded ‘I’ll Never Need More than This’ as well.
I haven’t heard ‘Padre’ but its existence has been confirmed by a very reliable source. It’s the same song made famous by Toni Arden and, later, Valerie Carr, and it’s fun to imagine it as a Philles-era Ronettes track.
Then there’s the very odd case of a Gold Star acetate dated 1967, supposedly after both Philles and The Ronettes had disbanded: a commercial for Rheingold Beer with vocals on one side credited to The Ronettes and on the other by Phil Spector.
From the late-Philles era, we also haven’t seen release of Phil’s ‘Pretty Girl’, ‘Lucy in London’ or ‘Down at TJ’s.’
I was thrilled when The Crystals’ version of ‘Woman in Love (with You)’ was finally released a few years back, but we still haven’t heard — officially, anyway — their ‘Chico’s Girl’ or ‘Mary Ann’ or Darlene Love’s ‘It’s My Party’ or ‘You Can’t Sit Still’ (the backing track for which became ‘Dr. Kaplan’s Office.’)
That’s probably not a complete list, but it’s what comes to mind as we chat. Then there’s all Phil’s unreleased Apple-era stuff, and at least one finished production from the 70s PSI period: Tina Turner doing the Irving Berlin song ‘Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor.’
Add to that all the miscellaneous stuff through the years, the fabled Molly Ringwald and Celine Dion sessions, and the many, many demos, and there’s plenty left to be unearthed.
Mono or stereo? Or both? How do you feel about stereo mixes of Spector’s recordings?
Both, please! In some ways, it’s like listening to two different records, though this is more or less true depending on the particular cut. The background vocals are even different between the mono and stereo versions of The Ronettes’ ‘How Does It Feel’ for goodness’ sake!
I guess what I like is ‘dissecting’ mono recordings by listening to them in stereo to better make out all the individual components of the massed sound I hear in mono. To hear something more clearly may or may not mean to hear it ‘better’, but it helps put the puzzle together.
That said, I love the Christmas album in stereo. That blew my mind when it first came out in 1975, and it still does; I wish it would be released that way again. There’s an unbelievable amount of detail to discover there; the clattering percussion in ‘March of the Wooden Soldiers’, for example, just doesn’t work as well in mono as far as I’m concerned.
I would imagine a fan and collector like you have been to LA several times, almost on a sort of pilgrimage. Did you ever get to visit Gold Star Studios?
Nope, never made it to Gold Star.
Actually, the only time I’ve ever been to Los Angeles was in 2013 to see Ronnie Spector’s ‘Beyond the Beehive’ show. I’d lusted after a Gold Star jacket for many years, so I was excited to score one as a premium for my Kickstarter support of the ‘Wrecking Crew’ documentary last year. Yes, it’s a replica, not an original, but it’ll do for now.
Spector’s last production job was Starsailor’s ‘Silence is Easy’ and ‘White Dove’ if you don’t take Hargo’s ‘Crying for John Lennon’ and Rachelle Spector’s solo album into consideration. I suspect he was involved only in name on those two projects.
But the Starsailor cuts,… how did you feel about those when they came out? Personally, I love ‘Silence is Easy’ but I understand those who had hoped for more of a trademark Wall of Sound on it?
Gee, it’s been a while since I listened to the Starsailor cuts, but I remember thinking that it didn’t seem to me that anyone had produced ‘White Dove’, as opposed to merely recording it.
Now, ‘Silence Is Easy’ … that song is produced, and damn well. I’m not sure I would have guessed it to be a Spector production had you just played it for me cold, so in that sense I suppose I was mildly disappointed, but the brooding feel starts as a simmer and builds effectively to a boil, as befits the song, so Phil did right by it.
There’s been some much-deserved hype concerning Denny Tedesco’s documentary on the Wrecking Crew. Hal Blaine’s book has seen a reprint, Don Randi has a book coming out, there’s said to be a Jack Nitszche documentary in the works and we have also recently had two new books on the Wrecking Crew.
Is there anyone out there from that whole recording scene that you hope will feel inspired to share their stories like for instance Hal and Don has done?
I’d love to hear from David and Dan Kessel; in fact, I keep hoping that you’ll interview them (or at least Dan, who seems to be the more talkative of the twins). Have you asked them?
Between their Gold Star/Spector and showbiz connections, including having had their own Martian Records label, it would seem like there would be a book’s worth of material there. Besides being interesting, it’d bridge the gap between the original Wrecking Crew and the later sessions when, admittedly, plenty of the old gang was still around, but lots of new players and singers were used as well.
That’s certainly a good idea for an interview. I’ll look into that!
Finally, to round off, please share with us your all-time top 5 Spector productions?
I’m glad you asked that, because I know you’ve asked others the same thing, so I started thinking about it when you asked to interview me and I’m as ready as I can possibly be, though numbers three through five might change if you ask me next year:
‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ – Darlene Love
‘Is This What I Get for Loving You’ – The Ronettes
‘Little Boy’ – The Crystals
‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ – Ike and Tina Turner
‘Memories’ – Leonard Cohen
Wow, a Cohen track on your top 5? I’ve never paid that much attention to ‘Death of a Ladies Man.’ Your listing of ‘Memories’ will definitely prompt me to re-listen to the album again with open ears.
David, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us. Much appreciated!
Here’s another interesting interview for you; this time with the Athens, Georgia-based musician Brent Cash who I used to correspond with about music in the early 00s.
Back then, Brent kindly hipped me to some very interesting sunshine pop just as I was about to dip my toes into the genre while I on my part introduced him to some of the more obscure Spector productions.
I remember Brent casually mentioning that he was working on a solo album. Little did I know though that his music would blow me away when I unsuspectingly came across his debut album ‘How Will I Know If I’m Awake’ a few years later and realized this was the Brent Cash I’d been in contact with. I had just supposed that the solo album in progress back then was some sort of home-cooked, low-key affair.
Instead, what was flowing out of my speakers was beautiful, elaborate and highly sophisticated panorama pop that obviously reflected a mastering of all the best elements of the 60s pop both Brent and I cherish. And extremely well-produced to boot, with backing tracks sounding like they had been laid down by Hal & the rest of the crew at a LA studio session.
If you haven’t heard Brent’s two albums, ‘How Will I Know if I’m Awake’ (2008) or ‘How Strange It Seems’ (2011), both out on Marina Records, I would highly recommend that you check them out.
Since I’ve been listening quite a lot to both albums with the coming summer I thought it would be interesting to ask Brent a few questions about his music and how he feels about Spector’s work and the 60s LA scene.
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Brent; could you tell us briefly about your musical background? How did you start out playing music and how did you eventually end up recording two solo albums?
I have been “one-dimensional” towards music surely before my concrete memory started. There were always a handful of records at my home, then some at my aunt’s house, my other aunt’s house etc which got played/stared at/and in many cases…”borrowed”. This fascination never ended as I got older and when the opportunity to join band class came in the 6th grade, I took it. I auditioned for drums and got it.
My mother bought me my first real instrument – a set of drums which are still the only ones I’ve ever owned and are the ones used on my two albums. I continued band until my brief time at college ended. This taught me how to read rhythms. My band director in 12th grade, Mr. Cordell, decided to teach a small side class for classical guitar. This is where I began to associate the correct names for pitches.
I had always made up songs since at a young age, but around age 20 or so, I began to borrow my good friend David Layman’s Tascam Porta One 4-track machine and started making little productions of my songs on there and gradually I bought the machine from him. I’d never had the money to go into a real studio to do my own material (despite having done it many times with various bands) until my Aunt Sue passed away and she left me a little gift. Then I started thinking about making a real record.
I’m really fond of your two albums. To these ears they’re like delicate, open love letters to all the best parts of the innovative 60s LA scene that Spector, Brian Wilson, Bacharach, Boettcher etc were a part of. Why does the music of that era resonate with you?
Thanks very much! That is a good way to describe both of them – love letters. I don’t know exactly why other than I am partial to a good marriage of interesting melodies over just the right chords and if a sneaky key change can be worked in – even better! And that era seems to have went wild with those characteristics – especially with the songwriters that worked at 1619 and 1650 Broadway, The Beatles, Jobim and others exploding onto the scene.
How many instruments do you play by the way? Starting out as a drummer, I would imagine you have some thoughts on Hal Blaine and his role in the monophonic impact that is the Wall of Sound? (or other Wrecking Crew sessions for that matter.)
I really only consider myself to be proficient on drums with bass maybe the next best instrument. As far as guitar and piano, I dabble with brief flashes of conviction.
Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer and all of those drummers I rate highly of course. The funny thing to me about those two and all the other session musicians of that era is how they just about all came out of jazz/big band (and some country) playing and the music we know and love them for is really dumbed-down in light of their full abilities. It’s great to have Barney Kessel on “Pet Sounds” but it’s a real kick listening to him on “The Poll Winners” series on Contemporary in the late 50s shredding with Ray Brown and Shelly Manne too.
How would you describe the influence of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound on you? Do you remember when you first became aware of his music?
Phil Spector was a visionary artist and his work influences me mainly in keeping the standards as high as I can when making my own records. You know, I don’t recall when I first became aware of his work. I don’t think it was being played too much on the AM radio during my early years – maybe they slipped in an oldie now and then.
Spector just kind of faded into my awareness at some point, like the way I probably would’ve known who President Nixon was if you’d asked me at age 4. The time-tested “icon-fade-in”.
Is there a particular Spector production that has made a profound impression on you? If so, please do elaborate. I remember that you used to be very fond of Ronnie Spector’s obscure ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ single on Apple Records.
Yes. I have you to thank for turning me onto Ronnie’s “Try Some,Buy Some”! That record blew me away. I don’t know how a record could be better. The production, the chord changes and melody, the lead vocal – it all sounds so majestic and evocative of something, but I don’t know what.
I have often thought that if Beethoven would’ve heard it, he might have uttered…”hmmm, that’s pretty good.” With all due respect to the beloved & talented composer Mr. Harrison – Ronnie’s version is the one for the time capsule.
