Music meets true crime: Why exactly was music mogul Phil Spector jailed?
Last weekend, music producer Phil Spector passed away at the age of eighty-one. Famous for creating the “wall of sound” effect that revolutionized music production, you’d think Spector died in his mansion surrounded by family & friends. Only he wasn’t living in a fancy mansion when he passed. Phil Spector died in a hospital after being transported there . . . from jail.
The California Dept. of Corrections & Rehabilitation confirmed Phil Spector’s death in the following statement: “California Health Care Facility inmate Phillip Spector was pronounced deceased of natural causes at 6:35 p.m. on Saturday, January 16, 2021, at an outside hospital. His official cause of death will be determined by the medical examiner in the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office.”
Phil Spector is often remembered for revolutionizing sound mixing in pop music and producing some of the greatest musicians & hits including artists like The Beatles and singles like “Da Doo Run Run” & “Be My Baby”. However, his success is overshadowed by a grizzly murder story, multiple reports of violent antics, and ultimately being jailed for murder. Here are the details about the life, times, and ultimately the conviction & jailing of Phil Spector.
Although most believed Phil Spector was born in 1940, court documents and Spector’s attorney confirmed he was born as Harvey Philip Spector on December 26th, 1939 in New York. His father was an ironworker who died by suicide when Spector was seven. Sources, including USA Today, cited the family’s debts as a motivating factor and claimed his father’s death shaped his songwriting & music production.
Phil Spector moved to LA when he was a teenager. He found his calling for music at Fairfax High school, where he performed in multiple talent shows and formed a band with his friends called The Teddy Bears. Spector has perfect pitch and could play several instruments.
When he was just seventeen, Phil Spector released his first hit, “To Know Him Is To Love Him”, which is a mainstay in early rock-n-roll. Soon, he was composing with mega-acts like Ben E. King and playing guitar on tracks like “On Broadway” by The Drifters.
Wall of Sound
The Wall of Sound that Phil Spector created still affects music today across multiple genres, from pop to melodic power metal. It’s a technique where the same parts, usually the guitars, are overlaid on top of each other over & over again to make them sound HUGE. The downside is that the track can lose any subtlety – the softer parts can get lost and listeners are more likely to tune out any quieter ambiance in the track.
However, if your motto is “go big or go home”, the wall of sound is for you. Later acts like Bruce Springsteen credited Phil Spector as an influence on creating their enormous sound. Arena rock, a genre noteworthy for filling large stadiums with bombastic tunes, wouldn’t be possible in the studio if it weren’t for Spector’s recording technique.
From big cheese to taking direction
After producing hit after hit – The Righteous Brothers’ powerful staple “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” was one of the songs he produced – he started taking a back seat. Folk-rock & psychedelic acts like The Beatles’ later catalog were beginning to eclipse his poppier songs. John Lennon called him “the greatest record producer ever,” and Spector even produced his classic, “Imagine”.
In footage of the Imagine documentary, John Lennon is giving Phil Spector direction on mixing backup vocals, something USA Today said was “a line none of Spector’s early artists would have dared cross”. Although Spector worked on producing The Beatles, not ever Beatle was a fan. While Lennon praised Spector for salvaging The Beatles’ Let It Be, Paul McCartney reportedly hated Spector’s additions.
Abuse & murder
However, Phil Spector had a dark side. Ronnie Spector, his ex-wife & lead singer of The Ronettes, claimed Phil was abusive and hired a hitman to kill her during their divorce proceedings.
He was remembered by many in the music industry for being temperamental & violent, and sources close to Spector alleged that he threatened women and waved guns in his recording studio. While Spector wasn’t jailed for these reported incidents, the allegations would come back to bite him when he was accused of killing actress Lana Clarkston.
In 2003, Clarkston was found dead inside Phil Spector’s California mansion with a gunshot wound to the head. The damning claim that would lead to Phil Spector being jailed for the deed? One witness reported Phil Spector came out of the mansion with blood on his hands saying: “I think I just killed someone.”
Trial after trial
Phil Spector maintained Lana Clarkston’s death was an accident. According to the BBC, Spector said Clarkston died after she “kissed the gun”. However, at his trial, four women would testify that Spector threatened them with guns after they rejected him. It initially took authorities a year to investigate Lana Clarkston’s death. In 2004, they pressed charges against Phil Spector for her murder.
At his trial, Spector divulged he was on medication for manic depression or bipolar disorder. “No sleep, depression, mood changes, mood swings, hard to live with, hard to concentrate, just hard – a hard time getting through life. I’ve been called a genius and I think a genius is not there all the time and has borderline insanity,” he testified.
His first trial in 2007 ended with a mistrial. According to USA Today, ten out of twelve jurors favored conviction, but the jury was ultimately hung. At his second trial in 2009, Phil Spector was found guilty of second-degree murder and was jailed, sentenced to nineteen years to life in prison.