He created the Wall of Sound. He wore crazy wigs. And he loved guns.
© Mark S. Wexler/Corbis
Famed record producer Phil Spector’s fascination with firearms began early. In 1958, while on tour with his first group The Teddy Bears, Spector claimed he was accosted in a men’s bathroom. Scrawny and unable to defend himself, he said he was urinated on by four hoodlums. From that day on, he always carried protection and traveled with bodyguards.
By the ‘70s, guns had turned into an obsession, and a manipulative tool to intimidate those he produced. Here are five famous musicians who ended up on the business end of Spector’s heater.
1. John Lennon
In 1973, Lennon hired Spector to helm a record of rock ‘n’ roll cover songs. Spector routinely arrived late to the studio, high on amyl nitrate, wearing elaborate costumes (one night a surgeon, the next a karate expert) with an ever-present pistol tucked in a hip holster. One night, for a prank, Spector fired the gun in the control room, inches from the former Beatle’s ear. An enraged Lennon yelled, “Phil, if you’re going to kill me, kill me. But don’t f**k with my ears. I need ‘em.” Another time, Spector pulled his gun and chased Lennon through the hallways of the studio, screaming threats.
When Spector later disappeared with the master tapes, Lennon’s label Capitol Records had to buy them back for $90,000. The Rock ‘n’ Roll album, which Lennon called “jinxed,” finally came out in 1975. Lennon later said of Spector, “I’m fond of his work a lot. His personality I’m not crazy about.”
2. Leonard Cohen
The unlikely pairing of introspective songwriter-poet Cohen with Spector got off to a rousing start. In three alcohol-fueled weeks, they wrote a dozen songs together. But once they entered the studio, the boozy camaraderie vanished. Arguments about songs and arrangements turned vicious, and as Cohen described it, the sessions became “armed to the teeth . . . you were slipping over bullets and biting into revolvers in your hamburger.”
One night Spector grabbed Cohen, a bottle of Manischewitz in one hand and a revolver in the other. Shoving the gun against his neck, he said, “Leonard, I love you.” Cohen slowly pushed the barrel away, replying, “I hope you do, Phil.” The resulting album, 1978’s Death of A Ladies’ Man, was a commercial disaster, with fans complaining that Cohen’s voice was buried beneath Spector’s Wagnerian excess.
3. Debbie Harry
The Blondie lead singer held her tongue for years. But in 2007, when Spector went on trial for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson, Harry spoke out. In the late ‘70s, when Spector was hoping to make a comeback, he invited Harry to his mansion to discuss a studio collaboration. The meeting went sour fast. “He pulled a gun,” Harry recalled. “That notorious thing he does. He stuck it in my boot and went, ‘Bang.’ I thought, ‘Get me outta here. I just wanna go home.’ Why would anyone be carrying a .45 automatic in their home?”
4. The Ramones
When the legendary New York punk band hired Spector in 1979, they didn’t know they were getting two producers: Nice Phil and Evil Phil. Nice Phil wore sports shirts and cracked corny jokes. Evil Phil wore a cape, dark glasses and was abusive and controlling. When an exhausted Dee Dee Ramone said he was going home one night, Spector reached for his revolver. “You’re not going anywhere,” he said.
The bassist replied, “What are you going to do, shoot me? Go ahead. I’m leaving. Goodbye.” (In another version of the story, the gun was pointed at Johnny Ramone.) The band soldiered on, with Spector endlessly remixing and driving the budget over $700,000. The resulting album, End of the Century, got mixed reviews from critics and fans.
5. Ronnie Spector
Guns played only a small part in the Wall of Intimidation that Spector built around his wife, former Ronettes singer Ronnie Bennett. After their marriage in 1968, Spector held the young bride hostage in his mansion, isolating her from the world and squashing her musical ambitions. His cruelty knew no bounds. He tied her up and locked her in the closet. He hid her shoes so she couldn’t walk out on him. Creepiest of all, he installed a gold coffin with a glass top in the basement, promising that he would kill her and display her corpse if she ever left him. “I can keep my eye on you after you’re dead,” Spector said. With firearms and bodyguards all over the house, Bennett was convinced he meant business.
In 1972, she finally broke out of the prison, shattering the glass of a sliding door and fleeing barefoot from the property. She divorced Spector in 1974. “I knew if I didn’t leave at that time, I was going to die there,” Ronnie said.
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In 2009, Spector was sentenced to 19 years to life for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson.