The Historic Gold Star Recording Studio and the Audio Legacy of Producer Phil Spector
Phil Spector has been away from his Alhambra, California-home and the recording studio since spring of 2009, when a California jury convicted him of second-degree murder in the 2003 death of actress and comedian Lana Clarkson.
At the moment Spector is serving 19 years to life for the fatal shooting of Clarkson. Spector is actively preparing his appeal from Corcoran State Prison in Central California.
There is saying in the game of American football. “Everyday is like 4th and 1.”
The legacy of Phil Spector’s recordings and songwriting achievements as well as the ongoing impact and omnipresent influence of the Gold Star recording studio in Hollywood, Ca. where he executed his historic productions should never be forgotten, tarnished or even tainted by the results of this legal decision.
Spector’s catalogue is now controlled by EMI who administrates both his music publishing and masters tapes.
Summer and fall 2009 is expected to bring licensing deals for his potent sound copyrights and word has it, some unreleased work and reissues of his classic endeavors, specifically “A Christmas Gift For You.”
Gold Star was an atmosphere and schmuck-free sound laboratory that gave us the most-programmed record in history, Spector’s “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” by The Righteous Brothers, (arranged by Gene Page) and over 100 Billboard Top 40 hit records.
Gold Star garnered more Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) “Songs of the Century” and Grammy Hall of Fame winners than any other independent studio in America.
Gold Star also served as the recording “home” of ABC-TV’s first prime time Rock & Roll series, “Shindig!”
In 2008, Gold Star’s own history was displayed in a documentary, “The Wrecking Crew’ by filmmaker Denny Tedesco, son of jazz guitarist and session man, Tommy Tedesco. The movie chronicles the1950-1983 world of Gold Star and the session players.
The Wrecking Crew membership began with the slow demise of the studio system in Hollywood at the big movie companies in the 1950s. Large orchestras started getting replaced by smaller session calls for movie and television soundtracks in addition to rock ‘n’ roll dates that were now getting booked by record producers and music supervision executives.
In 2008, The Wrecking Crew got honored with an induction into The RockWalk of Fame in front of Guitar Center store in Hollywood, Ca.
In every book and story about the life of Phil Spector, Gold Star’s engineer/co-owner Stan Ross is mentioned. Ross, along with his business partner, technical wizard Dave Gold, and engineer Larry Levine toiling for years in Gold Star, made overt and subtle sound design contributions to Phil Spector’s studio undertakings while jointly constructing the ‘Wall of Sound.’
Gold Star and Spector were a special force. The alchemy of location, Gold, Ross and Levine’s technical acumen combined with Spector’s stylistic confidence.
Gold Star studio co-owner Dave Gold was born in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles and met Larry Levine in an East L.A. elementary school. Levine’s cousin, Stan Ross grew up as a teenager in Los Angeles.
Hailing from Brooklyn New York, Ross, after his birth in 1929 moved with his parents to Los Angeles at age 15. Stan then enrolled at Los Angeles’ Fairfax High in 1946. Ross wrote a music column in the “Fairfax Colonial Gazette” called “Musical Downbeat.” Phil Spector later attended the same institution. So did Wildman Fischer, Warren Zevon, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Slash, and myself.
When he was a teenager, Stan Ross studied recording from a pioneer of modern disc recording Bert B. Gottschalk. Stan worked at his Electro-Vox studio for four years as an engineer and was responsible for one hit record, “Deck Of Cards” by T. Texas Tyler.
“Gold Star used to be a dentist’s office,” Ross reminds me in 2001. “We started pulling teeth a different way,” he jokes. Gold Star was built in 1950 and lasted until 1983 at 6252 Santa Monica Blvd until a fire destroyed the property in 1984.
One of Ross’ first field -recording assignments was for then area Congressman Richard M. Nixon and his infamous ‘Pink Lady’ campaign. Citizens who lived in the district were appalled by Nixon’s smear tactics that insulted candidate Helen Gahagan Douglas, wife of screen legend Melvyn Douglas.
Stan Ross was present for Phil on his 1958 Teddy Bear’s record, “To Know Him Is To
Love Him,” and a plethora of Spector bookings 1962-1966.
The studio origins of Gold Star and the Ross and Gold client bookings were not lost on teenage Phil Spector when he first knocked on the door. “We used studio A. Eddie Cochran used our Studio B. down the stairs by the parking lot,” remembers Stan. “I cut ‘Tequila’ there by The Champs. Phil followed in a studio tradition. I did a whole lot of Eddie Cochran’s records including ‘Summertime Blues,’ ‘20 Flight Rock,’ and ‘C’mon Everybody.’ The vocal of Ritchie Valen’s “Oh Donna” was recorded at Gold Star. The backing track was done up the street at Bob Keene’s studio who owned Del-Fi Records.
Stan Ross introduced Spector to The Righteous Brothers at Gold Star. The duo had been using the studio with the owner of Moonglow Records, the label they were on at the time, and Ross engineered the stomping “Little Latin Lupe Lu” smash hit single. Spector heard them on a visit and swiftly questioned Ross about the singers. Subsequently, it’s Ross and Spector teaming for “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” for The Philles label. The San Diego-based Zeros still include “Little Latin Lupe Lu” in the stage repertoire, too.
“He was as concerned as they were about the song — one of the reasons Phil’s songs have durability and are copied. I thought things we did with The Paris Sisters were terrific,” he recalls. “I saw a lot of growth with Phil very early. The day he first walked in I explained to him the studio policy of buying time by the hour and a role of tape I had to be firm ‘cause I didn’t want 20 more Phil Spectors coming in,” Ross confesses.
David Gold created the sound effect that imbued and enhanced the creation of “Alvin & The Chipmunks” memorable recordings. The reason why the “father” character was named “David.” Gold’s additional personal credits list Ronald Reagan’s recorded promo spots with the television stars of each weeks series for four seasons of the historic “General Electric” TV broadcasts done at Reagan’s ranch, home or at Universal Studios. Reagan’s G.E. Theater speaking engagements helped him prepare for his first successful run for California governor and then President of the United States.
Jimi Hendrix’s first recorded guitar solo was session work (with Arthur Lee) at Gold Star on “My Diary” by Rosa Lee Brooks. Hugh Masekela, “Grazin’ in the Grass” achieved the first American hit single by an African group. Before he founded Jefferson Airplane, Marty Balin with arranger Jimmie Haskell in the early ‘60s recorded “I Specialize In Love.” Revered music hero Scott Walker also logged time doing menial tasks at Gold Star, recorded there, and attended nearby Los Angeles High School. The Sonics in 1966 down from Washington also did some songs at the facility.
Jazz was captured on the sacred grounds: Oscar Moore, Gerry Mulligan, Mundell Lowe, Chet Baker, Louis Bellson’s big swing band, and The Hi-Los. Arranger Gene Page did the soundtrack “Blakula” on the lot while even William Shatner delivered his spoken word narration of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” at this dream factory house of worship.
Stan Ross was behind the console for Jewel Aikens’ “The Birds and The Bees,” the first use of chorused guitar and was a favorite 45-rpm of Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, which provided the sound of a guitar plugged through a Leslie speaker, giving it an organ-like effect. Cream’s “Badge,” and The Beatles’ “Let It Be” later fused the string-to-Leslie air-pumped speaker innovation. Kit Lambert produced The Who’s “Call Me Lightning” at Gold Star and mixed their “I Can See For Miles” in the facility as well. Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band cut “Express Yourself” in the location. Shelby Flint sung “Angel On My Shoulder” as well. The famed room also delivered Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” and “Endless Sleep” by Jody Reynolds, one of Bob Dylan’s all-time records. Gold Star was the mid wife for the album version of Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul.”
“Jungle Hop” by Don & Dewey introduced the first electronically distorted guitar.
Spector’s production of “Zip A Dee Do Dah” was the first distorted lead guitar on a hit record. Gold Star also developed phasing, DT (Double-tracking) and flanging techniques.
