The control freak

In the Sixties, record producer Phil Spector was the obsessive button-pusher and knob-twiddler who created the 'wall of sound'. Today he stands accused of cheating his ex-wife Ronnie, and their former band The Ronnettes, out of millions of dollars. And, in the courtroom, he's still calling the tune

Maybe it is just that the trial is already two weeks old, but the court officer, smart in his pressed uniform and black patent leather shoes, has obviously lost all interest. Sharing the jury box with empty chairs and this correspondent only, he is deep into a heavy tome entitled Dictionary of Symbolism. At the start of the afternoon he is on Hyenas, with some nice historic lithographs. By tea, he has reached Magpies.

There is not much to tell him, or any of us, that these are unique proceedings. Though this is meant to be the Manhattan Supreme Court, it is housed in an unprepossessing converted office building with linoleum floors and scuffed walls. And the elfin man in the witness box hardly seems like an attention-grabber. He looks sad, really, a refugee from the Sixties with ugly hair too long over his collar, absurd platform shoes, aviator sunglasses and a black shirt with a dark blue tie and jacket.

Truth be told, the officer, who can be no more than 25, had probably never heard of this man until now. Perhaps his name was just vaguely familiar. Phil Spector. Oh yeah, didn't he used to be real big in rock'n'roll, the producer of the Beatles and some other stuff? But isn't he meant to be some super-weirdo recluse these days, who never, ever appears in public? Like Howard Hughes, you know, the rich guy who went nuts and never cut his fingernails? That's the one.

Most fascinating of all, Spector flirts outrageously all the time with the judge, Paula Omansky. She may be dowdy, with her thinning brown hair and spectacles on a plastic bead chain, but his financial fate does rest in her hands after all.

He seems to have her in his pocket. "Bless you," he interrupts one time when she sneezes. Judge Omansky simpers appreciatively. When Spector's own lawyer repeatedly objects to a line of questions about the history of recording artists and the money they received for their work, Judge Omansky tells him not to bother. "I think that Mr Spector holds his own very nicely on historical questions," she says, giving him a knowing smile.

Judge Omansky, moreover, seems captivated by the historical detail. Spector's revelation that even the most famous melodies from the musical films of the Fifties and Sixties were lip-synched by their performers astonishes her. Elvis did it, says Spector. Even Bob Hope did it. "Everyone lip-synched in the movies," Spector informs the court. "Is that right?" interjects Judge Omansky, throwing back her head in theatrical disgust. For a moment the rest of the courtroom seems redundant to the entire proceedings.

The Judge likes it just as much when Spector is shown a picture of himself at the height of his success. "Who's that handsome lad?" he asks. And when Peltz asks Spector whether he won the nickname Boy Genius back in the Sixties, he shoots back: "Still am! We're under oath, aren't we?"

In the hallway outside, flashbulbs are going off. A short Hispanic lady in her fifties, with deep red lipstick, black trousers and blouse, and a straw hat on flowing raven hair, walks in and takes a seat in the front row of the public gallery. Still the court officer doesn't look up. Does he still not understand? She is Ronnie Spector, the one-time lead singer of the Ronettes and ex-wife of Phil. What's more, this is the first time Phil and Ronnie have set eyes on each other since they split in 1974.

Or not set eyes on each other. Ronnie has shades that are even more nocturnal than the over-sized aviators worn by Phil. The Lord spare them from having to go so far as to exchange glances across the tiny courtroom. "Oh? Was she here?" Phil Spector asks in mock confusion when I talk to him at the close of the afternoon. "Well, I can't seem to get rid of her, can I? She just keeps coming back."

Yes, Phil, she is back, and not on her own. With the two other members of the Ronettes (perhaps you remember those wonderful beehive hairdos and their several early-Sixties hits, such as "Be My Baby" and "I Can Hear Music"), Ronnie, her sister, Estelle Bennet, and their cousin, Nedra Talley Ross, are attempting to extract what they believe to be their due from Mr Spector. They are the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that says he, as their one-time producer, has cheated them out of millions of dollars in royalties.

Their suit, which has taken 10 years to make it to court, is an aggressive one. The Ronettes accuse Spector of ripping them off by selling their soundtracks to makers of movies, television films and even advertisements. They aredemanding damages totalling $11m. They also want out of their original recording contract with him, as well as custody of the master tapes of the 28 singles they made over the group's three-year career and the reimbursement of "all monies received by the Spector corporate defendants and defendant Phil Spector", from 1963 until the present day.

