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
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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.