Dave Gold, Ross and engineer Larry Levine integrated the concept of phase-shifting or “phasing” a sweeping effect that incorporated electronic music on their hit record “The Big Hurt” by vocalist Miss Toni Fisher. Larry cut the basic track and Stan the phasing.
Dobie Gray’s “The In Crowd,” Johnny Crawford’s “Cindy’s Birthday,” and “Call Me,” courtesy of Chris Montez, were baked in that building. As was Thee Midnighters’ AM radio anthem, “Land of 1000 Dances.”
Stan Ross and Dave Gold’s studio clients included Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, Sonny & Cher, Buffalo Springfield, Brian Wilson with The Beach Boys, The Cascades, Iron Butterfly, Cher, the Cake, The Chipmunks, Bob Dylan, Clydie King, Art Garfunkel, Dick Dale, Bobby Darin, Black Oak Arkansas, Minnie Ripperton, Johnny Burnette, Ray Ruff, Thee Midniters, Donna Loren, Josie & The Pussy Cats, David Briggs, The Sunrays, Mark and the Escorts, Jon & The Nightriders, Dillards, Tim Hardin, Beau Brummels, The Murmaids, Jackie De Shannon, Led Zeppelin, Hoyt Axton, Mystic Moods Orchestra, Robin Ward, George Carlin and Jack Burns, Donna Loren, The Misunderstood, Duane Eddy, Margie Rayburn, Kim Fowley, Runaways, Marlon Brando, The Band, Go-Gos, Ramones, The Seeds, The Monkees, MFQ and the Turtles.
“Gold Star felt and sounded different than any other L.A. studio,” explains the Turtles’ Howard Kaylan, who recorded “The Story of Rock & Roll pop gem and other wonderful tunes like “Eleanor” there in addition to their revolutionary L.P. “The Battle of the Bands” produced by Chip Douglas.
“You could literally smell the tubes inside the mixing board as they heated up. There was a richness to the sound that Western and United, our usual studios, never had. Those two rooms sounded ‘clean’ while Gold Star felt fat and funky. Perhaps we were all reading too much of the Spector legacy into the room, but I don’t think so. Our recordings from Gold Star always just sounded better to me. I miss that room,” muses Kaylan, whose band the Turtles sold 41 million records and had 9 Top Ten hits of their own. www.howardkaylan.com
“I went to Gold Star my first day in Hollywood when I was an adult,” proclaims Kim Fowley, “I was the campus correspondent for ‘Dig’ Magazine. I went to the Champs’ ‘Tequila’ session. They bought me lunch. I later mastered ‘Alley-Oop’ by the Hollywood Argyles that I co-produced there. And I produced ‘Popsicles and Icicles” by The Murmaids there. I had two number one records out of Gold Star. I liked the room. The echo chambers and there were good vibes. It was a magical scenario on many levels. There were five editions of The Runaways. As a trio the first one made demos at Gold Star with Stan Ross engineering. At Gold Star one day I asked Brian Wilson, ‘What is the basis of your songwriting?’ And he said, ‘Well, school is nine months a year and the summer holidays are three months and you write about that and getting in trouble with your parents.’”
Gold Star regulars Charlie Greene and Brian Stone were managers and producers, real show biz operators, who represented Buffalo Springfield, Iron Butterfly, The Poor, Bob Lind, The Cake, Dr. John, Jackie De Shannon and Sonny & Cher.
“All I Really Want To Do” Cher’s first solo hit came out of the room, along the duo’s “The Beat Goes On” and Sony Bono’s solo masterpiece, “Laugh At Me.” The soundtrack to Sonny & Cher’s movie “Good Times” as well. De Shannon subsequently did her “Laurel Canyon” LP there, and years later, the original demo of her song “Betty Davis Eyes.”
Stan Ross spoke to me in June 2001 from his home in Southern California.
Q: Tell me about Gold Star in the Fifties and Sixties?
A: Gold Star was built for the songwriters. They were fun, wonderful people to be around: Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Fain, Sonny Burke, Don Robertson, Johnny Mercer, Jimmy McHugh, Frank Loesser, Dimitri Tiomkin. We did song demos, voice-over work, radio and TV jingles.
“I loved music, and I was a record buyer, and I know what I liked. If I’m going to buy a record, I want it to sound like this. So I made everything I got involved with like something I would buy.
“Our studio echo chamber gave it the wall of sound feel. Dave (Gold) built the equipment and echo chamber and personally hand-crafted the acoustical wall coating. We had so much fun with that echo chamber; it never sounded the same way twice. Gold Star brought a feeling, an emotional feeling. Gold Star was not a dead studio, but a live studio. The room was 30 X 40.”
In the March 1984, the echo chamber physically survived the fire that demolished Hollywood’s most influential studio at the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and Vine Street.
Q: What was so special about the Gold Star soundboard?
A: It was all tubes. And when you have tubes, you have expansion and it doesn’t distort so easy. We kept tubes on longer than anyone else. Because we understood that when a kick drum kicks into a tube it’s not gonna distort. A tube can expand. The microphones with tubes were better than the ones with out the tubes because if you don’t have a tube and you hit heavy, suddenly it breaks ups. But when you have a tube it’s warm and emotional. It gets bigger and it expands. It allows for the impulse.
“Gold Star brought a feeling, an emotional feeling. Gold Star was not a dead studio, but a live studio. I’ve been in other studios that were ‘too hot,’ ‘too lively.’ Some that sounded like cardboard boxes. ‘Too dead.’ Gold Star had enough that if you snapped your fingers, or clapped your hands, you could actually hear it. So if that’s the way your hands clapped, then your drum sound would be the same kind of feel. Our echo chamber gave it the wall of sound feel. It was smaller than most people knew.
Q: Explain about recording in mono versus stereo?
A: Phil appreciated mono. But we did back up with multi-track. So, if he wanted to go back to the four track, he would. He never did, ‘cause if he didn’t hear it then it wasn’t right. When it came to multi-track you could put everything on mono. The bass drum, the guitars and keep it. Once you have it on mono, it never changes. It will be the same on Wednesday then the previous Tuesday, the same sound. So when you do transfer from one track to four tracks, it’s OK.
“And to that you can add voices, never losing the quality of the bass drum track, because it’s been transferred, it hasn’t been disturbed. You took the mono and transferred it to track one of a four track, tracks two, three and four are for voices and guitar fills. You follow? Everything is a fresh generation. It saves you from having to overdub four generations. You have less highs and less sibilance. And, we didn’t use pop filters and wind screens, we got mouth noises. Isn’t that life?
“Phil was always opinionated in the studio with us. It was a cover up. By the way, Phil always listened to what you told him. He listened to me and Larry Levine. Phil was pretty proud of himself. He served the song. He worked for the tape. He knew what he could get away with and what he couldn’t and he appreciated whatever suggestions Larry or myself would give him. He never closed his mind to anything. He was always open-minded. He was very emotional about his records. He felt that this was like his life. As much as I love children, he was in love with his songs. They were his children,” Ross volunteers.
No story on Gold Star or about Phil Spector would be complete without acknowledging resident recording engineer, Larry Levine, who died in 2008 on his 80th birthday.
Levine won a Grammy in 1965 for his work on Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’ “A Taste of Honey.” Alpert, another Fairfax High alum, later recruited Levine to design and oversee the first recording studio B at A&M Records modeled after Dave Gold’s “compact” studio blueprints developed and first installed at Gold Star.
Levine engineered albums for Eddie Cochran, The Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, Wings, the Carpenters, Dr. John, and reunited with Spector in the late 70s working on albums by Leonard Cohen and The Ramones.
Levine engineered The Ramones’ “End Of The Century” (with Boris Menart and assisted by Bruce Gold) had his own memories about the magical Gold Star and Spector pairing when we talked in 2002.
“I used to have a theory, and I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but part of the reason we took so long in actually recording the songs was that Phil needed to tire out the musicians, or they got to the point where they were tired enough so they weren’t playing as individuals. But they would meld into the sound more that Phil had in his head.
