Sean MacLeod: “Leaders of the Pack – Girl Groups of the 1960s and Their Influence on Popular Culture in Britain and America”
**** (4 stars out of 6)
If you’re going to write a book on the 60s girl group genre you have different ways of going about it.
You could focus mainly on the groups themselves and compile a sort of estrogen-dripping encyclopedia devoted to 60s femme pop like überfan John Clemente has done with the much cherished ‘Girl Groups: Fabulous Females that Rocked the World.’ You could also broaden the scope and reflect upon the wider social and cultural significance of the genre’s output – this has been done somewhat by Alan Betrock in his ‘Girl Groups: the Story of a Sound’ and more extensively by Jacqueline Warwick in ‘Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 60s’
There are of course also those who highlight the girl group phenomenon as just one of many examples of women making their voice felt in popular music through the decades; Lucy O’Brien’s ‘She Bop: the Definitive History of Women in Popular Music’ or Gillian Gaar’s ‘She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock’n’Roll’ come to mind.
Even though there are already plenty of books out there covering the various angles on girl group history, I recently became aware of yet another book about the subject that could be of interest to Cue Castanets readers. ‘Leaders of the Pack: Girl Groups of the 1960s and their Influence on Popular Culture in Britain and America’ by Sean MacLeod came out in 2015 and as the loooong subtitle indicates, it’s a book that tries to do a little bit of everything; offer detailed glimpses into the careers of a few of the most notable groups, discuss their relevance and significance in connection to the era and, finally, outline how these groups, and the girl group genre itself, has had a far-reaching influence since the genre’s heyday. It’s a commendable cause and MacLeod deserves praise for his good intentions and nearly getting there.
I found MacLeod’s style of writing to be very good and informative. – and thankfully not written in an overtly academic manner. The book has a lot of useful info for readers who have just discovered girl groups, wisely singling out a few groups that are dealt with in-depth rather than tiring or confusing readers with too much info on the large number of groups that left behind a myriad of often obscure singles.
Maybe this condensed approach to telling about the genre reflects MacLeod’s work as a lecturer teaching music and media history? Using his selected girl groups as examples he carefully describes the various stages in the development of the girl group phenomena so that no readers are left behind. The Shirelles are used to exemplify the birth of the girl group sound; the Crystals, the Ronettes, the Marvelettes, the Supremes and the Vandellas are all dealt with during discussions of the genre’s climax and finally the Shangri-Las are highlighted when MacLeod discusses how the genre’s impact slowly petered out.
Girl group connoisseurs will probably scratch their heads and wonder why the Cookies or the Chiffons didn’t merit inclusion in standalone chapters as well as soloists befitting the genre such as Lesley Gore or Darlene Love but that minor gripe aside, MacLeods choices and the way he uses them to reflect upon the ups and downs of the girl group sound makes sense while reading the book.
Honesly, this is a tough book to review because I knew a lot about the topic beforehand. Therefore, I quickly began to skim or skip some pages or whole chapters along the way because they state the basic facts that die-hard fans can recite in their sleep. For new fans though I’m sure this book will make for a very interesting and eye-opening read and I suspect it could be especially useful as reading material for a course in music history. A lot of songs are mentioned throughout which will surely send those just digging into the genre record-hunting or checking out sound samples online. The many fabulous girl-themed compilations put out by Ace Records through the years would be a good place to start for girl group newbies.
What I really like about the book is when MacLeod looks beyond the girl groups themselves and reflects upon their own influences or the way they influenced other music of their era.
He makes a really good case for how the girl group sound was not just one specific sound but more of a musical melting pot of diverse inspiration that happened to be carried by female voices. Consequently, some girl group records reflect more of a doo wop or rhythm’n’blues foundation whereas others are more to the poppier, ‘white’ side.
When MacLeod tries to pinpoint the influence of the girl group genre itself on later generations of girl singers and female musicians things get very interesting, though also at times a bit far fetched and subjective. Although I’m sure Madonna, the Spice Girls and Lady Gaga know a few girl group hits or more, I doubt the genre’s influence on their sound has been big enough to merit whole chapters devoted to the subject. But then again; Amy Winehouse certainly took her point of departure in the girl group sound so it’s definitely a topic worth discussing. I do like the fact that MacLeod doesn’t shy away from trying to connect the dots between then and now, even though some of his conclusions are debatable.
All in all, this is a fine and worthwhile book but one that’s more for casual fans than experts, hence my 4-star rating. Let me put it this way; if you know someone that you feel are ready to be introduced to this fascinating, yet criminally overlooked genre, then give ‘em a great big kiss and this book for Christmas to get them off and running!
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.
Sad news today. It has been reported online that Pete Anders (Peter Andreoli) has passed away.
I’m guessing that most Cue Castanets readers knows Peter by way of the legendary Anders/Poncia songwriting credits but for those who don’t, Pete Anders was one of the finest singers and songwriters the 60s had to offer.
The body of work Peter has left behind is truly at the pinnacle of perfect pop – along with his lifetime friend and musical partner-in-crime Vini Poncia, there wasn’t a genre Pete couldn’t master, be it doo wop, surf & hot rod music, girl groups, wall of sound, Beatles-esque knock-offs, soul, sunshine pop or bubblegum. Anders/Poncia covered all bases and did so brilliantly.
I’ve been a fan of this dynamic duo’s music since I first heard the killer songs they wrote for the Ronettes and, later on, the two albums they recorded under their Tradewinds and Innocense guises. Those two albums especially are textbook examples of how to write fantastic and charming sunshine pop & bubblegum music. The songs on both albums are inventive, hook-laden and brimming with enthusiasm, all bound together by Peter’s extraordinary lead vocals.
Yet, as with the equally talented Sloan/Barri partnership, the body of work by Anders/Poncia is often overlooked when US 60s pop is discussed in general. Sure, Goffin/King, Mann/Weill and Barry/Greenwich deserve all the praise they get, but dig a little deeper and you’ll be amazed at the sheer quality of the more unknown Anders/Poncia catalog. There’s always something interesting going on in their songs.
