Three years ago, in my ongoing feature on ‘Would-be Spectors’, I wrote about the importance of Jack ‘Specs’ Nitzsche for the Wall of Sound. Without the arranging skills of Nitzsche as well as his widespread contacts within the LA music business, who knows how big an impact Spector’s productions would have had?
In my blog post I mentioned an upcoming documentary about Nitzsche that was seemingly in the works. I never heard more about it and assumed the project had come to a stand-still. Recently though, I was contacted by the director Kristian St. Clair from Century67 Films with the good news that the documentary was nearing completion. I was all ears and eager to learn more about this project and luckily, Kristian was more than willing to answer questions for an interview for Cue Castanets.
I think we can look forward to a very interesting documentary about one of the unsung heroes of the music industry, – and here I’m both thinking in terms of Nitzsche himself as well as the arranger in a broader sense. Here’s what Kristian had to say about Nitzsche and the documentary about him.
First off, could you tell a bit about your background in filmmaking? I know you produced a similar music documentary on jazz artist Gary McFarland prior to focusing on Jack Nitzsche?
I majored in journalism at the University of Washington here in Seattle, WA, where I dabbled in short documentaries. At the time I started the McFarland documentary in 2000, digital non-linear filmmaking was breaking out of the realm of professional post production houses and into the hands of average consumers.
I wanted to make a feature-length film, and a documentary seemed like the best genre that I could legitimately pull off with the least amount of resources available.
What prompted you to set your sights on Nitzsche? What about his story ‘lured you in’, so to speak?
Jack Nitzsche was an artist I organically discovered collecting records of other artists I was fascinated with. First, was Randy Newman which led me to the Nitzsche co-produced track “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” on 12 Songs, and then, of course, his soundtrack to “Performance.”
Also, my love of all things Beach Boys & Brian Wilson, led to a deeper appreciation of Phil Spector’s legacy, which then lead directly to Jack and “The Lonely Surfer.”
I was constantly surprised to see just how many artists he worked with and how his name would pop up seemingly everywhere. I always like to tell people he’s the only producer to work with both Doris Day and The Germs!
How did you first learn about Nitzsche’s work? Any particular arrangements / productions / recordings that sparked your interest in him?
“Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” from Randy Newman’s 12 songs, casts such a dark and cinematic spell.
Lenny Waronker describes in my film how Randy originally played it in a much faster arrangement with a more rollicking piano part, and it was Jack (who also brought along Ry Cooder) who suggested that he slow it down.
He tried something similar to a lesser effect on The Everly Brothers’ rendition of Neil Young’s “Mr. Soul” (also featuring Ry Cooder).
So, you decide to take on the task of documenting his background and career. What was your first steps? How did you go about making this initial idea come into fruition?
Martin Roberts who maintains the wonderful Jack Nitzsche website on Spectropop put me in touch with Jack Nitzsche, Jr. He watched my Gary McFarland doc and agreed to meet.
We first met at Musso & Frank’s in Hollywood along with another of Jack Nitzsche’s old pals, the artist Hudson Marquez, and I apparently made a good enough impression that he gave my film project his blessing.
Could you roughly describe the timeline covered in the documentary? Does it cover Nitzsche’s whole life / career or are there parts you skip? Who have you interviewed along the way?
For the most part it covers beginning to end, with the main middle portion of the film focusing on the period of Phil Spector through to his collaborations with Neil Young. An incredible run of music in it’s own right, and he still had a 3rd act as an Oscar-winning film composer!
Interview participants (so far) include Keith Richards, Ry Cooder, LaLa Brooks, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jackie DeShannon, Rod McKuen, Jeff Barry, Don Randi, Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Lenny Waronker, Russ Titelman, HB Barnum, William Friedkin, Marianne Faithfull, Toni Basil, Robert Downey, Sr., Milos Forman, Andrew Loog Oldham, and many other close friends and collaborators.
I think I recall that UK-based Ace Records had access to Nitzsche’s session diaries when they compiled their three Nitzsche compilations. Did you gain the same access?
Yes, I’ve had full access to Nitzsche’s diaries, journals, photos, recordings, etc.
Are there any anecdotes from the process of researching, interviewing and producing the documentary that you’d like to share with us?
Jack was fascinated with voodoo and the occult, so one of his favorite possessions was a small lock from the tomb of Marie Laveau. There’s not a lot of archival footage of Jack around, but I was reviewing some 8mm home movies, and sure enough, there’s a clip of Jack in the 1970’s trying to pry the thing lose from her tomb!
How much does the documentary deal with what some would see as Nitzsche’s golden era, the early-to-late 60s?
Easily 1/3 if not a bit more of the film will focus on this, though I’d extend that golden period to include his early seventies collaborations with Neil Young and early film scores like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Seeing that Cue Castanets is focused on the Wall of Sound, I’d love to hear your opinion on the extent of Nitzsche’s role in developing the sound? Based on what you’ve learned through your research and interviews,…. Spector and him certainly seemed to have a rocky working relationship that soured along the way…
David Kessel described Jack Nitzsche as the architect of the Wall of Sound. I think Jack was able to take Phil’s grandiose ideas and concepts and put them on paper and make them come to life in a way that matched what Phil heard in his head. Phil knew what he wanted but didn’t necessarily have the arranging skills to achieve that.
It’s interesting hearing outtakes of Phil in the studio, there’s one point where he’s trying to explain something to one of the musicians and is having trouble getting his point across and finally out of frustration he says “Jack, tell him what I mean!” I think that pretty much sums up their working relationship.