“Good musicians start out and play as individuals and strive to play what Phil wants. As far as the room sound and the drum sound went, because the rooms were small, with low ceilings, the drum sound, unlike other studios with isolation, your drums sounded the way you wanted them to sound. They would change accordingly to whatever leakage was involved.
“As a matter of fact,” Levine continues, “Phil once said to me the bane of his recording existence was the drum sound. A lot of people attribute to echo to what Phil was doing. The echo enhanced the melding of ‘the wall of sound,’ but it didn’t create it. Within the room itself, all of this was happening and the echo was glue that kept it together.”
Spector, was born in New York, moved to Los Angeles at age 9. His life completely changed and became unhinged when he heard songs on the radio like “60 Minute Man” and “Treasure Of Love” courtesy of DJ Hunter Hancock on the influential R&B L.A. R&B station KGFJ.
Spector had first taken up guitar around 1953 at John Burroughs Junior High in L.A. in the Wilshire District after finishing Laurel Elementary School. From 1954-57 at Fairfax High School he hung around the music room, was a star history student in Mr. Goetze’s history course, and learned French. Phil’s mother Bertha was born in Paris, France.
In 1955, when was 15, and deeply into the guitar, his mother Bertha and sister Shirley took him to see Ella Fitzgerald at an area nightclub, with Barney Kessel in the backing group. Later, in 1965, Spector was a guest with Fitzgerald on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.”
In 1956, an angry young Phil had a letter published in “Down Beat” complaining that Kessel was not included in an article. Shortly afterwards, Spector’s sister Shirley tracked down Barney in a studio, who had seen the letter in “Down Beat,” and eventually the Spector gals put the full court press on “BK” for career advice inside a booth at Dupars restaurant on Hollywood and Vine.
In the July 2009 issue of “Down Beat” the magazine re-printed Spector’s letter.
Barney Kessel had produced albums on both Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. He ran A&R for Verve Records 1956-1960. Barney would later play the Danelectro six string bass on Elvis Presley’s “Return To Sender.” Kessel, who previously gigged with Charlie Parker, appeared in the Oscar winning “Jamming The Blues” short film, and traded licks with Charlie Christian, discovered Ricky Nelson and cut him on “I’m Walkin’” as well as arranging, playing and supervising Julie London’s “Cry Me A River” hit single. Barney Kessel was a “Down Beat” and “Playboy” magazine jazz Guitar Poll winner who then actually took the time to appear on young Phil’s demos. Kessel once gave Phil guitar lessons in the ’50s and encouraged young Phillip to stop playing guitar, move away from jazz as an occupation, and go towards pop record production.
In 1957, Phil and future Teddy Bears member Marshall Leib got on the local KTTV-television program “Rocket to Stardom,” sponsored by salesman Bob Yeakel, hosted by wife Betty Yeakel. They used to hawk Oldsmobiles during the broadcast from his showroom. Spector and Leib duo sang “In The Still Of The Night” from the Sunset Blvd. location. Lenny Bruce, Jack Sheldon, Dennis Hopper and Jim Keltner also appeared on other “Rocket To Stardom” shows.
Spector and The Teddy Bears performed on “American Bandstand” when it really counted. The group were on episodes of NBC’s “Pik A Platter,” that Buddy Bregman hosted in 1958. The trio got booked in 1959 on the “Kraft Music Hall with Perry Como.”
The Phil Harvey Band a 1959 outfit, following his Teddy Bears stint were together for only 75 days, but had a repertoire which launched an up tempo rendition of “It’s Wonderful” and selections like instrumentals “Bumpershoot” and Lonnie Donegan’s “Rock Island Line.”
“Phil played some serious jazz guitar when I first knew him in the late ‘50s,” reinforced Elliot Ingber, an original guitarist with The Mothers Of Invention, later a member of The Fraternity Of Man of “Don’t Bogart That Joint” fame, in November 2001 inside the Highland Grounds music club. “He was a jazz cat. A ‘bad boy’ on guitar.”
Most of the time The Phil Harvey Group would integrate sax player Steve Douglas, guitarist Elliot Ingber, bassist Larry Taylor, now with Tom Waits, and for years a founding member of Canned Heat, and his brother Mel Taylor, on drums. Taylor was a fixture with The Ventures and the drummer on Herb Alpert’s “The Lonely Bull” with The Tijuana Brass.
Spector briefly attended Los Angeles City College, and dropped out of UCLA. Spector then worked on his French, and eventually planned to become a U.N. interpreter in French when he moved to New York in 1960.
It was in New York that 19 year old Spector actually did some translation work for Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who wanted the talented teen to go to work for him after some meetings at a local hotel. Spector declined and followed the music. This was a period just before Phil “studied” the influential songwriters and producers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, choosing to work for them in an apprenticing stint in addition to ingratiating himself with Atlantic Records’ executive Ahmet Ertegun.
Record producer Kim Fowley was at The Trip club on Sunset Blvd. in 1965 when Phil Spector emerged out of the audience one evening to join the Modern Folk Quartet playing 12-string guitar. Fowley told me over the phone in 2009 from his Fairfax area digs, “Phil sounded like he would have been a really good lead singer. Great mike technique and powerful delivery.” MFQ band member Henry Diltz in 2009 confirmed the “really fantastic” jam to me in a conversation.
In the May 31, 1975 issue of “Melody Maker” I published an interview with Spector, culled from a series of conversations, in Hollywood at the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College, his own Beverly Hills mansion, and some studio visits where he was producing Dion at Gold Star studios and a new singer, Jerri Bo Keno. .
At the action-packed question and answer seminar, Spector responds to an inquiry on how he got started. “I was a young aspiring guitar player. I played on some of Big Mama Thorton’s records. I always wanted to be a producer. There’s an old story I’ve told before. ‘OK. Let’s play baseball. You be the pitcher, you’re the catcher, and you’re the batter. Spector, you be the producer.’ I was always into that.
“Dave Bartholomew, Sam Phillips-I wanted to know about the people behind the scenes. The guy who played the solo n ‘Rock Around The Clock.’ The tape echo sound. These things interested me. They were exciting.
“I played on records before I made ‘em. I worked with Leiber and Stoller. Anyway, the only way you get into the record business is to make a record. I believed in individual distribution which nobody did at the time. You can’t do that today. The big companies will eat you up and spit you out.
“We made a lot of records, played on sessions by the Drifters, the guitar on ‘On Broadway,’ ‘Lavender Blue,’ ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him,’ the first one. That was the one I was gonna kick ass with. I was part of the group the Teddy Bears.”
When Spector was an adult in the ’60s, he was a welcome television guest on a variety of national network TV programs: “David Susskind,” “Les Crane,” and “Merv Griffin,” even a cameo as, what else, a record producer on “I Dream Of Jeannie.”
Phil did the theme and worked with The Dave Clark Five on “Lucy In London.” The previous decade in the Fifties Spector had been employed briefly as a page on the “I Love Lucy” television series done in Hollywood.
In our “Melody Maker” interview on Hollywood Blvd. and his college lecture, Spector outlined his philosophy on recording and producing sessions.
“I like to have all the musicians there at once. I get everything on one track that I need. I put everything on 24 tracks just to see if it’s plugged in. The finished track never ends up on more than one. I hire the best. I have the creativity. I know what I want. I don’t wear a ‘Back To Mono’ button for no reason at all. I believe in it. I can make quad. It’s easy.
“I record in a strange way. I haven’t changed. I go from the basic track and put it onto 24. Then I have one track and 23 open. That’s the difference between having 24 filled or 19 filled. Which means, I can get 23 string players and overdub them 10 times and have 200 strings then I put them on one track I record basic tracks and then put it all onto one track or maybe two. Then I condense. I put my voices on.
“The musicians I have never outdo me. I’m not in competition with them. I’m in complete accord with them. You need the ability so you hire the best. I have the creativity. I know what I want.
