A fellow Spector-fan has alerted me to this three-part interview with the late, great master engineer Lary Levine. He shares his thoughts on Spector and the iconic sounds the two men created together at Gold Star.
Hadn’t seen these segments before so they may be new to you as well.
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.
When investigating the Wall of Sound, at least the original source as heard on all those iconic Spector productions, you can’t underestimate the importance of legendary LA studio Gold Star.
It was Spector’s favorite haunt and the place he returned to time and again to commit his ‘little symphonies for the kids’ to tape. With the aid of a veritable legion of incredibly talented session musicians, later dubbed the Wrecking Crew, Gold Star almost became Spector’s laboratory, his marathon sessions devoted to concoct the formula for perfect, supersonic impact – a sound so strong, so overpowering that it would charge through speakers everywhere, grab listeners by the shoulders and envelop them with otherworldly splendor.
Much has been written about Gold Star, it’s famed echo chambers and its brilliant engineers, Stan Ross and Larry Levine. We have first-hand insights in the form of interviews with or accounts from people like Ross, Levine and various Wrecking Crew members; there are interesting photos shot at Gold Star sessions that show us how the studio and the various instrumental set-ups looked; and of course, there are actual tapes from Spector sessions floating around giving fans a fascinating opportunity to be a ‘fly on the Wall of Sound.’ (See what I did there?, he he)
Sadly, there’s a lack of moving images from Gold Star and the iconic session work taking place there during the 60s. We do however have this precious, but short AMC news reel filmed during a Sonny & Cher session in 1966:
This segment makes for fascinating viewing. You get a sense of how crammed the studio really was during sessions. And although Sonny & Cher and some of the session men are obviously goofing around for the camera, you can sense the professionalism in the whole set-up.
Sonny Bono was of course no stranger to either Gold Star or the Wall of Sound, having previously served as a gofer, percussionist and sometime back-up singer on numerous Spector sessions. When he found success with his girlfriend Cher, he did so by making the most of his first-hand knowledge of Spector’s recording methods. More about that in a later installment of ‘Would-be Spectors’ for this blog.
Enjoy the clip if you haven’t seen it already and then do yourself a favor and head over to the Classic Studio Sessions blog. The blog seems to be dead now, but from 2010 up until last year it featured some interesting research carried out by Josh Hoisington and Craig Clemens.
In their very first blog post back in 2010, Craig took his point of departure in this short clip and wrote a very detailed walk-through, pinpointing the recording set-up, some of the gear used and, perhaps most interestingly, identifying most of the session players. It’s a beautifully written and very insightful piece – perhaps a bit on the technical side for some but if you have any interest in the 1960s LA studio scene, it is a very worthwhile read.