I don’t get the sense there was a falling out per se, they just naturally drifted apart after the failure of River Deep, Mountain High, which also coincided with Jack’s rise as an independent producer and arranger for hire.
Hudson Marquez recalled that at Jack’s funeral service, Phil Spector spoke and said “Without Jack Nitzsche, there would have been no Wall of Sound,” and he’s right!
What surprised you the most about Nitszche after researching his story and interviewing those in the know?
Although he had this reputation as being incredibly difficult (which is probably putting it mildly), he was, of course, a very gentle soul who constructed this facade as a defense mechanism. He also had an incredible sense of humor, some of which I hope will come through in this film.
What has been your biggest challenge working on this project?
Any film about someone from this era is a race against time. My biggest disappointment was, although Willy DeVille agreed to an interview, his health took such a rapid decline (cancer), that we weren’t able to get it done. He’s still a big presence in the film due to footage of Jack & Willy hanging out in a NYC hotel room, but I still would have loved to have his first-hand commentary.
What are your plans for the finalized documentary? Where can Cue Castanets readers see it?
We completed a rough cut this past August and hope to have a final cut ready to submit to film festivals by Spring 2018.
Any similar projects in the works? Or, at least, ideas for something along the lines of your two documentaries?
A few ideas, but nothing concrete yet. Just trying to push this one over the finish line!
Well, no matter what topic you take on next, I wish you good luck and look forward to enjoying the Nitzsche documentary.
Finally, I always conclude my interviews by asking people to list their top 5 Spector productions. If you’d like to chime in, please do so – at the very least, I hope you’d share with us your personal top 5 of Nitzsche-involved tracks.
I’ll give you 2 Top 5’s my top 5 Spector/Nitzsche tracks, and top 5 Nitzsche tracks:
I’ve known about it for years, and have seen it quoted extensively in the various Spector books that have come out,…. but for some reason, I’ve never read the full piece. Maybe the same goes for you? If so, go ahead and get a sense of the rambling, jive-talking and score-settling Phil Spector of 1969… There are quite a few topics covered that hasn’t been quoted in the Spector books.
I do wish he had talked more about his own productions. Though it’s interesting to see him reflect on the changing times of the late 60s music business and his own tentative approach towards it after the self-imposed exile after the failure of the ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ single. Interestingly, Spector himself explains its failure with the view that the industry wanted to see his downfall. So maybe this interview is where that often repeated explanation originates from?
And speaking of legendary interviews I would be a fool to not also post the link to Crawdaddy magazine’s equally legendary interview with none other than Jack ‘Specs’ Nitzsche, master arranger and producer extraordinaire and of course Spector’s right hand man in Gold Star studios during much of the recording of the Philles catalog.
Crawdaddy’s interview came out in 1974 and makes for very interesting reading. What a career with all sorts of interesting twists and turns! Someone out there really ought to write a book about Nitzsche, preferably working together with his family who I believe have an interesting collection of photos, diaries and logbooks with recording dates.
A few years ago it looked as if someone was looking into making a documentary on Nitzsche but it seems as if nothing has come of it,… yet. Fingers crossed – in the mean time we can all dust off our copies of the three fabulous Nitzsche compilations put out by the UK’s Ace Records.
Nitzsche’s talent is basically the gift that keeps on giving,… to prove my point I’ll conclude with a conducting & arranging credit of his that I discovered online last night. Dig this stomping Fab Four soundalike courtesy of the Palace Guard:
To tell the story about Phil Spector, his use of the Wrecking Crew and Gold Star studios is also to tell the story about the dawning of 60s Los Angeles as one of the world’s premier pop capitals.
This, and much, much more, is at the heart of a very entertaining book by music journalist Harvey Kubernik that I’ve just finished reading. I got ‘Turn Up the Radio – Rock, Pop and Roll in Los Angeles 1956-1972’ as a Christmas present but it’s only now, during the summer holiday, that I’ve taken the plunge and read this lengthy, coffee-table format book.
Kubernik may be familiar to Cue Castanets readers in that he has often championed Phil Spector in his writing and also been within Spector’s actual inner circle. Allegedly, Kubernik was even featured on percussion on some of Spector’s late 70s sessions with Leonard Cohen, the Paley Brothers and the Ramones.
Before I proceed further, allow me to point readers towards a great four-part Kubernik article on Spector published by Goldmine Magazine. Believe me when I say it’s worth your time:
The Spector connection, though, is but only one strand in Kubernik’s interesting career; besides working as a music journalist since 1972, he’s produced records as well as dabbled in A&R for the West-coast division of MCA Records.
Seeing that Kubernik grew up in LA and had his teenage years played out to the music by Spector and his contemporaries, it’s only natural for him to go back and try to explain the sort of cultural and audio revolution that happened in town during a timespan of little more than 15 years.
In doing this, the book serves as a very nice companion to Barney Hoskyns’ ‘Waiting for the Sun – Strange Days, Weird Scenes and the Sound of Los Angeles’ and Domenic Priore’s ‘Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock’n’Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood’ – both great books that contextualize Phil Spector and Philles Records as well as give readers a good, basic understanding of LA’s rise to pop prominence.
Whereas Hoskyns and Priore both use the tried and tested chronological narrative written in their own words, Kubernik has chosen another path – that of oral history. Spread out throughout the nearly 300 pages is only a limited amount of writing by Kubernik himself. His own words either only serves to set the scene as each new chapter begins or shift the focus within a chapter.