“I’ve used Barney Kessel all the time for the last ten years. Terry Gibbs on vibes…everybody. The better the talent is around you, the better the people you have working with you, the more concerned., the better you’re gonna come off as a producer, like a teacher in a class.”
Phil during one spiel compared himself to a movie director. “When you see a Kubrick movie, you tell me how many names you immediately remember in the cast. One? Two? It’s the same with Fellini, and that’s what I wanted to do when I directed a recording. Singers are instruments. They are tools to be worked with.
“My engineer was scared to death to work with me. While I record I put everything on tape, echo, everything. My engineer said ‘You’re out of your mind.’ Do you know Ray Conniff uses more tape echo than I ever used in my life? That’s a fact.”
One late night at his home, Phil played a bunch of “Let It Be” mono acetates he had produced for an invited audience after a late night session of Dion’s “Born To Be with You” at Gold Star.
Phil ran down the first time he met Fats Domino at Imperial Records in 1958. “He was up at the label to pick up royalties, and wanted to be paid in cash, not check, put in a paper bag,” he howled. “I was perplexed. I didn’t know if I should say ‘Hi Fats’ or ‘Mr. Domino’ at that time.”
That evening I quizzed Phil about The Beatles and John Lennon. “It was very easy to work with John Lennon. There was no problem working with him. I think he is one of the greatest singers in music. I honestly believe that. I feel the same way about Paul (McCartney) as a singer. They are in a league with few others. I don’t feel the same way about George (Harrison) or Ringo (Starr). John and Paul are great rock and roll singers.”
The Beach Boys also did a rendition of “Then He Kissed Me.” (“Then I Kissed Her.”) Brian Wilson performed “Be My Baby” on his 2000 concert tour and “Then I Kissed Her” at a summer 2004 Hollywood Bowl concert.
“The man is my hero,” Brian Wilson told me in a published interview in 1977. “He gave rock ‘n’ roll just what it needed at the time and obviously influenced us a lot. His productions…they’re so large and emotional…Powerful…the Christmas album is still one of my favorites. We’ve done a lot of Phil’s songs: ‘I Can Hear Music,’ ‘Just Once In My Life,’ ‘There’s No Other Like My Baby,’ ‘Chapel Of Love’… I used to go to his sessions and watch him record. I learned a lot…”
Don Randi was born February 25, 1937 in New York City and moved to Los Angeles in 1954. Randi played Piano, Keyboards, Organ and Harpsichord on the just about every Spector date at Gold Star since 1962. He’s featured on “A Christmas Gift For You,” the inspiring Phil Spector Christmas album.
Randi’s session credits and solo albums the last 50 years in town document Planet Hollywood. He can be heard on the Beach Boys’ album “Pet Sounds,” “Buffalo Springfield Again,” Love’s “Forever Changes” and “The 1968 Elvis Presley Comeback Special.” Randi’s resume also includes “The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees” and Tim Buckley’s “Goodbye & Hello.” Randi recorded with Spector on his Leonard Cohen “Death of a Ladies’ Man” LP and has been on wax with both Frank and Nancy Sinatra.
For close to 40 years, Don Randi has been the proprietor of the Baked Potato jazz club in North Hollywood while also leading his popular jazz-fusion cross over group Quest. The idolized musician and comic Randi is working on his autobiography with writer Lynne Margolis.www.donrandi.com
Q: Tell me about Gold Star?
A: Gold Star was an incredible place since the first time I ever worked there. It was friendly. And they always had a good staff there that was friendly. Between Dave Gold, Stan Ross and Larry Levine, and Doc Siegel, it was great and fun. Stan and Larry I worked with a lot. Doc got destined to do the “B” sides for Phil Spector.
“Everybody playing parts and a lot of time duplication. Like on the pianos, you would have one guy doing a thing on the high end of the piano, somebody in the middle, and Phil would want the different sounds of a concert grand, and an upright, electric or a Wurlitzer. So he liked to have the spread of the different tonality. That was Phil. He understood tonality very well. And at Gold Star it was magic because of all those harmonics rising were part of the wall of sound.
“The playbacks didn’t blow my mind because it was already exciting. It was so exciting and you knew you would eventually have a million-selling record. You absolutely knew that because Phil was so dominant. I worked for other people there. I did my own albums there and even wrote all the Radio Shack commercials.
“Most of the times when we did those studio jobs we were asked to be somebody else. We were cloned. You know, if somebody wanted Floyd Cramer you had to come out. If somebody wanted a more Ray Charles’ sound you had to come up with it. If somebody wanted more of a Phil Spector sound then I knew exactly what they wanted. I had a bond with bassist Chuck Berghoffer on the Elvis Presley ’68 sessions. We both came out of West Coast jazz scene and were on Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” He’s one of the great jazz bassists in the world but no matter where he goes he has to play the line from ‘Boots.’ (laughs). I’m on that record, too.
Q: Does the studio make a real big difference in the sound of a record?
A: Well, at Gold Star it was the echo chamber. Like, when someone talks about a guy being a ‘natural baseball player.’ Gold Star was a natural studio. It just blended and worked. When you went to Gold Star you just knew you were making a hit record.
Q: Why does the music recorded and documented in Gold Star have longevity and durability?
A: Because musically and lyrically and the composition and note part was brilliant. There were always great songs. The songs always told a story. The songs in themselves were films. And, especially in Phil’s case, he knew how to write them and how to produce them. And in Brian Wilson’s case, Brian always knew where he was going with it. He may have not known at the beginning, but after a while he had an idea and he developed it. We were there to help him develop it.
“The Phil Spector ‘Christmas’ album is probably the best Christmas album of all time and you can’t just repeat things like that. For me all those years there I don’t recall anything or equipment breaking down. I’m sure it did but very rarely, but fixed quickly.
Randi along with his fellow Wrecking Crew members always gigged around town for additional TV shows, movie soundtracks, record dates and club appearances. Randi was the musical director for “The Big T.N.T. show” taped in 1965 in Hollywood that Phil Spector produced.
1965′s “The Big T.N.T. Show,” hosted by actor David McCallum of “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” fame, stars Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, The Ronettes, Donovan, Joan Baez, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Petula Clark, The Byrds, The Ike & Tina Revue. The MFQ provided live between segments songs at the taping, recorded “This Could Be The Night” produced by Spector is “The Big T.N.T. Show” theme song.
The event was filmed at the landmark Moulin Rouge in Hollywood, where portions of the Ross Hunter-produced and Douglas Sirk directed “Imitation Of Life” motion picture starring Lana Turner, Sandra Dee and Susan Kohner were lensed.
Frank Zappa, Sky Saxon, Mary Hughes, Rodney Bingenheimer, Johnny Legend and Ron and Russell Mael (future Sparks principals) are shown on screen in “The Big T.N.T. Show” audience. Jack Nitzsche and Denny Bruce, the early Mothers of Invention drummer before they could get a record deal, were seated in a balcony watching Bo Diddley and his band.
This resulting “Big T.N.T. Show” celluloid document is the definitive teen music flick from the coast with the most. For this Hollywood-based teenager, the chicks in the audience used Clearasil as base foundation makeup, had more bangs, tighter sweaters, shorter skirts, wore Yardley, and were way cuter than the girls later shown on screen in the movies “Monterey Pop” and ”Woodstock.”
At that ’65 “T.N.T” event, Randi’s head stagehand was Robert Marchese, a record producer, who later won a Grammy for producing the first live Richard Pryor comedy album from The Troubadour. Marchese also engineered some local sessions for Spector and Jimi Hendrix.
Marchese’s best 2007 party piece on “Phil with the Cuban heels,” as he likes to refer to him, was born after observing a conversation between Spector and Brother Ray Charles.
