Soul Serenade: The Ronettes, “Be My Baby”

Jim Fusilli is a music writer for the Wall Street Journal. He is one of a small field of writers on the subject whose work I respect. I try to read his stuff whenever I have time. I also follow him on Twitter, and that’s how this week’s column was born.

On Tuesday Jim posted a link to an article in the NY Post about HBO’s upcoming Phil Spector biopic. The article featured of a photo of Al Pacino, who’s playing Spector, in the kind of awful wig that characterized Spector’s appearance in the time after his arrest and trials for murder. I responded to Jim’s tweet by saying that I hoped that the film would focus on Spector’s contributions to the world of music, and not on his deplorable behavior. Based on that photo, it doesn’t seem likely.

That began a back and forth between Jim and I that lasted throughout the day. We definitely didn’t agree on some things, but the Twitter discussion never really crossed the line. Ok, he accused me of reaching, and I may have said that he was kicking a corpse, but all in all it was an intelligent discussion that I learned from.

After our Twitter discussion, I sent Jim an email and asked him to comment for this story. He was good enough to respond and I will include his comments verbatim here. Jim feels strongly about the fact that Phil Spector failed to credit the musicians, songwriters, arrangers, and vocalists who appeared on the records that he produced. Here’s what he has to say about it.

“Spector claims all the credit for the hits he produced. By doing so, he damaged careers and reputations of gifted, dedicated artists and denied them the attention they deserve. Session musicians, who work for hire, are accustomed to this behavior (though Brian Wilson made sure they were celebrated), but the damage he did to the careers of the vocalists can’t be calculated.”

I couldn’t agree more that these people should receive the credit that is long overdue. Where we disagree is that Jim feels that Spector’s failure to credit his collaborators somehow diminishes his contribution to the records. My opinion is that the sound and feel of those records was based on Phil Spector’s vision. The musicians were doing a job that they were paid for, although they do deserve credit for their contributions. The songwriters wrote great songs, and I’m sure they appreciated the royalty checks that arrived when Phil Spector turned their songs into hit records. I’ll bet that some of them would prefer the checks to the recognition.

Think about another legendary band of studio musicians, the Funk Brothers, who played on nearly every Motown hit. They never received any credit from Berry Gordy or anyone else. It wasn’t until Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album that they even got an album credit, and it was only with the release of the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown in 2002 that they finally received the full credit that they were due. Again, they were musicians being paid to do a job, but certainly worthy of all the praise that could be bestowed on them.

I would also raise the rather blasphemous question of whether the musicians were interchangeable. Would the Wall of Sound, or the Sound of Young America have been the same if other musicians had played on those records? Did Phil Spector need those particular musicians to make his vision a reality?

The bigger disagreement that Jim and I have is just how much credit Spector is entitled to for these records. Here is Jim’s take on it:

“Perhaps we should discuss the role of producer. In most cases, it’s also work for hire. I think Spector’s grab for all credit overstates his “artistic contributions.” The work stands on its own, but do we have a clear understanding of what he contributed to the work? In light of his ongoing criminal behavior that resulted in murder, do we have a better understanding of the kind of character who would claim credit belonging to others?”

I have a real problem connecting Spector’s reputation as an artist with his reputation as a terrible human being. First of all, if we start deducting points for bad behavior, and Spector’s was inexcusable, we’re going to have to downgrade a lot of the work of our favorite artists. I have never been the least bit interested in gossip or dirt. What matters to me is the work. I read a lot of music biographies, but I never read any of the salacious ones. A prime example is Peter Guralnick’s majestic two volume biography of Elvis Presley. Guralnick manages to tell Presley’s story brilliantly without having to resort to the tell-all stuff that other biographies have used to tar him.

It’s not that the fact that Phil Spector murdered someone doesn’t bother me. He is in jail, and will probably die there, for what he did. I don’t think that his artistic reputation should be diminished by what he did in his personal life. That’s as clear as I can be on it.

More from Jim on this:

“Let’s strip this down to a few simple questions: How many great records did Spector produce? What made those recordings great? What original ideas did he bring to the process of recording those great hits (The “wall of sound” has been a staple of orchestrated music for centuries before Spector.) Should they be called “Phil Spector records”?”

