“The Wrecking Crew” Documentary Will Change Your Mind about Rock and Roll
Say it ain’t so. If you think you know rock and roll, the Wrecking Crew may burst your bubble. You’ll never think of rock and roll the same way again. Turns out many of your musical heroes were mere shadows, frontmen for uncredited musicians who did all the heavy lifting on the records.
Throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, a shadowy crew of studio musicians dubbed the Wrecking Crew laid down the tracks and did most of the arranging for rock’s greatest hits. Documented here by Denny Tedecso, son of legendary session guitarist Tommy Tedesco, The Wrecking Crew documentary follows the shift of musical production from NYC’s Brill Building to the West Coast in the late ’60s. Not only did the Crew play for big name rockers, they also were the ghost band for groups like the T- Bones ’66 hit “No Matter What Shape Your Stomach’s In,” which also was featured in an Alka Seltzer TV commercial.
Even those who were there can’t agree on how many members were in the crew — according to various accounts, it numbered somewhere between 20 and 30. For this documentary, available on Blu-ray and DVD June 16 from Magnolia Enertainment, Denny Tedesco focuses on a number of the crew members, including drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Carole Kaye, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, acclaimed jazz drummer Earl Palmer, saxophonist Plas Johnson, pianist/organist Leon Russell, and guitarist Glenn Campbell. Legendary producers Lou Adler and Herb Alpert and TV personality Dick Clark also comment throughout the film.
“We injected a lot of ourselves into it,” says Palmer. “We made up a lot of arrangements ourselves.”
The film shows Kaye recounting when they spiffed up the bassline for Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On,” transforming it from a plodding lope to a funky, instantly recognizable heartbeat. ”Putting notes on paper is not music,” Tommy Tedesco explains. “It’s what you do with the notes what you put into it that’s not written.”
The crew did this so well that six consecutive Grammys for Record of the Year went to records the crew played on.
Around 1967, the California sound that promised warm sun, surf, and hot girls lured artists and musicians from New York to L.A. But the newcomers weren’t treated as interlopers. Ironically, even the Beach Boys — fathers of the surf sound — were eager to use the newcomers’ services. A lot of what you hear on Beach Boys’ records was The Wrecking Crew under the direction of Brian Wilson, which Wilson, interviewed in this film, readily admits and praises their abilities. Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations, all used the Crew. “Wilson would go around the room, utilizing 20-some players, sing each player’s part to him. By the time he got back to the first, he’d forgotten his part, so Brian would sing it to him again,” Leon Russell remembers. “He was a genius.”
Another warped genius, Phil Spector, also used the crew for his wall of sound. All the stuff by the Crystals (“Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “He’s A Rebel,”) and the Ronnettes, (“Be My Baby,” “Baby I Love You,”) back when Cher was still a backup singer for that group, was done with the help of the Crew, featuring Russell on piano.
The Crew worked nonstop for almost a decade, often going from session to session, laboring from can’t see to can’t see. “One time we did an album in a day for Liberty records,” Earl Palmer remembers. Palmer says the music he was asked to play wasn’t particularly to his liking, but that didn’t stop him from working. “I didn’t care that much for rock and roll,” he says. “I was basically a jazz drummer, but I realized I wasn’t gonna make a living if I was to continue to do that. I had to play that like that’s my favorite music. That’s my professionalism. It’s not beneath you if its supporting you. If it’s beneath you, don’t play it.”
It wasn’t just rockers the Crew subbed for. Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank and Nancy Sinatra (“Something Stupid,” “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’”) also benefited from the Crew’s work.
Some of the work was credited to the Crew, but a great deal of it wasn’t. The Association (“Wendy,” “Never My Love,”) wouldn’t let the producer put the real names on the album because the band didn’t want their fans to know they didn’t play on their own records.
Gary Lewis and the Playboys (“This Diamond Ring”) got the credit, but it was all Wrecking Crew on their records. The artwork on the finished product was misleading. The producer let Lewis come in and play some kind of percussion instrument as the session was winding up so the credits could truthfully say that it was Gary Lewis and the Playboys.
The Monkees also benefited from the Crew. While the Crew was in was in the studio cutting their stuff, the “band” were in the next studio pretending they were cutting it. Monkees “drummer” Mickey Dolenz says he never considered himself a musician, but an actor playing a musician in an imaginary group. Monkee guitarist Peter Tork actually thought he would be allowed to play on his record, till he walked in the studio with his guitar and bass and the producer asked him what he was doing there. “We’ve already done the track,” they told him.
Some of the Crew’s experience was a bit more up front. Glenn Campbell not only did studio work for the Beach Boys as part of the Crew, but went out on the road in place of Wilson. Campbell says his replacement duties saved Wilson a lot of headaches. “Dennis [Wilson] and [Mike] Love would fight like cats and dogs so Brian would hire the Crew’s rhythm to come in and do tracks.” But Dennis apparently had no hard feelings toward his studio replacement — he asked Crew drummer Hal Blaine to work on his solo album with him.
Some of the less ego-driven musicians would come in the studio to sit around and see how the masters did it. The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, who had worked as a session man before joining the band, took it as a compliment that he got to play on his own record with the Crew, who he called a bunch of great musicians. “The other guys were livid,” he says. David Crosby, Michael Clarke, and Chris Hillman hated that they didn’t get to play on their own record, Mr Tambourine Man. But McGuinn says the results speak for themselves.“We knocked out two tracks in a three-hour session,” he says of his time with the Crew. “When the rest of the band got to play, it took us 77 takes to get ‘Turn Turn Turn.’”
At one time, they couldn’t judge how much work the Crew was doing because everybody was working all the time. They had to judge it by how much work they turned down. But after ten years of constant work, the offers started to slow down, then they stopped altogether. “The rock guys started to do their own stuff, bands learned to play, self-contained groups, album artists became really big. Singer-songwriter acts became important, producers started wanting bands that play their own stuff,” Leon Russell remembers.
But the Crew seemed to take it in stride. The ramp-up lasted for over a decade, which is an eternity in the music biz. “The trick is to make the ramp-down last as long as you possibly can,” says Hal Blaine.
Even though many of the players are gone, that ramp is still a gateway for generations of players and listeners. The documentary is a loving testimonial from a son to his father, and honors Tommy Tedesco, who died of cancer before the film was completed. But it’s also a tribute to the architects and carpenters of a golden age of rock.
Tedesco says that his dad used to say there were four reasons to take a job: “Connections for the future, learning experience, money, or just for the fun of it. If it didn’t have any of those things, walk away.”
As the closing credits flash by, they reveal a mind-boggling list of albums and songs. Tedesco and the Crew found all of those four reasons in those albums and songs, for the music that became the soundtrack for our lives. Thanks for the music, and the memories.