Phil Spector was the most famous and influential producer in the history of rock music. He was known for producing a distinctive “wall of sound,” in which a number of instruments are blended together to create a single effect. Because of this technique, Spector resisted the introduction of stereo, preferring to have the sounds of multiple instruments mixed together in a single monaural track rather than separated into left and right channels.
Spector expanded the role of a producer. He owned and operated his own record company, co-wrote most of the material recorded under his supervision, selected the primary artists and supporting musicians for each session, and then orchestrated all of this talent to produce a unique artistic vision. As practiced by Spector, the role of producer was more akin to that of a director in film. He was really the only record producer to fully claim the role of auteur, the primary creative and organizing force behind the music that he produced. Listen to how Hal Blaine, his favorite session drummer, described working with Spector.
Phil is the greatest director in the world. He had a way of holding you. He treated the musicians like race horses: “Don’t play yet. Don’t play yet.” He would rehearse the guitar player for an hour. He would rehearse the bass fiddles. He’d rehearse the band. “Everybody play, but Hal, don’t play. I’m getting a sound here.” Then he would say, “Hal, play now!” In the booth it was like charades. He would say, “Watch me,” and you’d read his lips. He would give you an “easy, easy,” and then he would give you a “Go crazy!” (Weinberg)
Spector also exemplified the power of collaboration. He relied on favorite singers and other supporting artists to give form to his works, much as Hollywood directors would rely on favorite actors and other creative personnel working behind the scenes. Again, let’s see what Hal Blaine has to say on the subject.
I’ve always maintained that one guy doesn’t make a record. Phil Spector alone never made a great record. He made great records with all these people. Brother Julius, the little black man who used to clean up, he was part of that recording scene. Brother Julius must have been sixty-five or seventy years old, he’d sweep up the studio at Gold Star. Brother J. We’d give him money all the time. He used to come in and make suggestions like, “Hey, Mr. Spector, you sure is doing it!” “Hey, Hal, git those drums bigger!” (Weinberg)
Spector recordings featured the talents of Leon Russell on piano, Jack Nitzsche as arranger, Hal Blaine on drums, and Glen Campbell on guitar, just to name a few who went on to achieve some degree of fame and fortune later in their careers.
Original Release Date: 1991
Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)
A boxed set containing practically all of Spector’s notable work. The original set consisted of 4 CDs, one of them being the complete Christmas Gift album. Amazon’s current listing, however, specifies only 3 CDs in the set. While there are a lot of great recordings included here, the cumulative effect is a bit wearing, especially due to the repetition and limitations of many of the lyrics. Included is the shocking title “He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss).” While this is the only song to explicitly describe this sort of abuse, relationships based on female submission and dependence seem to be the dominant subject matter of the songs.
Original Release Date: 1963
Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)
This is one of my favorite rock albums of all time. It benefits from a number of factors. First, the enforced discipline of only listening to it for a month or two out of the year keeps it fresh. Second, it is seemingly the only time that Spector got to produce a single album featuring all of the artists currently in his stable. Third, the use of traditional Christmas tunes frees Spector and the listener from the somewhat repetitive themes that ran through his original compositions (complete and selfless female adoration, young lovers wanting to get married, etc.). Fourth, the use of familiar Christmas songs allows Spector and his artists to focus on the rock arrangements and the recordings, which were really their strong suits anyway.
The result is a wonderful album. You can hear echoes of it in other rock Christmas recordings down through the years, such as Bruce Springsteen’s cover of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” which makes use of Spector’s arrangement. Every track features loving details, such as the big smooch at the beginning of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and Darlene Love’s spoken additions to “White Christmas,” adding the perspective of someone in Los Angeles wishing to be in snowy country.
The overall effect is much more relaxed than much of the producer’s other work. Most of Spector’s other recordings were aimed squarely at the top 40, and the need to let out all the stops on every recording — to hit one out of the park every time up at bat — resulted in a body of work that feels a bit strained and repetitive. Also, most of Spector’s other recordings were geared specifically for the adolescent market, and many of the resulting lyrics haven’t aged well.
In contrast, this album feels like an attempt to reach a wider audience. On it Spector and company seem to be consciously demonstrating their powers, transforming the familiar tunes of an older America into something radically different, incorporating the values of a new musical aesthetic. The results are timeless works of art that maintain their charm and energy from year to year, even as other lesser works appear briefly and then fade from memory.