The Essential Phil Spector (CD review)

Phil Spector – The Essential (Phil Spector Records / EMI/ Sony) CD review

Numerous classic CD’s get reissued every month, all touting improved sound.  Yet, most of the time, the average person can’t tell a difference.  The Essential Phil Spector is one of those rare instances when the improvement is so stunning, not only will anyone be able to notice the difference, it might make you change your opinion of Spector’s work.  Want real proof?  Take the version here of You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” from the Righteous Brothers – for the first time, the individual instruments are discernable: piano, acoustic guitar, horns, and even the great Darlene Love singing back there in the mix. Even a casual comparison with any other version of this song, and you’ll be sold.  Not every track on this new collection sports that big of an aural improvement, but everything sounds better.

The majority of these tracks were originally compiled on the 1991 3-CD box set Back to Mono, which was highly praised at the time.  But, listening back to that set now, it should be called Back to MUD, since the songs lack any high or low end, and sound muffled.  Sonic advancements have come a long way in 20 years, and it certainly shows.  Mastered by the great Vic Anesini, this new Essential set is like peeling a layer of film off an old photograph to reveal the vibrant colors; these tracks have absolutely never sounded this good.

Phil Spector redefined the role of record producer, shifting control away from the artists, and in doing so, created an entirely new form of record making – one akin to a painter working on a canvas – adding layer upon layer of instruments as if they were oils.  The set opens with the first song Spector wrote, produced and sang on – “To Know Him is To Love Him,” credited to the Teddy Bears, which shot straight to #1 in 1958.  The young aspiring producer had hit gold with his first attempt, and at the tender age of 17, he was off and running.  The next few tracks are, more or less, one offs for other record labels – “Spanish Harlem” for Ben E. King, and “Corrine Corrina” by Ray Peterson begin to show Spector’s use of strings and unique percussion, and the addition of heavy doses of echo as its own instrument.  It wasn’t until he formed his own Philles record label and began working with the Crystals that the true Spector sound began to solidify.  Girl groups seemed to be the perfect outlet for his lavish productions, and “There’s No Other Like My Baby,” sung by Barbara Alston, was full of innocent longing.  Spector exerted a control never seen before in the studio; he made it clear that he was the one making the magic – this was no more apparent when he chose session singer Love to voice the next hit for the Crystals, their lone number one “He’s a Rebel,” angering the rest of the band.

It’s a shame Spector handled Love’s talent so haphazardly – not only substituting her in the Crystals, but also having her sing for the faceless group Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, who nevertheless hit with a wacked-out take on the Disney classic “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.”  Darlene was the perfect mix of gruff and sweetness, tailor-made for these larger than life backing tracks.  But, she was soon cast aside after Spector met an up and coming singer, originally known as Veronica Bennett, who became the later Mrs. Phil Spector.  He crafted his greatest girl group concoction, “Be My Baby,” and had her and the Ronettes sing over top.  The track oozes with sexuality, even almost 50 years later. – the primal, pounding drums, and Bennett, gleefully flaunting her bad girl image.  It was a landmark in pop music history, but he wasn’t done yet.

Spector found his greatest triumph in an unlikely blue-eyed soul duo from Southern California known as the Righteous Brothers.  With Bill Medley’s deep voiced beginning, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” builds, eventually exploding in agonized pleading from Bobby Hatfield.  It was the perfect fusion of shameless bombast and raw emotion, and may very well be the greatest single ever recorded in the rock era.  Of course, the set also contains the producer’s eventual undoing: Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High,” which Spector considered his greatest accomplishment, but was largely ignored by the record-buying public.  For all its (excuse the pun) spectral arrangement, the song lacks a real hook; for the first time, his production had overshadowed the singer.

Sadly, only a handful of these songs get regular oldies radio rotation, yet there are many surprises, like the way the Ronettes “The Best Part of Breaking Up” comes back at the end, or Love’s vocal coda at the close of “A Fine Fine Boy.”  And, while the Back to Mono box sported 60 tracks, The Essential Phil Spector trims the list down to a much more palatable 35, touching on all the hits and many of the lesser-known gems.  Even those who had written Spector’s music off should give this set a listen – you may be surprised at what you hear.  –Tony Peters