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.



 

Ken Shane
Ken Shane, now safely ensconced in Jamestown, RI, is the New Music Editor for Popdose, and a freelance writer. He is far and away the oldest Popdose writer, in fact, he may be the oldest writer period. Ken wants you to know that he generally does not share his colleagues love for the music of the '80s, and he does not forgive them for loving it.