Spector certainly sensed he had stumbled upon a veritable hook machine when Doc Pomus introduced him to Pete Anders & Vini Poncia. According to legend, they hadn’t even written ‘The Best Part of Breaking Up (is when You’re Makin’ Up)’ when they pitched their song idea to him, but the title alone was enough to tell Spector that these guys from Rhode Island knew where it was at. And they didn’t let him down!
To these ears, the songs Anders/Poncia wrote for the Ronettes and Darlene Love during their short stint with Spector are any bit as good as what the more recognized Brill Building couples wrote. Those first seconds of ‘Do I Love You’? Wow… As good as it gets – and it simply must send chills down the spine of every pop music lover. And don’t get me started on ‘He’s a Quiet Guy’ by Darlene Love. What a shame also that the fantastic ‘Hold Me Tight’, credited to the Treasures, was the only thing Pete Anders got to sing on with Spector behind the console.
Then again, Anders & Poncia were perfectly able to churn out top quality productions on their own. A single like the 1967 ‘Sunrise Highway’, which I namecheck in the title to this post, is a sunshine pop masterpiece adorned with a tour-de-force Pete Anders vocal.
There were a lot of questions I would have liked to ask Peter about his interesting career in music. So after starting the blog I reached out for him online through a friend of his, hoping for a Cue Castanets interview. Peter happily agreed to answer my questions but sadly, various projects as well as health problems prevented him from doing so. It’s a shame because it would have been very interesting to hear his side of the story as a supplement to Vini Poncia who luckily has reminisced in a few interviews through the years.
I will conclude this post with a beautiful song from Peter’s obscure 1972 solo album as well as the questions I sent to Peter but that he never got around to answering before he passed away. If anything, the scope of those questions are testament to how varied and interesting a career this great singer and songwriter had in music.
Rest in peace Peter. Thank you for the music!
Proposed interview questions for Pete Anders
Early years / Videls
You and Vinnie first met each other in doo wop 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?
‘Mr. Lonely’ appears to be the first ‘Andreoli-Poncia’ written song. Is that so? And in general, 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?
Even from the early Videls recordings I hear you as a very skilled singer with a distinctive vocal style. Who would you say was your biggest influences when you were starting out as a vocalist?
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?
What was it like to work with him and seeing your songs get the Wall of Sound treatment in the studio?
Are there any particular songs from that time you’re especially fond of or have specific anecdotes about?
I absolutely love your vocal on ‘Hold Me Tight’ 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?
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 Vinnie 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 you number? You’re so fine.” Do you remember this song / production?
‘The Best Part of Breaking Up’ is also fantastic – there’s a story going around that you and Vinnie 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 for Spector and that he immediately sensed a hit from the title alone, asking you to write it. Is this true?
Darlene Love has 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. Was it written directly for her? Did you participate at the session?
‘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?
I’ve heard rumors of an unreleased Ronettes track wittten by you and Vinnie called ‘Someday (Baby)’ Do you remember this one? Did Spector record more songs of yours than what was eventually released?
There’s of course also the Lovelites. You and Vinnie 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?
Following up on the Lovelites and ‘Please be my Boyfriend’ – was that song written by you and Vinnie? 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. Listen here: The Crystals – Please Be My Boyfriend Many believe that the demo isn’t sung by the Crystals but an unknown group. Do you recognize the voices? This version has puzzled collectors for decades!
Tradewinds, Innocense and beyond
You left Spector & Philles Records for Leiber & 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?
On Kama Sutra and later Buddah you recorded fantastic stuff under quite a few names; the Tradewinds, the Innocense, the Good Times etc. But you also released your first solo single, the majestic ‘Sunrise Highway’ backed with ‘Baby Baby.’ Why a solo single at this time?
I’ve heard rumors of an unreleased album borne out of the sessions for the Anders & Poncia ‘So It Goes’ / ‘Virgin to the Night’ single on Kama-Sutra. Any truth to this? If so, why was it scrapped?
Finally, you and Vinnie 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 Vinnie 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 you sing back-up vocals?
It’s been a day since the worldwide release of Darlene Love’s new album and I am now able to publish a review of it, a little earlier than I had anticipated.
The review comes courtesy of fellow Spector-fan and Cue Castanets reader Bob Condren who has graciously offered to don the ‘guest blogger’ cap and offer another perspective on here. Which is something I’m very pleased with as I’m of the opinion that the blog will only benefit from other fans having their say. Remember, my vision for Cue Castanets is for it to be a kind of online fanzine devoted to all things Spector & the Wall of Sound. So if you have a good idea for an article, an interview, a review or something else you’d like to pitch, do contact me. You can reach me at cuecastanets(((@))))gmail.com and I’d love to hear from you.
I’d like to thank Bob for the fine review which is perfectly in line with my own initial reaction to the album; great to hear Darlene again; some of the new songs are stellar, some are pretty good, a few are so-so with the River Deep cover being pretty pointless and lame in my opinion. With this, I’ll let Bob talk us through the album and give his verdict.
Review: Introducing Darlene Love
**** (4 stars out of 6)
Darlene Love’s new release, “Introducing Darlene Love,” may sound like an unusual title for an artist who has performed on so many legendary projects in the past 50 years or so. But for all her notoriety, including her work with Phil Spector, Elvis Presley, movies, TV and Broadway, she has never had a hit album. Steve Van Zandt has recruited an all-star list of veteran A-listers, including Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Jimmy Webb to try to turn that around.
Van Zandt has arranged and produced the songs filling them to the brim with horns, strings and a myriad of background singers. To most singers this would be overwhelming but not for Love… her voice is strong enough to break down the walls of Jericho!
The first song, “Among The Believers,” written by Van Zandt, initially sounds like a late 70s disco song, not unlike Donna Summer, with Asbury Jukes style horns. The next song is the Elvis Costello penned “Forbidden Nights” that also has an Asbury Park sound, though this time with a late 50s/early 60s rock ‘n roll feel.
