Listening to rock songs from the 1960’s will never be the same after you have seen the new film about The Wrecking Crew, the legendary LA session players. Whether it is the Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Mommas and Poppas or the Fifth Dimension, you will be asking who provided that great guitar lick or the catchy melody: Was it the artist on the album cover or the uncredited musicians and producers in the studio.
In the halls of the Capitol Records Tower and in the clubs along the Hollywood strip, the answer has been an open secret for years. It was the musicians who molded, enhanced and interpreted the notes in Brian Wilson’s head and the manic ideas of Phil Spector and took songs to the top of the charts. Although they had made lots of money, these music makers had little recognition until recently when a book by Kent Hartman (2012) and a documentary directed by Denny Tedesco got a theatrical release in March.
The film, which focuses heavily on Denny’s father, master guitarist Tommy Tedesco and drummer Hal Blaine, began as a labor of love and ended up as a major contribution to rock and roll history. Tedesco began filming interviews and raising money more than fifteen years ago when his father was still alive and older crew members were still around.
Others featured in a reunion interview along with Tedesco and Blaine, are guitar and bass player Carol Kaye and saxophonist Plas Johnson. Each of them contributes live, impromptu solos that often segue into the fully produced versions of the songs. Johnson does the intro to the Pink Panther Theme and Blaine offers the drum solo that made Taste of Honey a gold record for Herb Alpert. (Others talk about how they played on Alpert’s first album for scab rates of $25 a session but when Alpert hit it big, he tracked them all down and paid them a share of the profits.)
Among those swapping tales of the good ole days are Cher (who started as a backup singer at age 16), Leon Russell (playing piano for Spector) and Glen Campbell, recalling how the group made Wichita Lineman come alive.
The TWC got its name from an offhand comment by one of the old school musicians they gradually replaced as rock and roll took hold. “You guys are going to wreck the music business.” While the core group of six to ten regulars was pretty stable, the actual number of those on the roster is anybody’s guess. The Wikipedia entry has about 50 names.
It is even harder to count all the songs they played on. They kept score in terms of #1 singles and “Album of the Year” awards as well as the checks that came with playing morning, noon and night.
If there was an end point to this magical run, it came with the arrival of the singer-songwriters like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young who wanted to play their own material. But it was not an easy transition. As Roger McGuinn tells it, “We did Mr. Tambourine Man in three hours (with TWC). When we came back on our own to do Turn, Turn, Turn, it took 77 takes.”
The success of The Monkees TV show and album sales also marked a turning point because many people disliked the idea of a synthetic rock and roll band that knocked off The Beatles. Not drummer Mickey Dolenz. “I knew I was a pretend drummer, playing in a pretend band in a pretend TV show, living in a Malibu Beach House.”
If there is a flaw in the film, it is the way that actual songs are cut short after a terrific buildup about how they were crafted. Just as you start tapping your toe and singing along, they fade down and a new segment begins. This is no doubt a result of how expensive the rights have become, but the solution is in sight. The website says there is a three-CD soundtrack album in the works. The film itself is only in limited release but it is available on demand from Amazon.
Denny Tedesco deserves a Grammy for getting these wonderful stories on film. His closing dedication sums up our debt to The Wrecking Crew: “This film is dedicated to those whose work is the back beat to the sound track of our lives.”