Well, the Phil Spector discography at Wikipedia lists over 50 singles that Spector produced. Are they all great? I don’t know how you rate these things, but even a casual glance at the list will tell you that there are many indisputable classics there. Among them is the Ronettes classic “Be My Baby”, a record that no less than Brian Wilson has called his favorite, and one that he would play over and over for hours. That record alone would be enough to cement the reputation of most other producers.

I don’t think I can answer Jim’s question about what makes the recordings great. It’s a feeling that you have in your bones when you hear it. You’ve all experienced it. Many of Spector’s records give me that feeling. I don’t agree with Jim’s assessment that the Wall of Sound was nothing new. It was evolutionary, and revolutionary. It was a sound that had not been heard in popular music previously, and one that has continued to have an enormous influence on contemporary music. Have you listened to “Born To Run” recently?

Finally, yes, they are Phil Spector records. This is an easy call for me because the fact is that Spector was able to interchange vocalists, songwriters, and musicians, and every one of those records still bore the stamp of his sound. There is a direct line from the work he did for the Crystals to the work that he did for the Beatles.

So now it’s up to you to weigh-in on this. Is Spector’s work diminished in light of his murder conviction. Did he deserve so much credit in the first place? Your turn.

For all of those unsung players, here’s a video that features the Funk Brothers.



 




  • http://robertcashill.blogspot.com BobCashill

    Not sure this sheds any light, but how I love those songs (I believe the HBO film is based on the doc): http://popdose.com/no-concessions-the-wonderful-horrible-life-of-phil-spector-and-more/

  • http://twitter.com/IrishJava Dennis Corrigan

    Ken, I agree with you on this.  You know a Phil Spector record when you hear it.  The Wrecking Crew were an incredibly talented set of musicians, but they were also studio guns for hire.  A lot of them played on other great records like Pet Sounds and Bridge Over Troubled Water.  When you listen to those records you don’t think “wow, that’s a great Wrecking Crew album” you think, “Wow, those are great Brian Wilson/Beach Boys and Simon & Garfunkel records”.  The sound on the Spector records was all his vision no matter if it were Darlene Love & the Crystal, Ronnie & the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers or even Ike & Tina Turner.  The sound, though, is unmistakably Spector.  

    Like you you, I also distinguish the personal life from the artistic accomplishment.   You could write hundreds of posts on artists in all media that weren’t particularly good people or were the proverbial tortured souls.  Like Spector, some of the even commit heinous crimes, but that doesn’t, too me, diminish their artistic works.  As you say, Spector’s probably going to die in jail, and deservedly so, but people long after that are going to be spinning “Be My Baby” and saying “that is a fantastic song”. 

  • Bob

    A thought-provoking piece, Ken. 

    I, too, am firmly in your corner on this one. It seems that Mr. Fusilli is making forced arguments to try to minimize the weight of Phil Spector’s accomplishments. I don’t know what Spector’s exact contributions to all of his records were, but there is no doubt that he was the bus driver on the Wall of Sound’s trip through the 60s.

    And as for “How many great records did Spector produce?”, how about “Spanish Harlem”, “Be My Baby”, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”, “Baby I Love You”, “Unchained Melody”, “River Deep, Mountain High”, to name a few. How about “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, probably the greatest rock and roll Christmas song of all time.

    For me, judging the greatness of these songs is not about some intellectual exercise; it’s about how they make me feel right here (pointing to my chest), about how — when the circumstances are right — they can send shivers down my spine like few other songs can. Spector’s deplorable personal life aside, I will always be grateful for the end product of his musical vision.  

  • http://twitter.com/deltaslide deltaslide

    Excellent piece! I was thrilled to read “what matters to me is the work.” This is something that is often forgotten ie: Ike Turner. Of course Spector deserves credit for that work. He made it happen-his choices were critical to the existence of those records. To argue otherwise is absurd. As a musician and songwriter myself I might add that having one’s contributions overlooked or minimized is nothing new and this goes on as much now as ever. It seems to me that it’s often a matter of basic insecurity on the part of the producers/figureheads. Some folks, no matter how established they are, just can’t bear to share the glory.

  • http://twitter.com/deltaslide deltaslide

    Excellent piece! I was thrilled to read “what matters to me is the work.” This is something that is often forgotten ie: Ike Turner. Of course Spector deserves credit for that work. He made it happen-his choices were critical to the existence of those records. To argue otherwise is absurd. As a musician and songwriter myself I might add that having one’s contributions overlooked or minimized is nothing new and this goes on as much now as ever. It seems to me that it’s often a matter of basic insecurity on the part of the producers/figureheads. Some folks, no matter how established they are, just can’t bear to share the glory.