A few more songs in, there is another Elvis Costello song called “Still Too Soon to Know.” This is a duet with her old friend Bill Medley, and it sounds as if it would work well on the Broadway stage. They are quite charming together. The Jimmy Webb tune, “Who Under Heaven,” is curiously similar at times to his classic, “MacArthur Park.” This may not be a coincidence as Van Zandt has been quoted as, somewhat jokingly, I think, asking Webb for another “MacArthur Park” for the project.
Van Zandt’s partner in rock ‘n roll crime, Bruce Springsteen, writes two songs for the project. The first one, “Night Closing In” is a full-blown homage to The Wall of Sound. It starts with a Clarence Clemons style sax solo (played by Clemons’ nephew, Jake Clemons) and builds with strings, Hal Blaine style drums, glockenspiel and I think, I may also hear some castanets in the mix. It is a great tune with haunting lyrics and if it had been written back in 1962, may have been a Philles hit, who knows? Springsteen’s other contribution “Just Another Lonely Mile,” while ambitious, is not as successful as “Night Closing In.”
Van Zandt’s fellow disc jockey on Sirius Radio’s Underground Garage, Michael Des Barres, wrote the powerhouse rocker, “Painkiller” with Paul III, and Love belts it out of the park. Love also does a great job with Van Zandt’s signature style soul ballad, “Last Time.” It is followed by a remake of “River Deep, Mountain High.” Love’s powerful vocal is a good fit but Van Zandt’s production does not have the unique quality of Phil Spector’s version with Tina Turner.
After 12 songs dealing with affairs of the heart, the final two are in the Gospel mode, something that Love, whose father was a preacher, is familiar with. The penultimate song “Marvelous” is a simmering, slow tempo, powerhouse. The clarity, power and honesty of Love’s voice is at its peak on this one. On a roll, the final song, “Jesus Is the Rock (That Keeps Me Rollin”) is is an up-tempo number, that just about levitates the whole production.
If you’re a fan of the Jersey Shore sound, Spectoresque productions, or more to the point, a fan of Darlene Love, there is something for you on “Introducing Darlene Love.” 4 stars out of 6.
It’s not often we’re treated to new music by those who helped pioneer the Wall of Sound. But today is the day – the day where Darlene Love finally releases her much anticipated new album, ‘Introducing Darlene Love.’ As if this legendary singer needs any introduction! Whatever, what’s worth noticing is that the new album is produced by none other than Little Stevie (Stevie Van Zandt of the Bruce Springsteen E Street Band.)
Now, I’m sure everyone checking in here are fully aware of Little Stevie’s Wall of Sound credentials. He has helped the Boss record some of the most convincing Spector soundalikes of the 70s. And who can forget his stellar work with Ronnie Spector on ‘Say Goodbye to Hollywood’ or Darlene herself on ‘All Alone on Christmas’? I’ll bet all of us are in for a treat when we immerse ourselves in ‘Introducing Darlene Love.’
Expect a review on here at some point in the not-too-distant future. But for now, why not whet your appetite for the new album with this great faux-Spector song written for Darlene by Bruce Springsteen? It’s called ‘Night Closing In’,…. and it’s a keeper!
As it turns out, Andy has kindly agreed to answer questions for a second interview that picks up from where we left off the last time.
And as you will learn, and hear via youtube clips, Andy’s work from recent years often adhere to the classic, warm pop sound of the 60s L.A. scene that is at the heart of what this blog is all about.
Listening to Andy’s productions, I pick up lots of subtle influences from the very best, sparkling pop by the likes of Brian Wilson and Phil Spector; influences that Andy brilliantly puts his own interesting spin on.
Here is ‘The Andy Paley interview, part II’, – enjoy!
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Andy, we ended the last interview discussing your work with Brian Wilson. As a major fan of Brian & the Beach Boys, I’d like to ask you a few more questions about this part of your career.
First off, my favorite track from Brian’s first solo album, ‘Brian Wilson’ from 1988, is ‘Meet Me in my Dreams Tonight’ which you and Brian co-wrote. To my ears, that song can be heard as a premonition of all the wonderful, unreleased work the two of you were to record later on that harked back to the classic pop sound of the 60s, yet still sounding fresh and vital. Could you share some recollections on this specific song and your production choices on it?
I remember that we wrote it and recorded it fairly quickly. We talked about the idea of a guy and a girl who want to hook up but for some reason they can’t actually physically get together so they decide that they’ll meet in their dreams. It seemed like a very romantic idea.
We recorded that song the day after we wrote it. The thing about that album was that the key to doing anything really good was to do it fast before other producers could get their hands on it. There were a lot of cooks around!
The first interview prompted me to re- listen to the unreleased songs from your sessions with Brian. That material is so good! Do you have a particular favorite of the songs that have been bootlegged? If so, please elaborate why this particular song is especially dear to you?
So many songs have been bootlegged. It’s a drag that we never finished the recordings because the songs aren’t being heard the way they were meant to be heard. On the other hand I’m very fond of the songs in general.
I love ‘Marketplace’. I love ‘I’m Broke’. I love ‘My Maryanne’…. I love both bridges in that one. ‘It’s Not Easy Being Me’ is a really good song. So is “Must Be A Miracle”. I came up with that chorus. I think that’s a really pretty song. We also wrote a cool one called “Frankie Avalon” which kind of blew me away!
Would you say that these songs were written for a possible Brian Wilson solo album or rather for a potential Beach Boys album? ‘Soul Searchin’ and ‘You’re Still a Mystery’ of course got the Beach Boys harmony treatment and saw release on the lovely 2013 ‘Made in California’ Beach Boys box set.
We were writing and recording for no particular reason back then. I think we would’ve been happy to finish the stuff either way.
How would you describe the general work ethic you and Brian had in the studio? Did you mostly develop the songs together ‘on the spot’ or did you rather bring each other near-complete songs that the other then helped tweak into its final form?
Sorry for nitpicking about this, but I’ve always been fascinated by the twists and turns of the creative process in the studio and it would be interesting to learn how it evolved between you and Brian?
Brian’s a great collaborator. I’m very good at it too. We’re both adaptable to any situation that might come up. The best songs just happen. An idea will hit you when you least expect it and you’ll write it down…. or maybe you won’t write it down…. and you’ll just store it away in your memory to use it some other day in the future.
