Two giants of the boomer-era music industry have passed away in the past couple of weeks. While they both had highly visible careers, ultimately their styles and personalities could not have been more different.
Gerry Marsden (September 24, 1942 – January 3, 2021)
As lead singer of Gerry and the Pacemakers, boomers well remember the recordings of Ferry Cross the Mersey, You’ll Never Walk Alone and Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.
Gerry formed his band in 1959, in Liverpool, England. Living in the same town, the group members were both friends and friendly rivals of The Beatles and played the same venues. In 1961, the Pacemakers played a four-month stint in Hamburg alongside The Beatles. It was there that Brian Epstein became their manager, only the second band he took on after The Beatles. The two bands became regulars at Liverpool’s Cavern Club.
In 1963, their debut single, How Do You Do It, was the band’s first number one hit in the U.K., besting The Beatles’ first number one by three weeks (From Me to You).
Gerry and the Pacemakers went on to became the first group to reach the top of the U.K. charts with their first three releases. That same year, the group recorded You’ll Never Walk Alone, from the Broadway musical, Carousel (1945). Epstein wanted The Beatles to record it, but it was ultimately given to Gerry, who could master the melody with his vocal range.
In 1964, Gerry’s talent as a songwriter surfaced when he co-wrote Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying with his bandmates, then he was the sole songwriter of Ferry Cross the Mersey. These songs established the group’s sound as “Merseybeat.”
Gerry and the Pacemakers didn’t enjoy immediate success in the U.S. It was Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying that broke into Billboard’s Top 10 in 1964, landing in the number four spot. The band followed that U.S. success with Ferry Cross the Mersey, reaching number six on the U.S charts in 1965. In 1966, the band had their last American Top 40 hit with Girl on a Swing. Shortly after, the Pacemakers disbanded.
Gerry embarked in a solo career, and revived the band in 1974. However, he mainly spent his latter years touring in oldies shows. Known as a friendly, humble man throughout his career, he was cited by the British government with a Member of the British Empire Award (MBE), for his charity and disaster relief work.
In 2003, Gerry had triple heart bypass heart surgery, and in 2016, was fitted with a pacemaker in a second heart operation. When questioned about the irony of his band’s name, Gerry responded that he did not think it was funny, considering he now had one in him.
Phil Spector (December 26, 1939 – January 16, 2021)
Born Harvey Philip Spector, his father committed suicide when he was six years old, and his mother moved the family to Los Angeles from New York. When he entered high school, he learned how to play the guitar. With fellow students Annette Kleinbard, Marshall Leib and Harvey Goldstein, they formed The Teddy Bears. Phil wrote a song for the group based on the inscription on his father’s grave; To Know Him Is to Love Him became a number one hit in the U.S. and U.K. in 1958. One year later, the band split up.
At the age of 18, L.A. producer Lester Sill saw his potential and suggested he go to New York to work with songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. There, he co-wrote Spanish Harlem with Ben E. King, played guitar on the Drifters’ On Broadway, and became a staff producer for Dune Records. He made an impression producing Corinna, Corrina by Ray Peterson, Gene Pitney’s Every Breath I Take and Pretty Little Angel Eyes by Curtis Lee.
After a string of hits, Phil and Lester Sill formed Philles Records in 1961. The label signed The Crystals, who charted into the top 20 immediately with their first single, There’s No Other (Like My Baby).
Phil really began making a name for himself as a producer for The Crystals. When their third single failed to chart, Phil fired the entire group (he owned the rights to the name) and replaced them with Darlene Love and her group, the Blossoms. This would be the first of many instances in his career that earned him a reputation as a demanding producer, wanting as much control as he could possible get. The change in line-up worked well, and the newly-minted Crystals became Philles Records’ first number one hit, with He’s A Rebel (1962). A year into it, Phil bought Lester’s share of Philles Records.
Three years out of high school, Phil was a millionaire who had produced 20 consecutive hits. He was rock and roll’s first superstar producer. It was during this time that he formulated his “Wall of Sound” technique. This production process involved layering overdubs of guitar, horns, keyboards, strings and percussion that Phil described as a “Wagnerian approach to rock ‘n’ roll.” The resulting layers, often using multiple instruments to play the same notes, filled out the sound.
After enlisting the help of the Wrecking Crew, the now-famous group of studio musicians in L.A. (including Glenn Campbell, Doctor John and a host of others), he expanded the Wall of Sound with four Top 10 hits in 1963. That was the year for Da Doo Ron Ron and Then He Kissed Me by the Crystals, Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah by Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans and Be My Baby, by the Ronettes, which featured Veronica “Ronnie” Bennet. That same year, Phil released his only album to showcase his label’s stars; A Christmas Gift for You From Philles Records became a classic, most notable for an original song on the record, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) that was co-written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. With Darlene Love’s vocal in charge, the song has became a Christmas classic.
Up against the British Invasion in 1964, Phil went on to have even more hits with the Ronettes. In 1965, he worked with the Righteous Brothers and produced their number one hit, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling. The record sold over 2 million copies.
Ronnie Bennet married Phil in 1968, and her career ended there. Phil refused to let her perform again, which she revealed in her 1990 memoir, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life as a Fabulous Ronette. Ronnie claimed Phil controlled every aspect of her life. The story goes that she left the house barefoot, with the help of her mother, in 1972. They divorced in 1974. Reportedly, as part of the divorce settlement, Ronnie claims Phil threatened her life if she would not forfeit all future earnings on her recordings.
Phil was inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, having retired from the business about a decade earlier. He spent the latter part of his life in court, first trying to retain his rights to To Know Him Is To Love Him, then in a battle with the Ronettes he was ordered to pay back royalties of $2.6 million in 2001.
In 2003, police were summoned to his home after a gunshot was reported. Actress Laura Clarkson was found dead at the scene. Phil was tried for second-degree murder in 2007, but the trial ended in a hung jury. The case was retried in October 2008, when he was convicted and sentenced to 19 years to life. Phil Spector died in prison.
Different As Night and Day
Gerry Marsden, by all accounts, was an affable, talented guy who hit the music scene in England around the same time as Phil Spector did in the U.S. However, early on, Phil gained a reputation for having a controlling personality, in music and his personal life. Gerry was married in 1965 and remained with his wife until his death. Phil was married three times, and had bitter divorces from each. Both worked with and had connections to The Beatles. George Harrison and John Lennon asked Phil to produce their solo albums. Gerry’s wife, Pauline, had dated George Harrison before Gerry. When the two broke up, she dated Gerry and the three remained friends their entire lives.
With the passing of these two men, we see their common connections in life and death point to the contrast and differences we’ve seen again and again among boomer idols. What memories of these men do you have, boomers?