“The Wrecking Crew”: Prepare To Have Your Mind Revamped!

By on March 14, 2015

The Wrecking Crew, a fascinating new documentary film, tells the story of, and affords long-overdue credit to, the session players responsible for some of America’s most-cherished hits.

This weekend in Los Angeles — we’re in the middle of March right now, mind you — it was an unseasonable 93-degrees during the peak afternoon hours, which broke the previous temperature record of 88-degrees, set back on March 15, 1951. It very much felt like a hot summer day, a day in mid-July or August, the kind of day where you might just wanna go for a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway to cool off. If you’re lucky enough to own a convertible, well, that’s so much the better to blow your hair back. And if you’ve got someone special in your life, well, lucky you, take ‘em with you, that’s just more hair blowing in the wind.

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You can almost imagine this same scenario happening on a hot summer day in August of 1963, when Brian Wilson and his girlfriend were driving along, listening to the car’s AM radio, and, well, in the ten-part PBS/BBC Rock ‘n Roll In The Groove documentary series, Wilson talks about what happened next:

“I was in my car with my girlfriend and we were driving around, when all of a sudden this guy Wink Martindale — a disc jockey — he goes, ‘All right! Here we go with ‘Be My Baby’ by the Ronettes.’ It started playing…all of a sudden it got into this part — ‘be my, be my baby’— and I said ‘What is — what?! Whoa, whoa!’ I pulled over to the side of the street, and the curb, and went, ‘…My God! …Wait a minute! …No way!’ That’s something… I did really flip out… Balls-out totally freaked out when I heard. I got my mind blown, pretty much. Actually, it wasn’t like having your mind blown, it was like having your mind revamped. It’s like, once you’ve heard that record, you’re a fan forever.”

And so Brian Wilson got his mind revamped on that warm summer day, hearing a single that had been recorded just a month earlier, a song that his idol had produced behind the boards at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, California.

GOLD STAR
(photo courtesy of Vintage Los Angeles)

Spector was already a godlike figure to Wilson: “He was everything, there was just nothing to compare, he was it…the biggest inspiration in my whole life.”

Spector once described his production method as “a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll” — of course later that sound became known as the “Wall of Sound,” and “Be My Baby” was one of the first times he’d used a full orchestra in his recording.

The drums on “Be My Baby” were played by session drummer extraordinaire Hal Blaine, who would end up playing on forty No. 1 singles and 150 Top 10 tracks over his long career. He supplied the beat behind eight Record of the Year Grammys and you could even say his drumming was the rock in Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, the thumping heartbeat at the center of so many songs that connected with fans, aficionados and fellow composers and musicians, like Brian Wilson, in a way that felt deeply personal.

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Guitarist Tommy Tedesco with drummer Hal Blaine

The guitars on the “Be My Baby” session were played by the great Tommy Tedesco and Bill Pitman, after whom the instrumental “Tedesco and Pitman” on the B-side of the single was titled. If the name Tommy Tedesco, for instance, doesn’t mean anything to you, then perhaps you might know his work instead. Have you heard those familiar instro intro themes to TV shows like “The Twilight Zone,” Green Acres,” “Bonanza,” “M*A*S*H” and “Batman”? Those were all played by Tommy Tedesco.

These L.A.-based studio musicians were part of a loosely affiliated assemblage of musicians who played on not only Spector’s recordings, but on hundreds of others, all of them produced in west coast recording studios like Gold Star, and Western Recorders, to name just a couple.

There were so many talented players on the Left Coast at the time, having come out from New York and other parts of the country to work on movie and television productions, on theme songs and soundtrack scores, and advertising jingles, and they of course were heard on lots of songs that were played on the radio, lots of radios, all across the country These musicians were making a good living during the forties and fifties, working in Hollywood, and were playing on recording sessions in a particular way — clocking in, playing, clocking out — but they were also part of the buttoned-down suit-and-tie out-crowd, and they were threatened by what they were seeing of the new players who would show up to sessions wearing sweaters and sandals. Suddenly, it seemed everything was changing, right under their time-keeping, toe-tapping feet.

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Carol Kaye

Bassist/guitarist Carol Kaye — who was one of the very few women sessions musicians at the time — has said that these new players started played together so frequently that they began referring to themselves by little self-applied nicknames. She liked to call this loose collective of musicians “The Clique,” because to her that’s what they were: a little group of musicians, with great musical chops, and some of them were classically trained, and they had played on jazz albums, and they knew how to read music, and sometimes they even instinctively knew the perfect notes to play for the producer, who may or may not have known himself what he was looking for. They were a a clique, and saw themselves as part of a tight-knit group, part of an in-crowd, and because they were younger and they were hipper, they dressed a lot more casually than most of their fellow studio musician counterparts, who must have had sour expressions on their faces when members of the Clique showed up for sessions.

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Hal Blaine: “They looked down on us and this filthy new rock ‘n’ roll. We were in Levis and T-shirts. These older guys in their ties and blue blazers, carrying around their little ashtrays, said, ‘These kids are going to wreck the business.”

Blaine began calling their collective “The Wrecking Crew,” but there’s some dispute as to when he started doing this.

Piano player Don Randi simply refers to their group as “The Wall of Sound,” since they started with Spector, but he remembers not liking that any of them were referred to as a “wrecking crew.”

Randi: “The Wrecking Crew came later on. It’s an iconic phrase and people love it. But people would call us the Wrecking Crew because we could wreck a [session]. If you were a stupid producer, we could take you on a ride that you’ll never forget.”

