Phil Spector may have built his name defining the girl group sound, but his biggest hit was for a blue-eyed soul duo, sung by a man whose slo-mo baritone belied the fact that he was himself barely out of his teens. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” may have only stayed at #1 a modest two weeks, but it has since become the most-played song in the history of radio. It also became the last #1 Phil Spector would have in the 1960s. But given the sheer spectacle of Spector’s production – the most elaborate of his recordings to date – it’s not a bad way to go out. Even the song’s first line (“You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips”) echoes and reverses the opening of one of Spector’s earliest productions, The Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” (“I love how your eyes close whenever you kiss me”), as if drawing opening and closing parentheses around his first hit-making era. The record certainly sounds like Spector in everything-must-go mindset, chucking in every spare instrument and vocalist, every climactic build and release, as if wanting to use them all up before they could be taken from him.
Which, in a sense, they were. The British Invasion didn’t just kick-off a rock and roll revivial, of course; it also started the trend of self-contained bands writing their own material and playing their own instruments. Unlike the teenage girls comprising the bulk of the Philles Records stable, these young men were less willing to let their strings be pulled, even by a master puppeteer. Spector’s sessions with The Righteous Brothers were an omen of pushbacks to come. The duo had already netted a few hits on their own, most notably the self-penned “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” so they were already accustomed to a certain degree of autonomy. Spector’s decision to jettison tenor Bobby Hatfield from the bulk of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” in favor of Bill Medley’s mostly solo lead was standard operating procedure – think of the Crystals records where no actual Crystal appears, or the absence of the male half of Ike & Tina Turner on “River Deep – Mountain High” – but The Righteous Brothers bristled at the producer’s insistence of complete control. (As consolation, Hatfield did sing solo on both “Unchained Melody” and “Ebb Tide,” their other two Top 5 hits helmed by Spector.)
Luckily, Medley and Hatfield acquiesced, allowing Spector to scale to the top of the Wall of Sound and create a record that made his previous sonic baroqueries sound like campfire strum-alongs in comparison. Rather than building “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” toward one great explosion in the third act, every chorus – every verse, even – boils over, upping the stakes for each subsequent segment, till at last it threatens to snap beneath the weight of all that drama. That it holds tight is proof of Spector’s artistry. Despite its continual snowballing, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” never feels overblown; despite a kitchen-sink arrangement, it never feels excessive. While Spector himself would soon retreat from the studio and wait out the rest of the ’60s as a near-recluse, his uncanny knack for balancing pomp with pop would be the template imitated by his contemporaries and beyond, to the point that, when he did return to producing at the end of the decade, it was only natural that it was for the ultimate self-contained British Invasion rock band. 9
Hit #1 on February 6, 1965; total of 2 weeks at #1
127 of 1002 #1’s reviewed; 12.67% through the Hot 100
“He’s a Rebel” is not my favorite Phil Spector record. I prefer The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” which peaked at #2 on the Hot 100 and thus will not be discussed in depth here. But “He’s a Rebel” – recorded by The Blossoms but released under the Crystals nameplate, much to the surprise of The Crystals – is the ultimate girl group record. Condensed into this one song is everything the genre had stood for so far – adolescent love stories, harmonies both playful and powerful, striking (though not always technically proficient) lead vocalists – as well as a blueprint that would set the tone for the rest of the decade. “He’s a Rebel” may not have been the first song about a good girl in love with a bad boy, but it made that the de facto girl group relationship. Of course he’s never really a bad boy, that’s just what “they” say because of how he dresses and rejects society’s norms. But Darlene Love (and all the singers following in her wake) knows the truth: “He’s always good to me, always treats me tenderly / ‘Cause he’s not a rebel … to me.”
And yes, there’s that Wall of Sound. Spector may have employed the first stirrings of his densely layered soundscapes on “To Know Him is to Love Him,” but it was here that his production techniques flowered into the defining sound of early ’60s pop. Spector’s sound was ripped off by everyone from fly-by-night cash-in labels to Brian Wilson, and for good reason. The Wall of Sound is perhaps the preeminent example of the capacity music has to make us empathize on a visceral level. Not only does the record sound beautiful as a piece of musical art, but the orchestral swirl makes the banal subject matter – nothing that wouldn’t appear as filler on a Miley Cyrus album – sound like the most important thing on the planet. The struggle between our teenage lovers and those nay-saying “them” is epic. The romance, like the tune, feels like one for the ages. 9
Hit #1 on November 3, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
80 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.20% through the Hot 100
(Apologies for the video – it’s the only one I found on YouTube that used the original recording.)