“(Pianist) Don Randi got me the gig as his assistant. I was setting up the stage and working with the orchestra in the pit,” Marchese recounts from his crib in Pittsburgh, PA. “(Arranger/Producer) Arif Mardin was there and gave me a copy of the Otis Redding album, ‘Otis Blue.’ I saw Joe Adams, who was a well-known radio DJ in L.A. (The Mayor Of Melody) and an actor (“Carmen Jones,” among other credits). He was also Ray’s right hand man. I told Joe I wanted to shake hands with Ray Charles. He said ‘sure.’ I said hello to Ray, and then he motioned to Joe and me to take him to ‘meet’ Phil Spector, who was overseeing the whole ball game. The Byrds were setting up. Ray says to Phil, ‘Are you Mr. Phil Spector?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you the Boy Genius?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you the inventor of the Wall Of Sound?’’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you the guy who had over 20 hit singles in a row?’ ‘Yes’” ‘Then Mr. Spector, how come there’s no toilet paper in the bathroom?’”
Q: Don, yourself and the Wrecking Crew could gig in the studios and at nights hold TV orchestra and band jobs as well as perform original music at a local venue.
A: My guys in the studio could play live anywhere. They were capable musicians.
The ‘Big T.N.T. Show’ was fantastic because of Phil. And he gave me the opportunity, ‘cause otherwise I could have taken another date. But when Phil calls, he was ‘first call’ for me. If I were going to do something else many times I would move things around to accommodate him.
“You’ve got to remember that most of the guys that were in ‘Phil’s band’ especially were all jazz players and rock ‘n’ roll was a living for them. And a lot of them didn’t like it as much as I did. I have to be very frank about it. I always liked the rock ’n’ roll part of it. I thought it was great fun and sometimes very musically interesting. Not all the time. 80 per cent of the time. We got to do some things on rock ‘n’ roll dates we could not do in jazz and studio settings. Absolutely.
Q: Do you think steering some of the Spector musicians and the Gold Star session cats to “The Big T.N.T. Show” in 1965 informs the music you and the others would create later that year and well into 1966? Like ‘Pet Sounds?”
A: Well that’s true. We brought that into ‘Pet Sounds.’ It’s an interesting concept but those guys were very capable. They were the best musicians and still are the best musicians. Like, at ‘The Big T.N.T. Show’ and on all our dates, we all could read, except maybe a few of the guys who were brought in as players. As specialists. Like (guitarist) Mike Deasy when he came in. All the guys could always read chord charts. That’s for sure. I had Barney Kessel on the ‘Big T.N.T. Show.’ Whether it was television, film, rock ‘n’ roll or a live performance. I enjoyed every moment of it. I think I played on ‘The T.A.M.I. Show,’ too. Whenever Jack Nitzsche was the arranger or the music director I was playing music with him.
Q: You spent many years recording with Jack Nitzsche.
A: Yes. Jack Nitzsche was a good translator for Phil.
Q: When you hear a Nitzsche chart on Phil’s recordings or Jack’s own records or arrangements, what happens? Do you have a favorite track or music cue?
A: You know what kills me, every time I hear Jack’s ‘The Lonely Surfer.’ I’m on it. It still gives me chills because it’s a great song. Jack wrote a great song. I didn’t hear it until the day we went in. You know, we never rehearsed. (laughs). The composition. He went to Westlake School of Music. I’ll tell you what gripped me was his brilliance. You gotta remember, there was brilliance without Phil. There was Phil and there was stuff you did on your own. And people forget about that. And, as great as it was, we were making up parts half the time. With Jack, Phil was able to go to Jack and he would translate what Phil wanted. There was camaraderie. You got to remember we all were together. Jack Nitzsche, Phil Spector, myself and Sonny Bono, who Jack knew from the late ‘50s at Specialty.
Q: You’ve heard and watched the Spector catalogue, the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson-birthed Gold Star sessions originate on analog tape and then travel into digital world. In addition to your own solo albums with Quest. Plus those countless hit records with Nancy and Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. You came out of two-track world and monaural recording.
A: I like mono but not quite a ‘Back To Mono’ guy. I still like the old LP’s and I still play them. For the simple reason that unfortunately when they do these things they have a tendency to digitize everything where they clean it up so much that you lose the character of the song itself. You lose the room ambience. My God, if a guitar player squeaks on a note leave it! But they can get it out today so they choose to do that. If a singer took a breathe before he or she sang a note, I used to love to hear that. It was part of the record. And they don’t do that anymore.
Q: I wrote the liner notes for the 2008 2 CD set of “The ’68 Elvis Presley Comeback Special” and you were on those local sessions in Hollywood. Yourself and many session players have benefited particularly from album reissues and CD re-releases of Presley, Spector, Wilson and Nitzsche sessions from over 40 years ago.
A: Look, we all like to hear how our music is being used after we cut it. ‘A Little Less Conversation’ with Elvis. I might have made initially $160.00. Local 47 union contract. Over the years, with all the scales changing, and everything being re-done and re-mixed I’ve made close to ten grand in residuals.
“Let me tell you why. It’s a very simple reason and most people don’t have any clue. There were a number of people. It started with Phil Spector, then Brian Wilson, and caught on with everybody else, that when you hired us, there was a union contract. So, there was a Local 47 on a contract. And if that contract is there they can trace it back to who was on the original track. And because of that we get our residuals. Phil, Brian, Jack, and Billy Goldenberg on our work with Elvis made it possible, Because, if they could avoid it, they would. But these guys insisted on having these contracts. And because of this we all have residuals and I’m talking to you.
“It’s nice at age 72 to get paid and hear these things again. Kim Fowley calls it ‘mailbox money.’ It’s wonderful. There’s a guy that’s been logging everything and getting everything in order for years, ‘cause it’s an unthankful job. Russ Wapensky. You might never hear his name except from me or Hal (Blaine). But he logged everything so nobody can fuck with us,” boasts Randi.
“‘A Little Less Conversation’ has turned out to be a miracle for all of us. The musicians that were on it originally ‘cause it was from a film, you know. (laughs). Every time it’s been re-made or they’ve used it we’ve all been paid a residual on it and a very nice one. So Elvis has been paying us even though he’s gone on that record. We even got paid on the re-mix. Billy Strange, the guitarist, co-wrote the tune with Mac Davis, and they also co-wrote ‘Memories.’ Billy was an excellent guitarist and did a lot of movie and TV themes.
“Who would have thought a few years back a re-mix of ‘A Little Less Conversation’ would be a big hit in England? (laughs). Nancy Sinatra does a great version of it in her show. I toured with her and Clem Burke from Blondie a while ago and we fuckin’ burned it,” Don howls.
Q: Phil Spector is incarcerated in prison miles away from our conversation. Phil is still a very good friend of yours for close to a half a century. What goes through your mind when you now hear his records? What is it like? Is it different? Do you tune it out?
A: First of all, it’s impossible to tune it out unless you’re living on Mars. You know, to watch the whole transition and how everything has changed. And it’s always made me wonder about Phil not taking care of himself. He has a bad side and he abuses it and he has for a number of years and you can’t do that. And what happens when you have imbalance like that you tend to do strange things. Unfortunately under those conditions what went down was part of the reason. But I personally knowing Phil, and I’ve always said this to anybody, his bark is louder than his bite. And he can be very tough, very this and that, but a very, kind gentle sweetheart.
Q: How do you feel about the media coverage of what went down during the Phil Spector trial?
A: I was on that ‘Court TV’ when the first trial was going on. I was on a number of times. I was asked to do it. I had no qualms. I knew that he was innocent. And, I still think that he is innocent. I went to court. I went down there. And listening to his attorney, this last one, who I thought was brilliant, and then what is the jury hearing that I didn’t hear? Because if they heard what I heard there is no way they could have a conviction. But the judge gave them an out, an open door. Not only that, they didn’t have to bring in first degree murder. All they had to bring in was second degree murder. Which is a lesser crime but still puts you in jail. The first time they had to bring in first and they couldn’t.
“You got to remember I go all the way back. ‘He’s A Rebel.’ I didn’t do his Teddy Bears’ ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ ‘cause that is before me. But I did go to court for him.”
David Kessel is currently President and CEO of Cave Hollywood Media , a multimedia consultancy firm that is involved in cyberspace entertainment activities and e-commerce. www.cavehollywood.com. The website launched in August 2009.
