Phil Spector Said He and John Lennon Once Held Martin Scorsese’s Career in Their Hands

If you’ve ever seen the footage of the sessions for Imagine (1971), you know how things between John Lennon and Phil Spector could escalate quickly. One minute, everything seems fine, but within seconds Lennon starts shouting at Spector over his production of “Oh Yoko!”

Still, Lennon had a lot of respect for Spector, and he brought him back for Some Time in New York City (1972). Lennon also tried to work with Spector on Rock ‘n’ Roll (1975), but those sessions devolved into drunken chaos, and one night Spector fired a gun into the studio roof.

Those were eventful years for Spector for more than his association with Lennon and Yoko Ono. During that same period, Martin Scorsese broke through with Mean Streets (1973), the acclaimed film that kicks off with Spector’s “Be My Baby,” as performed by The Ronettes.

But Scorsese used the song without permission from Spector, and the notorious producer planned to halt its use in the film. In a 2010 documentary, Spector spoke of how he and Lennon held the careers of both Scorsese and Robert De Niro in their hands in that moment.

John Lennon alerted Phil Spector of the use of ‘Be My Baby’ in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’

Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in 'Mean Streets'
ROBERT DE NIRO (Johnny Boy) und HARVEY KEITEL (Charlie) in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’ / FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

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If this story isn’t wild enough, Spector claimed Lennon was the one who hipped him to the fact that Scorsese had opened Mean Streets with “Be My Baby.” In The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (2010), Spector explained to director Vikram Jayanti how it happened.

“I was in London with John, and we were recording,” Spector recalled. “John called me and said, ‘I think there’s something you ought to hear and see. Someone ripped you off.'” Spector said Lennon then took him to a projection room and played him the opening of Mean Streets.

“On comes this, ‘Boom, boom-boom,’ my recording of ‘Be My Baby,'” Spector said. As the credits rolled and he saw Scorsese’s name, Spector was confused. “I said, ‘What the f*ck it that?’ […] I didn’t give any permission for that. You know, I guard my songs, and I hadn’t given my rights to anything.”

With that, Spector got on the phone with his attorneys and wanted to know how Scorsese was using the track. “I said, ‘Who is this guy, Skeezy?'” An attorney got back him, saying it was probably nothing to worry about. But Spector wasn’t convinced.

Spector’s 1st reaction was to ‘kill’ Scorsese’s film, but Lennon and his attorneys advised against it

Phil Spector and George Harrison
Phil Spector with George Harrison in 1970 |GAB Archive/Redferns

Spector recalled his reaction. “My song opens the film, and it’s making the film,” he said in the documentary. And he advised his attorneys to “kill it.” But they argued that Scorsese and the stars were unknown, and thus not worth the effort.

Spector said he also got a call from the Mean Streets team. “Please don’t stop it,” they said. “We’ll work something out. Just don’t get an injunction on the film because everyone’s career is at stake.” Lennon urged him to give Scorsese a break as well. “Remember when you started out,” Spector recalled him saying.

Later, Spector confronted Scorsese’s team about it, and they agreed to give him points in future films starring De Niro. That worked for Spector, but he didn’t forget it. “The bottom line is, he doesn’t have Mean Streets without ‘Be My Baby,'” he said.”‘I stop the film, there is no Mean Streets. And Scorsese is literally out of business.”

If his story is to be believed, that makes Lennon something of a hero in the rise of Scorsese. Spector certainly saw it that way. “That day, literally, I hold Scorsese’s career — and De Niro’s, literally, they don’t know this — in my hand with John Lennon,” he said.