There’s an interesting page on Facebook, ‘Heppest of the Hep’, that regularly posts high definition footage of live performances ranging from the 40s to the 60s.
The sources for the material are unclear and probably a bit shady but there’s much of interest for any music fan.
Recently, the page has posted this beautiful high definition clip of Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra performing at the TNT Show.
You’ve all seen this clip a gazillion times before but this is without a doubt the best quality the clip can be seen. Follow the link for the Ronettes in crystal clear high definition.
In case you’re wondering why there hasn’t been any mention of Ronnie’s recent ‘English Heart’ album, I must confess that I haven’t bothered checking it out.
I’m not a über-fan who has to have everything and the concept of her singing fairly wellknown UK hits just leaves me cold – and also strikes me as lazy decisionmaking in terms of her career. Ronnie may ‘Much Rather be with the Girls’, the retitled Stones song, but I’d much rather hear her iconic voice tackle newly written material! Or at least take some more chances recording-wise.
I’d love to hear your opinions of the release though. Is it worth checking out? The few sound clips I’ve heard online has struck me as rather underwhelming. But that may also be because I’ve heard the original versions of ‘Tell Her No’, ‘I’ll Follow the Sun’ or ‘You’ve Got Your Troubles’ a gazillion times.
For anyone interested, here’s a short interview with Ronnie about the release:
There were also some covers on ‘Last of the Rock Stars’, but I think that album worked much better because the covered songs were either from modern indie/alternative acts or from a later era in music history than the 60s the Ronettes sprung from.
That gave the album an edge I quite liked, pairing Ronnie’s distinctive voice with the sort of material that those who’ve followed her ever since the 60s probably would not have heard otherwise. In comparison, I think this recent release plays it way too safe with its emphasis on songs that will be fairly wellknown to most connoisseurs of 60s music.
You can’t discuss a Ronnie release without also having a keen eye on the production since her career is so intrisicantly linked to the legendary Wall of Sound production technique. The one behind the console for ‘English Heart’ is US producer Scott Jacoby and for anyone interested, I’ve found a short documentary where he talks viewers through the production.
There you go; just my 2 cents of course. Other fans may disagree and if so, I really hope that Means they enjoy the ‘English Heart’.
A few posts ago, I wrote a bit about the first Phil Spector Appreciation Society (PSAS) and their batch of newsletters sent out to fans at the end of the 60s.
While reading through the newsletters and their info about Spector’s then current liaison with Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’ A&M Records, I noticed a few indications that both Spector and the label had their eyes set on issuing a second album by the Ronettes.
The group’s first album, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes featuring Veronica, came out on Philles in 1964,… so you could hardly blame all involved for itching for a long overdue follow-up. And no wonder – sitting in the can were some awesome recordings that cobbled with a few new tracks could have made for a killer album, although a little outdated in sound by 1969 standards.
It’s fun speculating which tracks could have made up this dream album. Here’s my suggestion for a running order.
The Ronettes – ‘They Came, they Saw, they Conquered’, A&M Records, 1969
You Came, You Saw, You Conquered
I Can Hear Music
Born to be Together
Everything under the Sun
I’ll Never Need More than This
Here I Sit
Keep On Dancing
Is this What I Get for Loving You, Baby?
Woman in Love
I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine
Pretty nifty collection of tracks, isn’t it?
And the only ones debatable are ‘Someday (Baby)’, which does exist in a half-completed state with a Ronnie lead vocal, and ‘I’ll Never Need More than This’ which Ronnie herself has claimed she had a go at. Besides these, who knows which other tracks may have been completed at the time?
Had Spector wanted an album out, he could easily have put something together using the stellar tracks from a few years back he already had on tape. Would it sell? Probably not considering the times in 1969 – but boy, oh boy, would it have made for one hell of a great, cohesive album!
I can’t believe I haven’t posted this one yet in my ongoing feature on modern Spector soundalikes. It’s one of the earliest modern faux Spector records to catch my ear as a fresh-faced Spector fan and send me off tracking down similar recent songs with a bombastic production.
US garage / power pop trio Splitsville was formed in the mid-90s and I discovered them by way of their great and highly melodic ‘Pet Soul’ album from 2001. As a major Beach Boys fan and fan of the fab four (come on,who isn’t?) I knew I had to check out an album with a title lampooning ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Rubber Soul’, two of the great pop platters ever made.
