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Music Review: Phil Spector – The Essential Phil Spector

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When all has been said and done, and you wonder if there really was anything there in the first place, just go back and listen to the music. It’s all there, just as he left it. For a few short years, Phil Spector managed to catch lightning in a bottle. He was a genius in the studio, without question. He was also quite mad, as we found out later.

As hard as it is to separate the man from the music though, we must. And with the new two-CD Essential Phil Spector collection, the full power of the mad genius in his prime comes flooding back. The set distills 11 years of recording down to 35 indispensable tracks. In contrast to the comprehensive seven-disc box set Phil Spector Presents The Philles Album Collection, The Essential contains not a hint of filler.

We begin in 1958, with The Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is To Love Him.” The trio consisted of Marshall Leib, Annette Kleinbard (later Carol Connors), and the 17 year old Phil Spector. It was recorded (appropriately enough) at Gold Star Studios – which he would put on the map as the hottest studio in L.A. In the early years, Spector also spent time recording in New York, where he co-wrote and arranged (uncredited) Ben E. King’s majestic “Spanish Harlem.”

Great things were happening for Phil on both coasts, but for many fans, the ultimate expression of his talent was found when he combined the two. When Spector brought The Ronettes out west to Gold Star, they created one of the greatest rock ‘n roll songs of all time with “Be My Baby.” It is a teenage pop symphony, and captures Spector at an all-time peak. From what I understand, it haunts Brian Wilson to this day.

Spector had a way with “girl groups.” His work with The Crystals on “He’s A Rebel” is another major highlight, as is everything he did with Darlene Love. Then he turned his sights toward the blue-eyed soul of The Righteous Brothers. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” and “Unchained Melody” are both included here, along with the slightly lesser known “Ebb Tide.”

Legend has it that the relative failure of Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” was the final nail in the coffin of the fragile young Spector’s ego. Who’s to say? It is a fantastic production, and the fact that the track never caught on commercially is just one of those inexplicable things. That was in 1966, but contrary to popular belief, Phil kept at it. The final track on The Essential is from 1969, “Black Pearl,” by Sonny Charles And The Checkmates Ltd.

Obviously a great deal has gone on in Phil Spector’s life since 1969. He famously recorded The Beatles, and John Lennon solo – not to mention The Ramones’ End Of The Century in 1980. Then there were the guns, the terrorism of Ronnie Spector…the stories are frightening, sad, and ugly.

Then you go back and listen to The Essential Phil Spector again, and just marvel at what once was. It was an amazing run.

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About Greg Barbrick