Kessel is the son of legendary and influential guitarist and producer, the late Barney Kessel, who can be heard on hundreds of jazz and rock ’n’ roll recording sessions, including The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” and as a member of the powerful Phil Spector “Wall-of-Sound” studio ensemble. “I knew my dad as a record producer (Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, Ricky Nelson), not just a guitarist,” Kessel remembers.
David Kessel’s stepmother was also a pivotal architect of classic seminal pop and rock records from the late 1950s through the 1980s. The late B.J. Baker was considered one of the top background vocalists and vocal contractors of her era, and her contributions are rubber-stamped on important wax from Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Wilson, Lloyd Price, Bobby Vee, Timi Yuro, and Sam Cooke. She’s heard on Sinatra’s “That’s Life.”
“She taught me a lot about how vocals should be recorded,” Kessel suggests. As a teenager growing up in Southern California, David, along with older brother Dan, attended a lot of recording dates of The Beach Boys, Phil Spector, Quincy Jones, and Sonny & Cher. “Phil’s recording sessions then, and even today, taught me how to take charge of my vision, and how to take responsibility for achieving that vision.”
In July 2009, Kessel offered a lifetime of his thoughts and first-hand observations on Phil Spector.
“Phil has been a family friend for over 50 years. He is an American pop musical genius of the highest order with almost extraterrestrial insight and vision. Phil’s (or Spector’s) contributions to recorded music revolutionized the modern record making process. My brother Dan and I have played guitar (In addition to various other instruments & vocals) on every Spector recording session since 1973, and from 1962-1969 often attended his sessions as kids & teenagers.
“Most current ‘Plug In’ recording effects can be attributed originally to the sounds Phil (Spector) created, developed and experimented with in the making of his classic recordings. The current generation of recordists who use these ‘Plug Ins’ don’t realize, when adding these technology effects to their music, they’re actually accessing Phil Spector with the touch of a button, and that they owe those sounds to him.”
Q: What are your observations about the 2009 guilty verdict on Phil Spector.
A: I’d like to say Phil Spector is innocent. He’s absolutely 1,000 per cent innocent. All the forensic evidence says he is innocent. Absolutely zero proof that he did anything. As a matter of fact, there is total proof that he didn’t do anything. The science tells us that. If there had been a problem caused by him it would be obvious. He had no incriminating scientific evidence on his person, which would have been abundantly present had he been involved with the shooting.
Q: Did you think the local and global media, print and electronic helped shape the climate around his trials?
A: The media takes his brilliance and tries to turn it into some kind of insanity. It’s a circus, so people can eat popcorn. I was at the trial on several occasions. I felt it was a total railroad job. They played on emotion. They played on the fact that Phil for some reason is a real, real weirdo, which he isn’t. I’ll tell you what. It is weird to be a genius. When you take genius to a pedestrian level the pedestrian can not understand it. So in order to justify its own ignorance it has to discredit the genius. If he’s guilty of anything, it’s going out with the wrong women. If you’d like to convict him of eccentric behavior, well that’s not a crime. But that has nothing to do with the unfortunate tragedy that occurred in his house. He did not do it. I am hoping he wins on appeal.
Q: Is it hard for you to hear Phil’s music and countless Gold Star recordings?
A: It’s amazing, ‘cause I was at the post office and they were playing ‘Imagine.’ Then later our 50s’ burger joint were playing ‘The Best Part of Breaking Up.’ Walking into the store I hear ‘Lovin’ Feelin.’ You just can’t escape it and the horror of Phil’s predicament. It goes through your veins.
Q: And you are also reminded of your father, Barney Kessel, and your step-mom, B.J. Baker, ‘cause you hear their recording work constantly. What are these emotions like?
A: It’s a perplexing thing and makes me sick to my soul about Phil. The parent thing is good ‘cause since they’re no longer on the planet, I feel like they are kind of watching over me. With Phil, it’s like taking a Brillo pad to my skin.
Q: Why does the music of Phil Spector hold up so well and the sound of Gold Star?
A: I’ll tell you why. ‘Cause it’s that great and that deep in our social consciousness. The topics of the songs are timeless. Love, me and you, cool things. It vibes for people. He captured that vibe with sound and song in a way that nobody has or will again.
Q: How much did the setting of Gold Star impact the actual sound of these recordings? Could they have been done in another room?
A: Not like that. Because the total acoustics of the room for a Wall of Sound experience were just perfect. And the way that Stan Ross and Dave Gold designed the studio, they knew what they were doing. It’s not like they said, ‘Let’s roll a wall up here.’ They really had their acoustics down very early in the game. Of course the echo chambers and of course the board. It was a heavy metal board, and I don’t mean like in heavy metal music.
Q: Why was the board so important and essential.
A: Because of the quality of the metal inside the board and the wiring. It was very thick and very powerful. Not like today where you have all the digital stuff and then you have to bring in all the boxes and try to beef it up. You know what I mean” where at Gold Star that was the real deal. The metals made after World War 2 were sufficiently degraded from the metal before World War 2. Much weaker metal because they had to use so much during the war. It became thinner, got into aluminum, transistors. Stuff like that. When they have the real deal metal, the real deal magnets, and the real deal wiring, that really enhances the sound. And when you bring in brilliant acoustics with a powerful board and then you have Phil and his genius working the musicians and hearing those sounds in his head and being able to articulate it with the help of Larry Levine, Stan Ross and Dave Gold who were outstanding.
“They were called engineers, and didn’t have aspirations of being record producers and running record labels. They were sound engineers and business owners of a studio. Hey, a lot of Eddie Cochran stuff was done at Gold Star with Stan Ross engineering. Gold Star was a special unique studio and so were the guys who ran it.
Q: What is the sonic advantage of mono?
A: Well, first of all, it’s all powerful and coming out of both speakers the same. OK? That means you are getting the full signal right at you. With the ‘Wall of Sound’ in mono you are now having to worry about stereo placement. OK? Originally, you were or are making these records for a transistor radio. And ultimately you want it to sound really great out of that small transistor radio speaker. You’re also thinking in terms of when the needles goes down on the record. It’s going to go out through the needles as a whole signal. Whereas when you start dividing the instruments, ‘part of this on the left side, part of this on the right side, you can hear that on that on some of the Beatles’ mid career records, trying to get a stereo thing going, but you lose the full impact of the solid centered power. With mono you get a thicker piece of music on tape.
“What’s interesting I think is that the records are classic and timeless because they have a classic and timeless sound that came out of Gold Star. To me, the one group, and they didn’t record at Gold Star, mostly Sunset Sound, their early stuff, whose records are classic and timeless to me are the Doors. They were recorded so well and they hold up and don’t sound dated.
Q: What was so great about the echo chamber at Gold Star?
A: The depth. It was really deep. I’m going to make it really clear. Just adding that echo to a record with a bunch of musicians in that room is not going to give you a ‘Wall of Sound.’ Might give you a mess of mud if you don’t know what you are doing.
Q: Tell me the advantage of having all the musicians record at once in the room.
A: Let’s take it back to an aspect of Phil that a lot of people do not discuss. Which is part of his overall brilliance that disturbs people so much. Because he knows what he is doing musically on all levels. His choices of date mates are however of dubious distinction. The thing is, consider this, his brain is thinking symphonically As a symphony orchestra. A lot of violins, cellos, basses. You don’t just have one of each. OK? Flute section, etc, the whole nine yards, so that becomes symphonic orchestration. So the musicians are divided into sections.
“For example, the acoustic guitar section and the electric guitar section have to put their trip together independently. Four electric guitar players working out electric parts. Four acoustic guitar players working out their parts. But when you hear all the various sections at the same time, the jigsaw puzzle comes together. It’s pretty over whelming thick and musical. And powerful.
“Jack Nitzsche is an unsung hero. He was a total educated musician. Excellent orchestration, he knew where Phil was going. A real good backbone, man. What Jack did for Phil is what Charlie Watts does for the Rolling Stones.
