Poster by T.A.
How Amy Winehouse made
'To Know Him is to Love Him' her own'
It took the words from his father's grave and became a No 1 US song for the Teddy Bears, but Phil Spector's 'To Know Him is to Love Him' would belong to Amy Winehouse. So how did this high-school hit find its soul?
Friday 29 August 2014 15.00 BST
In 1958, the Teddy Bears released "To Know Him is to Love Him", a No 1 hit, written by Teddy Bear Phil Spector, a song that took 48 years to find its voice. When Amy Winehouse sang it in 2006, her music curled around Spector's, his curled around her, until she found her way back to the beginning of his career, and redeemed it. Whether he has ever heard what she did with his music, or whether she ever heard what he thought of what she did, are unanswered questions. He isn't talking; she can't.
Since 2009, when he was convicted of second-degree murder in the 2003 shooting of the nightclub hostess, unsuccessful actor, and sometime blackface Little Richard impersonator Lana Clarkson at his mansion in Alhambra, California, Spector has been serving 19 years to life at a division of Corcoran state prison. Winehouse has been dead since 2011. If you listen to the Teddy Bears' record now, and ignore what Spector did with the rest of his life, or even what he did in the few years after he made "To Know Him Is to Love Him", his fate may not seem like such a tragedy. If you listen to Winehouse sing the song, you can hate her for what, as over a few July days she drank herself to death, she withheld from the world.
Spector was born in the Bronx in 1939; his father, the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant and a failing businessman, killed himself 10 years later. In 1953, Spector's mother moved herself and her son to Los Angeles. At Fairfax High School – where, only a few years before, the would-be song-writer Jerry Leiber was sketching out his first rhythm and blues lyrics – Spector fell in with other students in love with the doo-wop sound in the air of the town: with the Penguins' rough, inspiring "Earth Angel", Arthur Lee Maye and the Crowns' complex and surging "Gloria", the Robins' comic operas "Framed" and "Riot in cell Block #9", written and produced by Leiber and his partner Mike Stoller, a hundred more. Among Spector's classmates were Marshall Leib, a singer; Steve Douglas, who would go on to play saxophone on dozens of Los Angeles hits, most unforgettably Spector's 1963 production of Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)", a record so spectacular that, for years, Love has appeared every Christmas season on the David Letterman show to recreate it; and Sandy Nelson, a drummer, who in 1959 would make the top 10 with "Teen Beat". Spector met Lou Adler, a would-be songwriter at Roosevelt High (with Sam Cooke and Herb Alpert, he would write "Wonderful World", which Cooke made into as perfect a record as rock'n'roll ever wished for), and Bruce Johnston, who turned up a few years later in the Beach Boys.
All of them were listening to the records coming out of other high schools, on Dootsie Williams's DooTone label or Art Rupe's Specialty. Out of Jefferson High and the half-black, half-white Fremont High, where every other person seemed to be in a group, came the Penguins, and Richard Berry, who passed through many groups before making "Louie Louie" with the Pharaohs. "There used to be hundreds and hundreds of black groups singin' harmony and with a great lead singer," Spector said years later. "You used to go down to Jefferson High on 49th and Broadway and could get 16 groups." All over town, Spector and the rest sang the songs together until they got them right. They wrote their own songs.
Spector wrote "To Know Him Is to Love Him." Along with Leib and Annette Kleinbard, another Fairfax classmate, he formed the Teddy Bears. They made a demo, got a contract with the local label Era. With Kleinbard singing lead, Spector playing guitar and along with Leib singing the backing "And I do and I do and I do"s behind the verses and the "Oom-da-da Oom da-da"s on the bridge, Sandy Nelson playing all but inaudible drums, and Spector, the 18-year-old producer, layering the voices over each other, they made a record. Within months the tune was at the top of the charts all over the country. The Teddy Bears lip-synched it on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, the national afternoon show from Philadelphia that served as a living juke-box for rock'n'roll, the ultimate showcase. No, it wasn't as prestigious as The Ed Sullivan Show, and Elvis Presley never appeared on American Bandstand, but even with singers and musicians just miming their records, the show carried a greater sense of risk. Will they – the kids dancing on the show, the kids glued to their TV sets, the kids talking about it the next day at school – like it? Will they laugh? Kleinbard was in the middle, in a white prom dress and short dark hair. Leib and Spector flanked her in pale prom tuxes, Leib tall, dark, handsome, broad-shouldered, Spector short, his chin weak, his shoulders tense and cramped: an undisguisable high-school nerd, under his pompadour obviously already losing his hair, his thin tenor pulling away from his own song as if he were afraid of his own voice. All his life, he never stopped telling people where the song came from: "I took it from the words on my father's grave." "'I took it from the words on my grave,'" he said in the early 70s to Nik Cohn, who was in Los Angeles to write a book with him about his life. "He was standing at the window, looking down at the Strip," Cohn wrote later. "For a few seconds he noticed nothing. Just stood there, this tiny, ancient child, with his hair all wisps and his shades refracting silver. Then he heard what he'd said and he turned to face me. He did not look distressed; just puzzled, lost. 'Not my grave. I meant my father's,' he said. 'The words on my father's grave.'"