Basically, the majority of the text is made up of quotes from people who were present themselves back in the day and whom Kubernik have interviewed over the years – some of the excerpts may also come from interviews conducted by other journalists. In any event, it makes a basic storyline which is well-known to anyone who’s read up on the recording history of Los Angeles come alive in an engaging and down-to-earth manner.
Reading the book, it’s as if all these icons, heroes and out-of-this-world characters parade into your living room and regale you with stories from a sizzling hot bed of recording creativity the likes the world will probably newer hear again. Everyone you can think of have a say throughout the book; Phil Spector, Jack Nitszche, Brian Wilson, LaLa Brooks, Sonny Bono, Russ Titelmann, Terry Melcher, Stan Ross, PF Sloan, Andrew Loog Oldham, Lester Sill, Carol Conners, Kim Fowley, Don Randi, Dan & David Kessel, Bones Howe, Jimmy Webb, Don Peake, Lou Adler etc. You get the drift – it’s very entertaining to hear all these talented people tell how they remember things happened,… or at least what they’d like us to think happened.
As with every book that is based solely upon oral history, one must remain sceptic. No doubt some of the claims and stories should be taken with a grain of salt. Music lore is notorious for people trying to talk up their importance and it’s difficult to tell while reading when this occurs since conflicting accounts don’t pop up during the storyline. Kubernik could have played the devil’s advocate by questioning the validity of some of the statements but has chosen not to. It means that readers have to take everything at face value and take it from there.
Having said that, the only obvious, factual error I picked up while enjoying the book was this comment by Henry Dilz about the Modern Folk Quartet and Spector: “We later recorded ‘Night Time Girl’ with Phil at Gold Star, with Jack Nitszsche’s arrangement.” Nitszsche had the production credit on the single and I find it very hard to believe that Spector had anything to do with this recording. Dilz also couldn’t have mixed up the song with ‘This Could be the Night’ because he talks about the production of it just before ‘Night Time Girl.’ Strange indeed!
Besides all sorts of interesting stories, and just the sheer joy of reading personal thoughts by people you know from label credits, ‘Turn Up the Radio’ also stands out by virtue of lots and lots of interesting photographs.
There were many shots I hadn’t seen before and Spector’s productions are nicely covered with some cool images. The book is definitely eye candy for any serious lover of 60s pop and the smorgasbord of photos makes the book ideal for casual browsing, reading a little bit here, a little bit there. Hence, I guess, the choice of the coffee-table book format.
My only gripe with the book is that the format makes it difficult to read lying down as I always do, – its size and weight makes that a bit trying. But that aside, I’d really recommend getting your hands on this fun and entertaining read. Preferably along with the aforementioned books by Hoskyns and Priore. Those three titles together will give you a much broader understanding of the LA pop landscape.
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 realized today it’s been quite a while since I published a post about the ever growing number of modern Spector soundalikes.
As you may know from my previous posts on the subject I find these examples of modern artists tipping their hats to the Wall of Sound very interesting. If anything, they show the far-reaching influence of the Spector approach on all sorts of genres and also reveal how different artists will pick up different ideas from the Wall of Sound and milk them for all they’re worth.
Spector of course sort of did the same when he started out – if we were somehow transported back in time to the early 60s, before his Philles heyday, and heard some of his then earliest productions, it would have been fair to label them ‘modern Leiber & Stoller soundalikes’ for that time. Because that’s what they were before Spector slowly carved out his own characteristic style through trial and error.
For this latest entry about modern Spector soundalikes we’re off to Canada, home of the music collective known as Gigi. Gigi released the album ‘Maintenant’ in 2010, basically borne out of a fantasy by two musicians, Nick Krgovich and Colin Stewart, who wanted to write and produce a collection of retro-songs the old-fashioned way; stuff that sounded as if it was recorded in the 60s with that era’s production flourishes and sensibility recorded using vintage equipment. Based in Vancouver, allegedly as many as 40 musicians from the local music community took part in the project recording backing tracks live in the studio like Spector and the Wrecking Crew did in the 60s.
My mouth was watering when I first read about this project – it sounded so promising! Was this the Spector / Wall of Sound-themed concept album of our dreams? I’ll have to say though that I was disappointed when I heard the album. There are a few good tracks for sure but in general I found ‘Maintenant’ to be lukewarm despite the good intentions. And somehow, to these ears, the majority of the tracks seem a bit unimaginative. However, as we all know, almost every album has at least one ace track among all the filler and Gigi’s ‘Maintenant’ is no exception. For me, ‘Won’t Someone Tell Me?’ is the stand-out track by miles.
It’s not overtly Spectoresque production-wise; Spector and Jack Nitszche would probably have been puzzled by the lack of echo, thunderous percussion and the pretty sparse string arrangement. Production-wise, ‘Won’t Someone Tell Me?’ is much more akin to, say, a snappy Lesley Gore track than Spector’s usual monophonic mayhem.
Nevertheless, the song itself is a prime example of perfect girl group pop for the 21st century harking back to that golden era of girls that gave us iconic sides by the Ronettes or the Crystals. I could easily imagine both groups tackle this song along with Spector, in my dreams resulting in a tremendous monster track that would blow Gigi’s version out of the water. Having said that, the Gigi version is very, very good indeed. I’m especially fond of the innocent ‘little girl lost’ lead vocal by Mirah, whoever she is. She foolishly only sings this one song on the album which really is a shame since her delivery here is top notch.
Enjoy then a very nice slice of girl group pop with a pinch of poor man’s Wall of Sound thrown in for good measure!