‘Pet Soul’ is indeed a delicious offering of pop perfection and although the emphasis is heavy on the Brian Wilson and Lennon/McCartney side of things, other sounds and influences pop up here and there. The driving ‘The Popular’ is no doubt envisioned by the band as the album’s Spector tribute – there’s just no way these guys didn’t have the Wall of Sound in mind with this soung’s pounding crescendo two-thirds in.
In fact, I was so mesmerized by this song that I once e-mailed the group’s manager suggesting that he and the band should contact Ronnie Spector so she could be offered the song. This was around the time when she was working on ‘Last of the Rock Stars’ and I still feel that this great track with her vocal could have been a highlight of the album. The Splitsville manager replied that it was a great idea but they probably never followed up on it.
Never mind, the Splitsville version is fine as it is and would be sure to be included on my playlist of favorite modern Spector soundalikes any time.
Here’s a great guest post for Cue Castanets courtesy of a good friend and fellow Spector fan and collector. Online, he calls himself Spectorlector. Enjoy!
BE MY BABY
– A song,… and a book.
I never really cared for music! I know that is hard to believe since I am guest-posting on this blog, but being born in 1974, I grew up during the 80s with hiphop, rap, breakdance and huge ghettoblasters. (Btw. why was it necessary to have such a big machine to play those small casette tapes?) I was certainly born in the wrong decade…
But then in 1987 a song changed my life: ‘Be my baby’ by the Ronettes. The first time I heard the song I had an epiphany, very much like Brian Wilson, when he heard the track back in 1963 and almost crashed his car. In 1987, for a 13 year-old boy like me at the time, 1963 seemed like a century ago. I was hooked though, wanting to dicover more…. know more about the girls, the group, their story…. Who did that song, and what happened to them? The words ‘performed by THE RONETTES’ printed on the back of my sisters vinyl copy of the ‘Dirty Dancing’ soundtrack was sketched into my brain.
For me, the song in itself was the sound of lust, love, innocence and emotional yearning, all rolled into one. The triple drum-fills sounding like a heart skipping, the castanets evoking the feeling of shivers down the spine and the strings putting into sound the butterflies in my stomach. Never before had a piece of music spoken to me like this. I was in love with a song… Thus began a love affair, that has lasted longer than any real romance in my life.
This was before the world wide web, and back in those days, finding info on anything was like searching for a needle in a haystack. One day though, I happened to see the words “BE MY BABY” in bright pink letters on a bookstand, I could feel the black in my eyes growing, like when a cat eyes a mouse… That was the first time I laid eyes on Ronnie, her tight skirt and high beehive hair. Wow! I finally got a huge step closer to solving the mystery of The Ronettes and ‘Be my Baby’.
25 years have passed since I first read her book, and what a book! The perfect page-turner. The story of a half-breed teenage girl from Spanish Harlem, striving for success in show-business, eventually recording one of the most iconic and loved 60s pop-songs, only to watch it all slip away. The nightmare of her marriage to – and lock-up by – the producer of her songs, the subsequent battle with alcoholism, frustration… and finally, surviving it all and getting back to the one thing she loves and does best: performing.
Ronnie’s book was republished in 2004 and is in print now again in 2015 in a brand new version featuring lots of ‘never before seen’ photographs. It comes in four different versions, an Ebook/Kindle version and three printed options. A paperback with only b/w photos, a paperback with colour and b/w photos, and most importantly: a “have to own” hardback. As far as Ronnie’s story goes, it’s the same as when first published. What’s important here is the updated discography and the mind-blowing set of both black/white and colour photos included.
For me this new edition is important. I helped updating and putting the discography together, a fine and impressive labor of love, that was original done (among others) by one of my mentors and friends: David A. Young. Because I helped a little, my name is mentioned twice in the book….this makes me so proud. The song, the book and I have come full circle. I never dreamed I would be part of a piece of work that I adored so much. If someone had told me this 25 years ago, and all the people I would connect with during my love affair with “Be My Baby” – the song and the book – I would have said “you’re nuts” and laughed in their face. Pretty much the same feeling I know Ronnie Spector has whenever she is out on the road, singing, performing and meeting fans that are still in love with her, her songs and her story… 50+ years down the line…
On a final note, I would like to say that I gain no profit what-so-ever from being a part the book, nor the sales.
Picking up on the latest post about the use of ‘Be my Baby’ in the Portuguese movie Tabu, here’s a little bit about the iconic beat of what is perhaps the most classy of Spector’s releases.
US rock critic Dave Marsh once pointedly described ‘Be my Baby’ as Spector ‘building a rock’n’roll cathedral’ around Ronnie’s voice – and it certainly is a fantastic production. None the least due to it’s catchy drum beat – ‘bum-ba-bum-BOOM!’ A beat so distinctive, it’s been copied over and over ever since.
