Singing with her friends on the stoop of a Brooklyn apartment block in the 1950s, seven-year-old Dolores "LaLa" Brooks couldn't have imagined how her teenage years would unfold. By 13 she was singing in an after-school programme, where she was discovered and asked to be part of a new girl group, the Crystals.
When LaLa joined the band, producer Phil Spector used her voice to his full advantage. And what a voice: it was like a wave breaking over the wall of sound he was creating with the band. She sang lead on their biggest hits, Da Doo Ron Ron and Then He Kissed Me, and her tone is one of the most distinctive of all the girl group singers.
LaLa, now 64, looks back fondly at the early years of recording with Spector in New York. "He was a sweetheart to me then," she drawls. "And a vision in all his cool clothes. But I was a teenager, and easily impressed." She wasn't so impressed, though, when he left his mother, Bertha, sitting outside the studio every day. "She'd sit on this crate holding a sandwich for Phil," she recalls, "and he just wouldn't let her in. I should have seen that as a warning: a man who doesn't respect his mother doesn't respect women."
Things turned sour when Spector relocated to Los Angeles. "He totally changed," says LaLa. "He lost all perspective. I'd be flown out to LA by myself, as a teenager, to record my vocals. He'd pull in different singers – including Cher – to do background vocals, and forgot about all the other young girls who had got him the praise he was now getting. And that was just the beginning." Beginning of what? "Well, he's been stealing from me, from us, since then. Yes, he's a genius, but he's a thief, too."
She's referring to the millions of dollars' worth of royalties LaLa and the rest of the Crystals say they are owed by Spector. At 19, when LaLa had two small children, she says she would "call up his secretary to ask for the royalty cheques we'd been promised" and just be "fluffed off". Spector never called back. She couldn't fight legally because she couldn't afford it. "I have to laugh, even though his case is big, dark and horrible, because when he had to pay a million dollars to get out of jail on bail I thought, I must be the first black woman who, from doing those songs as a teenager, has paid for a white man to get out of prison." She cackles wildly.
What would she do if she saw him now? "I'd give him a hug. I'm not a judge, and, if he's innocent, I don't want him to suffer. But you reap what you sow." How so? "I'm free, you know? He's stuck in a cell. And if that ain't karma, I don't know what is."