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Working with Phil Spector

Q&A with longtime Spector friend and engineer Larry Levine

By Todd Leopold

Levine, Spector, Bono
Larry Levine, Phil Spector and Sonny Bono in the studio in the early '60s.

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(CNN) -- The first time he saw Phil Spector, Larry Levine recalled, he didn't like him.

"I didn't take to him at all, which is not unusual, I understand," he said in a phone interview from his home in southern California. "There's a little acerbic attitude."

That was in the late '50s, Levine says, when Spector was just beginning his recording career. But the two later became close friends. In 1962, the pair's paths crossed again when Spector decided to record a Gene Pitney song, "He's a Rebel," with a girl group called the Crystals at Hollywood's Gold Star Studios, where Levine was one of the house engineers. The song went to No. 1.

A month later, Spector recorded Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans' "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" with Levine in the engineer's seat, and a partnership was forged that would last through the great Spector-produced hits, from "Be My Baby" to "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' " to "River Deep, Mountain High," and on through the late-'70s productions with folksinger Leonard Cohen and the Ramones.

The "Wall of Sound" -- the nickname for Spector's layered and echoed production style -- was already in Spector's head when he and Levine started working together.

"What he heard in the studio -- and his big motivation for mono -- was that what he heard in the studio and captured on tape would always be that way," said Levine. "The down side was, it was hard work to get that all mixed. The up side was it was thrilling to work that way."

The Wall kept getting bigger, something that may have ended up frustrating Spector.

"He was always trying to create more and more, and I think it finally ate him up at the end, because the technology was not able to keep up with him," he said. "I think probably 'River Deep, Mountain High' should have been greater than 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin',' but it wasn't. I think the reason it wasn't, was because he tried to go beyond the scope of what we could do [technically]."

Spector was known as a pop music eccentric as far back as the early '60s, when he would emulate his Philles label logo by dressing as an old man with a cane. But he was also "brilliant," said Levine, capable of hearing intricate arrangements in his head and reeling off 20-minute standup routines in the studio.

Recently, the bizarre shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson at Spector's house has put the producer back in the public eye. Levine, who last saw Spector in August 2002 at a bowling party -- an annual Spector event -- and heard from him a couple times in the interim, talked to CNN about working with the legendary man. This is an edited version of that interview.

Building the Wall of Sound

Larry Levine
Larry Levine in a familiar position: in the control room at Gold Star Studios.

LEVINE: I knew the routine by heart. He'd start with the guitars, and he'd have the guitars play, and then he'd maybe have them change something, and he'd have the guitars play [again]. And when he was satisfied that maybe he had something going, he would bring the pianos in.

So now it was the guitars and the pianos playing. That didn't work, so it was back to the guitars and the pianos sat out. Then he got something else going with the guitars and then he added the pianos. When he got past that point, it was bring in the basses. And so they played. And if that didn't work, back to the guitars. So this was a continuous ... and so it was adding always to that. And the horns. And finally, the last thing to be added was the drums. ...

There were sessions I remember ... at Gold Star at that time we only had 12 microphone inputs and so we were having like sometimes 20-some-odd musicians playing, and there were times when I would, particularly on the acoustic guitars, maybe have three or four acoustic guitars playing, and I didn't have enough microphone inputs. I would pull out on one of the guitars and have it on the others. I remember telling Phil this one time, we're not hearing [one musician], you can let him go, and he said, "No." He says, "The sound is right if he's in the room."

So [the musician] would play. I know he never got heard on the record, and yet it was right. And that's what Phil cared about, what he heard, not what was supposed to be there.

He worked them hard, but they had a lot of fun, generally, in there.

Erratic behavior

CNN: You've heard how erratic he got, especially in the '70s. You've heard one of the Ramones tells a story of him pulling a gun, and Leonard Cohen I think has similar stories ... were you the engineer on those sessions as well, the ones he did in the '70s --


CNN: -- and can you confirm these things?

LEVINE: Sure. Oh, it happened. But earlier on, Phil never drank, and the drinking got him into another place.

Erratic behavior

CNN: When did he start drinking?

LEVINE: It was probably in the late '60s. Well, occasionally when we'd go out to dinner or something, he would have ... a pretty mild drink, and something that tasted good, because he didn't like the taste of alcohol. But when he started drinking heavily ... well, I don't know, it was so progressive.

[In the early '70s, Spector worked with the Beatles' "Let It Be" tapes, then produced John Lennon's "Plastic Ono Band" and "Imagine" albums and George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass." Levine wasn't involved in those records, but he heard stories.]

Those were pretty hectic times [with Lennon and others]. I would hear about the next day that they had done strange things, and I knew Phil had a gun, and I've seen him point it. So I don't have any trouble confirming that.

I know that also Phil would never hurt anyone on purpose. But there was always the chance of an accident, and when a guy's been drinking, his reflexes are not as sharp. So it always frightened me whenever I would see that -- [not] from the standpoint, as I said, of him being angry enough to shoot someone, but just the fact that the game he was playing was too dangerous.

[According to a February 10 Los Angeles Times article, Spector has been sober for the last three years.]

CNN: Were you a part of the Leonard Cohen or Ramones sessions?

LEVINE: I was. Both of those.

CNN: Can you talk about those a little bit? ... Those were rather contentious sessions.

LEVINE: Absolutely. Phil had been drinking then, this was during his drinking period ... and I don't think [Cohen and Spector were] a good marriage of talent anyway. They were certainly two different ideas in music. So I don't know that could ever have been anything but contentious.

With the Ramones ... that was frustrating for all of us. It was definitely frustrating for me with Phil, because we would go in sometimes and Phil had been drinking so much that we would do a whole night and not do anything. Phil would just ramble on. We got into some heavy arguments, Phil and I.

'How did I get into THIS?'

start quoteI love Phil to this day. And strangely enough, I empathize so strongly with where he's at now ... and I'm feeling emotions of what he must be feeling now. end quote
-- Larry Levine

CNN: Were you good friends with him during the early '70s?

LEVINE: I've always been friendly with Phil, I've never been unfriendly, although we did have those arguments, as I said, during the Ramones thing. But that was because we weren't getting anything done. ...

I reprimanded him ... I think [I] kind of had a relationship of an older brother to him that I'm sure he respected ... [but] when I didn't approve of his actions, he would get rebellious, even more.

But there was never a case that we didn't love each other. I mean, I love Phil to this day. And strangely enough, I empathize so strongly with where he's at now ... and I'm feeling emotions of what he must be feeling now. Why did [the shooting] happen? How did I get into THIS? How could something so terrible have [happened]?

And it really brings me down when that happens. But then I realize that that's not me, that's Phil. And I'm sorry for him, but I'm also sorry for the girl. I'm sorry that the whole thing happened, obviously.

CNN: You saw him last August at a bowling party.

LEVINE: Yeah, it was pretty much just before Labor Day. ... He enjoyed it, and the place he was in, mentally speaking, was such a good, outgoing, joyful thing.

I'm going to miss those [parties]. It was good seeing Phil happy like that.

CNN: You say he was in a good place. He gave an interview to a London paper a couple months ago, where he talked about his demons, and how he thinks he's mentally ill.

LEVINE: I don't know what he would have created had he been a normal, down-to-earth person, but probably nothing like he did do. And I guess there's some kind of legacy there, regardless of how everything else turns out, that can never be taken from him.

CNN: There's a lot of Phil's heart in the songs ... you feel like you know him.

LEVINE: And to know him is to love him (laughs).

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