  • Sherrie

    I paid close attention to both of Phil’s trials. It was during those that I realized so many of my favorite songs such as What is Life by George Harrison, I Love How You Love me by the Paris Sisters, so many more Phil had a hand in producing. It wouldn’t be a Christmas party without one of Phil’s version of the Bells of St Marys or Frosty the Snowman. I seen Ronnie in concert last year, to hear her sing was like it was 1964 again. To hear the music live Phil either helped write or which he did produce  could bring tears to your eyes because you don’t think of Phil himself but the emotions the records made you feel. The times, the era. When you do think about the trial and the testimony of the women that lives were changed, you can’t help but relive their terror through their testimony. When you read the books about his life, his  interview in the Agony and Ecstasy it almost seems like a life of emotional chaos and here he adopted children and brought them into that lifestyle.  So I see very clearly the debate at hand where as an adult can you be accepting of some behavior that is less than socially accpetable or downright against the law? When someone hears or yearns to hear You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling, they aren’t going to think about Phil in Corcoran but of the sound and how the music makes them feel. The average citizen isn’t going to know Phil was associated with most of his songs they may hear, they will think John Lennon when they hear Imagine, George Harrison when they listen to Concert for Bangladesh. So I say the music stands on it’s on and give credit where credit is due him, and hopefully any money due former artists in royalties goes to them. I would spend the money to buy music from his past an old record or two, but not on the CD his newest wife put out last year he produced. To me in my mind that is associated with the entire Lana Clarkson trials and to be produced during that time, to me it is tainted in some way through his conviction  for murder.So I can understand how some would associate all his music like that and not want him to receive any credit that may be due him in that area of his life..

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  • Conort

    Phil Spector ruined Let it Be. The Let it Be Naked version is far superior, and more true to the band’s original intent. Spector’s production on All Things Must Pass makes the album sound dated, although I suppose he was trying to cover for George’s thin voice. Still, there’s a reason why All Things Must Pass sounds dated, and the reason is Spector.

  • Conort

    Phil Spector ruined Let it Be. The Let it Be Naked version is far superior, and more true to the band’s original intent. Spector’s production on All Things Must Pass makes the album sound dated, although I suppose he was trying to cover for George’s thin voice. Still, there’s a reason why All Things Must Pass sounds dated, and the reason is Spector.

  • Budd1099

    How does Spector cover for George’s thin voice anymore than what he did for John on Imagine? All Things Must Pass Naked would pale in comparison to Spector’s production.

  • http://www.chimesfreedom.com Chimesfreedom-Pophistory

    Interesting discussion.  I agree with you that these are and always will be great Phil Spector recordings.  I’m also in the camp that “Be My Baby” is one of the greatest rock and roll records of all time.  Although I do not agree with the criticisms 100%, I think it is good that those issues are being raised because, as you note, the artists are often overlooked in light of the credit claimed by Spector.  To merely make the argument helps restore some balance.

    Regarding whether Spector’s murder conviction soils the music in some way, I recently wrote about that issue and Spector in the context of the recent news about Joseph Brooks, the writer of “You Light Up My Life” (http://www.chimesfreedom.com/2011/06/02/can-you-hear-the-artists-life-in-the-song/).  The legacy of Spector’s music is certainly touched by the man’s life, so thoughts about his later life do sometimes creep in when I hear one of his songs.  But for the most part, the songs have a life of their own separate from Spector.

  • breadalbane

    I’m more-or-less on Ken’s side here, although I do feel Phil has too often been hailed as a one-man visionary, when in fact his signature recordings were a collaborative art form:  arranged by Jack Nietzsche, engineered by Larry Levine, played by the Wrecking Crew, sung by very gifted singers, written (or sometimes co-written) by the top pop composers of the day, etc.  There’s no question that the sound of a classic Phil Spector production is unmistakable, though, and that he certainly knew which collaborators to employ. And that he was the final arbiter of what went out under his name. 

    By the way, Phil co-wrote “Spanish Harlem”, and played on it as a session musician, but he did not produce it. That record was a Leiber/Stoller production.