When you get together with someone to collaborate you might have a storehouse of ideas in your head that might fit with your partner’s ideas. That’s how it worked with me and Brian. We both wrote lyrics. We both wrote melodies. We both came up with chords. We both came up with general concepts to throw back and forth. We both came up with hooks.
It was a true 50 / 50 collaboration in every way including production. There were a few exceptions but in general that’s the way it worked. Brian told me that I was the only writer he ever worked with who wrote music as well as lyrics. By the way I think Brian is a great lyricist.
Personally, I love the ‘Rodney on the ROQ’ theme song you wrote for legendary LA scenester Rodney Bingenheimer’s long-running radio show. Brian sings the lead and Jeffrey Foskett’s on there as well, right? What a cool, classic sound! Totally in line with the Spector and Beach Boys hits Bingenheimer is known to obsess about. (Don’t we all?) How did that song come about?
Brian and I are both fans of Rodney. Brian’s known him forever. I met him in the 70s. He’s played my records on the radio over the years. He’s played Brian’s records too.
We wanted to give him something so we wrote him that song. He loved it and he used it as his theme song on the radio. Jeff did a great job on the falsetto part.
Finally, in terms of your work with Brian, what would you say you learnt as a songwriter / musician / producer from the experience? I would imagine it must have been creatively rewarding to work so closely with a musical giant like Brian, picking up a trick or two?
I’ve written songs with some really great writers. Brian Wilson is exceptionally talented. He’s also someone who I grew up listening to. Working with someone who you’re a fan of is a strange experience. You have to get over it and get down to work. Brian is a hard worker. I am too. We’re both happiest when we’re working hard on something we love.
This sounds like a cliche but what I learned from Brian Wilson is that hard work always pays off in some way. It may not be with a hit record… It may not be recognition… The pay-off may be some abstract thing… But if you really love something and you work your ass off to get it done right… there is always an upside.
I recently discovered that you co-produced an album with cult band NRBQ, ‘Wild Weekend’, in 1989. I didn’t know that. ‘It’s a Wild Weekend’, the title cut, is really cool. I hear the same kind of classic, über-catchy pop-rock that also shone on the Paley Brothers album. Any anecdotes about working with NRBQ?
NRBQ guitarist ‘Big’ Al Anderson had the idea to put lyrics to the Rockin’ Rebels song ‘Wild Weekend’. The band called me and asked me if I’d be interested in working with them. They’d been talking to various producers. They were all on the phone. I was in L.A. working with Brian Wilson. They were on a speaker phone in New York. Terry Adams from the band asked me to tell them what my fave NRBQ record was… and he said I should tell them why it was my fave. He put me on the spot and I gave them the honest answer…. which was that I actually didn’t own any NRBQ records!
I love NRBQ and I’ve played with them… I’d done gigs with them. They were friends of mine. I’m a big fan. But I really didn’t own any of the records. I mean, I don’t have lots of records. Most of the records I own were hits. Anyway, they all laughed. They loved it! They said that I couldn’t have given them a better answer!
They hired me and we made a great album together. And hard-core fans tell me that it sounds very different from their other records. So I guess that’s what NRBQ wanted.
There are some cool songs on that album. ‘The One & Only’ is one I like. ‘Little Floater’ is pretty. ‘If I Don’t Have You’ is really good. I’m still friends with them. Their drummer Tommy Ardolino died in 2012. He was one of my closest friends in the world. I used to talk to him almost every day. I really miss him.
In 1990 you produced the Dick Tracy movie soundtrack. There’s a song of yours on there sung by Darlene Love; ‘Mr. Fix It’, which undoubtedly is one of her very best performances since the Spector days.
Was that song written specifically for her? It seems tailor-made with its nice mix of both the Motown and Spector sound.
No, I wrote it for no reason at all back in the ’70’s. It was one of those songs that was just waiting for the right reason to come out.
Darlene Love has such an amazing voice. She loved the song and she really put her soul into it. The session was a blast! I recorded Brenda Lee and Jerry Lee Lewis too on that movie! I ended up making a whole album with Jerry Lee Lewis later on! Thanks to Warren Beatty!
More recently, you’ve worked extensively on songs for the SpongeBob Squarepants cartoon series. How did you get involved with the show?
Tommy Ardolino from NRBQ was a fan of the show very early. I had never heard of it. I was with Tommy at a NRBQ gig in Hollywood. He introduced me to comedian Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob, and he said “You guys should write songs together!”. It’s pretty amazing that he said that.
He was 100% right too! Tom Kenny has been a fantastic collaborator. God bless Tommy Ardolino for putting me together with Tom Kenny!
I must confess I didn’t know you had written and produced so many songs for SpongeBob as was the case. I did know ‘The Best Day Ever’ though which has been much talked about by Beach Boys fans as a perfect homage to their classic mid 60s sound.
Could you tell a bit about that song and your general approach to this recording project? You enlisted some top-notch musicians for the ‘Best Day Ever’ album.
I wrote all of those songs with Tom Kenny. Since he does the voice of SpongeBob and he’s been involved since the very beginning he knows what the fans want. Steve Hillenburg, the creator of SpongeBob, modeled the character after Tom in many ways. If you look at the early SpongeBob cartoons you’ll notice that he’s wearing thick black rimmed eye glasses like Buddy Holly. That’s because Tom Kenny wears those kind of glasses.
Tom Kenny is a great singer too. He’s able to sing in tune in the SpongeBob voice. It’s amazing really! We just wanted to make records that we could listen to and enjoy. We both love old records so we imitated old-style records when we made the SpongeBob records. We ended up hiring players like Tommy Morgan, Corky Hale, Nino Tempo , James Burton , Terry Adams, Joey and Johnny Spaminato, Tommy Ardolino, ‘Big’ Al Anderson, Flaco Jimenez etc. because we had the chance to do it. It was really fun. Brian Wilson sings back-grounds on “Doin’ The Krabby Patty”. We had a great time!