Spector has indeed been selling their songs, whose appeal seems ever to endure. Ronettes ballads have featured in such films as Dirty Dancing, Mean Streets and Goodfellas, the television series Moonlighting and TV commercials for American Express and Levi's.

But Spector, who is an ill-preserved 58, has what he considers to be a solid defence. On the stand, he has asserted that Ronnie gave up the rights to the Ronettes' song book in the divorce settlement she struck with him in 1974. And he is unashamed that in their three years together, the group's members collected only $14,000 from him. Recording the songs, he claims, cost him more than they made in the charts.

So much for the legal battle lines. Of far greater fascination here - notwithstanding the court officer's boredom - is the fact of Mr Spector having to face this onslaught at all. And in public.

Forget, for one moment, Phil Spector's diminished physical appearance - the broken veins streaking vertically down the grey pallor of his cheeks, the beard stubble and his feeble, rasping voice. Disconcertingly, he occasionally sips water from a paper cup and makes a loud whistling sound as he sucks it through his teeth. (They could well be dentures, of course. For that matter, his hair seems suspiciously full.) As anyone with any music scholarship knows, this man is a giant of pop, albeit a faded one. He is one of the living icons of the recording industry and a longtime inductee of the rock'n'roll hall of fame.

Spector, a nerdy little Jewish boy from the Bronx, burst on to the pop scene at just 18 years old as a producer and a composer. It was as helmsman of the Ronettes, an obscure girlie trio he had discovered in Spanish Harlem, and, at about the same time, of the Crystals, that he really established himself. Their smash hits, including "Da Doo Ron Ron" by the Crystals, identified Spector as the creator of a new and luxuriant sound, with background strings and orchestrals, that became known as the Wall of Sound.

Spector's peak came between 1964 and 1966. In that period he composed for the Righteous Brothers who delivered the world-wide No 1, "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling" and produced "River Deep - Mountain High" with Ike and Tina Turner. After that, he dropped out, but not for long. His association with the Beatles was in fact only as producer on one of their albums, Let It Be. Later he befriended John Lennon, for whom he produced "Imagine" and the Plastic Ono Band.

After working with the Beatles and Lennon, Spector disappeared, holing himself up in his Spanish-style mansion off the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. His fame today is above all as the one-time king of the record groove who simply vanished into thin air amidst rumours of eccentric behaviour and a vicious temper. Howard Hughes, indeed.

So now, on the stand in this grubby courtroom in New York, are we going to see him shrivel, like a night creature suddenly exposed to light?

Some of the back and forth has, after all, been ugly. Even though Judge Omansky has tried to stop them, some nasty details of the marriage to Ronnie have bubbled through. According to his ex-wife, she signed the divorce contract only because of a threat of violence. She testified that Spector told her, "I'm going to kill you. I'll have a hit man kill you if you don't do what I tell you as far as signing those papers."

Nor has she painted a picture of marital happiness prior to the divorce. She claims that Spector had a barbed wire fence stretched around the mansion the day following their wedding, to prevent her escaping. Apparently, he also stole her shoes and locked her in her room.

One Christmas Day, she recalled, he gave her an unexpected gift: twin six-year-old boys he had adopted without telling her. "I guess he wanted that barefoot and pregnant thing from me," she said after finishing her testimony. Eventually, she testified, she had to flee barefoot to her mother with just the clothes on her back. For a few years, she received support cheques from Spector, with "F*** Off" stamped in block capitals on the back. Copies of the cheques have been submitted as evidence.

With a curious blend of impish wit and arrogance, Mr Spector has been doing just fine on the stand. He has not, in short, been behaving the way a recluse is meant to. "You don't have to get all Perry Mason with me," he retorts at one point to Ronnie's lawyer, Alexander Peltz. (The court officer lifts his eyes for an instant.) Occasionally he feigns confusion. "Say what?" he responds to one of Peltz's attempted jabs.

If genius he still is, these days Spector is exercising it in the music of the courtroom rather than the record groove. After the court session is over we talk a little about Ronnie. There is nothing but bitterness and bile. So, finally, I ask him about Judge Omansky. His voice warms instantly. "Oh, she's sweet," he says. Maybe he winked. But I couldn't see past the aviators.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice