ONE OF THE MOST CELEBRATED MOMENTS IN late-Sixties rock comes at the beginning of 'To Be Alone With You' on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album. As the guitars begin to strum, Dylan drawls, "Is it rolling, Bob?"
"Bob" is Bob Johnston, Dylan’s producer. With that single question Dylan brings to our attention Johnston’s role in the singer’s recording career. The producer is here acknowledged as a crucial part of the whole undertaking — as necessary as the tape machines, microphones, and instruments…almost as important as the singer himself.
By the end of the Sixties, most rock fans could give you the names of any number of important producers: Jimmy Miller (with the Rolling Stones), George Martin (with the Beatles), Kit Lambert (with the Who), the Holland Brothers and Lamont Dozier (with Motown’s Four Tops and the Supremes), and so on. It was important to know that Stephen Stills produced the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young albums, and that Bob Krasnow’s production techniques were a crucial factor in the sound of Captain Beefheart’s Strictly Personal album. Production methods had an immense influence on the aesthetics of the music in question.
It is pure speculation, and almost certainly untrue, to say that none of this would have happened without Phil Spector. But it’s equally certain that it was he, single handed, who turned the producer from an obscure back-room boy whose name was of little or no importance to the average record buyer, into a figure parallel with the great movie directors. The comparison is in fact valid. Just as we not only ask "Have you seen the new Brando movie?" but also "Have you seen the new Losey?" so in the mid-Sixties did we ask, "Have you heard the new Spector single?" neglecting, probably, to add whether the singers on the record were the Crystals, the Ronettes, or the Righteous Brothers.
Of course there were producers before Phil Spector, important men who helped mold the way music reached our ears. Some, like John Hammond, played a vital role in the history of popular music, by helping performers of real talent to overcome neglect and racial barriers. Beginning in 1931, Hammond started bringing to public attention jazz artists like Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Mildred Bailey, and Lionel Hampton. In fact it was he who persuaded Benny Goodman to hire the pianist Teddy Wilson — the first time a black musician was able to join a "name" band. It was a great step. Hammond maintained his track record after the war: while with Columbia Records he brought both Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan to the label.
As a record producer, Hammond assumed the standard function of middleman between the artist and the engineer. He made sure that the material selected was suitable, that a good sound was obtained on the tape, and that all concerned were happy with the environment and results. He might have suggestions such as bringing certain musicians together for a date, but his aesthetic control did not extend beyond that. Which was how he wanted it, since his only desire was to allow musicians to place their particular talents on tape in the optimum circumstances. It is significant that after Aretha was taken from under Hammond’s wing, where she had been increasingly successful with Blues and Gospel material, she was forced to record supposedly commercial pop songs and became a dismal failure. Some years later she joined Atlantic, where producer Jerry Wexler reverted to Hammond’s pattern, with brilliant success, both artistic and commercial.
Another way of approaching a producer’s work was presented by George Goldner, one of the great rock and roll producers of the Fifties. In ’53 Goldner formed the Gee label — to which were added later Rama, Gone, End, and Goldisc. He specialized in street-corner groups, mostly black or Puerto Rican, who hung around the poor areas of New York, harmonizing endlessly either on current favourites or their own compositions. These groups were in the process of inventing a whole new sound. Goldner capitalized on it by going out, grabbing them up, pulling them into his recording studio, and cutting a couple of sides for which he’d pay them a few dollars. Rarely were these records anything more than regional hits around New York (how many people elsewhere remember the Hartbeats, the Wrens, or the Harptones?), but occasionally sales were so big that a record would reach the national charts, from where radio stations around the country would start picking it up. This happened to 13-year-old Frankie Lymon and his group, the Teenagers. Goldner cut a record with them called 'Why Do Fools Fall In Love', a song written by Lymon. In the early part of 1956 the recording sold a million copies, reaching number seven on the national chart.
Goldner also launched Little Anthony and the Imperials on the End label, but his first really big recording (some have called it the first real rock and roll record) was 'Gee' by the Crows — the sound which former Creedence Clearwater guitarist Tom Fogarty has cited as the key which first turned him on to the potential power of pop music.
As a producer in the later sense of the term, Goldner was nothing. It is likely, as Bill Miller in his book The Drifters has suggested, that Goldner persuaded his black groups to sweeten their delivery for the huge white market, but, like Hammond, he was more of an organizer than a creator. Unlike Hammond though, he was a hustler, and that, to some extent, is how he came to influence Spector. Goldner knew how to get his records played on the radio — and there’s no denying that he extracted the maximum possible percentage for himself. For instance, he gave himself a co-authorship credit on 'Why Do Fools Fall In Love', thus taking for himself half the composer royalties. In addition he organized a tie-up with the large Roulette complex and thus ensured that his records were exposed to the best advantage and widest distribution.
It was that commercial ability that Spector admired almost as much as he loved the sounds that Goldner’s groups made. It was a different kind of "producing", which made its influence felt when Phil finally came to form his own independent record company, Philles, in 1961. Goldner had made the industry work for him, and that’s what Spector set out to emulate.
Spector’s real spiritual ancestor, however, was Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records in Memphis. It was Phillips who cut Elvis Presley’s first and greatest records: 'That’s All Right', 'Mystery Train', 'Baby Let’s Play House', 'You’re A Heart-breaker', and so on — all characterized by an innovative use of tape-echo. Instead of producing the cavernous, bathroomy effect obtained by the over-lavish use of echo chamber so beloved of contemporary producers, Phillips’ method gave the records a larger-than-life quality. The snare drum and string bass snapped in unison. This "presence" gave the records an indefinable lift and vitality. It didn’t just happen on Presley’s records, either; Phillips did the same with Jerry Lee Lewis on 'Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On' and 'Great Balls of Fire', and on lesser known classics like Warren Smith’s 'Rock and Roll Ruby'. The sound affected a whole generation, and it turned Spector around.
These, then, were the three basic types of producer before Spector came along: the more or less altruistic organizer, the shrewd businessman, and the studio innovator. Spector took all three, rolled them into one, added his own genius, and created a totally new concept: the producer as overall director. In the process he put out a group of the most memorable records in all of pop music.
He took control of everything. He picked the bands, wrote or chose the material, supervised the arrangements, told the singers how to phrase, masterminded all phases of the recording process, and released the result on his own label, a label with no affilitation with any of the supposedly all-powerful major record companies. He introduced many innovations: by concentrating all his efforts on one record at a time, he avoided the wasteful scattershot policy of the majors; by bringing the technique of overdubbing to a new peak, he created a sound never heard before, a sound which came to be known as The Spector Sound throughout the world’s recording industry.
He also revolutionized the industry’s attitude to youth. Previously, older men like Alan Freed, Dick Clark, Goldner, and the presidents of the major labels had exerted total control over the pop youth culture. Kids made the music, but they had no say in what happened after it got onto the tape, and they rarely saw much of the money. Because of this, they often fell back into obscurity after their brief glimpse of limelight, and often their lives (like that of Frankie Lymon) ended in squalid tragedy. The kids made it and the kids bought it, but it was the "cigar-chomping fatties" who first took the cream, and then the milk, and then threw the empty bottle into the trash can.
Spector set out to change all that. He fought the system through his own company. To make the changes he had to succeed, succeed, and succeed again. At 21 years of age even one failure would have been too costly. It would have enabled the fatties to smirk and tell themselves that the kids couldn’t handle it after all; that they actually needed the older guys to take care of business for them. But Spector did succeed, for more than four straight years. Eventually the industry got him, its rage no longer containable, but while he was hot he was always sowing the seeds for a new self-determination, the birthright now demanded by every rock musician. These days you won’t find a George Goldner telling Neil Young or John Fogerty what to do to get a hit record (of course this is not necessarily a good thing for all the Neil Youngs and John Fogertys).
Spector’s musical influence has been immense, both in general and in specific areas. Remember 'I Got You Babe', by Sonny and Cher? That record and that group happened because Sonny Bono wanted to be Phil Spector. So did Andrew Oldham, the Rolling Stones’ first producer: the sound and style of the early Stones owes a great debt to Spector, as does the studio sound of the Beach Boys as developed by Brian Wilson. The scale of Spector’s efforts prompted Wilson to investigate the technical resources at his command; it is likely that, had there not been a Phil Spector, there would not have been a 'Good Vibrations' either.
Neither would there have been a Shadow Morton. Not one of the best known producers, Morton nevertheless came up with some of the most interesting records of the middle and late Sixties, the epic 'Leader of The Pack' by the Shangri-Las, and the first album by Vanilla Fudge, one of rock’s great testaments.
All these men and their records have altered the face of pop. It can be said that they changed it from a performing art into an art which could exist only inside a recording studio, making possible such artifacts as the Beatles’ 'A Day In The Life', or the Four Tops’ 'Reach Out, I’ll Be There'.
Surely no greater tribute could be paid to Spector’s giant importance than his appointment early in 1970 as virtual working head of the record division of Apple. Spector owns the ultimate power of veto over whatever goes out on the label. Since 1970 he has produced everything by John Lennon and George Harrison, thus fitting effortlessly into the fastest company in the entire rock world. And he looks so right there; other producers could give the ex-Beatles records an adequate sound, and could pander to their whims in the studio, but only Spector could stand with them on an equal footing, not fearing to lend his own ideas for the one goal of better music.
© Richard Williams, 1972