It’s been a while since this blog was really active but I hope you still check in from time to time to look for new posts. If you haven’t done so already, you could sign up for e-mail alerts whenever I post anything.
The reason why it’s been so quiet around here is that I’ve been extremely busy at work. Springtime and summer also generally means that I tend to listen more to the Beach Boys and harmony & sunshine pop than the Wall of Sound. For some reason I’m always more in the mood for the latter type of sound during fall and winter. And to top all this off – and here’s some blatant self-promotion – my band has been hard at work finishing our second album which you can check out here: https://surfschooldropouts.bandcamp.com/album/second-nature
So there you have it. I’ve been too busy to keep up the pace of the first couple of months blogging. Rest assured, I have lots of ideas for future posts that I’m sure will end up here over time. So please, stop by once in a while.
With that, I’m happy to publish a newly conducted interview with Kingsley Abbott, UK-based music journalist, reviewer, collector etc. I’ve been a fan of Kingsley’s work for many years and cherish his various books on, among other things, the Beach Boys, Motown and also Phil Spector. Besides issuing his own quality books, Kingsley also writes articles and reviews for music magazines like Record Collector, Uncut or Mojo. A very knowledgeable music fan -and expert I’m very glad to be able to publish his thoughts on various Spector topics.
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Kingsley, let’s start at the beginning. Do you remember when you became aware of Phil Spector’s music and his specific approach to production? Was there a particular song that won you over? And why?
I think it was something of a cumulative effect rather than one particular moment. I had really enjoyed both sides of the He’s A Rebel 45. He’s a Rebel for its ‘rolling along’ sound with the pianos, and I Love You Eddie for its ethereal and cavernous sound.
Then along came Da Doo Ron Ron which was joyous and infectious and one everyone loved, and then Be My Baby with the fully formed Wall Of Sound. My enjoyment of this one was begun with Penny Valentine’s great review of it in Disc & Music Echo – a lead review alongside The Jaynettes’ Sally Go Round The Roses, which she also loved.
After these I began to track back a little and pick up on ones I had missed like The Crystals Rebel follow-up. From then on I was 100 % sold on the Wall Of Sound, even though at that stage I had no idea of how it was done or what made the ‘big rumble’. It just excited me in a deep and gutsy way.
As someone growing up during the 60s how did you experience the UK reception of Spector’s recording approach and his Philles roster?
As with the Beach Boys, the Four Tops and others, Spector’s music seemed to demand more praise and respect on UK soil than in the US, at least during the latter part of the 60s? A notable Spector example could be the chart success of River Deep in the UK in contrast to its relative failure in the US. What are your thoughts on the cause of this difference?
In the UK, even then, I think we were interested in who and what was making the sounds. So we read the small print credits much more than they appear to have ever done in the States. This led us to thinking about writers, producers and later to musicians even though they did not get the credit early on. Spector albums would start to add some of the key players on them – Tedesco, Blaine et al – so this took us a bit deeper.
There were also fan groups for not just artists, but genres of sound – Tamla Motown Appreciation Society being the best example. I joined TMAS and eventually ended up running Stevie Wonder’s fan club for some years. By contrast, the Beach Boys Club was very poor then.
UK fans were intelligent in their musical appreciation. We had good ears, and picked up on a wide variety of fine music: West Coast harmony, Spector, Motown, Four Seasons, other club soul, Southern Soul, girl groups etc. Some fans specialised, while others like me loved the whole variety – I still do.
We could hear that River Deep was an amazing record, so quite rightly it sold in our market. In the States it failed by comparison as some radio people wanted to take Phil down a peg or two. Many potential US buyers never got to hear it at the time.
Were you a member yourself? And if so, how would you describe the world of Spector fandom as you have experienced it?
I think I was a member for a short time, but I’m not totally sure. I tended then to go my own way with a small group of friends. Being part of TMAS was the exception. Some years later I did get very excited by Mick Patrick’s Philately magazine, which I thought was fabulous with its illumination of rare records and its articles.
I’m delighted to say that Mick is still a pal. We have just finished up a new CD for Ace Records where he now works, and where I am involved in a small way too. Since the sixties, I have met some of the hardcore group of fans you speak of – great people who love the music!
You’re a record collector yourself. Could you tell a bit about your most treasured items in the ‘Wall of Sound’ section of your personal collection?
It doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to Spector productions. It could also be sound-alikes. If there are interesting anecdotes attached to some of your finds, please do tell.
This is hard! I treasure them all, but not for value. I’m just happy to have the great sounds in a variety of formats.
I was very happy to find Home Of The Brave – Bonnie & The Treasures – on Phi-Dan and the two Veronica singles, and I have enjoyed owning several original copies of the more obscure songs. But it is also fun to have things like the bootleg of Let’s Dance the Screw and Please Be My Boyfriend, hence the piece about the latter in my Spector book.
I do recall driving back through South East London and stopping off at a Deptford junk shop where I bought a huge box of 1000 US singles for just £10 I think. The best find there was Josephine Sunday’s You Don’t Even Know her Name on Tower, which I loved. Many of my best finds come from Charity shops of junk boxes. I’m still finding goodies to this day.
Your eagerly awaited ‘Little symphonies – a Phil Spector reader’ finally came out in 2011, – a very enjoyable collection of essays and interviews with insiders all revolving around Phil Spector’s music.
Why did you set out to compile this interesting collection of texts? Did you feel there was a specific void within the realm of Spector books that you wanted to cover?
Thank you for the kind words – I think it is quite a decent little book.
