Spectropop remembers

BOBBY SHEEN (1943 - 2000)

Lead singer who played a key role in the creation of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound.

Whenever he made records under his own name, Bobby Sheen, who has died aged 57, was out of luck. But as Bob B Soxx, the ostensible leader of a group called the Blue Jeans, he briefly became one of the figures identified with the Wall of Sound, the style of pop music devised in the early 60s by the record producer Phil Spector, whose musical innovations and eccentric behaviour also established the archetype of the brilliant and autocratic Svengali of early rock and roll.

Born in St Louis, Missouri, Sheen's family moved to southern California and, like Spector, he grew up in West Hollywood, then a mixed district. His early showbusiness experience came as a member of various touring versions of the Robins and the Coasters, two of the most popular Los Angeles vocal groups of the late 50s. A tall young man who dressed his hair in a fashionable pompadour, he sang in a high voice heavily influenced by Clyde McPhatter, who was the Drifters' first important lead singer in the early 50s before he embarked on a successful solo career.

In 1962 Sheen hooked up with Spector through a recommendation from Lester Sill, a prominent Hollywood music business figure who had just gone into partnership with the 21-year-old producer to form the Philles label. Spector was also briefly employed as head of A&R for Liberty Records, and his first venture with Sheen was a single for that label titled How Many Days, a competent copy of McPhatter's solo records.

A few months later Spector booked time at a studio, Gold Star, located at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Vine Street in Los Angeles. The site of many hit recordings, Gold Star was noted for its exceptionally resonant echo chamber, located in the bathroom. It also employed a young engineer, Larry Levine, who was eager to collaborate in Spector's more unorthodox notions. Their first session together produced He's A Rebel, released under the name of the Crystals, even though all the singing was done by session singers - one of whom was Sheen. It was at a second Gold Star session, in the autumn of 1962, that Sheen found himself singing the lead part on a version of Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah, a children's song from a 1940 Walt Disney film, Song Of The South, which Spector had reimagined as a mini-epic of avant-garde rhythm and blues.

At the session, Spector had assembled three guitarists, three bass players, at least two pianists, four saxophonists, a drummer and a percussionist. Levine spent almost three hours trying vainly to capture the correct sound balance on the studio's primitive three-track desk. In frustration, he turned off all the microphones. One by one he turned them back on, until Spector shouted: "That's it! That's the sound!" But one microphone had been inadvertently left off, and the distant, metallic sound of Billy Strange's electric guitar solo leaking into the microphones of the other musicians became the signature of a record also distinguished by the disembodied clanging of its weirdly ponderous rhythm track - a sound unlike anything heard before. A top 10 hit over the Christmas of 1962, it helped prepare the way for the records by the Crystals and the Ronettes which established Philles as the last great phenomenon before the arrival of the Beatles ended pop's age of innocence.

With Darlene Love and Fanita James, two session singers who did duty as the Blue Jeans, Sheen released two more Bob B Soxx singles in 1963, the charming Why Do Lovers Break Each Other's Heart? and the rowdy Not Too Young To Get Married, on both of which Love sang the lead part - as she had, uncredited, on He's A Rebel and the Crystals' next hit, He's Sure The Boy I Love.

When neither Bob B Soxx follow-up matched the success of Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah, Spector turned his interest elsewhere. But the group's final appearance, as contributors to the producer's legendary Christmas Album, also permitted Sheen his finest hour, delivering a soaring lead vocal on a magnificently thunderous arrangement of The Bells Of St Mary's. An unlikely vehicle for one of Spector's "little symphonies for the kids", it now seems fully the equal of Be My Baby or River Deep - Mountain High, the acknowledged classics of Spector's Wagnerian style.

Sheen signed a contract with Capitol, and in 1966 released an excellent single called Dr Love, which failed to make the pop charts but nevertheless found - and continues to find - favour with the dancers of Britain's northern soul scene (an original UK promo copy is currently available on an internet site for 60). Later, he resumed his earlier career as a member of one of several groups trading under the name of the Coasters, and for a while ran a label of his own, Salsa Picante. In later years he continued to take late-night phone calls from Spector in which the First Tycoon of Teen outlined grand plans to revive the splendours of the past.

Richard Williams - The Guardian

Bobby Sheen, singer, born 1943; died November 23, 2000