Guitarist Tommy Tedesco and bass player Carol Kaye wait for the “go” signal in The Wrecking Crew.
The Wrecking Crew were like pop ninjas, performing their mind-blowing moves in the studio then disappearing in a puff of smoke.
We came in there wearing Levis, T-shirts, smoking cigarettes or whatever, and the old guys said, ‘They’re gonna wreck the business!”
That’s Hal Blaine, session drummer extraordinaire, on how he and a handful of players became known as The Wrecking Crew — the most heard, if least famous, backing musicians in rock and pop history.
Their story is finally told in a documentary of the same name — The Wrecking Crew was actually held up for release for several years as song rights were negotiated. This month, it gets a proper release, and it’s one of most illuminating documentaries on the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll.
The story picks up with the surviving members in Los Angeles, where this loose affiliation of crack musicians was responsible for playing on just about every great pop hit you can name from the ‘60s: You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling by The Righteous Brothers. Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys. California Dreaming by the Mamas and the Papas. I Got You Babe by Sonny and Cher. Up, Up and Away by The Fifth Dimension. Windy by The Association. Everybody’s Talkin’ by Nilsson. MacArthur Park by Richard Harris. Even the theme from Hawaii Five-O.
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If you needed a hit sound, these were the guys who came to your rescue: Tommy Tedesco on guitar, Hal Blaine (or Earl Palmer or Jim Keltner) on drums, Leon Russell (or Larry Knechtel) on keyboards, Plas Johnson on saxophone and, well, at least one female on bass: Carol Kaye, bassist extraordinaire, whose distinctive lines can be heard on Good Vibrations, Midnight Confession by the Grass Roots, The Beat Goes On by Sonny and Cher and countless others.
The Wrecking Crew is son Danny Tedesco’s attempt to cast a light on the pop world’s true hit makers, the skilled studio musicians who came up with just the right licks, riffs, lines and hooks to make each three-minute pop song really shine. These musicians tended to find steady work (as in three or four sessions a day) during the heyday of the pop 45 single, from around 1960 to 1975. Some of them got quite wealthy from those hit sessions, though they rarely had their names listed on any album credits. (It was kind of an industry secret that bands like The Beach Boys and The Monkees didn’t really play on their hit songs.) They were pop ninjas, performing their mind-blowing moves then disappearing in a puff of smoke.
To see them reassembled here after 20 years (well, some of them; estimates vary as to how many musicians actually comprised The Wrecking Crew: some guess 15, some say 30 or more) is a moving tribute, because they still share an easy camaraderie, a loose vibe that must have translated to them playing so well together in the studio.
Danny’s dad, Tommy Tedesco, was a self-trained guitarist who could mimic any style — though his magical touch seemed to show up on a lot of TV show themes, such as Bonanza, Batman and M*A*S*H*. Tedesco was one of the luckier Crew members who parlayed his skills into film scoring once the pop landscape dried up. Others weren’t so lucky, such as the great Hal Blaine who talks about making millions from his session work, buying a mansion, a Mercedes and a yacht, then losing it all in the ‘70s when the phone calls for work stopped coming. (His last hit session was Love Will Keep Us Together with Captain & Tennille in ’75.) Blaine ended up working as a security guard for a few years before his reputation brought his skills back to session work. He doesn’t seem sad or bitter about any of this: to even be around during those great sessions — working with Elvis Presley, or Sinatra, or so many others — and adding their own bit of magic seems to have been ample compensation.
The film takes us through famous sessions, such as the “Pet Sounds” tracks they laid down for Brian Wilson in 1966 while the other Beach Boys were off endlessly touring. If the band members were taken aback by the fact that Brian had gone ahead and recorded his new songs without him, they were quickly won over by how incredible those backing tracks sounded. (Same thing happened with the “SMiLE” sessions a year later.)
Of course, The Wrecking Crew were well known as the backbone of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” the incredible reverb-heavy ensemble that recorded a string of killer hits like Be My Baby, Da Doo Ron Ron, He’s a Rebel and others at Gold Star Studios in LA.
That band backing Simon and Garfunkel on Bridge Over Troubled Waters? That’s the Wrecking Crew. Playing The Pink Panther Theme for Henry Mancini? The Wrecking Crew. Sitting behind Elvis on A Little More Conversation? You guessed it: The Wrecking Crew.
How could such an elite tribe of musicians exist without the world knowing about them? Simple economics. The pop world of the ‘60s was all about hit songs, and those had to be cranked out and released on a regular timetable. The Wrecking Crew guys were fast, sometimes recording whole albums in a single day. This meant more product was on the market, all the time. No wonder they got hired.
It’s weird to think that bands in those days would put up with session players filling their parts in the recording studio, but as Lou Reed says, those were different times. Bands didn’t have the self-important mantle of the ‘70s singer/songwriter yet, so they did as they were told — if they wanted a hit song, that is. This may sound like a sort of pop music mafia, and maybe it was. But each person played a part in the pop machinery: there was generally a songwriter, a bunch of session professionals, then the group would layer their vocals on afterward. A band like The Monkees — comprised of actors, basically — didn’t even write their hit songs; professionals like Carole King and Neil Diamond did. Monkee Peter Tork likes to tell the story of showing up at a band recording, guitar in hand. The producer took one look at Tork’s guitar, looked over at the Wrecking Crew guys who were already cutting his track, and said, “What’d you bring that for?” (The Monkees eventually rebelled and recorded their own tracks for 1968’s “Headquarters.” And it sold fewer copies.)
The film is a little hazy on how much these guys got paid, but one musician mentions earning about $5,000 per week in session work. Per year, that’s a quarter million pre-inflation dollars. On the downside, since they received paychecks instead of song royalties (like Oscar Isaac’s character in Inside Llewyn Davis), they literally lived from session to session.
The Wrecking Crew is a warm, interesting journey through pop’s underbelly, revealing the diamonds hidden inside. Sadly, few of The Wrecking Crew featured in the film are still alive: Tommy Tedesco died before Danny could complete the film; Blaine and Kaye passed away last year. But if you need reminding of what they gave the world, just turn on any oldies pop radio station.