Volume 80, Number 8 | July 22 - 28, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Villager photo by Bonnie Rosenstock
LaLa Brooks next to a poster of the new Phil Spector biopic at Film Forum.
Singer recalls the ‘agony and ecstasy’ of Spector
By Bonnie Rosenstock
In April 2009, legendary rock producer Phil Spector was found guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death six years earlier of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson, 40. He was sentenced to 19 years to life.
During the first six-month trial in 2007, which ended in a hung jury, the famously reclusive Spector gave British filmmaker Vikram Jayanti unprecedented access to his mind and mishegoss, filmed at his Alhambra, Ca., über-mansion. The result is the riveting “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector,” currently being held over at the Film Forum on W. Houston St.
Jayanti (wisely asking questions off-camera) interweaves Spector’s longwinded ruminations, reflections, self-pity and self-aggrandizement in equal measure with excerpts from the televised first trial and archival film footage — a sequential magical history tour of his greatest groups and hits.
Spector, 67, in the interviews, with a palsied right hand and a watery left eye, reminisces about his troubled childhood and personal life, the seminal event being his father’s suicide when he was 9 years old. He penned his first hit, The Teddy Bears’ 1958 single “To Know Him is to Love Him,” he confesses, inspired by the epitaph on his dad’s gravestone; the song features a 17-year-old Spector on guitar.
From there the film follows the trajectory of Spector’s fabled “Wall of Sound,” which produced, among others, The Crystals, Darlene Love, The Ronettes, The Righteous Brothers and Ike and Tina Turner’s lushly orchestrated “River Deep – Mountain High.”
Then there was the Beatles period, the “Let It Be” album in 1970, numerous collaborations with John Lennon (“Plastic Ono Band,” 1970) and George Harrison (multi-platinum album “All Things Must Pass”). Ever present in the film is the white piano that he bought with Lennon for “Imagine” in 1970.
Spector compares his misunderstood genius to DaVinci, Galileo, Bach and Michelangelo. His animus towards others is unintentionally comical and inexplicable. Of Tony Bennett, whose career revival Spector clearly resents, he notes, “Nobody brings up his coke habit and now he’s doing duets with Bono”; regarding Martin Scorsese, who used The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” without permission for “Mean Streets” (1973), he says, “The film would be nothing without it” (he later settled for millions); and on Paul McCartney — “I don’t think he was very secure that I went in there for a few months and did what they couldn’t do in two years with those tapes,” referring to what became “Let It Be.”
Spector is unsettling with heated statements like, “I was just a loner and was always treated with contempt,” and “I wasn’t accepted by the establishment; certain people never get their due.” He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a non-performer in 1989.
According to LaLa Brooks, a former member of The Crystals, Spector’s megalomania prevented others from getting in. Brooks, a longtime East Villager, was guest speaker for a post-movie Q&A at the July 7 sold-out 8 p.m. show and talked about her experiences working with Spector. A few days later, she sat down with The Villager for a one-on-one interview.
Before Spector’s arrest, Brooks told The Villager that the famed producer was on the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Full disclosure: This reporter and Brooks are neighbors in the same building).
“He thought so much of himself that he didn’t want any of his artists to be recognized,” she said.
Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones pushed for The Ronettes, who were inducted in 2007. Darlene Love, who was passed on last year, might have a good chance this time around.
“Maybe The Crystals will also have a chance 47 years later ’cause his ass is locked up,” Brooks said. The Crystals’ hits included “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” and “He’s a Rebel” in 1962, and 1963’s “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me.”
She recalled that when Spector moved to Los Angeles, as lead vocalist, she was the only Crystal to be flown out to record at Gold Star Studios. All five of the women in the group were from Brooklyn, and he didn’t want to spend the money on airfare.
“He put me in tracks with studio singers, including Cher, in the background — he didn’t like her voice — but the recordings said ‘The Crystals.’ Sonny Bono was his right-hand man, and he yelled at him a lot. He had some kindness toward me because I was 14½, but he did show some anger if I didn’t get it. He worked us all day without food. I’d have to buy peanuts and soda at the vending machine to fill me up, I was so hungry.”
Brooks acknowledged that seeing the film — twice — was difficult.
“I held back tears the first time,” she said. “It was hard to see and not feel emotionally mixed up, wanting to care about him, and then when he speaks stupid, you want to take your foot and put it up his ass. When you think emotionally about him, you forget he stole everything he could.”
The Crystals got $1,000 each when they signed in 1962.
“We were kids, we didn’t know anything and neither did our parents,” said Brooks.
Only recently did they receive any royalty money.
“We made a settlement, but it’s so little I don’t want to mention it because it’s embarrassing,” she said. “By that time, he had gone to prison and cried broke. How are you gonna fight that?”
The part near the end of the movie that got to Brooks was when Spector said he was so great he could have done it with any singers.
“It disturbed me, and it wasn’t true,” she said. “You had to have certain voices.”
As for the Wall of Sound, Brooks acknowledged Spector’s arranger and conductor, Jack Nitzsche.
“He orchestrated ‘River Deep.’ Phil takes credit for what he did. Jack said he treated him like s---,” she noted
Did Spector shoot Clarkson? He confessed to his Brazilian limousine driver, “I think I just killed somebody.” But during Spector’s trials, defense attorneys tried to show that forensic evidence proved he couldn’t have done it.
“At the recording studio Phil kept a gun on his console,” Brooks recalled. “He had a gun in a holster, which he would take out, twirl around and flip back into his holster. I don’t know if it was loaded but it was real. I ducked because the musicians ducked, them being older than me; maybe they knew it was loaded. Now I understand why they got down,” she laughed.
“Because he played with fire, he finally got burned,” continued Brooks. “When you have so much arrogance and a fetish for guns, well, it could have been an accident, but… . With all the evil he’s done, as Malcolm X said, ‘The chickens have come home to roost.’ ”