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There were so many talented players, in addition to the core group — Carol Kaye, Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, guitarists Al Casey, Tommy Tedesco, Billy Strange and Glen Campbell, keyboardists Don Randi and Leon Russell, and sax player Plas Johnson — the rather fluid group may be expanded to include, at various times, James Burton, Larry Knechtel, and Jack Nitzsche.

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Together, The Wrecking Crew played on hundreds of hits from the late 1950s through the mid-’70s, by acts such as The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, Elvis Presley, Harry Nilsson, The Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, The Carpenters, The Ronettes, Simon and Garfunkel, Frank and Nancy Sinatra, and many, many more. If you’ve heard the Crystals (“He’s a Rebel”), Jan and Dean (“Surf City”), Paul Revere and the Raiders (“Kicks”), Simon and Garfunkel (“Bridge Over Troubled Water”), the Association (“Windy”), the Mamas and the Papas (“California Dreamin’ ”), Frank Sinatra (“Strangers in the Night”), the Monkees (“Last Train to Clarksville”), Herb Alpert (“A Taste of Honey”), Nancy Sinatra (“These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ ”), or Sonny and Cher (“Bang Bang”) — not to mention the “Batman” theme, the “Mission: Impossible” theme, the “Hawaii Five-O” theme, or the “Born Free” theme — then you’ve heard the Wrecking Crew.

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Which brings us to the documentary movie which bears the name The Wrecking Crew.

As with most documentary films, certainly those about music, it’s a labor-intensive labor of love, and much of the heavy lifting was done by Tommy Tedesco’s son, Denny Tedesco, over an unbelievably long period of time — the film took nineteen years to complete.

Denny had worked in Hollywood as a grip and set decorator but, in terms of directing, claims he “had no idea” what he was doing.

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As you might expect, the project itself would prove to be difficult. To begin with, there is very little filmed footage that was shot of recording sessions during the 60s and 70s. It simply didn’t happen that someone would show up with a movie camera and begin filming these rather faceless musicians who were not celebrities, and were, in fact, largely unknown outside their own circles. There are lot of archival photos, however, and Tedesco managed to interview a lot of people his father played with (some have, sadly, passed on while the documentary was still in production).

Tedesco began shooting in 1996, embarking on a job that would see him interview 76 musicians, producers, writers, arrangers and engineers; 29 of them made the final cut. He shot “on 16mm film, 8mm, 3/4[-inch] tape and Beta tape,” he says. “Everything but IMAX.”

Unfortunately, the one person he really would have liked to have been able to have seen the final cut of his documentary — his father, Tommy — succumbed to cancer in 1997, just a few years after Denny had begun the project. Tedesco says his father’s illness — due to a three-pack-a-day smoking habit — was the catalyst for the documentary.

Tedesco: “When they said he had a year to live, my concern was, if I don’t do it, it’s going to be the biggest regret of my life. It wasn’t going to be just about my dad; it was going to be about the group of them.”

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Tommy Tedesco and Carol Kaye

Peter Gilstrap interviewed Denny Tedesco at LA Weekly recently. Here’s an excerpt:

Tedesco began shooting in 1996, embarking on a job that would see him interview 76 musicians, producers, writers, arrangers and engineers; 29 made the final cut. He shot “on 16mm film, 8mm, 3/4[-inch] tape and Beta tape,” he says. “Everything but IMAX.”

He went into debt. His wife, Susie, footed the family bills. Friends donated. He used Kickstarter. His biggest financial hurdle was licensing 110 songs, including some of the biggest hits known to man.

“We had a $750,000 bill before we could even release this film theatrically,” Tedesco explains, “so no one was touching us. We still had this thing around our neck. Documentaries don’t sell, and music docs are the worst.”

Somehow, he managed to pull it together, and the end result is an engrossing, heartfelt film mixing various digital and film stocks, musical interludes and vintage documentary footage, woven together with candid interviews with 1960s icons, like Cher, Micky Dolenz of the Monkees, and Glen Campbell. There’s even an extremely brief appearance late in the film by Frank Zappa talking about Tommy Tedesco’s playing.

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Of course, there are also interviews throughout with the Wrecking Crew musicians themselves. Their stories ran the gamut of emotions; some are funny, others are tragic. After all, the era of the Wrecking Crew was relatively short-lived. Some of them played on recording sessions into the early seventies, elevating hits such as the 5th Dimension’s “One Less Bell To Answer,” the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You,” and Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.”

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Glen Campbell

By that point, a handful of the Crew (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, and even Dr. John, who played on many sessions) went on to solo fame; others joined groups (Jim Gordon became the drummer for Derek and the Dominos); and still others semi-retired or turned to teaching.

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Brian Wilson and Hal Blaine

Blaine’s story is particularly heart-breaking — he reveals how he lost everything in the wake of one of several disastrous marriages, and worked for a while as a security guard in Arizona. In one divorce settlement, he sold every gold record that had decorated his walls. But, he battled back, and eventually returned to play with everyone from the Captain and Tennille to Steely Dan and he became one of the first sidemen to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 2000.

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Leon Russell

The Wrecking Crew premiered in New York and Los Angeles this past Friday evening, on March 13, and it is now available on iTunes and video on demand. A full schedule of additional screenings can be found here:

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Frank Galpin

    I stumbled upon this great article from a Leon Russell (RIP) pic.This movie blew me away, I knew about all these guys (and gal) from things I read when I was a kid, but all shoved together in this movie was greatness.