I saw doing it very much as completing my trilogy of books about the best of US sixties music – Back to the Beach (Beach Boys), Calling Out Around the World (Motown) and Spector. Ideally, it would have been the same size as the other two, but there were good reasons why it needed to be smaller. I took the same approach: a mix of old key articles and newly written perspectives and interviews that had worked well for the other two books, and that people told me they really liked.
With the Spector book I saw the Mark Wirtz and Phil Chapman interviews as taking readers deeper and wider into the technical understanding of how Phil worked. I was asking them questions that I genuinely wanted to know the answers to myself. I also added my appendices – I like lists, reference points etc at the back of books – I guess it is a bit nerdy. But hey, they were my books!
The UK had its fair share of Spector worshippers testing the meters behind recording consoles, some of whom gave Spector a run for his money. Anyone in particular you’d like to comment on? Or perhaps some overlooked figure who more celebrated UK would-be-Spectors like Andrew Loog Oldham or Mark Wirtz have overshadowed?
Many tried, but few really achieved. In my book 500 Lost Gems there is the story about Spector himself probably being in the control room when Adrienne Posta cut Shang a Doo Lang.
As I say in the Spector book, I think Phil Chapman was probably the best at replicating not just the sound, but the feel. Many of his recordings are fabulous, and even better are some that have never been released, like a cover of Paradise and a version of Here It Comes. They sound wonderful through his studio speakers!
I also somewhere have a great cut produced by Biddu – I don’t know if this was ever released, so I need to check that one out with Mick P. one day. As a brief aside comment, it is wonderful to listen to the bootleg CDs of Spector in the studio, and just how positive and good humoured it was between him and the musicians – there was obvious mutual respect between them all – great to hear, and of course fascinating to hear the tracks take shape. Spector had very, very good ears!
… and speaking of Spector sound-alikes in general; could you mention a couple of your favorites? I imagine some have ended up on Ace’s fab Phil’s Spectre compilations but others may still only be found on dusty old vinyl singles?
I think I tend more towards the Spector-influenced rather that the soundalikes, so I would want to talk about some of the great Goffin – Titelman songs like What Am I Gonna Do With You (Hey Baby) which is fab in any one of several versions; Chiffons, Lesley Gore or the Inspirations. – also Tammy Grimes, and I do like Jack Nitzsche’s production on Michelle Phillips’s album Victim Of Romance – why has there never been a Jack Nitzsche book? And please don’t tell me that there is, and I’ve missed it!
With any of these though, It is first and foremost the quality of the song that counts above everything, before any production job. Ace’s Phil’s Spectre series is wonderful, and I would recommend them to anyone. You should have them all, and the Jack Nitzsche series, especially the final one ….and the first…and the second of course!
How do you feel about the stereo versions of Spector’s 60s productions that have crept out? Personally, I really like to hear them but they tend to divide fans due to the simple stereo separation.
I’m happy either way. I’ve never been fussed about mono/stereo debates and the way some hardcore fans or some people get so hung up on that sort of minute detail. First the song, vocal performance, track and production are way way ahead for me. Having said though, if I wanted to play the Crystals’ I Wonder, one of my biggest faves, I would play the London 45 very very loud!
Spector’s 70s productions is another topic that can cause heated debate. Some really love most of them; others find his work like that on the Dion album prodding and dirge-like. How do you feel about this phase of his career?
It was always at least interesting. He was trying new feels to my ears. The Dion album was Ok in parts, a bit less so in others, but always interesting. I did interview Dion and speak to him about it, and it was obviously not one of his best experiences, and probably that affected the album as much as anything.
I think the reason that many fans don’t like it so much is that it wasn’t overtly poppy. We had become used to Spector making POP records, and loving them, and this was different. Perhaps that’s why the Ramones did get a hit with Baby I Love You. Although it had a different feel, it was still a pop song when many others weren’t. But for me I’ll take ’em all for the interest.
Is there any particular artist or album from the last 20-30 years or so you’d like to recommend for any Spector fan urging for a bombast fix?
We live in a time of retromania, as music journalist Simon Reynolds has titled an interesting book of his, but when new acts today harken back to the 60s in their approach they usually go the garage, Motown or psych route. Do you know of any recent artists with a sound that would warrant an approving nod from Spector or Jack Nitzsche?
Why not recommend that people go back to the original hits? No one has ever bettered them. Many of the so-called Spector influenced recent or less recent recordings have none of the feels that we would love. People think that if they add castanets and echo they are making a Spector record – NOT SO! This is much like many of the cod-Motown records that have always been around – nobody cut them like the guys in the Snakepit.
Having said that, there are some sounds that capture some of the feels – once again I differentiate between feels and production – and create nice pieces. I have a new snippet of a local retro-influenced group here in Norwich called Rope Store with Never Too Late to Love. It’s only a ten second snippet, but it made me prick up my ears. I think you can find it on the net. I’ll look forward to hearing the full and finished version.
What would always get an approving nod from Phil or Jack would be quality in all departments!
Finally, a question I always conclude my interviews with; please share with us your all-time five Spector productions.
So difficult, but in no particular order: He’s A Rebel, I Wonder, Lovin’ Feelin’, Baby I Love You and Little Boy – with the latter I love the sheer excess and murkiness. Tomorrow, I will probably look at this and pick different ones.
Kingsley, it’s been very interesting to read your take on the Spector sound. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
Spector’s first taste of success came as a teenager in 1958 with his vocal trio the Teddy Bears.