Despite a nice, swaying rhythm, and a comforting melody not that far from Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", the closest a mere song has ever come to sainthood, the record was weak – it all but worshipped weakness, advertised it as a way of life. It made all too much sense that, in another story Spector could never stop telling, one night in Philadelphia, in 1958, in the backstage men's room after he'd performed with the Teddy Bears on a bill with a dozen other acts, four guys pulled knives, pushed him into a stall, told him to sit down, slowly unbuttoned their jeans, and pissed all over him. I heard him tell the story to a full hall at Berkeley in 1966, when his career as the most envied record producer in the world – for the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron", the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and "Walking in the Rain", the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling", and a full top 40's worth more from 1961 to 1966 – seemed over, at least to Spector himself. Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep –Mountain High", his most ambitious record, with the biggest, most implacable sound and an arrangement that made it feel as if the record lasted a lifetime, not three-and-a-half minutes ("That," the Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia said, "sounds like God hit the world and the world hit back"), failed to come anywhere near the radio; Spector closed his studio and began lecturing at colleges. "I didn't really know what was going on," he said of that night backstage. "I thought it was some kind of initiation, you know, like after it was all over they were going to let me into their club" – he told the story without embarrassment, without shame, as if it were funny, just one of those things, he was explaining, along with rigged contracts, third-party lawsuits, phony promoters and electric fences, that rock'n'roll was really about, as if he would never get over it.
After the novelty wore off, after the radio wore the song out, "To Know Him Is to Love Him" stood simpering, dripping treacle, almost crossing the line from sentimental homily to prayer, a dirge at its most lifelike. It was music far behind rock'n'roll, music for weddings without dancing, too square for proms, like the material the Teddy Bears used to fill out their only album: "Unchained Melody" and "Tammy". Spector had to know the song was a dead fish; in the years to come, he never tried to pawn it off on any of the performers on his own Philles label, not even the hopeless Bob B Soxx of the Blue Jeans.
Winehouse was born in London in 1983. "I'm a Russian Jew," she once said bluntly: she learned to sing, she said, from listening to Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, and Thelonious Monk. It was only in her early 20s that she was captured by Spector's female singers, by "Tonight's the Night", "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and other shimmering singles by the Shirelles, and most of all by the Shangri-Las. They were two sets of sisters from Andrew Jackson High in Queens, New York.
The Shangri-Las' producer and songwriter was George "Shadow" Morton. One day in 1964, as he always told the story, he showed up at 1650 Broadway, having heard that his old friend Ellie Greenwich was writing songs there; he met her husband and songwriting partner, Jeff Barry. "He turned to me," Morton recalled in 2001 for a TV documentary, the barest hint of a grin curling at the corners of his mouth, letting you see his eyes twinkling behind his shades, "and said, 'Well, just what is it you do for a living?' 'Well,' I said, 'actually, some people would call it being a bum, but I'm a songwriter, just like you.' So he said, 'What kind of songs do you write?' And I said, 'Hit songs.' And he said, 'Why don't you bring one in and show it to us?' And I said, 'You've got to tell me: you want a fast hit or a slow hit?'
"He said, 'Make it slow.' And on the way to the studio, I realised, I didn't have a – I didn't have a song. I had ideas, but – so I pulled the car over, on a place called South Oyster Bay Road, and I wrote a song." It was "Remember (Walking in the Sand)", the first of three top-10 hits by the Shangri-Las on Red Bird Records, the independent New York label formed in 1964 by Leiber, Stoller and George Goldner. "It was very corny," Leiber said 37 years later of the song Morton brought in. "Very sweet, and, finally, somewhere, touching. It wasn't synthetic. It was for real – like he was."
The record was melodramatic, distant, dark, hard to catch, moving the way you walk in the sand, the ground slipping under your feet. It began with heavy bass notes on a piano, reached past itself with the faraway cawing of seagulls, a sardonic chorus of ghosts snapping fingers, and harsh, cold voices chanting "Remember", as if the singer telling the story could ever forget. On paper it was about a boy telling a girl they were through; on record, like all of the Shangri-Las' best records, it was about death. The cadence was blunt, broken, stark.
What will happen to
The life I gave to you?
The life I gave to you?
What will I do with it now?
