Court rules contract the Ronettes signed with Spector in 1963 still binding:
- a New York state appeals court … has tossed a $3 million verdict the Ronettes won in a lawsuit battle with famed producer Phil Spector.
The ’60s girl group, responsible for such oldies-radio classics as “By My Baby” and “Walking in the Rain,” had claimed Spector cheated the three members out of royalties and license fees involving their hit tunes.
A five-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals said it was “sympathetic” with the “plight” of lead singer Ronnie Greenfield (aka Ronnie Spector, ex-missus of Phil), sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley Ross.
….”The best evidence of what parties to a written agreement intend is what they say in their writing,” wrote Judge Victoria Graffeo in the opinion, which essentially puts an end to a bitter 14-year legal dispute between the performers and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame producer who masterminded their sound.
“The court is sending a clear signal that we’re a system of law that regards contracts as things that have to be followed,” Spector’s lawyer, Andrew Bart, told the New York Daily News.
The group had sued Spector back in 1988, claiming he made a fortune by selling “Be My Baby” to the producers of the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, as well as the group’s other staples for use in Levi jeans and American Express ads. A lower-court jury eventually agreed, awarding the $3 million prize. Spector appealed and won.
However, it wasn’t a total defeat for the songbirds. The panel sent the case back to a lower court to refigure how much royalties the Ronettes are due in terms of rights to compilations and reissues of their songs. The judgment could still result in the Ronettes getting a “reasonable sum of money,” says the group’s lawyer, Ira Greenberg, though it won’t be anywhere near the $3 million they just lost.
“It’s being sent to the lower court to recalculate damages,” said Greenberg. “It remains to be seen how that’s going to come out.”
Spector paid out a onetime lump payment of $14,482 to the group when they signed the contract.
As it stands now, the Ronettes probably won’t get too much more, as their royalties are fixed at 3 percent, a far cry from the 50 percent artists typically make on reissued tunes recorded in the early 1960s.
Meanwhile, Ronnie Greenfield will receive additional money because the court found the agreement she signed with Spector as part of their divorce settlement in the mid-’70s did not mean she had given up her rights to future royalties.
“We’re obviously very much pleased that the court of appeal rejected Spector’s arguments Ronnie had given up all her rights in the divorce, and that was a very substantial victory,” added Greenberg. “On the other hand…[the ruling is] an unfortunate outcome for recording artists of the era.”
Here is a bio of Spector that David John Farinella and I wrote:
- Perhaps it should have occurred to someone that Phil Spector (born December 26, 1940 in the Bronx, NY) had a bit of Midas in him when the first song he ever wrote and produced, “To Know Him Is To Love Him” by his band, The Teddy Bears, sold over a million copies. His investment? Some studio time (at Hollywood’s Gold Star) and $40. It was 1958 and a 17-year-old Spector had just launched a career that would take him from the highest of highs in the early-’60s, to the lows of the late-’60s, and the shadows by the early-’70s.
Spector’s career began in ’57 (his family had moved to Los Angeles in the early-’50s) as a member of the Sleepwalkers with future-Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, future-producer Kim Fowley and drummer Sandy Nelson. By ’58 he was a producer. By the time he was 23, writer Tom Wolfe had dubbed him the “First Tycoon of Teen.” By the time he was 34, he had been declared DOA after two car accidents – and survived – within three months of each other. He is the most referred-to name in this book, and his Wall of Sound is either held up as a paradigm to aspire to, or reviled as egomaniacal bombast.
Spector’s legend is notorious, his influence profound, his credit list rightfully admired. Perhaps his career is best summed up by a quote attributed to him circa 1973: “I really believed in what was going on and I did try to change the music – I did try to change it and it was a painful experience, it was hard, basically, because there were not many people to do it with, there was not much help. It really rested on my ability to do things with my music and sounds. I don’t know if I was consciously trying to change it, but musically I was definitely trying to do what I really felt was right.”