Looking back, how did Spector himself feel about this iconic beat and the production of the song? For some answers to this question, head on over to the blog of Gavin Edwards, who works as a contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine. Turns out he received some personal recollections from the former Tycoon of Teen in 2004 about the recording of ‘Be my Baby.’
For those of you who may not have heard, Ronnie Spector’s memoir, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life as a Fabulous Ronette has been republished in a newly redesigned edition, which is available as an eBook and in no fewer than three different printed variations—including two that feature full color interior photos.
If you’re reading Cue Castanets, I probably don’t need to remind you of the incredible story Ronnie tells in her book. I remember it made quite an impact on me what I got my hands on it during the early 00s, immediately after discovering the power of the Wall of Sound through the Back to Mono box. A very entertaining read indeed, so it’s great to have a new edition containing every word of Ronnie’s one-of-a-kind life story, exactly as she told it in the first edition of the book published 25 years ago next month.
As a fan of all things Spector, I’m guessing you’ve already read the book and that you’re probably more interested in learning about what’s new to this edition. And the answer to that is plenty. Ronnie’s collaborator on the memoir, Vince Waldron, – who has helped Ronnie in her publishing ventures since the publication of the first edition in 1990 – has sent me a bit of info about the re-designed edition. So for now, I’ll hand this space over to Vince for him to present the new edition, including some photo samples and links to where the book in its various forms can be bought online.
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The following info is courtesy of Vince Waldron:
“Above all, you’ll get 75 color and black and white images, most of them from Ronnie’s personal archives, and many of them seeing print for the very first time.
If you have one of the previous editions of Be My Baby, you probably recall that they all featured brief inset photo sections that contained only a handful of black and white images. For the new edition, Ronnie decided to go all out and include as many photos as could be squeezed into the book’s 358 pages. And this time the images are logically laid out through the whole book, allowing the reader to savor each one in the context of the surrounding story.
Ronnie dug deep into her personal archive to find images that hadn’t appeared in print before, and she insisted that we pepper the book with as many color images as possible. That’s one of the reasons we opted to publish color editions of the new book in paperback and hardcover in addition to the standard black and white trade paperback that I’m pretty sure no one reading this is going to settle for. Actually, as much as I enjoy holding a tangible printed book in my hands, I must confess to being a sucker for the eBook edition of Ronnie’s book, if only because it’s the only one that features enlargeable high resolution images that reveal every facet of the book’s 75 color and black and white pictures.
The other big draw to the new edition for anyone reading Cue Castanets is the completely revised, corrected, and thoroughly updated Ronnie Spector Discography that appears as an appendix in the back of the book. Readers of the earlier editions of this book may recall the lengthy discographies that were included in those previous issues, but they were nothing compared to the massive 30 page document that appears here.
By way of comparison, the discography in the 1990 first edition of Ronnie’s book included 101 entries. By the time the book was reprinted in 2004, that discography had grown to 144 entries. Now, just over ten years later, the number of entries in the current discography has expanded to 173, a testament not only to Ronnie’s still thriving recording career, but also to the comprehensiveness of the new discography, which now includes a number of new entries for songs that were overlooked or unknown when the earlier discographies were compiled.
We also strove to make the discography as up-to-date as our late-2014 deadline allowed. (And, in case you’re keeping track, the final two chronological entries in this one are Ronnie’s contribution to a new Bryan Ferry album, and Ronnie’s cover of The Beatles’ “P.S. I Love You” that was included in the deluxe edition of last year’s “Art of Paul McCartney” boxed set.) It’s probably worth noting that this discography, like its precursors, was compiled with the generous assistance and scrupulous input of some of the most respected Spector fans the world over, including Peter Andreasen, Kevin Dilworth, James Fogerty, Randi Russi, Danny J. Williams, Bob Volturno, and David A. Young, to name only a few.
As a fan of Spector-era music myself, I’m delighted to report that the result of all that effort is the most comprehensive survey of Ronnie’s recorded career ever published—and may be one of the most thorough examinations of the recorded output of any Spector-era artist currently in print.
If you’d like to know more about this new edition of Ronnie’s book—or perhaps even order a copy!—here are links to the four variations of the new edition that are available now at an online bookstore near you. If you need more information, including media inquiries or requests for legitimate review copies, you can contact me directly through the email link at bemybaby.com.
