Crafting the Sound in the Studio:
Producers & Hit Songs
During the mid 1950s, rock ‘n’ roll artists like Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry had been given broad decision-making latitude during their recording sessions. Few pop artists under contract with major companies like RCA or Columbia had the amount of creative freedom that these renegade artists experienced.
When the major shift in focus took place at the beginning of the 1960s, moving rock ‘n’ roll from a renegade experiment with a growing fan base to a corporately controlled and wholesome product, worthy of American teens, the artists ceased being decision makers and resumed their role as song interpreters. As the commercialization of rock ‘n’ roll became a major industry, record companies were reluctant to have their product, and therefore their corporate earnings, piloted by young, industry naïve singers.
To lend a strong measure of control to the recording process, the role of record producer was reinforced. The producer had complete creative control over the recording session: what musicians played and when, which singers sang which notes, when effects such as reverb or delay were used, if lyrics needed to be changed or augmented. Simply, the artist or group became merely one part of the puzzle to be solved in the recording studio by the record producer. The goal was no longer to promote a style of music or to further the career of an artist or group as it had been for rock ‘n’ roll in the previous decade. The goal of the record producer in 1960 was simple: the hit single.
In accomplishing this goal, the producer, acting with the authority of the record labels, would write or solicit songs from professional songwriters, hire studio musicians to play backup, bring in additional or substitute voices or completely remix final product to make it fit what he perceived as the requirement for a “hit” single.
With few exceptions, the artists became secondary to the song, little more than part of the audio arsenal available to the producer to choose or change as he wished. Careers weren’t made, hit songs were.
This is not to say that all producers in the early ‘60s were unscrupulous opportunists. A few, such as Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, were able to promote both the artists and a revolutionary studio twist on rock ‘n’ roll. Leiber and Stoller met in Los Angeles at age 16, began writing songs for blues artists like Amos Milburn and at age 20 wrote a song called “Hound Dog” for a singer called Big Mama Thornton. While it was a moderate hit in the black community, it became the first mega-hit for a young singer freshly signed to an RCA recording contract in 1956-Elvis Presley. During the remainder of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Leiber and Stoller worked as independent producers under contract with RCA, Atlantic and other companies. They were able to balance songwriting with producing and promoting and are particularly respected for their work with The Drifters and The Coasters.
Their unique approach to creating smooth instrumental backgrounds for the soft, sensual sounds of The Drifters involved using (for the first time) orchestral strings, brass and percussion instruments. Instead of honking sax or biting electric guitars, the two young producers used cellos and French horns provided counter-melodies to the vocals. In broadening the instrumental palette of rock ‘n’ roll, Leiber and Stoller created what was to be known as “sweet soul,” a romantic excursion into pop/rock.
The Drifters – “There Goes My Baby” brought the sound of pop music into the rock ‘n’ roll studio, 1959
Their work in the studio with the Drifters and the body of songs they provided for Elvis Presley and others established them as the most influential producers of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted them as members in 1987 and a musical theater production featuring their songs and entitled “Smokey Joe’s Café” ran for several years (fittingly) on Broadway in New York.
No individual in the early 1960s personified the producer-genius autocratically in control of his studio and product as much as Phil Spector. Spector, who learned his studio craft as an apprentice with Leiber and Stoller, had the ability to hear a final sound in his mind and steer singers, musicians, engineers and studio executives towards it. Barely 20-years-old when given control of record projects, Spector oversaw the development of a string of hit records primarily for a variety of early ‘60s girl groups. With several groups, including The Crystals and The Ronettes, Spector oversaw the creation of many well-known girl-group songs of the early ‘60s including “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Chapel of Love,” and the quintessential Spector product, “Be My Baby”. His success in the studio made him a millionaire before he was 21.