Tom Kenny and I wrote a song for a cartoon called Olivia The Pig. Our song “Goodnight Olivia” is a lullaby that is used all around the world to put kids to sleep. It’s really pretty. You can go on youtube and see kids singing it all around the world. It’s very gratifying.
You also wrote and produced a SpongeBob Christmas album. One of the songs on there wouldn’t have been out of place on Spector’s iconic ‘Christmas Gift for You’ album. I can totally hear Darlene Love recording a gutsy lead vocal for ‘Don’t Be A Jerk (It’s Christmas).’
Was the Spector album, and the Spector sound in general, an inspiration for that track and some of the others on the album? I noticed there’s a concluding Holiday Message to the album much like the spoken-word message by Spector on his album?
Yes, we were inspired by the Phil Spector Christmas album… and The Beach Boys Christmas album… and Elvis Presley’s and Bobby Helms and Brenda Lee and The Chipmunks and Leroy Anderson etc. etc. etc.
The Christmas message at the end of our album was indeed inspired by the Phil Spector message at the end of his album and also by the message from Dennis Wilson at the end of the Beach Boys Christmas album. True hard-core fans will hear the references.
You’ve been kind enough to let me hear a version of ‘Snowflakes’ from the SpongeBob Christmas album with you singing a lead instead of SpongeBob. It casts the song in a much different, grown-up light and sounds really beautiful. Which makes me think – have you ever considered issuing a solo album? Judging from ‘Snowflakes’ alone and the songs you’ve recently produced, it could make for a great record.
‘Snowfakes’ is one of my very best songs. I love the recording we did. I can picture a snowy morning when I hear it! Mandy Barnett is singing with herself… three parts…. at the top; ‘Snowflakes , Snowflakes, Snowflakes , Snowflakes.’ It makes me smile every time I hear it. I’m so happy you liked it! Maybe I’ll do a solo album someday. It sounds like a good idea.
I’ll finish off with a question about the 2013 single ‘Don’t Waste her Time’ by the Explorers Club.
I was both surprised and pleased to learn that you were involved in this superb song by one of my favorite bands from recent years. How did you get to know Explorers Club front man Jason Brewer who you wrote the song with? Could you describe the collaboration? Who brought what to the table for this one?
Jason and I were brought together by the group’s manager, Marc Nathan. I knew Marc from back when the Paley Brothers were making records. He worked at Sire Records at the time. He was a great supporter of ours. Very sharp guy! He was working with Jason and the band.
I don’t know if it was Marc Nathan’s idea or Jason’s idea to work with me. He flew here from North Carolina. Anyway, Jason came over to my house in L.A. and we wrote a few things together. We both wrote music and we both wrote lyrics. We made rough demos in the Capitol tower which is where Marc worked at the time. Jason did a great master recording later on!
He sure did! I really dig this song. Nice, classic sound.
Thank you once again for answering questions for Cue Castanets, Andy.
Time for another interview and I’m pleased to announce that former Spector employee Devra Robitaille has agreed to answer some questions for Cue Castanets.
For a short time during the mid 70s, Devra worked as ‘Administrative Director’ for Phil Spector’s short-lived Warner-Spector label after getting to know him while she worked for Warner Brothers records. As we shall learn, her new job was far from a walk in the park – something she has described before in Mick Brown’s seminal book on Spector, ‘Tearing Down the Wall of Sound.’
Overall, the 70s proved to be both enjoyable and frustrating for Spector fans. On the one hand, they were served with a smorgasbord of fantastic productions, both newly recorded and unreleased gems that had languished in the vaults since the 60s. On the other hand, many planned projects failed to materialize or if they did, did not receive proper promotion.
In a decade where Spector soundalikes by ABBA, Bruce Springsteen, Meat Loaf and others were riding high in the charts, the stars seemed aligned for a triumphant comeback. It was not to be. And it didn’t help that the release schedule was both erratic and often limited to select countries, no doubt due to Spector’s increasingly difficult personality. In the midst of all this was Devra, trying to nurture both the music and business side of things.
Devra, thank you very much for taking your time to answer some questions about this often overlooked phase of Spector’s career.
First off, according to Mick Brown’s book you began working for Spector in 1975. He appointed you ‘Administrative Director’ of the Warner-Spector label. Looking back, how do you feel about that label?
Warner Spector started out so great. It was a brain-child of Joe Smith and Marty Machat I think, and intended to be an outlet for Phil’s music and a celebration of his production talents after some rough criticism. I remember there being high expectations. It was supposed to be a wonderful homage and great collaboration between Warner Brothers and Phil…. but unfortunately, it spiraled down for oh so many reasons.
Do you think Spector achieved what he’d set out to do when he established the deal with Warner Brothers?
Absolutely not. He was deeply disappointed and offended. He never really spelled it out to me exactly what happened, but his expression when the subject was brought up even years later spoke volumes. I am sure it was mutual, Phil was very difficult to deal with on every level.
In his book ‘Magical Mystery Tours’, Tony Bramwell who oversaw Warner-Spector from the UK, claims that Spector wanted to set up the label to release everything. According to the book, Bramwell went to LA to crate Spector’s tapes up personally in his mansion and later ran them through tests in London, preparing a reissue campaign.
I hung out with Tony a lot during this and other visits. I also spent a lot of time on the phone with him once he was back in England on Phil’s behalf setting all this up. Tony was a really great guy. I feel privileged to have known him. There was another guy too, Malcolm. I don’t remember his last name. They were both gentlemen and the real deal. I hope they remember me kindly.
Those tapes have been the cause of much speculation among Spector fans as to what they contain. Do you remember if there were more unreleased, fully realized 60s recordings than what eventually came out on the wonderful Rare Masters vol. 1 and vol. 2 collections? According to rumors there was at least enough material for a third volume.
You are asking me to cast back a lot of years in my memory, and because of all the more recent ugliness, a lot of it has been suppressed. But I do remember there being controversy about the tapes. I never knew exactly what was on them. Phil tended to hold things hostage so he could get his own way, to try to ransom his music for deals or circumstances as a manipulation ploy and it caused a great deal of turmoil.
