A few weeks back, my wife surprised me with tickets to a film festival. This was not just any film festival, mind you; it was a music film festival at the University of Pennysylvania featuring a documentary that I had been waiting to see for a handful of years: The Wrecking Crew.
So, on that sunny Sunday afternoon, we made the road trip to UPenn and were treated to a terrific and poignant film, full of some of the most glorious pop music of the 20th century. Of course, that glorious music was played in large part by a virtually faceless group of musicians that came to be known as “The Wrecking Crew”.
Since it was uncommon at the time (and for marketing purposes, often unwise) to give credit to studio musicians on the record jacket, the Wrecking Crew was unknown to the general public. But in the heyday of the Los Angeles session scene – the 1960s through the ’70s – they dominated the recording studios, churning out hit after hit.
By then, the rock and roll sound had taken on a much greater role in pop music, and those who could play it well started to infiltrate the studio scene, eventually replacing the veteran session players of previous generations. Apparently the older players thought that the young cats would “wreck” the music business, hence the nickname.
Little did they know that The Wrecking Crew would go on to become one of the most important groups of musicians in American music history.
The Waiting Is the Hardest Part
The reason for the long wait to see The Wrecking Crew?
Lack of funding.
Filmmaker Denny Tedesco, son of the late, great studio guitarist, Tommy Tedesco, made this documentary as a labor of love and much of it on his own dime. But to make a movie about music – and especially the heyday of the Los Angeles session scene, which produced acts such as The Monkees, The Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas, Sonny and Cher, and many others – requires an ample number of musical cues (in this case, 132). And each cue costs money in the form of a licensing fee.
So, a number of years later, Tedesco is still trying to raise enough funds to pay the upfront licensing fees and for theatrical, broadcast and DVD distribution. It’s an uphill battle.
Apparently the record companies who own the master recordings don’t think that a documentary film will generate enough publicity to give them a bump in sales, and so will not forfeit the fees. This is also the reason why it has been tough to find investors: they perceive the payoff to be weak, given that the film is a documentary with a niche audience.
Tedesco has received some funding through the non-profit International Documentary Foundation, but although it’s helped to defray some of the costs, it’s still not enough. So at present, you can only see the movie at film festivals. However, it seems that there has been such a positive response at the screenings and such great word of mouth – helped in large part by social media outlets like Facebook and YouTube – that Tedesco is getting closer and closer to covering the expenses necessary to bring The Wrecking Crew to the general public. (Internet high-five!)
Whether you are a musician or just a music lover, my suggestion is the same: RUN, don’t walk, to see this film wherever you can. It’s a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at the making of some of the greatest pop music in American history and the cast of characters responsible.
You can learn much more about the players, the award-winning documentary film and Denny Tedesco’s personal journey on the Wrecking Crew website as well as on the Facebook page and in the New York Times article. You can also make a tax-deductible donation via the website to sponsor DVD distribution.
The Wall of Sound
If you know your pop music history, you’ve surely heard of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Well, the Wrecking Crew was the Wall of Sound.
That “sound” of densely layered keyboards, basses, guitars, percussion, horns and strings was famously epitomized on classic tracks like The Ronnette’s “Be My Baby” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, The Crystal’s “He’s a Rebel”, “Then He Kissed Me” and “Da Doo Ron Ron”, The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”, “Unchained Melody” and “Soul and Inspiration”, and Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High”. The sound was also further enhanced by the echo chamber at Gold Star Studios in LA, which gave the songs a larger-than-life vibe.
The Wall of Sound was hugely influential within the recording industry. Many other Phil Spector-less records were produced using similar techniques – some performed by The Wrecking Crew – including The Beach Boys’ legendary Pet Sounds, and famously on the singles “Good Vibrations”, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows”. Bruce Springsteen’s iconic Born to Run is another later example of the Wall of Sound influence, as are classic tracks by Meat Loaf, written by Jim Steinman and produced by Todd Rundgren.
A Tangled Webb
The Wrecking Crew were at the peak of their musical powers at the same time a young, up-and-coming songwriter named Jimmy Webb made his way to Los Angeles.
Webb was gaining popularity and a strong reputation as a songwriter, having been signed to a publishing deal with singer/producer, Johnny Rivers. When Rivers was slated to produce a new vocal group called the 5th Dimension, he turned to Webb for songs and the Wrecking Crew for the tracks. One of Jimmy’s songs, “Up, Up and Away” was released as the first single and cracked the Top Ten, eventually winning Grammy Awards in 1967 for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
A number of Webb’s songs, as played by the Wrecking Crew, became hits, with some songs making stars out of the artists who recorded them. Not only did the 5th Dimension become famous singing Webb originals, but Glen Campbell – himself a member of the Wrecking Crew and sometimes The Beach Boys – became a superstar. Campbell’s recordings of “Galveston”, “Wichita Lineman”, and especially “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, forever connected Glen with Jimmy Webb.
As much as the Wrecking Crew was the “sound” behind the Wall of Sound, it was also the sound of Jimmy Webb’s songs, which included other monster hits such as “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris (covered disco-style by Donna Summer), and “All I Know” by Art Garfunkel. For anybody interested in the craft of songwriting as taught by one of the greatest of all time, I highly recommend Tunesmith. It is a tremendous memoir in addition to being a great instructional book on the art of songwriting.
The Crew was a somewhat interchangeable group of guys – and one woman, Carol Kaye – who provided not only the rhythm section, but also horns and backing vocals. Conductor/arranger Jack Nitzche was present on many sessions, and Sonny Bono (of Sonny and Cher fame) also helped out on numerous dates, although he was not considered an actual member of this group. Cher sat in on many dates as well, sometimes providing backing vocals. She was one of the most prominent artists interviewed for the film.
