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On This Day in Music... April 13, 2009: Producer Phil Spector Convicted of Murder

Spector's conviction for the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson came after decades of violent, erratic behavior.

phil spector
Source: MEGA

Phil Spector was convicted of second-degree murder in 2009.

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It may not have been the “Trial of the Century,” but the trial of Phil Spector shared some eerie similarities with the O.J. Simpson murder case that preceded it by a decade. In both cases, a major American figure who first emerged in the 1960s was accused of murder in a typically quiet corner of greater Los Angeles. In both cases, the accused murderers had long histories of alarming and abusive behavior towards women — behavior which was often ignored or downplayed in light of their fame and cultural accomplishments. And in both cases, the long, televised trials were treated as dark entertainment by much of the media.

In Spector’s case, however, the trial ended with a decidedly different result than Simpson's. On April 13, 2009, the famed music producer was found guilty of murdering Lana Clarkson, and sentenced to 19 years to life. Spector would die in prison from Covid-related causes 12 years later.

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phil spector
Source: MEGA

Spector in 1964, at the height of his early fame.

Spector was not pop music’s first super-producer, but he may well have been the first one that you could have expected an average person to recognize on the street. This was equally due to his talent, his undeniable technical and creative innovations, and his knack for sometimes shameless self-promotion. A record-label owner by the age of 21, Spector's early studio work for the Crystals, the Righteous Brothers, and (especially) the Ronettes revolutionized the roles of the producer and the recording studio itself, and opened the door for even greater experimentation from the likes of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, both groups who worshipped Spector.

As quickly as he was hailed a wunderkind musical genius, however, Spector also began to acquire a reputation as a tyrant and a bully, if not far worse. By the 1970s, stories circulated about his volatility, his rages, and his habit of pulling guns on musicians in the studio, with Blondie and the Ramones among the many artists who later told tales of looking down the business end of one of his ever-present firearms. (While working with Leonard Cohen on the album Death of a Ladies Man, Spector reportedly placed a gun barrel to Cohen’s neck and said, “Leonard, I love you.” To which Cohen summoned all the Zen calm he count muster, and replied: “I hope you do, Phil.”)

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ronnie spector
Source: MEGA

Ronettes leader Ronnie Spector endured years of threats from the producer during their marriage.

Yet for years Spector’s most grotesque behavior was directed toward his wife, the effervescent Ronettes frontwoman Ronnie Spector. For much of the four years she was married to Phil, Ronnie was subjected to genuinely sadistic manipulation and threats from the producer, finally leaving him in 1972, with Spector continuing to harass her and sabotage her career for long afterward. (He even wrote a letter to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to argue against the Ronettes’ induction when they were first nominated in 1994. It would take more than a decade before the group was finally inducted.)

Spector never faced any serious consequences for any of this behavior, though by the 1990s his career in music was long over, and he had largely receded from public life. He bought a 1926 mansion dubbed “the Pyrenees Castle,” an imposing gated estate that stood incongruously at the top of a hill in the otherwise middle-class L.A. suburb of Alhambra, and it was there that he took 40-year-old actress Lana Clarkson after meeting her at the House of Blues on Feb. 3, 2003. By the next morning, she was dead on the premises with a single gunshot wound. According to Spector’s chauffeur, the producer emerged from his home that morning holding a gun, and said, “I think I killed someone.”

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Source: MEGA

Spector's 'Pyrenees Castle' estate in the L.A. suburb of Alhambra, where he murdered Lana Clarkson in 2003.

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It would take more than a year after Clarkson's death for Spector to officially be charged with her murder, several more years for the trial to begin, and two trials for him to finally be convicted. (Among the many lawyers Spector employed during the proceedings: Robert Shapiro, who had been a part of O.J. Simpson’s legal “dream team.”) During that time, Spector became a target of widespread mockery for his cartoonish courtroom coiffure and often baroque alibis, and Al Pacino would later chew every bit of scenery portraying the producer in a TV movie about the trial. Yet the prosecution's revelations were nothing to laugh about. According to evidence presented by in court, five different women had stories, spanning more than a decade, of Spector holding them at gunpoint inside his house. As a prosecutor put it during closing arguments: "(Spector) has a history of playing Russian roulette with women -- six women. Lana just happened to be the sixth."

By the time Spector died in prison at the age of 81, America had finally begun to seriously reckon with the many powerful men who, by virtue of their wealth, their talents, their connections, their resumes, or -- this case -- their discographies, had spent entire lifetimes evading all accountability for decades of abuse toward women. It's a process that remains ongoing, though sadly it arrived far too late for Lana Clarkson.


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