The Ronettes perform “Be My Baby” and “Shout” on television, 1965
In a 1964 magazine piece, the writer Tom Wolfe described 24 year-old Phil Spector’s talent for studio production:
“Spector does the whole thing. He writes the words and the music, scouts and signs up the talent. He takes them out to a recording studio in Los Angeles and runs the recording session himself. He puts them through hours and days of recording to get the two or three minutes he wants. Two or three minutes out of the whole struggle. He handles the control dials like an electronic maestro, tuning various instruments or sound up, down, out, every which way, using things like two pianos, a harpsichord and three guitars on one record; then re-recording the whole thing with esoteric dubbing and overdubbing effects–reinforcing instruments or voices —coming out with what is know throughout the industry as “the Spector sound.” (Tom Wolfe, “The First Tycoon of Teen,” The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby)
Spector’s genius can be most readily recognized in two innovations he introduced to the recording studio: the “wall of sound” and “blue-eyed soul”. The accepted practice in recording studios in the ‘50s and early ‘‘60s was to isolate each instrument with its own microphone so that the distinct sound track could be later adjusted to balance other instruments or even eliminate the instrumental track completely. Piano, drums, guitar and brass were either recorded on separate occasions or in completely different rooms.
Spector’s “wall of sound” spun traditional recording logic on its head by pushing as many instruments and microphones as possible into one room, letting them all play the same chord charts, but with different rhythmic patterns and allow the sound to meld into a rolling thunder on tape. While in theory the idea sounds like the perfect formula for cacophony, the end result was electrifying. The final product was an energized wave of sound in which the listener could distinguish harmonic changes, but couldn’t always determine the separate instrumental patterns. It was the antithesis of pop recordings of the 1940s, where pure, clean instrumental lines were carefully woven together to provide enough of an aural framework for the singer to be supportive but not so much to be intrusive. In Spector’s wall of sound, the singers’ lines were propelled towards the listener like a surfboard on a tidal wave. Although one isn’t quite sure what they’re hearing, it certainly is powerful. Borrowing elements of orchestral power from one of his classical idols, Richard Wagner, Phil Spector created what he called “little symphonies for teens” in other words, the “wall of sound”.
The second studio development that proved the genius of Spector was his creation of a sound called “blue-eyed soul”. Prior to 1964, “soul” music–that smolderingly sensual, passionate romantic music–was performed exclusively by blacks. Beginning with Ray Charles in the late ‘50s and into the early ‘60s, it was an unchallenged theory that white singers either didn’t have enough gospel or enough passion in their veins to produce the heart-angst and desire to sing authentic soul music. Few white singers tried, accepting the concept that soul, like the afro hair style, belonged exclusively to the African-American.
In 1964, Phil Spector and co-songwriter Barry Mann wrote a song called “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and brought it to a young white singing duo who were nicknamed “The Righteous Brothers”. During the first rehearsals with the singers, Spector and Mann lowered the key, slowed up the tempo and eventually found just the right combination to allow the Righteous Brothers to weave the supple, sensuous sound of soul music. In breaking other boundaries, Spector allowed the song to be longer than 3 minutes (one of his cardinal rules of hit-making), and created a dramatic shift in the feel of the song in the B section. He also abandoned a driving rhythmic pulse, preferring instead a smooth orchestral and vocal ooze behind the two singers. The result was a rock ‘n’ roll classic song that sold over two million copies and made the Righteous Brothers stars of “blue-eyed soul”. In the next years, the twosome would follow up with other soul hits in the same style: “Unchained Melody,” “Ebb Tide,” and “You’re My Soul and Inspiration”. The uniqueness of the sound was that it was written, produced, and performed by whites, yet widely accepted by both black and white listeners.
The Righteous Brothers – “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, 1964
While the girl group sound of the early ‘60s lacked the edgy drive of rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s, it was the first critically acclaimed venture into the field of pop-rock. What the ‘50s and ‘60s corporate teen idols could not authentically achieve was accomplished by young producers and songwriters based out of the Brill Building, located at 1619 Broadway in New York City.
The Brill Building was a link between the Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the 1910’s and ‘20s and the pop-rock sound of the early 1960s. It was an office building housing dozens of music offices, many with songwriters hurriedly crafting the next hit song. It was in the Brill Building that songwriters such as Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote hits like “One Fine Day” and the epic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?,” the first song to discuss sex and its emotional implications from a teenage girl’s perspective. The Brill Building also housed offices for teams such as Leiber and Stoller; Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich; Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; and song composers like Neil Sedaka and Bobby Darin. The Brill Building sound was built around light hearted, heavily textures teen-pop hits; many of the songs were so intensely textured in the studio that they could not be satisfactorily performed in live concerts. In this, the Brill girl group hit songs hinted at the studio experimentation by the Beatles and others at the end of the ‘60s decade.
The Shirelles with a Brill Building song by Goffin and King, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”