With anyone but 16-year-old Mary Weiss as the lead singer, the unrelieved doom in the music might have turned into a joke, but it never happened, not in "Remember", "Give us Your Blessings", "Out in the Streets", "Past, Present, and Future", or "I Can Never Go Home Anymore", not even in the comic-strip play "Leader of the Pack". "I had enough pain in me, at the time," Weiss said in 2001, "to pull off anything. And to get into it, and sound – believable. It was very easy for me," she said with a big, thank-God-that's-behind-me smile. "The recording studio was the place that you could really release what you're feeling, without everybody looking at you." In 2001, Weiss was working for a New York furniture company; on September 11 she was downtown, a few blocks north of the World Trade centre. She saw the first plane hit, then the second. Two weeks later, ending an essay she wrote about the event, she fell back into the hard count of "Remember", as if the pacing of the song, like the others she sang, had long since for her become a language, a way to speak about what you couldn't speak about, a way of placing yourself in the world: "New York will never be the same. The United States will never be the same. For that matter I will never be the same person.
"We all want to go to sleep, and wake up and realise it's been a bad dream.
That was the language Winehouse heard. It was a language she learned. The Shangri-Las' records became talismans, charms, fetish objects, voodoo dolls signifying curses she laid on herself. "I didn't want to just wake up drinking, and crying, and listening to the Shangri-Las, and go to sleep, and wake up drinking, and listening to the Shangri-Las," Winehouse would say of how she wrote her unflinching songs, but she did. That was why, over and over again on stage, she would let "Remember" drift in and out of the almost sickeningly deliberate pace of "Back to Black", the title song of her second album, released in 2006, and her last studio album while she was alive, until you had to hear the two songs as one. That was why, in her irresistible, unreadable 2008 Grammy awards ceremony performance of "You Know I'm No Good" – filmed via a live hookup from London; Winehouse's drug addiction kept her out of the United States – Winehouse was her own leader of the pack. Winehouse might not have had anything on her side but the satisfaction of getting it right, saying what she had to say, adding something to the form that had brought her to life as an artist, adding her name and face and the story it told. Yes, she wrote "You Know I'm No Good", and like any work of art, it was a fiction that bounced back on real life, maybe the author's, maybe not; as she sang the song on the Grammys, you could hear and see her listening to the song as well as singing it, hear the song talking to her, hear her asking herself, as she sang, Is that true? Is that what I want? Is that who I am? Is that all I've got?
One day in 2006 Winehouse stepped to the microphone in a BBC disc jockey's studio to sing "To Know Him Is to Love Him", and with a guitarist softly fingering doo-wop triplets, a drummer tapping, and a bassist counting off notes as if he'd thought about each one, she unlocked the song. In the three seconds it took her to climb through the first five words, to sing "To know, know, know him", you were in a different country than any the song had ever reached before. All of Winehouse's commitment to the songwriter's craft, the way her professionalism was inseparable from her fandom, was brought to bear as she sang. It also disappeared, leaving both her and the song in limbo, out of time, no need to go forward, no need to go back. With the slightly acrid scratch that sometimes crept into her harder songs dissolved in a creamy vortex, the feeling was scary, and delicious; in those three seconds, then moving on through the first lines with hesitations between words and syllables so rich with the spectre of someone facing the Spector tombstone and reading the words off of it out loud, TO KNOW HIM WAS TO LOVE HIM, each word as she sang it demanding the right to be the last word, or merely wishing for it, the song expanded as if, all those years, it had been waiting for this particular singer to be born, and was only now letting out its breath. You could tell, listening, that Winehouse had worked on the song for a long time. "Congratulations!" said the disc jockey, Pete Mitchell, when the performance was over. "Recorded by the Teddy Bears!" "It's like when somebody dies – all the people do is yell 'He died, he died,'" Phil Spector said in 1969. "I yell 'He lived.' A hell of a lot more important than the fact that he's dead, is the fact that he lived."
"She could not stand fame any more than I could," Mary Weiss said in 2011, after Winehouse was found dead in her London house, after the torrent of her-whole-life-was-a-train-wreck, anyone-could-have-seen-it-coming schadenfreude that followed. "I related to her so much it is a bit scary. I will never understand why people get off kicking people when they are down and need help. How could that possibly make you feel better about yourself?"
"I was asking her to be an actress, not just a singer," Morton said of Weiss. Her songs, like Winehouse's, were all locked doors, doors that locked you out or that you locked yourself from the inside. But maybe because Weiss can still speak plainly – "I wish I could have helped her, even if she never sang publicly again," Weiss said – inside her words one can perhaps see other lives for Winehouse: a junkie on the street like Marianne Faithfull, who finally walked away, back into the career she never really had the first time around, first recording in the same year the Shangri-Las first recorded, in 2011 covering their "Past, Present, and Future" on a new album; a music teacher for kindergarteners; a grimy singer with a guitar case open at her feet, like anyone in your town; an old woman with stories nobody believes. "The girls in the Shangri-Las," Shadow Morton said, "they became the Shadowesses. I mean, they disappeared, they vacated. And a lot of the other girls who were with Red Bird, they just seemed to – like dust. As if it never was." But what did he know? That was only one version of the story, and there is an infinity of stories that tell this tale.
Greil Marcus's The History of Rock'n'Roll in Ten Songs, from which this edited extract has been taken, is published by Yale on 11 September.