By Harvey Kubernik
Guitarist David Kessel is currently President and CEO of Cave Hollywood Media a multimedia consulting firm that is involved in cyberspace entertainment activities and e-commerce. He also a co-owner of Model Music Group.
Along with his multi-instrumentalist brother Dan — sons of guitarist and jazz icon, Barney Kessel — both have known Phil Spector for a half century and they’ve been involved in every Spector recording session since 1973, and from 1962-1969 often attended his sessions as kids and teenagers.
In July 2009, David Kessel added some first-hand observations about recording at Gold Star with Phil Spector: “The music of Phil Spector holds up so well because it’s that great and that deep in our social consciousness,” said Kessel. “The topics of the songs are timeless. Love, me and you, cool things. It vibes for people. He captured that vibe with sound and song in a way that nobody has or will again. Because the total acoustics of the room for a Wall of Sound experience were just perfect. And the way that Stan Ross and Dave Gold designed the studio, they knew what they were doing. It’s not like they said, ‘Let’s roll a wall up here.’ They really had their acoustics down very early in the game. Of course, the echo chambers, and, of course, the board. It was a heavy metal board, and I don’t mean like in heavy metal music. I mean the quality of the metal inside the board and the wiring. It was very thick and very powerful. Not like today where you have all the digital stuff and then you have to bring in all the boxes and try to beef it up. You know what I mean? Gold Star — that was the real deal.
“The metals made after World War II were sufficiently degraded from the metal before World War II,” David Kessel continued. “Much weaker metal because they had to use so much during the war. It became thinner, got into aluminum, transistors. Stuff like that. When they have the real deal metal, the real deal magnets, and the real deal wiring, that really enhances the sound. And when you bring in brilliant acoustics with a powerful board and then you have Phil and his genius working the musicians and hearing those sounds in his head and being able to articulate it with the help of Larry Levine, Stan Ross and Dave Gold, who were outstanding.
“They were called engineers,” Kessel reiterated, “and didn’t have aspirations of being record producers and running record labels. They were sound engineers and business owners of a studio. Hey, a lot of Eddie Cochran stuff was done at Gold Star with Stan Ross engineering. Gold Star was a special unique studio and so were the guys who ran it.”
David Kessel stressed the sonic advantage of mono recording: “Well, first of all, it’s all-powerful and coming out of both speakers the same. OK? That means you are getting the full signal right at you. With the ‘Wall of Sound’ in mono you are not having to worry about stereo placement. OK? Originally, you were or are making these records for a transistor radio. And ultimately you want it to sound really great out of that small transistor radio speaker. You’re also thinking in terms of when the needle goes down on the record. It’s going to go out through the needles as a whole signal. Whereas when you start dividing the instruments, ‘part of this on the left side, part of this on the right side, you can hear that on that on some of the Beatles’ mid career records, trying to get a stereo thing going, but you lose the full impact of the solid centered power. With mono you get a thicker piece of music on tape.
“What’s interesting,” pondered Kessel, “I think is that the records are classic and timeless because they have a classic and timeless sound that came out of Gold Star. To me, the one group, and they didn’t record at Gold Star, mostly Sunset Sound, their early stuff, whose records are classic and timeless to me are the Doors. They were recorded so well and they hold up and don’t sound dated. The depth. It was really deep. I’m going to make it really clear. Just adding that echo to a record with a bunch of musicians in that room is not going to give you a ‘Wall of Sound.’ Might give you a mess of mud if you don’t know what you are doing. And, there is also the advantage of having all the musicians recording at once in the room.
“Most current ‘Plug In’ recording effects can be attributed originally to the sounds Phil (Spector) created, developed and experimented with in the making of his classic recordings,” said Kessel. “The current generation of recordists who use these “Plug Ins” don’t realize, when adding these technology effects to their music, they’re actually accessing Phil Spector with the touch of a button, and that they owe those sounds to him.”
“Jack Nitzsche’s arrangements were the mortar in Phil’s ‘Wall of Sound,” suggested Nick Walusko of the Wondermints and current bassist and guitarist with Brian Wilson band member since 1999.
In 1988 I conducted an interview with Nitzsche for Goldmine Magazine. “I had heard about Phil for a long time,” said Nitzsche inside his Hollywood Hills home in 1988. “In 1962 I used to hang out at Lester Sill’s on Sunset Blvd., when Lester and Lee Hazelwood were partners. One day, Lester came downstairs and said Phil Spector was in town and needed an arranger. He played me the demo of ‘He’s A Rebel.’ We went to a rehearsal with the Blossoms. I introduced Phil to the Blossoms. I had been working with them for years. In Kenneth Anger’s film “Scorpio Rising” “He’s A Rebel” is in it.
