‘Phil Spector’s Greatest Hits’ (1977)

phil spector2

Phil Spector’s Greatest Hits is the best single collection of his work that has ever been available, anywhere, and by its very nature it includes a fair proportion of the finest rock and roll records of all time. This doesn’t mean, however, that the project would not have come off more successfully had someone else been allowed to select and program the music—me, say.

The two-record set contains fake (“reprocessed”) or real stereo versions of 24 hit singles Spector—the King of Mono—originally produced between 1958 (“To Know Him Is To Love Him” by the Teddy Bears; Phil was 17) and 1969 (“Black Pearl” by Sonny Charles and the Checkmates Ltd.). About two-thirds of the tracks (by the Crystals, the Ronettes, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, Darlene Love, the Righteous Brothers, and Ike & Tina Turner) were first released on Spector’s own Philles label, active from late ’61 through ’66; most of the rest date from ’61 and represent one of the most interesting phases of Spector’s career, when he made his first professional productions as a studio gun-for-hire heavily influenced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s work with the Coasters and the Drifters (in terms of the possibilities of the producer’s role in rock) and even more so by the late George Goldner’s glorious late-’50s work with Arlene Smith and the Chantels (in terms of sound).

Side one opens with the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” followed by the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron,” followed by the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”: it is a beginning so overwhelming in its commitment to the absolute expression of emotion as to be comparable to that of no other rock and roll album of any sort. The side continues with the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me,” and “Baby I Love You” and “Walking in the Rain” by the Ronettes—a comedown, but only from Olympus. On the remaining sides, though, the programming and at times the selection of material is erratic, even perverse. Side two moves back to Spector’s early Philles hits (bypassing Darlene Love’s best record, “A Fine Fine Boy,” in favor of “Wait ‘Til My Bobby Gets Home,” her worst); side three retreats further, to the pre-Philles discs, concluding inexplicably with a disastrously unfocused version of the Crystals’ “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”—a version that is in fact not the take Spector actually released in 1962. Of the independent productions included, two—Curtis Lee’s “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” and Gene Pitney’s “Every Breath I Take”—are masterpieces, but Lee’s Freddy Cannon-styled “Under the Moon of Love” and the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” are no more than junk; better choices would have been Johnny Nash’s obscure “Some of Your Loving,” one of Spector’s first really transcendent singles, and one of two 45s Spector made with Arlene Smith, “Love Love Love,” which almost no one has ever heard. Side four is a random assortment dominated by the final Philles hits, an uneven combination of “Black Pearl” (a post-Philles release on A&M), three second-rate Righteous Brothers numbers, “Spanish Harlem”_by Ben E. King (made in 1961 for Atlantic——what’s it doing on this side?), and Ike & Tina’s “River Deep Mountain High,” which, as the most climactic of Spector’s records, has always cried out to end an album, but is here pointlessly shoved between “Unchained Melody” and “Just Once in My Life.” (“River Deep” is Spector’s most climactic record not only because its commercial failure led him to suspend his career, which has since amounted to little more than a series of unconvincing comebacks, but because of its music: unlike Spector’s other productions, this insanely dramatic record ends not with a fade but with a bang.)

After the cuts on the first side, the most exciting are two of the lesser-known. “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” no more than an updated, drum-heavy recreation of the Del-Vikings’ “Whispering Bells,” is a perfect 45: the timing in the unrelentingly joyous interplay between lead singer, backing singers (one of them must be Spector himself), and the backing musicians is not of this world. Gene Pitney’s “Every Breath I Take,” complete with a cavernous drum sound and a heavenly string arrangement, is one of Spector’s great triumphs and also the supreme performance by a shamefully underrated singer. These two productions make up for the inclusion of the various numbers that don’t represent Spector at his most inspired; they do not make up for the erroneous version of “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” nor for the decision to reissue in stereo records made by the man whose slogan over the last years has been “Back to Mono.” (The press kit Warner Bros. made up for this album actually included “Back to Mono” buttons—that took nerve. Or callousness.)

A six-record reissue—in mono—has recently come out in England under the general title of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound; available in more imaginative record stores, it includes full LPs by the Crystals, the Ronettes, and Bob B. Son & the Blue Jeans, an album’s worth (14 cuts) of superb commercially minor hits (“A Fine Fine Boy” among them), and two LPs of rare and unreleased material (Vol. 5, with astonishing work by the Crystals and Darlene Love, is the one to get). Spector’s 1963 Christmas album, made with his girl groups, has been reissued a number of times and is easy to find; its surely the most satisfying of the many rock and roll holiday indulgences, and features Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” which ranks with any record Spector made. The Righteous Brothers’ LPs Spector released, and his Ike & Tina album (he produced only a few cuts on each) are dispensable, as is the mostly awful Checkmates Ltd. set on A&M.

Word is that Spector is back in the studio with Darlene Love. Good luck, Phil.

Village Voice, 1977 (specific date TBD)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s