Q: Spector employed jazz people like your father Barney. And Phil issued some albums of Barney, including “Slow Burn.” Phil wrote the liner notes.
A: Here’s the thing. The Jazz guys can do these parts in their sleep. It’s not a challenge so it makes it easier to make the record in one or two takes, or three takes. Phil might have taken six hours to get the sound right. The jazz guys read charts and can think on their toes. They don’t yell about how their hands hurt. You are getting the best of the best to play some of the simplest of the simple and it comes out great.
“Here’s a Barney quote about Gold Star and Phil. Before the classic Gold Star Wall Of Sound sessions, Phil had gone to New York earlier to work for Atlantic Records and to learn from Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. Then he came back to town, called up my dad and said ‘Hey Barney, we’re doing some records. Come down.’
“Barney shows up to the gig and they played the tune and it came out pretty well from his perspective. He put his instrument down, I think he had to check with his answering service about another session date. He came back into the booth and he said, that he was hearing sounds that he wasn’t quite sure of. And he said to Phil, ‘Is that us?’ ‘And Phil said, ‘Yeah.’ And Barney said, ‘I don’t get it because that’s certainly not what we did in the other room. I played on it and I heard it. It did not sound like that in there. It sounds completely different in here.’ ‘Yep,’ said Phil. And that was at Gold Star.
Q: Tell me about the Phil Spector-produced Christmas album. I’ve heard it is being reissued this season.
A: The ‘Christmas’ album is really scary. Because it’s so perfect, it’s impeccable. It’s just flawless. I would say honestly that it’s the prototype of ‘Sgt. Pepper.’ Because it’s right there. I’m not saying John Lennon is Ronnie Spector, or Darlene Love is Paul McCartney, Bobby Sheen is George Harrison, and Sonny Bono and the other voices are Ringo Starr. It’s a concept album. You can say Christmas already is the concept. No. How ’bout the concept about how you deal with the concept? That’s the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ part. ‘Cause we all know Christmas as a given. But how you attack it.
On May 1, 1979 The Ramones entered Gold Star to begin their Phil Spector produced album, “End Of The Century.” I was there, covering the action for London’s “Melody Maker.” On a session I hand clapped again on “Do You Remember Rock ’N’ Roll Radio?” along with Rodney Bingenheimer, Maria Montoya, Phast Preddie and Jeff Morrison. I went to most of the recording sessions and eventually penned the liner notes to the 2002 CD re-release of the product.
Dave Gold and Stan Ross, the owners, used to have Tab in their Coca-Cola machine that we all drank. I have fond memories of running for food, and working the coffee machine for Joey Ramone, specifically when he did the lead vocal on “Baby, I Love You” one early morning.
oey Ramone (Jeff Hyman) really liked Los Angeles, and especially the music of The Beach Boys and Doors. His band before had done a version of “Needles And Pins,” that Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono co-wrote, made famous by Jackie DeShannon.
One night I told Joey Chris Montez recorded “Let’s Dance” in the room we were standing in. He was stunned, took off his glasses and just shook his head in amazement. Joey also dug The Jefferson Airplane and was a big Rolling Stones and Who fan. I later learn that Phil and Joey were a lot tighter than I even realized.
I remember Joey Ramone recording his vocals with a setup unique to a studio. Boris Menart, an engineer on the album, notes, “[One] thing Phil did was when they recorded Joey’s vocals, because he was so used to standing onstage holding his microphone, he would sing with one microphone on the stand and another microphone right above him that would record as well. He was so used to standing holding a mike in front of his face when he was singing, he was sorta comfortable like when he was onstage. In the mix we would bring his vocal back so he wasn’t right on top of it.”
I visited Spector at his Alhambra castle for a couple of luncheons and a small dinner party in 2002. I requested some data and quotes from Phil about the “End Of the Century.” A gracious Spector responded quickly, “The boys loved Gold Star, especially Joey. He was very prepared. He had all of his songs written and ready to go. And the boys were well rehearsed…No problems in recording them. They were open to any and everything.”
Keyboardist Barry Goldberg and Steve Douglas were enlisted for some tracks.
“We used Barry Goldberg on the piano and organ on practically all the sides. And he was wonderful. The boys really liked him too. Everything Steve Douglas played was immediately rock and roll musical history. It was that good; and there was absolutely nobody like him.”
“Phil called me up in 1979,” recalls Barry Goldberg, “and said, ‘I’ve got something really important for some sessions.’ But he didn’t tell me what it was. I didn’t know until I walked into Gold Star. I found out when I walked in and saw all the Ramones, right. I loved the Ramones. They were rock ’n’ roll. And I started talking to them, and they found out I played keyboard on the Mitch Ryder stuff, and they loved ‘Devil With A Blue Dress On.’ They accepted me.”
Phil also commented on the inclusion of “Baby, I Love You” on the album.
“The brief story behind the recording of ‘Baby, I Love You’ with Joey was that I was against re-recording anything I had done previously but Joey begged me, as did Seymour Stein, and Brian Wilson who all said it was one of their favorite songs and would I please do it with Joey. So I consented. Jim Keltner played drums on the date and I overdubbed the strings. All done at Gold Star. Larry Levine had a heart attack during the middle of the session so Boris Menart finished the date, and the album. ’Baby, I Love You’ was recently used by the telephone Yellow Pages in England for a commercial. It was a huge success.
“All the Ramones could play very well. Ed Stasium from the east coast also did some lead guitar playing on the album. I gave the boys the album title which they seemed to like. The drummer drank a little bit much but overall they were all nice kids.
Joey was always with his girlfriend. They stayed at that crazy motel on Santa Monica Blvd. The album still sells to this day. Did you know that Sean Donahue the DJ voice on ‘Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio?’ was killed in an automobile accident a while back?
“Joey asked me to come down to the Whiskey when they were filming the video for their LP and make a guest appearance but I declined. He wanted me to do a ‘Hitchcock’ type thing. ‘Alien’ (the movie) had just come out at the time the boys LP was being made, and the boys went to see it every evening and day they had off! everyone except Joey that is. They were, especially Joey, originals. They were punk rock. No ifs ands or buts. Everyone else copied them….Including The Strokes.”
Dee Dee Ramone was intrigued by the entire record, especially in hindsight:
“And Phil didn’t really pay much attention to me. I had a low concentration span. I think if you put me in some place I would be trying to get out of it. But I know I told Phil a joke, were trapped together by the coffee machine and he was with (actor) Al Lewis, from ‘The Munsters.’ I knew The Beach Boys recorded in this studio. Eddie Cochran. Mark was freaked out by it too, so was John. You felt you were treading on history. Anybody would from my era. The Phil Spector sound was too powerful of a situation.”
“I like romantic lush things,” offered the bassist. “I wish for ‘End Of The Century’ we would have done more things like with strings. We should have stopped touring and done another album with him. I wish I could turn back the hands of time to Gold Star and Phil and Joey would be there, ya know. Having that album is a good thing is all I got to remember those days, they were really nice times.
“Now I realize more and more,” stresses Dee Dee, “with time Joey’s voice had a real deep, deep part of the Ramones’ sound. And really that started with ‘End Of The Century.’ I think Phil Spector and Joey were a great combination. Phil brought out the romanticism in Joey. He was like a romantic guy, and some of the songs and productions on ‘End Of The Century’ pushed that… And ‘Baby, I Love You’ on ‘End Of The Century’-I never thought there would be a string section on a Ramones record, but I like it.”
Concerning the cover of “Baby, I Love You,” Johnny Ramone countered with a different point of view: “Yeah, I wanted to do a Phil Spector song. . . . I realized that it was a mistake, and to me it was the worst thing we’ve ever done in our career.
“But on ballads like ‘Danny Says’,” Johnny admits, “the production work is tremendous. On ‘Do You Remember Rock ’N’ Roll Radio?’ the production works. On some of the things it works, some of the things it doesn’t work. Because of the echo and reverb, I can’t separate; I like to distinguish the guitar from the bass guitar from the drums. I can’t distinguish the separation, because it’s muddy. That’s the sound.
