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