This may well be why Warner-Spector ended after only three years. The stealing and hiding of masters was very common at that time. I remember a lot of wrangling about this with both Leonard Cohen and Dion, and also heard rumours about the John Lennon tapes, although possibly it was John in that case. Anyway, I am sure he did hide them at Collina Drive, although I can’t prove it as I never saw them. But I doubt he would trust anyone else, even a professional tape archive.
Do you recall which state Spector’s tapes were in generally? It would seem odd for him to keep them in his mansion instead of a professional tape archive? Do you know if what Tony Bramwell brought to the UK was the entire cache of tapes or just specific master tapes sorted beforehand by Spector? I wonder if tape copies still exist in the Warner archives?
That’s a very good question and I’m afraid I can’t throw any light on it for you. What I do know is that I myself personally recorded one of my own original songs at Phil’s request one night in the studio for use as a “b” side. He later named it “Roy Carr and Devra Robitaille” or some such – don’t ask me why, because that wasn’t the name of the song and I had forgotten about it until Tony Bramwell brought it up on Facebook. I have never been able to find out where the tape ended up. So one could conjecture that if there’s one that went missing there of course must be others?
You were present during the sessions with Cher in Gold Star Studios in 1975. I personally love the three songs cut; ‘A Woman’s Story’, the super slow take of ‘Baby I Love You’ and the duet with Harry Nilsson, ‘A Love Like Yours.’ ‘A Woman’s Story’ is a particular favorite of mine. Are you in the haunting backing chorus on this majestic production? Any anecdotes from the sessions you’d like to share? Were those three songs the only ones worked on?
Yes. I am singing backgrounds on the Cher and the Jerri Bo Keno tracks. I did some back-up vocals on the John Lennon album too, Stand by Me and Be Bop a Lula, I think. And of course on the Leonard Cohen as well as Dion album. I had the honor of sharing a mic with many interesting people, not the least of which was Bob Dylan. [Cue Castanets: on the Leonard Cohen album.]
I also played some keyboards, can’t remember which tracks, and my ex-husband, Bob Robitaille, who was an engineer with Motown and who owned a whole slew of lovely analog synths and would rent them out to studios, was also called in various times with his synths.
I remember Cher well. I had no idea who she was at first. Phil had a habit of just inviting people to the sessions so I didn’t realize at first she was the artist. it was a bit of a rabble usually, chaos. She just showed up, and I was on the microphone singing with this really tall girl with long straight black hair, and she kept “flipping” it and it kept hitting me in the face. I didn’t like her. Then of course it didn’t take long to realize that it was Cher! I also remember Harry Nilsson. I found out much later that an English engineer friend of mine was his engineer.
There are so many anecdotes and stories. I will save them for another time. Maybe my book? :-D
You were in charge of organizing the sessions for Dion’s ‘Born to Be with You’ album. I think it’s a masterpiece that stands up favorably to almost anything Spector did in the 60s.
Agreed! I just think some of the tracks need to be a little smidge faster in tempo, but that’s just my personal opinion. They feel to me like the sparkle is trying to come through but being dragged down – just an impression, take it for what it is.
Did Spector ever explain to you why, of all Warner Brothers artists available to him, he chose to work with Dion DeMucci?
Yes. He told me he really respected artists like Dion. He thought Dion was the real deal, really authentic. He admired that whole New York street cred kind of music and he felt a kinship with that.
I remember going to Las Vegas with Phil to see Dion perform, and when we went backstage being struck by a kind of reverence that Phil had for Dion which I had never seen in him before or even since. This was before the recordings began.
How would you describe the sessions? And do you know why the epic ‘Baby, Let’s Stick Together’ was left off the album?
Describing the sessions might have to be for another time. There is a lot to say and I don’t think you have the space! Suffice it to say that the phrase “barely controlled mayhem” usually applied, peppered with spells of sheer magic and genius. Actually, I didn’t know Baby Lets Stick Together was left off. I really liked that song.
Bruce Springsteen and Steven van Zandt paid a visit during the Dion sessions, hot on the heels of ‘Born to Run.’ How would you describe the atmosphere around their visit, seeing that they’d had a monster hit with the Spector sound?
I remember it well. I was priviledged to sing on a mic with them. Absolutely no idea what song it was as I was completely in awe of Springsteen, my own personal favourite type of music being Rock; I remember The Kessel brothers being there at the session and several others in the control room milling about. There was no gun play that night, at least none that I saw, so perhaps that is a huge compliment to Springsteen from Phil! Then again, one could say that it might have been a bigger compliment had there been…. One can only wonder.
After the Warner-Spector deal fell through, Spector launched the Phil Spector International deal with Polydor. Like with Warner-Spector, Tony Bramwell claims that Spector initially wanted to release everything. Why do you think he was keen set on that during the 70s?
To answer that one would have to have a deep insight into the complicated maze of personality that is Phil Spector, and I don’t claim to be able to unravel it all.
What I can say is what I experienced personally, and that is that Phil always very much needed validation for not only his musical creations but for himself as a person. He was too easily wounded by criticism and desperately craved approbation.
Some people are not cut out for fame, even while being addicted to it. Phil is a “perfect storm”; the perfect coming together of conditions and circumstances to create who he is and what he creates. You can’t pull the “Phil” out of Phil Spector music, it is his Soul expression. Maybe somewhere in here is the reason he always wanted to keep releasing everything.
The old Phil Spector Appreciation Society newsletters report rumors of enough material for a whole Darlene Love album. Only ‘Lord If You’re a Woman’ and ‘I Love Him Like I Love my Very Life’ came out of course but allegedly 10 tracks in total where recorded.
What do you remember about this project? Did you ever hear any other tracks? If so, do you remember anything specific about them? Were they release-worthy or were they just rough recordings?
I don’t remember there being any other tracks and didn’t hear any. I was at the sessions for ‘Lord If you’re a Woman’, particularly the mixing. A great track! There was some wrangling about the tempo as I recall. Of course Phil always won.