“I didn’t have to do a lead sheet for ‘He’s A Rebel,’ just the arrangement. I put the band together for the session, a lot of the same guys I had been working with for years. Phil didn’t know a lot of these people: he had been in New York in 1960-1962. Leon Russell, Harold Battiste, Earl Palmer, Don Randi, Hal Blaine, Glen Campbell: A lot of the players came out of my phone book. Phil knew Barney Kessel. At one time he had taken guitar lessons from Barney, years before.”
Nitzsche in the same conversation commented on the Wall of Sound and the Wrecking Crew members who populated Spector’s recording sessions: “The musicians played at once,” said Nitzsche. “Before that, I was working with compact rhythm sections and three or four players. This was groundbreaking for me.
“Hal Blaine (drummer). I liked his work, but sometimes felt he overplayed. That’s just the way he plays. A lot of fills. As it turned out, Phil and the people loved the breaks Hal took, especially at the end of the tunes, the fades. Hal had a big kit. I liked the fills.
“Earl Palmer was the other drummer on the records. He’s the best. Like a rock. A real good New Orleans drummer. Harold Battiste, Mac Rebennack. New Orleans guys were on the dates, so you had a good mixture of jazz guys, West Coast studio cats and New Orleans players.
“I had met Don Randi a long time ago. He was a pianist at a jazz club on La Cienega. He was cool. He looked like a beatnik. His hair was right. He had the attitude. He didn’t smile when he played. Al DeLory was on keyboards, too.
“Leon Russell. I met him with Jackie DeShannon; she introduced me. Leon at the time, was playing piano in a bar in Covina. He was an innovative piano player. He was good. I heard him on a Jackie DeShannon record. In those days it was real hard to find rock ‘n’ roll piano players who didn’t play too much. Leon talked the same language. You could really hear Leon play in the ‘Shindig’ TV band. I put him in ‘The T.A.M.I. Show’ band, and he’s all over the soundtrack.
“During the Spector sessions, a lot of the time we had two or three piano players going at once. I played piano as well. Phil knew the way he wanted the keyboards played. It wasn’t much of a problem who played. Leon was there for the solos and the fancy stuff, rolling pianos. The pianos would interlock and things would sound cohesive. I knew Leon would emerge as a band leader.
“The horn players. Steve Douglas on tenor, Jay Migliori on baritone, other horn players as well. I had met Steven through Lester Sill. We were friends for a long time. Phil had an idea about horns.
“It started on ‘He’s A Rebel.’ Remember the horns on ‘Duke of Earl?’ Phil wanted something like that. The horns always had to figure out this thing. The thing that came out of it was the voicing. The trumpet was voiced real low, and the voicing of those horns made a big thing happen. The horn section would play quiet behind the rhythm section. Phil sure knew what he wanted. He had all the basses covered.
“Percussion. Well, Sonny Bono. I love Sonny. He helped me get into the business. Julius Wechter later of the Baja Marimba Band was on a lot of the dates. Frank Kapp was on a lot of sessions. He was a jazz drummer who used to play with Stan Kenton. Phil would dream these percussion parts up at the session. they were his ideas. There were no formulas. I played percussion, chimes, orchestra bells. They weren’t mixed way in the back.
“Guitarists. A lot of the guitarists were jazz players and weren’t rock and roll players, like Howard Roberts, Joe Pass, Herb Ellis, Tommy Tedesco, Barney Kessel, Dennis Budimar. A lot of the guitarists were good and well-known session players: Glen Campbell, Bill Pitman, Don Peake. Most the guitarists had to play eighth notes on Phil’s records. There was a lot of acoustic guitar on the songs. Phil used to walk around to the players just before he rolled tape and would whisper in their ears. ‘Dumb. Don’t do anything. Just play eighth notes.’ It was hard for any of the guitarists to breathe or stretch out on the records.
“I was amazed how big Glen Campbell made it as a total entertainer. I knew he was a great guitarist. I never knew he would show up as a singer later. Billy Strange was good, too. I became aware of the 12-string guitar during the last Phil years. It was a new sound, and a new toy to play with.
“Bass players. Jimmy Bond and Red Callendar were on most of the dates. Ray Pohlman, Ray Brown and Carol Kaye. The bass parts were written out and the players had to stick right with them. They were mixed way low in the back, almost a suggestive element to the song. No one really had a lot of room with those sessions. Really, only the drummer had any sort of freedom. They weren’t R&B records.”
When asked about the voices that informed his Spector collaborations, Jack Nitzsche remarked, “The vocals would last all night. Background groups doubling and tripling so it would sound like two or three dozen voices. Phil would spend a lot of time with the singers. I would split and he’d still be working on lines with the singers. The rhythm section and the horns were done together. Vocals and string parts were overdubbed later. We did most of the sessions at Gold star studios in Hollywood. I loved the rooms, but it was always too small for all the people. Phil was on his game all the time.