“I’m glad I worked with Phil. I worked with a legend of rock ’n’ roll. The last things I know of that he’s done are the Ramones and The Beatles….I’m proud to be part of his discography…At the time I did it, it was very difficult, it was very stressful. But I’m still happy I did it.”
Drummer Jim Keltner played on “Baby, I Love You.” Jim had known Phil for years and worked with him many times, including sessions for Leonard Cohen and John Lennon in both the U.K. and in Hollywood. “The Ramones played great together. Their drummer Marky was remarkable,” Keltner enthuses. “They had lots of power and energy. It made sense that Phil would produce a record for them. I mean, he’s always been punk.”
Earlier this decade I talked to Ramones’ drummer Marky Ramone about their East Hollywood aural adventure.
Q: What are your memories about Gold Star, working with Phil Spector?
A: Gold Star had a great room. I was facing Phil and Larry Levine while doing the LP. Phil and I would put a towel on the snare drum on certain songs and old trick, especially on ‘I Can’t Make It On Time.’ I could see Phil grooving along with my tempo and I knew when he did that he was liking it. Me, Dee Dee and Johnny would play together, then Ed Stasium would overdub some leads. We knew our vibe real well.
“Joey and Phil would collaborate on the phrasing of the songs and where to go in the range of vocals, whether up or down. Johnny and Dee Dee had a hard time enjoying themselves because Phil was such a perfectionist that he would get artistically emotional with them about certain tones that he wanted to hear which they weren’t producing. So, Phil would stop a take many times, and continue to do so until Johnny and Dee Dee came through with what he wanted. With Phil and Joey, it was like ‘I think you should extend a word towards the end of the verse or chorus to make it sound better, instead of cutting it short.’ Or, ‘at this part, ya know, instead of going down in an octave. Raise it an octave.’ Things like that. Joey guided him. Joey was basically an untrained singer, which was great, because he had a certain style. Phil was trying to bring out in Joey certain qualities that he knew he had that he tapped into which was evident on the album. ‘Baby, I Love You,’ and ‘I’m Affected.’ Phil told him to use his vibrato more on things.
Q: Describe the collaboration?
A: Like the lost weekend with John Lennon and Phil, after each session we would party at the clubs on Sunset Blvd. The Roxy, The Whisky and The Troubadour. We would share a bottle of wine and get into his chauffeur driven Cadillac Saville with his bodyguards and enter clubs and drink more. People would want to hang out with us and want us to sign autographs. And we would socialize with the local musicians. We would then go back to The Tropicana, and continue partying. Seven hours later we would have to be in the studio again. The wine was still there in case me and him needed a glass to even ourselves out. But it was all fun and we did our jobs. For John and Dee Dee it was a nightmare. They were used to working fast, and Phil worked at his own pace which really frustrated John and Dee Dee because of how things were working. Personally, Phil was the producer and I went along with what he wanted ‘cause I knew of his experience.
“I like ‘Danny Says’ because it was your typical ‘Phil the great build up,’ the master at work. And of course ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio’ with all the different and wonderful instruments that wove in and out of the songs. And of course, ‘I’m Affected.’ The roto toms sounded great from the echo chamber.
“The combination of the walls of sounds were like two 50 foot tidal waves hitting each other and how Phil’s influence made us sound like a Sixties band with the Marshalls, and all the later, heavier equipment, and of course, The Ramones’ sound. We did a bunch of the songs on stage later. Including ‘Baby, I Love You’ once in a while.
“I still listen to the record and try to understand what Phil did which can baffle a lot of people. He’s like a conductor. I was amazed how a certain sax can jump in, then a certain guitar tone would pop up, ya know. The way the roto toms bounded off the walls to create that low hum after the end of the hit, which bounced right back on to the recording. I think he manipulated the dial, then turned it back to the regular volume that it was at when it was recorded.
Q: How about the final results of “End Of The Century?”
A: The mix sounds like one album. One instrument didn’t sound louder than the other. The cymbals were lower, except for the high-hat, but that was Phil’s style. A lot of what Phil did before The Ramones, especially with The Ronettes, The Crystals and The Righteous Brothers he used tambourines, castanets, bells, maracas to produce the treble. But to me it all worked. The songs sounded like one and that the way I feel all songs should sound. Not one thing should stand out louder than the other.
“When I tour with The Misfits now, people want to talk about ‘End Of The Century,’ and when I do my spoken word multi-media shows. They always want to hear and discuss ‘Do You Remember ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio,’ ‘Danny Says,’ ‘Let’s Go,’ ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll High School,’ and ‘I Can’t Make It On Time.’ It’s turned out to be one of their favorites.”
“Phil Spector, practically single-in-handily, transformed Rock ‘n’ Roll from a novelette to a Shakespearean drama, from a Saturday morning cartoon show into a wide-screen Technicolor epic and, most obviously of all, from a four-in-the-bar toe-tapper to a sweeping Wagnerian opus and all the while ringing it in at well under the four-minute mark to boot,” suggests musician and writer Gary Pig Gold “The formidable, otherworldly threads he lay down during the Sixties have yet to be even fully understood, let alone picked up on and carried forward. Such was the impelling, all-engrossing awe and mystery of pop music’s one and only five-foot giant. And despite all his trials, lord, Phillip’s Walls of Sound remain as tall, sturdy, impenetrable and majestic today as they ever were.”
Gold’s record label M’Lou Music issued “He’s A Rebel: The Gene Pitney Story Retold” that features a Mark Johnston’s take on “He’s A Rebel” and Barry Holdship’s version of “Every Breath I Take,” both penned by songwriter Pitney. Gold is the Executive Producer of this tribute that also contains the final released recordings of Billy Cowsill and Gordon Waller.http://www.tomlou.com/
On September 22, 2009, Rhino Records (Rhino Entertainment) will make available a 4 CD-box set, “Where The Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968” excavating more than 100 Los Angeles music scene spotlighting Sunset Strip gems and Psychedelic classics from: The Doors, The Byrds, Love, Kaleidoscope, The Leaves, The Premiers, Thee Midniters, The Beach Boys, Captain Beefheart, The Mamas & The Papas, Lowell George & The Factory, The Monkees, The Association, Spirit, Del Shannon, October Country, The Bush, The Standells, The Bobby Fuller Four, Jan & Dean, The Moon, Lee Hazelwood, Kim Fowley, The Rising Sons, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, The Seeds, The Common Cold, Van Dyke Parks, Danny Hutton, Peter Fonda, Dino, Desi & Billy, Gary Lewis & The Playboys, The Yellow Balloon, The Knickerbockers, Keith Allison, P.F. Sloan, Hearts And flowers, Harry Nilsson and Limey & The Yanks and Jackie De Shannon with The Byrds.
Warren Zevon and producer Bones Howe perform “(You Used To) Ride So High” as The Motorcycle Abeline. The collection incorporates an alternate take of The Beach Boys’ “Heroes And Villains” and a previously unreleased track “Once Upon A Time,” a collaboration between Tim Buckley and lyricist Larry Beckett. There’s even a demo of “Words” by the fabled songwriting team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart.
Andrew Sandoval, one of the compilation producers, explains the set’s concept in its liner notes: “…the Nuggets series is something of the alternative musical history of the 1960s. Not so much a survey of what happened, but more what could have happened had music charted on merit alone.”
A handful of the selections were originally recorded at the famed Gold Star temple of sound: “Go and Say Goodbye” Buffalo Springfield, the previously unreleased “Sit Down I Think I Love You” from Stephen Stills & Richie Furay, “Night Time Girl” by Modern Folk Quintet, Iron Butterfly’s “Gentle As It May Seem,” The Common Cold’s “Come Down.” The Association’s “One Too Many Mornings,” parts of the Beach Boys’ “Heroes & Villains,” Here’s Today” by The Rose Garden, and “It’s Gonna Rain” courtesy of Sonny & Cher.
The beat goes further on…