Another rumoured project in the Phil Spector Appreciation Society newsletters was a Manhattan Transfer-styled vocal group called the Brewers that Spector was supposed to have signed. What do you remember about this project? Do you think they ever got to record with him?
I don’t know anything about this group, never heard of them and don’t remember there being any sessions in that name – at least during my times.
I went back to work for Phil again in the mid eighties after I came back from England. My second tour of duty was quite tame compared to the first and only lasted a mere six months.
The Leonard Cohen album really divides Spector fans. Some like it, others hate it. Including, seemingly, Leonard Cohen himself! Looking back, how do you feel about it and the sessions that took place?
What a fantastic adventure in my life to have been involved in that project. I booked all the sessions and attended every excruciating moment! That is said with a smile though.
So many adventures, too much really to report here. I even received an album credit, the wording of which I have forgotten now, but it was a thank you from Phil for somehow keeping order in the face of all the chaos. I have the utmost respect for Leonard who was always a perfect gentleman and has so much class.
Were there any other steps taken towards recordings projects that either didn’t materialize or were left in the can?
Not that I can remember.
Did Spector for instance, to your knowledge, record more songs with Jerri Bo Keno than ‘Here It Comes (and Here I Go)’? Was there other acts he signed and worked with that the fans probably don’t know about?
I don’t know of any others, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t exist.
He recorded a version of ‘Baby, Let’s Stick Together’ with the Paley Brothers that finally came out on a retrospective of theirs in 2013. Do you know if he recorded more stuff with them?
Also at this time, rare stereo versions of some of the 60s recordings became more widely available as part of reissues, for instance the songs off the lone Ronettes album. Do you think this was a decision of Spector himself or rather a case of someone involved in the reissue projects chancing it and releasing the much sought-after stereo versions behind his back?
I don’t really know, but if I had to make a guess I would say that no-one really wanted to “chance it” with Phil. His wrath was legendary, and I think he would always want to maintain control.
And finally, what are your personal top-five favorite Spector-produced recordings?
I am going to have to do some listening to rehabilitate my ears to this music. Off the top of my head though, I can say that I really liked ‘Lord If You’re a Woman’!
Debra, thank you very much for sharing your insights. I’m crossing my fingers that you’ll write a book about your adventures in the music business someday.
Last night marked Darlene Love’s 28th consecutive and final performance of ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ on the David Letterman Show, due to Letterman’s retirement next year.
Based in Europe, as I am, I had to wait until this morning before I could catch the performance via Youtube. As always, Darlene turns in a powerhouse vocal and the Paul Shaffer-led backing is as majestic and elaborate as we’ve come to expect. Enjoy!
A fitting end to what has become a cherished Holiday tradition for all of us? Seeing that Stephen Colbert takes over the Late Show after Letterman, he’d be wise to persuade Darlene and Paul to continue the tradition each December. Let’s keep our fingers crossed!
Incidentally, I just noticed this cool clip of Paul & co. having fun with ‘You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling’ on the Late Show youtube channel. Awesome!
Really, Paul Shaffer should take this concept on the road or at least just make a big concert in New York bringing together his band with Darlene and other former Philles artists. He could call it the ‘Wall of Sound Revue’ or something like that.
Can you imagine that? A big show at Radio City Music Hall or Carnegie Hall? Paul Shaffer and band playing all our beloved Philles classics with Darlene Love, Ronnie Spector, LaLa Brooks, Bill Medley, Tina Turner etc joining on stage? And you could have relevant guest spots like Bruce Springsteen and Steven van Zandt. That show would be the stuff of legends! Oh well, we can dream, can’t we?
There’s been a lot of press about this final performance. Here’s a nice write-up from the New York Times to end this blog post with:
You may have seen this already, but if not enjoy this great segment from last night’s David Letterman show; it’s LaLa Brooks getting immensed in the Paul Shaffer Wall of Sound.
Super performance by LaLa and boy, does Shaffer prove he has the Wall of Sound down pat or what? But of course we knew that already. The only thing missing is the thick, muddy reverb of Gold Star Studios but other than that, this is perfect!
Next up – Darlene Love, scheduled for her last ever performance of ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home’ on December 19th. Surely, Shaffer must have something extra-special up his sleeve for that occasion?
Come Monday, December the 1st, you’ll be spinnin’ Phil Spector’s ‘Christmas Gift for You’ longplayer 24/7,…. That is, if you haven’t done so already through 2014? It’s that good an album.
Yes, Phil Spector really outdid himself when he loomed large over sweating Wrecking Crew members in Gold Star studios during long, hot summer nights in 1963. End result? The perfect Christmas record. It will probably never be outdone when it comes to bringing holiday cheer.
For someone as notoriously known for padding out albums with quickly recorded filler, Spector uncharacteristically kept his focus while working up ‘A Christmas Gift for You.’ All the songs are great and sure enough; the one original song on there, Darlene Love’s ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’, has rightly so become one of the ultimate holiday anthems.
Even though the album didn’t see much success upon its original release, no doubt affected by the JFK assasination shortly after it hit the streets, it has since grown in stature. Nowadays, it wouldn’t be wrong to call it the ‘Pet Sounds’ of Christmas music. Year after year it tops the lists of Christmas albums when music critics, blogs or websites offer their opinion of the greatest Christmas music of all time.
Spector’s Wall of Sound and the Christmas spirit definitely was a match made in heaven. A lot of the elements that made his sound work fit the yuletide feeling to a T. We’re talking sleigh bells, sweeping string arrangements and a warm, muddled sound. It’s no wonder that time has proven Spector’s album to be the perfect soundtrack for huddling up in front of the fire while it’s snowing outside. You could say then that the Wall of Sound has become synonymous with Christmas because of the album. And not surprisingly, December is the time of year where you’ll have the best chance of discovering new Spector-influenced music if you check out each year’s flood of new Christmas releases.
To prove my point I’ve decided to combine my love for modern Spector soundalikes and Christmas music in this post. The goal is to compile my personal tribute to ‘A Christmas Gift for You’ using songs from modern artists who clearly show how Spector’s ghost continues to hover over a lot of today’s Christmas music.