Their Spector-produced monster hit ‘To Know Him is to Love Him’ instantly cast him as the new music whiz kid. Could Spector follow up on the promise inherent in the otherworldly sounds of this chart topper? Time proved he could indeed.
But on this, his first foray into the music business, friends Marshall Leib and Annette Kleinbard were along for the ride. Together, the three classmates made up the Teddy Bears – an unusual trio if ever there was one. Petite and beautiful brunette Kleinbard with an almost operatic register was the focal point while the guys harmonized around her in matching, dorky-looking sweaters.
The contrast between Spector and Leib in appearance was especially profound. Spector with his frail, nerdish appearance and receding chin looked like someone a tall, dark and handsome guy like Leib would normally have bullied in school. But music brought them together and the odd combination proved to work wonders.
The Teddy Bears recordings had a hazy, dreamy sound that Paul Payton, a reader of the blog, correctly has termed a ‘Velvet Wall of Sound.’ Perhaps a ‘Velvet Blanket of Sound’ is an even better term. The sound was one of warmth and delicacy, only hinting at the frenetic bombast to come in later years.
And that’s usually where the story about Leib ends in the various overviews of Spector’s career. Typecast as the handsome Teddy Bear who loyally sang his background ‘shoo bi doos’ on recordings, Leib is mostly portrayed as nothing more than a flunky. A guy who just happened to have the looks and a good-enough voice to merit inclusion in Spector’s first musical adventure. And maybe that was indeed the case back in the late 50s. However, Leib soon proved himself to be a great producer in his own right. I can’t claim to know the full extent of Leib’s career in the music business after the break-up of the Teddy Bears. One thing is clear though. Like many other Los Angeles music professionals he readily absorbed the influence of Spector’s Wall of Sound approach and ran with it for a few superb single releases.
Once again, a musician from Spector’s inner circle felt the urge to step out of his shadow and put to use the tricks he’d picked up looking over his shoulder in the studio.
Here are three fabulous Wall of Sound productions courtesy of Marshall Leib.
Alder Ray – Cause I Love Him (1964) – It’s not often you come across a vocal performance that Darlene Love couldn’t have bettered. In the case with this single though, I’ll claim Alder Ray beat Darlene at her own game! The song is top-notch, the frenzied production stomps along at castanet-breaking speed and Ray really turns in a stellar vocal. Unlike probably most others, I prefer the stereo mix because the Darlene Love-led backing vocals are more prominent.
The Westwoods – I Miss my Surfer Boy Too (1965) – Recorded at Gold Star, where else?, this joint production by Leib and Spector’s favorite arranger Jack Nitszche is an answer record to the ‘transplanted surfer’ themed ‘New York’s a Lonely Town’. A record produced by another pair of would-be Spectors, Pete Anders and Vini Poncia under their Tradewinds guise! Collector Anthony Reichardt labels this Westwoods single a “quazi-Spectoresque meets Surf production” and I can only agree.
Carol Connors – My Baby Looks but He Don’t Touch (1966) – Va-va-voom! Look at that picture sleeve. By 1966, Leib’s old Teddy Bears bandmate Annette Kleinbard was known as Carol Connors, writing songs in the hot rod / surf realm and occasionally recording. ‘My Baby Looks but He Don’t Touch’ is a perfect mix of the breathy Teddy Bears sound and elements of Spector’s later production philosophy.
Following my fourth installment of the ‘Would-be Spectors’ feature about Brian Wilson last week, I’ve discussed the topic further on a Beach Boys fan forum. During the discussions music teacher, former studio owner and music historian Craig Clemens weighed in with some interesting reflections on the differences between Phil Spector and Brian Wilson.
Craig has graciously allowed me to feature his interesting reflections on Brian Wilson and Phil Spector as a guest post on Cue Castanets. Bear in mind that the following text was originally two forum posts that I have edited into one essay as I think you will enjoy Craig’s writing as much as I do.
Craig Clemens – “Phil Spector and Brian Wilson”
When comparing Phil Spector and Brian Wilson there are various differences between them to consider.
For one thing, Spector had a head start of the two, and unlike Brian, Phil served an apprenticeship of sorts under the mentorship of Leiber and Stoller.
If you listen to those more orchestral-leaning Leiber and Stoller tracks, like the Drifters, you’ll hear a lot of what would turn up later on Spector’s Wall Of Sound productions. Especially the auxiliary percussion like castanets, which really were not “rock and roll” or R&B as much as they were an orchestral/ethnic instrument sound. Spector used percussion like that extensively, and when Brian did copy Spector as in ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ or ‘Then I Kissed Her’, there were the same elements.
Besides the apprenticeship Spector had with those two giants of writing and production in the 50’s, he also had Jack Nitzsche to do the arrangements. Without Jack, there is no “Wall”. I’d like to elaborate on that:
The best arrangers are like the best individual musicians; when you hear a few bars of their stuff you know who it is. It gets deeper than a lot of listeners notice, but take for a parallel example the differences on Sinatra’s 1950’s Capitol releases – one of the finest bodies of work in all of popular music.
It is possible to hear the differences between a Nelson Riddle arrangement and a Billy May arrangement, but for a lot of listeners who don’t key into some specific details they can basically respond by saying “it sounds like Sinatra”. Yet, Riddle had a very unique and identifiable style…and overall mood/tone, which is more important to where I’m going with this regarding Jack Nitzsche… that you can pick his ‘tone’ out if you listen for it. Nelson was very unique, Billy May was an excellent arranger but when you got Sinatra singing a Riddle chart, there was a sympatico magic that happened in the performance captured on tape.