The ascendance of “Save the Last Dance for Me” almost seems to be a bit of overcompensation on the part of the American listening public. After “Mr. Custer,” anything would have been an improvement, but instead we get one of the best records of 1960 and an instant classic. The proto-Wall of Sound arrangement (there’re rumors that Leiber and Stoller’s protegee Phil Spector may have had a hand in the recording) is the absolute summation of the bittersweet lyrics. The brisk, dance beat shuffle of the percussion in the verses (“You can dance every dance with the guy who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight”) is offset by the stirring strings that sweep in during the chorus. “But don’t forget who’s taking you home, and in whose arms you’re gonna be,” Ben E. King sings, his assertive rasp keeping things from getting too sappy. It’s an eloquent statement of pure love, one that’s patient and understanding, never jealous or arrogant. 9
Doc Pomus, the song’s lyricist, walked on crutches as a result of childhood polio. He was allegedly inspired to write the song by his own wedding, having watched his wife dance with his brother in his place.
Hit #1 on October 17, 1960 for 1 week; repeaked on October 31, 1960 for 2 weeks; total of 3 weeks at #1
38 of 964 #1’s reviewed; 3.94% through the Hot 100
Even before the murder trial of Lana Clarkson (now in retrial phase), Phil Spector has long been one of the legendary eccentrics in pop. But despite bizarre tales of threatening wife Ronnie Spector with a gold-plated casket in the basement of their house and forcing Leonard Cohen to record Death of a Ladies’ Man at gunpoint, Spector’s reputation has remained bulletproof (er, so to speak). Even Thriller hasn’t maintained that level of veneration in the face of weirdness, and Michael Jackson’s never even (allegedly) killed someone. But while Jackson continues to release the occasional attempt at musical relevance to diminshing returns, Spector essentially stopped recording after The Ramones’ 1980 album End of the Century, thus constructing a buffer zone between his sacred canon and the bulk of the negative public attention against him* (Ronnie Spector’s autobiography Be My Baby was published in 1989, while Clarkson died in 2003). Perhaps more importantly, Spector’s studio quirks, such as his obsessive attention to detail and dictatorial control over the recording process, have been lauded as virtues by his disciples (some of whom share his unstable personality; cf. Brian Wilson).
But back before Spector was a gun-toting control freak, he was a 17-year-old aspiring songwriter, musician and singer. He enlisted a couple of friends to help record a song he wrote and pitch in a few bucks to cover studio time and reel-to-reel tape. The song, which borrows from a phrase on his father’s tombstone, has a simple melody and a nursery-rhyme cadence: “to know, know, know him, is to love, love, love him.” His famed Wall of Sound is in the embryonic state here, but more from lack of funds than lack of imagination. Spector’s already experimenting with a primitive form of double-tracking to add depth to the sound, and the backing vocals fill in the spaces that would later be occupied by lush orchestral arrangements. Spector would revisit this style a few years (and dollars) later with The Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” before launching the sound that would make him probably the most imitated producer ever.
High school student Annette Kleinbard sings lead in a dulcet soprano, carefully measuring out each line and “oh” for the most precise phrasing. But when she hits the bridge, she casts her reservations aside. No longer is the song an ode to the boy who walks her home from class, but the frustrated expression of desire for someone who doesn’t reciprocate. This outburst only lasts for a few seconds before Kleinbard regains control, singing “he – was meant – for me – oh-oh, yes,” in the clipped vocals of someone steeling herself from the pain of rejection. Spector repeated the device of the desperate climax in many of his later “symphonies for the kids,” adding a level of depth that distinguished them from the scores of puppy love songs released in the early ’60s. No one can identify with a love song that’s too happy. 8
Annette Kleinbard would later change her name to Carol Connors and become a successful songwriter in her own right, including “Hey Little Cobra” (The Rip Chords), “With You I’m Born Again” (Billy Preston and Syreeta) and “Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky).”
*That 2003 Starsailor single doesn’t count, as no one actually cares about Starsailor.
Hit #1 on December 1, 1958; total of 3 weeks at #1
7 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 0.73% through the Hot 100
A rundown of every #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, starting from the top (1958) and progressing in order. Ratings on a highly subjective 1-10 scale. Comments perpetually open. Supposedly published weekly.