“Wall of Sound” is one of those descriptors that’s been tossed around for years in discussions of pop music. The phrase, though, is genuinely serviceable, referring generally to the ‘60s pop production style of erratic Los Angeles studio wizard Phil Spector – and those who sought to emulate him – and conveying something crucial about any classic Spector production: its physicality.
Even if you’re not familiar with his name or story, you’ve heard Spector’s handiwork. The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” all have that peculiar sense of physical, cavernous space. You can almost feel the ground shifting during Ike and Tina’s “River Deep, Mountain High.”
Orchestrated and heavily engineered studio productions were nothing new to pop or rock ‘n’ roll or R&B in the early ‘60s. The history of commercial recording is often the history of producers wresting artistic control from the artists themselves. The Wall of Sound aesthetic, however, set a new precedent for rock ‘n’ roll. Everything was subordinated to the producer’s art.
This week’s selections – while not Phil Spector productions themselves – were inspired by that ethos of grandeur. Singers were stripped of their backing bands, their voices becoming indistinct in a densely orchestrated mix. Guitar riffs were overwhelmed by echo. Bells rang out from distant rooms. For the Wall of Sound, the musician’s individuality and role in the creative process was deemphasized in a fundamental way. This, in the case of Phil Spector, is definitely not condemnation. He and his ‘60s protégés could be heavyhanded, overbearing megalomaniacs. But the Wall of Sound was conceived when use of technology like multi-tracking and studio echo was still innovative and full of experimental possibility. It was unashamed of its studio conception. It had no reason to be, either – it was a bold new form of pop.
1. The Date With Soul, Yes Sir That’s My Baby (York)
Jack Nitzsche was a quintessential West Coast studio man. He began his career in the Los Angeles of the late 1950s as an arranger and session musician, working his way into studio production and scoring a 1963 hit with the instrumental “The Lonely Surfer.” Having provided the arrangements for many of Phil Spector’s ‘60s sessions, Nitzsche also absorbed, at least initially, some of those grandiose Spectorian production sensibilities.
This group – the Date With Soul – was a studio project for Nitzsche, and it found him laboring in full Wall of Sound mode. His version of the enduring “Yes Sir That’s My Baby” is a distillate of the Los Angeles studio world: the voices buried in the chorus include, according to legend, Brian Wilson, Jackie DeShannon, and Sonny and Cher, amongst others. Soul vocalist Edna Wright sang lead, but this wasn’t soul, really – not even the polished Motown variety of soul. Slowness was used to great, dramatic effect here. Strings – another Nitzsche hallmark – descended in prismatic tones.
But no one else quite seemed to know how to handle this freakish new species of pop. “Yes Sir That’s My Baby” was passed along from record label to record label and released three different times between 1964 and 1967, with this version to be its last appearance.
2. Ruby and the Romantics, Your Baby Doesn’t Love You Anymore (Kapp)
Distinguished by Ruby Nash’s gorgeous lead vocals and – behind her – the sophisticated harmonies of the Romantics, Ohio’s Ruby and the Romantics were masters of smooth, romantic soul. 1963 hits like “Our Day Will Come” and “Hey There Lonely Boy” exemplified their style. Their lyrical fare was urbane, their productions jazzy and lush.
This 1965 jewel was produced and arranged by New York-based studio veterans Tom Catalano and Alan Lorber. Lorber was shortly to engineer one of rock’s most infamous cash-in campaigns, the “Bosstown Sound.”
3. The Flirtations, Nothing But a Heartache (Deram)
Eager for chart success and a more receptive audience, the Flirtations, an American female R&B vocal group, managed to find both in England in 1967 with the assistance of aspiring producer Wayne Bickerton. Bombastic in the best possible way, with crescendo after breathtaking crescendo of deep girl group harmony sound, their “Nothing But a Heartache” was a major UK hit and an instant sensation among the Motown-worshipping mods of 1960s Britain. It would only later to be spoiled for these same souls after it appeared in a commercial for a popular fried chicken vendor.