Jack Nitzsche was a character, a really unique and quirky character who happened to be a terrific arranger, but to be honest having read about him beyond Spector, he had a different personality than some of his music suggests. The guy who did the ‘Christmas Gift for You’ album…Jack in person…not what you’d think.
Nevertheless, I think it was Jack who crystallized the actual sound of Spector’s Wall. Others could write charts to exploit it, or even to copy it, but it was Jack’s arrangements along with the other pieces of the puzzle that just nailed it. I don’t base this on anything but opinion, but I think the fact that Jack and Phil were both characters who marched to their own drummer made the “Wall” as edgy as it was.
It’s not a sensitive Wall, like Pet Sounds, it’s not an introspective Wall, like others. Rather, these teenage pop recordings are like a tidal wave and an earthquake which the lead singer has to either ride out or rise above, or risk getting swept up.
Jack’s charts demanded something unique from whoever was singing lead. That’s just what Spector needed, that’s just what a true belter like Darlene Love brought in and what a really unique and different voice like Ronnie Spector brought in. Not every Spector production worked, naturally, but the ones that put the template into place and set the standard beyond even the music seemed to be Jack’s charts powering the engine.
Seriously, try this, time permitting, as an experiment. Next time you can round up some volunteer listeners, grab some of Jack’s better known Spector arrangements and play them alongside the other arrangers Phil worked with on the Wall, Arnold Goland, Gene Page or Perry Botkin Jr. At the same time, get a handful of Nelson Riddle’s charts for Sinatra in the 50’s, and play them alongside Billy May’s charts, and even add a few Quincy Jones charts as well, or Gordon Jenkins. See which ones if any stand out above the rest, quality wise or just plain interest wise.
I think Jack’s charts are the cream of the crop, the others solid and good but lacking that extra “something” that Jack brought to the process.
Another parallel to consider: Both Brian and Phil had recording engineers at their side in the studio to bring their sounds to life, and more importantly capture them on tape. Phil had Larry Levine, Brian had Chuck Britz.
I’d argue if they did not have those highly skilled engineers, who were both from the “old school” yet willing to break the rules to get better sounds on tape, the productions would not have been the same. I’d say Brian learned so much from Chuck as far as the nuts-and-bolts of capturing sounds on tape that it colored everything he was able to do which culminated with the year 1966. Chuck was like Brian’s mentor for sounds, and fortunately, Chuck was working at an independent studio that would allow Brian to be hands-on with the board without needing a union card to work the board.
The untold stories are the hours that were spent with Chuck Britz as Brian watched and learned the technical aspects of studio recording and mixing. Chuck could be one of the most unsung heroes in the whole story. I’d guess that if he and Brian didn’t connect early on and were not so compatible working together, you would not have seen the level of work that Brian progressed into.
But consider this: Phil had Jack and Larry plus a mentorship with Leiber and Stoller under his belt, The Beatles had George Martin, Norman Smith and Geoff Emerick to get the sounds on their recordings, and Brian was basically a one-man show for arranging, orchestrating, and writing…plus production…with Chuck Britz, mostly, to record the sounds.
For a guy in his early 20’s to have learned basically on-the-job without an apprenticeship or a formally trained musician like Jack Nitzsche or George Martin at the helm, it’s quite an amazing accomplishment to have that body of work in the 1960’s competing with those peers.
What can I write about Jack ‘Specs’ Nitzsche that hasn’t already been chronicled elsewhere? A legendary songwriter, producer and artist in his own right, Nitzsche’s first major claim to fame was his arranging skills, expertly put to use on a string of iconic Spector productions.
When Spector relocated his recording activities from New York to Los Angeles, the then-emerging new Mecca for pop, Nitzsche was quickly enlisted as arranger for his first LA session in 1962, the recording of ‘He’s a Rebel.’
Spector not only got the most talented up-and-coming arranger in town at his side, he also gained access to Nitzsche’s invaluable contacts, bringing together a veritable ‘who’s who’ of LA’s best session musicians. These dynamic, versatile players were later dubbed the Wrecking Crew and proved ready, willing and able to help Spector experiment and challenge conventional recording practices. He had missed that kind of support in New York where session musicians often made a fuzz when the soon-to-be ‘Tycoon of Teen’ tried to coerce them into unorthodox session takes.
With Nitzsche as his right-hand man, Spector’s work took on gargantuan, cavernous proportions by each release. The duo worked together on so many classic recordings. The list goes on and on. I like this quote from legendary LA scenester Rodney Bingenheimer who visited the ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ session with Brian Wilson in 1966: “Jack and Phil were very tight. They were like co-pilots on the Concorde from a flight from France.” Well said!
Spector and Nitzsche really brought out the best in each other. As much as the Wall of Sound has often been attributed to the famed Gold Star studios echo chamber, you simply cannot underestimate Jack Nitzsche’s importance in the equation. Spector did create beautiful art with other arrangers, i.e. Arnold Goland, Gene Page and Perry Botkin Jr., but Nitzsche remained his preferred arranger – the one who understood his approach best. Always to be trusted to arrange those sweet, sweeping and highly beautiful strings that graced many a Philles release.
It is no surprise then that Nitzsche made the most out of his first-hand crash course in the Wall of Sound. There is a plethora of fantastic singles spread out among a myriad of labels. If a record company back then wanted a big sounding Wall of Sound production, hiring ‘Specs’ was your best bet. Not only did you get the master’s favorite arranger, you also got the same studio environment (Gold Star) and session musicians (the Wrecking Crew). More often than not, the results were prime examples of perfect Wall of Sound that could give even Spector a run for his money.