The below list comes from the Wikipedia entry. I’ve highlighted the musicians who were most prominently featured in the film. Leon Russell went on to a successful solo career, but according to Tedesco, elected not to participate in interviews for the film. Drummer Hal Blaine, whose story of professional triumph and, later, financial ruin was also prominently featured in the film, was often the session contractor and seemed to be the unofficial leader of the Crew.
Guitar: Glen Campbell, Barney Kessel, Tommy Tedesco, Al Casey, Carol Kaye, Billy Strange, Rene Hall, Don Peake, Howard Roberts, James Burton, Jerry Cole, Bill Aken, Mike Deasy, Doug Bartenfeld, Ray Pohlman, Bill Pitman, Irv Rubins, Louie Shelton.
Saxophone: Steve Douglas, Jay Migliori, Jim Horn, Plas Johnson, Nino Tempo, Gene Cipriano
Trumpet: Roy Caton (contractor), Tony Terran, Ollie Mitchell, Chuck Findley.
Trombone: Lou Blackburn, Richard “Slyde” Hyde, Lew McCreary
Keyboards: Leon Russell, Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John), Mike Melvoin, Don Randi, Larry Knechtel, Al De Lory, Mike (Michel) Rubini
Bass: Carol Kaye, Joe Osborn, Max Bennett, Chuck Berghofer, Ray Pohlman, Larry Knechtel, Lyle Ritz, Red Callender, Jimmy Bond (007), Bill Pitman
Drums: Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Jim Gordon
Percussion: Julius Wechter, Gary L. Coleman, Frank Capp (contractor)
Harmonica: Tommy Morgan
Backing Vocals: The Ron Hicklin Singers
I plan to feature Wrecking Crew members Tommy Tedesco (Denny’s late father) and Carol Kaye in an upcoming Unsung Guitar Hero article. In the meantime, check out this article on Tommy from the Gibson website: The Most Famous Guitarist You’ve Never Heard Of.
Below I’ve listed just some of the numerous hit songs performed by The Wrecking Crew. I first heard many of them as a little kid listening to my grandmother’s AM radio in the early 70s. Of course many of these songs are still played on classic rock radio stations, movie soundtracks, TV commercials, and more. In addition to the tunes already mentioned above, we can add:
Elvis Presley – “A Little Less Conversation”
5th Dimension – “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine”, “One Less Bell to Answer”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”
John Denver – “Annie’s Song”, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”
Johnny Rivers – “Baby, I Need Your Lovin'”, “Poor Side of Town”
Sonny and Cher – “The Beat Goes On”, “I Got You, Babe”
The Monkees – “(Theme from) The Monkees”, “Last Train to Clarksville”, “I’m a Believer”, “Daydream Believer”, “I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone”
Simon and Garfunkel – “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “Homeward Bound”, “Mrs. Robinson”, “The Boxer”
The Mamas and the Papas – “California Dreamin'”, “Dedicated to the One I Love”, “Monday, Monday”
The Beach Boys – “California Girls”, “Don’t Worry Baby”, “Fun Fun Fun”, “I Get Around”, “Help Me, Rhonda”, “Sloop John B”
The Carpenters – “Close to You”, “We’ve Only Just Begun”
The Partridge Family – “C’mon Get Happy”, “I Think I Love You”, “I Woke Up in Love This Morning”
Neil Diamond – “Cracklin’ Rosie”, “Song Sung Blue”
Wayne Newton – “Danke Schoen”
Mama Cass – “Dream a Little Dream of Me”
Harry Nilsson – “Everybody’s Talkin'”
Joe Cocker – “Feeling Alright”
Glen Campbell – “Gentle on My Mind”
Cher – “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”, “Half Breed”
Captain and Tennille – “Love Will Keep Us Together”
The Byrds – “Mr. Tambourine Man”
Nancy Sinatra – “These Boot Were Made for Walking”, “Something Stupid” (with Frank Sinatra)
The Grass Roots – “Sooner or Later”
Frank Sinatra – “Strangers in the Night”, “That’s Life”
Seals and Crofts – “Summer Breeze”
Barbra Streisand – “The Way We Were”
Sam Cooke – “Twisting the Night Away”
The Association – “Windy”, “Cherish”, “Never My Love”, “Along Comes Mary”
Interesting Wrecking Crew Factoid: Hal Blaine holds the Grammy Awards record for having played on six consecutive Record of the Year winners, from 1966 through 1971.
The Wrecking Crew was not only successful in the field of pop music, but was also responsible for some of the most famous TV and movie themes in history including Batman, Bonanza, Hawaii Five-O, Green Acres, MASH (“Suicide is Painless”), Mission Impossible, and The Pink Panther.
Here’s what industry pros are saying about The Wrecking Crew:
A wonderful, touching and hilarious film about the unsung stars of so many records that you carry in your heart. – Elvis Costello
I loved the film! Thank you for bringing to light the story behind one of the most important musical ensembles of the modern recording era. – Chad Smith, Red Hot Chili Peppers
I hovered in the room near the ceiling as I watched this inspiring movie about the musicians who made the songs that continue to lift me higher than ever. – Nancy Wilson, Heart
The Wrecking Crew is in the league of the best music documentaries ever made. – Vintage Guitar magazine, December 2009
Thank you for making this film because it shows that these legendary musicians, who we listen to every day, are anything but invisible! – Peter Frampton
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I truly hope that everyone gets the opportunity to see this remarkable film! A big thanks to Denny Tedesco for not only making this important documentary, but also for graciously sharing his time after the screening and offering his assistance in the writing of this article.
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