What was right in Spector’s ears apparently was right in a lot of other people’s as well. Immediately after leaving Atlantic Records, where he was named head of A&R at age 20, Spector began to develop his Wall of Sound. Some of the musicians he used to produce that sound included drummer Hal Blaine, guitarist Larry Knechtel, bassist Carol Kaye, saxophonist Steve Douglas and percussionist Sonny Bono. That sound, which some say he “borrowed” from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, “sweetened” a track with larger-than-life strings, vocals and percussion instruments. The goal – from finding or writing the song, to hiring the musicians, to recording the song – was to make the song as far out and overwhelming as possible.
After the Teddy Bears and Atlantic, Spector worked with a number of producers including Lee Hazlewood, Lester Sill and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. In 1962, Spector took his show on the road and launched the Philles label, scoring over 20 hit records by such artists as the Crystals, Darlene Love, Bobb B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, The Ronettes, and the Righteous Brothers. After his success in 1958, Spector’s next No. 1 came in 1962, with the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel.” With classic Spector subterfuge, The Crystals didn’t really sing, either on that top hit or on the No. 11 “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” because of touring conflicts; instead, it was the Blossoms with Darlene Love on lead who recorded them. The actual Crystals (Barbara Alston, LaLa Brooks, Dee Dee Kennibrew, Mary Thomas and Patricia Wright) scored four other Top 20 hits for Spector, including “There’s No Other (Like My Baby),” “Uptown,” “Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home)” and “Then He Kissed Me.”
Other artists Spector nurtured to Top 20 stardom include Ray Peterson (“Corinna Corinna”), the Paris Sisters (“I Love How You Love Me”), Curtis Lee (“Pretty Little Angel Eyes”), and his songwriting compatriot on several projects, Gene Pitney (“Town Without Pity”). Spector also produced perhaps the best rock ‘n’ roll Christmas album of all time, A Christmas Gift For You (later rereleased as Phil Spector’s Christmas Record) with timeless performances from Darlene Love, The Ronettes, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, and the Crystals.
Spector has said he views his work as “impressionistic sound productions,” and virtually all of those impressionistic ’60s hits were recorded at Gold Star – first on a three track, then a four-track – all in mono, with engineer Larry Levine. The Wall of Sound came from the studio’s echo chambers and the fact that Spector recorded platoons of musicians together – without isolation – in a small room with a high ceiling.
And while he and the acts on the Philles roster were rolling down the gold brick road in the mid-’60s, the wheels came off of the wagon in ’66. Spector’s (literally) largest production to date, Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” was a commercial flop in the U.S. (reaching only No. 88, but in the U.K. it soared to No. 3); the hypersensitive Spector closed his label and, for all intents and purposes, stopped producing.
He came out of his self-imposed exile for a series of records in the ’70s, including the Beatles’ swan song Let It Be, which he pieced together from live tracks. He also added a monstrous orchestral backing to Paul McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road.” Keeping to former-Beatles, Spector lent his texture to George Harrison’s finest, All Things Must Pass , and worked with John Lennon on the classics Plastic Ono Band and Imagine.
In retrospect, Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Lady’s Man from ’77 is pricelessly charming. Spector wrote the music – in a classic late-’50s/early-’60s pop style – for Cohen’s languid tales of torn romance, and Cohen responded with his best singing. Listening to it today, it’s great to hear Cohen outside of his usual spare settings.
Spector also produced the Ramones epic End of the Century – their best-selling studio album – and in keeping with the Spector tradition, one that fans of the band either love or hate. The album made explicit the connection between early-’60s pop rock and the punk band’s psyche, and holds up as both a Ramones and a Spector classic: Spector’s idiosyncrasies never overwhelm the roar of “Chinese Rock” or ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll High School,” and the Spectorish “Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio” rollicks with just the right retro touches. The band’s remake of the Ronette’s “Baby I Love You” is as touching as it is fun.
Spector has remained in seclusion for most of the last 20 years. Darlene Love won a back-royalty judgment against Spector in ’97.