The rules are simple. All songs must be from the new millennium. All songs should be original as opposed to Spector’s album, just to keep it a bit more interesting for you, the reader. And it almost goes without saying that I must come up with 13 tracks, – the same amount as on Spector’s album. I’ve managed to find youtube clips for all songs which I’ll embed here for your listening pleasure. So bear with me & the blog if this post takes some time to upload in your browser.
Ready for some Christmas Wall of Sound? Here we go!
1. The Hives & Cyndi Lauper – A Christmas Duel (2008)
This single from 2008 is the perfect opener. It’s a stunning team-up between Swedish retro-rockers the Hives and US veteran Cyndi Lauper. Cyndi really gives Ronnie Spector a run for her money, no doubt drawing on her experience of singing back-up for Ronnie a long time ago.
2. Leona Lewis – Mr. Right (2013)
Here’s a nifty song I discovered last year. It’s from this British singer’s Christmas album and probably the most blatant ‘All I Want for Christmas’ rip-off you’re ever going to hear. Mariah Carey should sue any day now. But since I’ve, unbelievably so, become tired of listening to Mariah’s song, this’ll do nicely to fill the gap.
3. Attic Lights – Why Should Christmas be so Hard? (2012)
Again a more recent song by Scottish indie-pop band Attic Lights. These guys are great and have proven to be perfectly adept at the Spector sound before, – check their ‘Bring You Down’ single for evidence. This is like a cross between Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and Brian Wilson’s mid 60s work. High praise indeed but this fantastic song deserves it.
4. Metro Jets – Jingle Jangle Christmas (2006)
Here’s the second Swedish entry. This was actually a theme song made for a local TV show which is all the more remarkable as it’s one of the best and most enjoyable Wall of Sound pastiches I’ve heard. Listen to that thumping beat and the catchy melody. Imagine how this could have sounded with Darlene Love behind the mic!
5. The Raveonettes – The Christmas Song (2003)
Danish duo the Raveonettes have proven time and again that they’re as big fans of the Wall of Sound as they come. Why, they’ve even had the pleasure of duetting with Ronnie Spector on their fabulous ‘Ode to LA’ single. This song isn’t as loud and busy as some of my other choices but I think it has a feel that makes it obvious for inclusion. Those tinkling sleighbells, that reverby guitar… With a bit more echo on the drums and a Jack Nitzsche string arrangement, you’d have a delicious slice of moody Wall of Sound…
6. Lisa Mychols – Listen to the Bells Ring (2002)
Great use of castanets and a Hal Blaine-sounding drum beat on this classic track from US singer Lisa Mychols. The arrangement is majestic with perfect backing by the Wondermints who have made up the backbone of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s band for years.
7. The Kik – A Christmas Song for You (2011)
The Dutch also know how to rock it out Spector-style! Another Spector fan alerted me to this great track in 2011 and I was instantly won over by their jet-propelled take on the Wall of Sound. Sleighbells galore, rapidfire piano runs and a melody that’s catchy as hell! There’s even a Steve Douglas wannabe honking away on the solo!
8. Parker Lewis – X-Mas Carol NYC (2007)
We’re off to Sweden again for this melancholic ballad. It’s a toned down approach for sure compared to the other songs. I’ve had a soft spot for this one ever since discovering it. The use of glockenspiel, sleighbells and jangling guitars is very touching and perfectly complements the sad lyrics and soft ‘sha-dam-dam’ backing vocals.
9. The Hilarettes – Santa Claus is Here! (2009)
We’re back to more familiar territory with this by-the-numbers Spector tribute. This one is a no-brainer for inclusion with its percussive sax and grand sweeping string arrangement. I would have preferred a singer with a stronger, more distinctive voice but you can’t have it all, I guess.
10. Darlene Love – Christmas Time for the Jews (2005, SNL sketch)
If you’re going to make a convincing Wall of Sound tribute the dream scenario would be getting Darlene Love to belt out your song. That’s what happened in 2005 when comedy show Saturday Night Live decided to do a sketch about the holiday season and Jewish people. What better way to address the topic than with a perfect Spector sound clone? My jaw hit the floor when I first heard this production. It’s note-perfect Wall of Sound and wouldn’t have been out of place on the original ‘A Christmas Gift for You’ album,…. with revised lyrics of course. Sadly, this one has never come out as a conventional track. Someone somewhere should really re-record this great song with new lyrics!
11. Glasvegas – Please Come Back Home (2008)
Not only did Scottish band Glasvegas pay their debt to Spector’s sound with a few songs off their cool debut album in 2008; they even followed in his footsteps that same year by releasing a great Christmas mini-album. Lead singer and main songwriter James Allen has a voice to die for and really knows how to milk a song for all it’s worth. The obligatory sleigh bells and a maelstrom of churning guitars add to the intensity.
12. The School – Kiss You in the Snow (2009)
I’ve written about the criminally overlooked Welsh band the School before. If they indeed went to school in Spectorland, they got straight As! And sure enough, they put their Wall of Sound skills to good use on this cracker of a Christmas single. Listen to that chorus with the background whooos. You could easily imagine the Crystals sing their hearts out on this one.
13. Surf School Dropouts – Another Christmas with You (2013)
The last song here is one I co-wrote and recorded with the group I’m in last year. Please don’t throw tomatoes at me! I know it’s a bit cheesy and self-serving to include your own song but a fellow Spector fan whose opinion I respect urged me to feature it on the blog as he felt it was a great tribute to the Wall of Sound. So what the hell… I do think it encapsulates what this post has been all about. We tried to put everything but the kitchen sink into this one. Mandolins, dramatic strings, glockenspiels, 6 acoustic guitars playing in unison, … you name it.
So there you have it. I hope you discovered some cool songs you didn’t know before coming here. If they’ll bring you some holiday cheer throughout December my mission is accomplished. If you know of songs that would have fit here, please drop me a comment below. I’m always on the look-out for more stuff in the same vein. And if I happen to discover something similar this year I’ll of course write about it on the blog. So keep checking in.
Musings on Phil Spector's Wall of Sound and similar music…