“’Be My Baby…’ Ronnie Spector’s voice. Wow! I was amazed at her vibrato. It got bigger and bigger with each record. That was her strong point. When that tune was finished, the speakers were turned so high in the booth people had to leave the room. It was loud.
“I arranged the Christmas album,” said Nitzsche. “We had a lot of fun. Darlene Love singing ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ blew my mind. I got chills. Powerful. She could always sing. Sonny (Bono) always made everyone laugh. The album never really took off. I think some of that had to do with the world after the Kennedy assassination. It affected the public. No one wanted to celebrate Christmas in December 1963.”
Keyboardist Don Randi is featured on “A Christmas Gift For You.” He was born February 25, 1937 in New York City and then moved to Los Angeles in 1954. Don played piano, keyboards, organ and harpsichord on the just about every Spector session date at Gold Star since 1962.
Randi’s work can be heard on the Beach Boys’ album “Pet Sounds,” “Buffalo Springfield Again,” Love’s “Forever Changes” and “The 1968 Elvis Presley Comeback Special.” Randi’s resume also includes “The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees” and Tim Buckley’s “Goodbye & Hello.” Randi recorded with Spector on his Leonard Cohen “Death of a Ladies’ Man” LP and has been on wax with both Frank and Nancy Sinatra.
For close to 40 years, Don Randi has been the proprietor of the Baked Potato jazz club in North Hollywood while also leading his popular jazz-fusion cross over group Quest. The idolized musician and comic, Randi is working on his autobiography with writer Lynne Margolis.
“Jack Nitzsche was a good translator for Phil,” reaffirmed Randi to me this year. “You know what kills me, every time I hear Jack’s ‘The Lonely Surfer.’ I’m on it. It still gives me chills because it’s a great song. Jack wrote a great song. I didn’t hear it until the day we went in. You know, we never rehearsed the composition. (laughs). Jack went to Westlake School of Music. I’ll tell you what gripped me was his brilliance.
“You gotta remember, there was brilliance without Phil. There was Phil and there was stuff you did on your own. And people forget about that. And, as great as it was, we were making up parts half the time. With Jack, Phil was able to go to Jack and he would translate what Phil wanted. There was camaraderie. You got to remember we all were together. Jack Nitzsche, Phil Spector, myself and Sonny Bono, who Jack knew from the late ‘50s at Specialty.
“Gold Star was an incredible place since the first time I ever worked there. It was friendly. And they always had a good staff there that was friendly. Between Dave Gold, Stan Ross and Larry Levine, and Doc Siegel, it was great and fun. Stan and Larry I worked with a lot. Doc got destined to do the “B” sides for Phil Spector.
“Everybody playing parts and a lot of time duplication. Like on the pianos, you would have one guy doing a thing on the high end of the piano, somebody in the middle, and Phil would want the different sounds of a concert grand, and an upright, electric or a Wurlitzer. So he liked to have the spread of the different tonality. That was Phil. He understood tonality very well. And at Gold Star it was magic because of all those harmonics rising were part of the wall of sound.
“The playbacks didn’t blow my mind because it was already exciting. It was so exciting and you knew you would eventually have a million-selling record. You absolutely knew that because Phil was so dominant. I worked for other people there. I did my own albums there and even wrote all the Radio Shack commercials.
“Most of the times when we did those studio jobs we were asked to be somebody else. We were cloned. You know, if somebody wanted Floyd Cramer you had to come out. If somebody wanted a more Ray Charles’ sound you had to come up with it. If somebody wanted more of a Phil Spector sound then I knew exactly what they wanted.”
“Gold Star was a natural studio. It just blended and worked. When you went to Gold Star you just knew you were making a hit record. Because musically and lyrically and the composition and note part was brilliant. There were always great songs. The songs always told a story. The songs in themselves were films. And, especially in Phil’s case, he knew how to write them and how to produce them. And in Brian Wilson’s case, Brian always knew where he was going with it. He may have not known at the beginning, but after a while he had an idea and he developed it. We were there to help him develop it.
“The Phil Spector ‘Christmas’ album is probably the best Christmas album of all time and you can’t just repeat things like that. For me all those years there I don’t recall anything or equipment breaking down. I’m sure it did but very rarely, but fixed quickly.
“I like mono but not quite a ‘Back To Mono’ guy. I still like the old LP’s and I still play them. For the simple reason that unfortunately when they do these things they have a tendency to digitize everything where they clean it up so much that you lose the character of the song itself. You lose the room ambience. My God, if a guitar player squeaks on a note leave it! But they can get it out today so they choose to do that. If a singer took a breathe before he or she sang a note, I used to love to hear that. It was part of the record. And they don’t do that anymore.”