Labelling Nitzsche a mere Spector-clone though would be an insult. Unlike Spector, Nitzsche proved much more versatile and productive, moving with the times and amassing an impressive body of work through the 60s and beyond that proves he was well attuned to the shifting fads in the music business.
Where Spector often only hinted at the influence of, say, Motown or the emerging Folk-Rock sounds of the day, Nitzsche cleverly mixed his Wall of Sound background with the latest hot sound and got some great results. It’s no wonder that UK reissue label Ace Records have issued three great Nitzsche compilations that perfectly supplement their three ‘Phil’s Spectre’ 60s Wall of Sound soundalike compilations.
For anyone wanting to delve deeper into the Nitzsche legend, look no further than the online treasure trove of UK fan Martin Roberts. His Nitzsche website is filled to the brim with articles, interviews, reviews, news etc. Sadly, it seems as if he has abandoned the project in recent years but the range of info still on there is both impressive and overwhelming: http://www.spectropop.com/JackNitzsche/
Finally, as I always do on the subject of would-be Spectors, here are my three personal picks showing Nitzsche at what he does best.
Songs to seek out:
Hale & the Hushabyes – ‘Yes Sir, That’s my Baby’ (1964) – Stately string-soaked rendition of the old Irving Berlin standard with a giant chorus rumored to feature, among others, Brian Wilson, Sonny & Cher, Jackie De Shannon and Darlene Love. According to Nitzsche, needing a bass singer, he went to the Gold Star lobby and grabbed some black guy no-one knew who was sitting there. Minutes later he sang the distinctive bass part in the song! The strings featured from ca. the 1 minute mark are achingly beautiful.
PJ Proby – ‘I Can’t Make It Alone’ (1966) – PJ Proby turns in his typical flamboyant vocal performance on this majestic blue-eyed soul ballad. The dense mono mix of the original single has Proby duetting with himself in frenetic Righteous Brothers-fashion.
The Satisfactions – ‘Daddy, You Gotta Let Him In’ (1966) – Take a dose of ‘Then He Kissed Me’, a pinch of Shangri-Las type teen drama, add some Gold Star echo and bring to a boil. Voila! The perfect Wall of Sound stomper about a Hell’s Angels member hiding out at his girlfriend’s home.
It’s time again to focus on one of the would-be Spectors that worked LA studios in the 60s, feverishly trying to nail the Wall of Sound. A good choice for the topic would be the often overlooked Jerry Riopelle.
Jerry was a very talented jack-of-all-trades – singer, songwriter, musician, producer – you name it! He could do it all. Yet he remains somewhat of a shadowy figure, mostly remembered today by hardcore fans of Phil Spector due to his involvement in some superb soundalike records. It’s even difficult to find a 60s photo of him online. This low-res image of him hanging out with Phil Spector and Jack Nitzsche is the best I could do.
The Phil Spector Appreciation Society had an interview with Jerry in the Philately fanzine in 1984. Luckily for us, that interview is featured at the Spectropop website. So rather than me going on with a long post on Jerry’s adventures with the Wall of Sound, why not read his own detailed account?
Suffice to say, Jerry’s position as Phil Spector’s protégée during the mid-60s gave him an unprecedented inner view on what made the wall come together in the studio. But even before he found himself under ‘Uncle Phil’s’ wing, he had the basic formula worked out. According to legend, when Spector’s preferred engineer Larry Levine played him Clydie King’s 1965 Riopelle-produced single ‘The Thrill is Gone’, the ‘Tycoon of Teen’ took notice and immediately decided to snap up the young producer for Philles Records.
In 1965 Riopelle produced some fantastic sides for Clydie King. ‘The Thrill is Gone’ is majestic and one can understand why Spector was impressed when he heard it. I personally think that ‘Missin’ my Baby’ from the same year betters it. What a lush, beautiful production! Both songs can be found on Ace Records’ must-have Phil’s Spectre comps, vol. 1 and 2.
The crowning achievement for Riopelle though remains ‘Home of the Brave’ by Bonnie & the Treasures. Phil Spector released it on his Phi-Dan imprint in 1965. All sorts of rumors have surrounded this track ever since. One has it that it was actually Ronnie Spector who sang the lead. A ridiculous claim since you can easily hear it’s not her. It has since been established that it was session singer Charlotte O’Hara (Charlotte Ann Matheny) who took the lead.
Another rumor has it that it was Phil Spector who in reality produced this iconic single. Riopelle disputes that claim and has both a label production credit and his former successful Wall of Sound productions as evidence. I imagine that the rumor formed when Phil Spector personally took action and got behind the single very aggressively when a rival version by singer Jodi Miller hit the charts.
Here then, in all it’s muddy Gold Star echo glory, is the epic ‘Home of the Brave’:
Songs to seek out:
Clydie King – ‘The Thrill is Gone’ (1965) & ‘Missin’ my Baby’ (1965) – You can’t go wrong with these two Wall of Sound classics.
Bonnie & the Treasures – ‘Home of the Brave’ (1965) – is this the pinnacle of the Spector soundalikes? I am of the opinion that Spector couldn’t have done this one better.
Bonnie – ‘Close Your Eyes’ (1966) – this fab production has a melody to die for. Charlotte O’Hara steps up to the mike for another great lead vocal.
Musings on Phil Spector's Wall of Sound and similar music…