This elegantly designed eBook features the complete text of Ronnie’s 1990 memoir along with 75 enlargeable color and black and white images, a fully-hypertext linked index, and the thoroughly updated Ronnie Spector Discography. Although the link above connects to the Kindle edition, the eBook is available on all major digital book platforms, including GooglePlay, Apple’s iBooks, B&N’s Nook, and Kobo.
This deluxe color edition contains the same content as the eBook and black and white trade paperback edition, except that the color images appear in color in the book’s interior pages, and there are touches of color typography throughout. I may be a biased, but I think any serious Ronnie Spector fan will find this edition well worth the extra five bucks over the cost of the standard black and white trade paperback edition.
Be My Baby (Deluxe color hardcover edition) $29.95
This deluxe color edition contains the same interior content as the Deluxe color trade paperback edition, including all the color images in color, and with color accents in the typography and layout throughout the book. With its classy clothbound cover and glossy wrap-around dust jacket, this edition gives the best bang for the buck for the serious Spector collector.”
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!
When I got seriously into the Wall of Sound in the early 00s I quickly felt the need for a good overview of Spector’s recorded output.
How much had been left off the Back to Mono box that was my rite of passage into all things Spector? What were the stories behind all of these productions? Some, like the Modern Folk Quartet or the Alley Cats seemed to be one-offs? And what, if anything, had Spector committed to tape after his Philles heyday?
Remember, this was in the early years of the internet. There wasn’t a great deal of info online and as a fresh-faced, nascent Wall of sound fan in my early 20s I was looking for answers. They came in the form of a curious book called ‘Collecting Phil Spector – The Man, the Legend and the Music’ which I was delighted to find via a search through the national library system in my country.
To this day, I suspect there’s only one copy available through the library here – the one that I was able to bring home and study like it was Holy Scripture. I kept renewing my loan on this book for several months. This is where I first read about the over-looked productions of the 70s. It was also the book that really whetted my appetite for hunting down various Spector soundalikes. There’s a whole discography in it devoted to these soundalike records, old and new – even meticulously divided into sections like ‘Righteous Brothers soundalikes’ or ‘Spector Soundalikes 1980s’. It’s a wet dream for every fan of the Wall of Sound that finds the official Spector output too limited to satisfy his craving for bombast.
Since then I’ve read almost every book on Spector and his music with Mick Brown’s seminal tome ‘Tearing Down the Wall of Sound’ being my favorite, followed closely by Rob Finnis’ ‘the Phil Spector Story’ and Mark Ribowsky’s more trashy but very entertaining ‘He’s a Rebel.’ And would you believe there are more than these solely focused on Spector along with auto-biographies by Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, Sonny Bono, Hal Blaine, Cher etc?
The Spector-related book shelf is actually pretty crowded with lots of entertaining, highly informative reads. But ‘Collecting Phil Spector’ somewhat holds a special place for me with its earnest fan-boy focus on the music. There is a bit of info about Spector’s personal life but it’s very basic and the authors point out in the foreword that their book isn’t meant as a biography but a walk-through of the music.
I’ve tried unsuccessfully to locate the authors Jack Fitzpatrick and Jim Fogerty via Facebook but to no avail. It’s a shame because I’d love to hear more about their book’s origin. It’s clearly a labor of love written by two über-fans – and they are readily described as such on the dust cover. But why did they undertake such a project in 1991? At a time when Spector had been lying low for more than a decade?
Well, the Back to Mono box came out the very same year as the book so maybe the book was somehow tied into this project? It seems though that the book came out first since the box isn’t listed in the book’s Spector discography. Rhino Records allegedly worked on a project along the lines of the Back to Mono box with Spector before he changed horses in the middle of the stream and gave the project to ABCKO to finish. So there may be a connection there?
No matter what, ‘Collecting Phil Spector’ is an interesting read even today. More of a catalog with short essays rather than a book maybe but you can definitely feel the enthusiasm and love for the music throughout. I don’t know how limited the print run was but I suspect it was kept rather low for a vanity project like this.
About 8 years ago I was lucky enough to find a reasonably prized copy on Ebay – usually they go for much higher prizes the few times they pop up online. If you happen to see one at a fair prize, grab it! It’s a well-worth investment for any serious Spector / Wall of Sound fan, – even just as a sort of historical source like those old Phil Spector Appreciation Society newsletters and Philately fanzines I’ve previously written about here:
Jack & Jim! If you’re still out there,… if you happen to see this I’d love to know more about your work on the book. And a sincere thank you for giving me a great crash-course in the Wall of Sound all those years ago!
Musings on Phil Spector's Wall of Sound and similar music…