As I said earlier, listening to your two solo albums, every track reminds me of the 60s LA studio scene heyday. You seem to spend a lot of attention to detail as well as work out arrangements worthy of full-blown Wrecking Crew sessions.
In terms of your arrangement or production philosophies what would you say are the similarities or differences between you and Spector? – or those in his inner-circle like Jack Nitszche?
Well, the differences between Mr. Spector and me – and thanks for putting my work at least in the same sentence as his! – is that I am probably closer to Bones Howe in sound.
Thankfully, the engineers who do the great work – Andy Baker and Joel Hatstat – and I usually agree on those points. I tend more towards definition of all the instruments because they are usually playing interweaving parts against each other – contrasting lines. I think Phil’s work has many instruments playing similar pulses together in unison and the big reverb makes it sound like the revolution is coming, folks… and it will be in mono!
The similar part would have to be: obsession over every moment of the record. I try to make every second of it as good as “Citizen Kane”, haha. During mixing, it’s not uncommon for me to play a 2-3 second section over and over trying to get a particular set of harmonies or instruments to match the sound I heard in my head. I just do it until everything feels right.
As far as Jack ‘Specks’ Nitzsche – one of the absolute greats. His high string line in The Ronettes’ “Born To Be Together” just makes me melt. It’s in the middle of the song where they sing “We were born to be together…”.It may actually be the bridge, or a secondary chorus. I always shoot for the “goose bump” factor when I write for the orchestral instruments like ‘Specks’ did so well.
When I first heard your second album, ‘How Strange It Seems’, I immediately noticed the Be my Baby like beat on the title track. Besides this are there any other details in your songs that were intended as a sort of tip of the hat to the Spector sound?
Yes, that is the “Be my Baby” beat! But, that whole song you mentioned came about from an obscure record I heard once – maybe twice on my hometown’s AM station (WGAA in Cedartown, Ga) when I was 4 or 5. I was in the car with my mom and it was even before I started school – we were dropping my older sisters off at school. I never knew the title or artist and I never heard it again until late 2013 (2 years after “How Strange It Seems” was released).
Somehow, I stumbled upon a song by Bobbi Martin probably on youtube and it slowly dawned on me that – holy moly – *this* is that song I heard – once or twice – 41 years ago. I had thought it was maybe Anne Murray all these years, but no. And shortly afterwards, I found another version – and *BOOM* this was the actual one I heard back on that Volkswagen Beetle car radio!
It was Karen Wyman “Something Tells Me (Something’s Gonna Happen Tonight). 1972. I bet the station probably put it in rotation for a week or two and the record then died soon afterwards. It was such a great relief to have solved this mystery which haunted me all my life up until that point.
Anyway, her drummer used the “Be My Baby” beat and I sort of made my own version of the memory of that elusive mystery record. My ability to mentally retain music was so surprisingly good at that age, it was shocking to hear it in my 40s and the key signature, tempo and drumbeat and arrangement style was just as I recalled it. And it *does* sound like Anne Murray!
In the 60s there were so many talented people hanging around Gold Star during those iconic Spector sessions, many of whom emulated the Wall of Sound themselves often to great results. Nitszche. Brian Wilson, Sonny Bono. Nino Tempo etc – you may know Ace Records three-part Phil’s Spectre comps of Spector sound-alikes?
Are there any Spector Soundalikes old or recent that you’d like to single out for whatever reason. I’ve written about quite a few on the blog as I think it’s always interesting to see how a musical imprint like that sort of spreads like wildfire.
There are many great ones – I love “Hang On” by The Wall Of Sound which you played for me, but my dearest fave Spector soundalikes are “New York’s A Lonely Town” by The Tradewinds (whose Anders-Poncia certainly learned firsthand how to do it well).
There’s also a single by The Oracle on Verve/Forecast produced by Curt Boettcher/Keith Olsen called “The Night We Fell In Love”. I’d put it at 1968. Not a lot of echo, but very Spectorish in feel. It’s a record like “Be My Baby” or “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” – you could just play it over and over and over and It’s not enough!
Finally, a great single on Imperial from about 1966 by Joel Christie called “Since I Found You”. Sounds L.A. to me and there’s a bit of reverb on this one. Killer vocalist – like a B. J. Thomas, but a little higher. And… produced by Marshall Leib!
Finally, a painful task I torture all my interview subjects with; please do share with us your personal top 5 list of Spector productions.
Not painful, other than narrowing them down! I had to leave out “He’s A Quiet Guy” by Darlene Love!
OK, in reverse order…
#5:”Born To Be With You” – Dion (I love the tambourine that sounds like it fell on the floor at the beginning)
#4: “Do I Love You” – The Ronettes
#3: “Instant Karma” – John Lennon
#2: “You Baby” – The Ronettes
#1: “Try Some,Buy Some” – Ronnie Spector
Brent, thank you for taking the time for this interview.
Thank you for asking me these questions. It’s been a pleasure.
A fellow Spector-fan has alerted me to this three-part interview with the late, great master engineer Lary Levine. He shares his thoughts on Spector and the iconic sounds the two men created together at Gold Star.
Hadn’t seen these segments before so they may be new to you as well.