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Spectre in the court

Yesterday, a rare sighting: Phil Spector, legendary crazed pop genius, came to a London court to reclaim the song inspired by his father's gravestone.
A multi-millionaire Californian recluse who first retired at 25, Phil Spector has been called the Howard Hughes of rock'n'roll, its Svengali, the producer who took pop from its tinny beginnings into a luxurious "wall of sound".

He is the scrawny, neurotic, nerd-like kid from the Bronx who went to LA, had a monster hit at 18, reinvented himself and for the next 20 years had the likes of the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Cher, the Ramones and Debbie Harry wooing him.

Spector was the studio sorcerer who could conjure their songs into lushly- produced million sellers, the man who more than anyone else transformed pop into a sophisticated modern industry. An industry run today by accountants and lawyers.

Yesterday, Spector turned up to meet British lawyers at the High Court in London. Press photographers crowded round the small, cadaverous 56- year old; passing Spice Girl and Oasis fans would have wondered what the fuss was about.

For Spector, drawn from his Spanish-style mansion off LA's Sunset Strip, the fuss is clear. He wants the royalties he believes are due to him from the past ten years' worth of performances of his 1958 Teddy Bears hit, "To Know Him Is To Love Him", the song that made his name. Spector's UK and US-based companies, Mother Bertha Music Ltd and Mother Bertha Music Inc, are fighting Bourne Music Ltd for the rights to a song they believe has belonged to them since 1986.

Mr Justice Ferris, presiding in true "Who are the Beatles?" style, said the song failed to "ring any bells" with him. Mr Jonathan Hirst QC, counsel for Mother Bertha, offered his honour a new-fangled compact-disc recording to take home and tap his stockinged toes to, confident that he would remember it when he heard it.

Once heard, like any Spector hit, the Teddy Bears' number one is hard to forget. It sold 1.4 million copies on its first outing and is a karaoke favourite 39 years on. Any night of the week in bars around the world, you will find red-eyed executives crooning "To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him ..."

In the song is the embryo of that sound unique to Phil Spector, the Big Bang, perhaps, that made his explosive career. Spector is a great artist and like all great artists, created his own imaginative universe. "Simultaneously", wrote the rock writer Nik Cohn, "he contrived to be subtle and raucous, experimental and corny, pure and strictly commercial. He stole from every source he could - Wagner, Leonard Bernstein, Broadway shows, a thousand or million other singles, past and present - and was still completely original".

The apotheosis of that massive, hard-beating, orchestral sound he made his own, and which has been copied in one way or another ever since, is the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron", or the Ronettes singing "Be My Baby". Spector created those fabulous, sequinned, bee-hived girlie groups of the early Sixties, their vibrato voices dancing along the vertiginous parapet of his unmistakeable "Wall of Sound".

He peaked somewhere between '64 and '66, maybe with the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" (a worldwide Number One), perhaps with Ike and Tina Turner's superb "River Deep - Mountain High". After that he packed up.

"To Know Him Is To Love Him" was recorded in Fairfax, California by the Teddy Bears for Lew Bedell and Herb Newman of Era Records. The Teddy Bears, for the purposes of this disc, were a cuddly threesome comprising Spector, Marshall Leib and "Carol Connors" (Annette Kleinbard - like Leib, a high school buddy).

The title was taken from the epitaph inscribed on the Long Island grave of Spector's father, Ben, who committed suicide when the scrawny kid from the Bronx was nine. It took the US charts by storm.

Bedell and Newman reckoned they had created a monster. Mark Ribowsky, biographer of Spector, reports Bedell as saying "before the song was a hit, Phil used to come in and say 'Anything doing today, Mr Bedell?' He was so obsequious I figured he was half-Japanese, this guy. Then after it was a hit, he walks in and it's 'Hey, Lew, baby, we're doin' good', He starts calling Herb 'Hey, you'. You never saw such a change in a little fuckin' Jewish kid."

After he had bowed out of the business at 25, it took John Lennon to coax Spector back. He produced "Instant Karma" (1969) and then "Let It Be" (1969) for the Beatles (although the future Sir Paul McCartney was never happy with the wall of schmaltzy strings Spector laid behind his wistful ballad "Long and Winding Road").

Spector enjoyed a roller-coaster creative ride with Lennon over the next few years, producing "The Plastic Ono Band", "Imagine", "Sometime in New York City", but falling out over "Rock'n'Roll" in 1974. Never an easy talent to work with, Spector became increasingly eccentric. Despite holding a gun to Leonard Cohen's head, he was unable to make a success of that great artist's "Death of a Ladies' Man" (1977). Since then the "Wall of Sound" has been strangely silent.

"Phil's career is rather like Orson Welles's", says Roy Carr, the veteran rock writer, who has worked ("tried to work") with Spector since his lapse into comparative obscurity. "He had his gargantuan moments, and then seems to have piddled around for years.

"Phil's a genius, but everything has to be his way. If Elvis had recorded with him, he'd have sounded the same way as every other Spector performer. I went to see him in LA with Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen was excited like so many people in the business with the idea of working with Phil, but he backed off when he realised he would have been Spector's apprentice."

Roy Carr spent some while with Spector trying to get a movie of his story off the ground in Hollywood. Al Pacino was lined up for the lead role. "We had some interesting times and Phil presented me with a present of a very fancy and beautifully engraved Magnum .44 pistol - he shoots trees in his garden - but it came to nothing."

Nothing. Spector's has been a long and winding road down from "River Deep - Mountain High". This was the producer who cut 20 hugely memorable hits in three years and transformed himself from a shame-faced nerd, a mummy's boy who wouldn't say boo to a bagel into a snarling, preening monster who turned multi-tracking into millions of dollars.

Maybe he has reserves of unexploited talent left, maybe he is dried up. No one seems to know. One moment the news is out that he is going to record with Rod Stewart, or was that Debbie Harry? Is there still something there?

Forty years ago, seeking inspiration, he was on the verge of sleep, eyes shut, guitar at his side. "He saw the blue shale tombstone of his father's grave," says Ribowsky. "The epitaph of the stone - 'To Know Him Was To Love Him' - was staring at him, assaulting him, taunting him ... he was repelled by the apparition of that godforsaken grave, and it jolted him awake. But as in any other time of pain, there was a pacifier. The guitar. Spector reached for it ..."

And the rest they say, m'lud, is popular music historyn