The Wrecking Crew
And a film to miss
YouTube playlist of songs mentioned here
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Motown had The Funk Brothers; L.A. had The Wrecking Crew.
In the 60’s music industry, the singer, songwriter, and backup musicians might all be different people. Soon that whole system was upended by stars who did all that themselves, and audiences who insisted on it. But for a time, The Wrecking Crew played all the hits. You bought the 45 of Windy or Mr. Tambourine Man or Good Vibrations and thought you were getting The Association or The Byrds or The Beach Boys, but you weren’t; you were getting the same musicians on all of them.
Many 60’s hits actually featured these people, but they almost never got credits. In L.A. they were called The Wrecking Crew. Back then, the named stars rarely played on their own records. These people could knock out a song in two or three takes because they were so accustomed to playing together.
The name Wrecking Crew (a name which wasn’t current then) was a nod to the older studio musicians, who came to work in a tie and blue blazer, and reacted to all these new people in jeans and T-shirts with, “They’re going to wreck the music business!” As one of the Crew says about those older musicians, “They felt that rock ‘n’ roll was perhaps a little bit beneath them.” Their loss.
Who were these guys? They weren’t all guys, as you can see in the above picture: Carol Kaye played the bass on a lot of those hits, and she appears in the movie as they reminisce. One of them said to her, back in the day, “Hey, you play pretty good for a girl!” She countered, “Yeah, you play pretty good for a guy, too.”
Her mother was a professional piano player, playing in the back of silent movie houses. A guy came around offering lessons on steel guitar, three or four for $10, and Mom got her lessons. She started playing gigs on guitar at 13, mostly jazz. She explains that there were a lot of women musicians back then, so it wasn’t that unusual for her, but most women just played until they got married. She doesn’t talk about her husbands, but Wikipedia tells us she had three.
As this site tells us, the Crew included Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Barney Kessel, Plas Johnson, Al Casey, Glen Campbell, James Burton, Leon Russell, and many more. A few went on to solo careers, like Glen Campbell and Leon Russell. James Burton played with Elvis and is in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
You’ve very definitely heard Hal Blaine (RIP), e.g. the iconic drum lick at the start of Be My Baby. He played on everything and worked with everybody, more or less. If you search YouTube for his name, you’ll find tons of interviews. He gave us everything he had, and then as a bonus, he told us all about it. When he died, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, Nancy Sinatra, Peter Frampton, and others paid tribute to him as one of the greatest drummers who ever lived. Here he is getting directions and encouragement from Brian:
Here he is with Carol Kaye, Brian Wilson, and Glen Campbell, talking about the recording of Good Vibrations, which took about three months. They all loved working with Brian. Carol talks about how he wrote out a bass line for her that just blew her away. Brian is all over this movie; he considered the studio his real instrument. She says that, unlike a lot of producers, Brian usually had it all figured out. He knew what he wanted, and they didn’t have to make up arrangements for him. Leon Russell talks about how there’d be 20 musicians in the room, and Brian would go to each one and sing their part until they had it. Then he’d go to the next guy and teach him his part. He was The Beach Boys at that point. The other “Beach Boys” just went out on tour and sang on the records. At one point, Glen even went out on tour as a Beach Boy. replacing Brian.
We learn about their private lives, some of them: Tommy Tedesco, the guitar player whom no one outside the industry ever heard of until he died, is featured along with his wife and son. He says, “I’m not one of those guys who talk about how good they were when they were 12.” He didn’t play guitar at all until he was an adult. His wife and family always supported him, even when he was struggling, or gone all the time playing music. When he died ,the obituaries usually began with “You’ve probably never heard his name, but…” The movie is lovingly narrated by his son.
At the other end of the spectrum, Hal Blaine was apparently hard to live with, since, as he said, he went through six wives, the last of whom cleaned him out financially. He was reduced to working as a security guard and living in a clothes closet. But in ‘82 or ‘83, he started working again, and says, “If you love your work, it’s not work.”
There’s a funny sequence where the musicians and producers talk about some of the hits they made which they actually didn’t like at all. One explains his secret to playing it as, “When I thought of the music, I thought I was a 13-year old, trying to learn how to play music…. I asked myself, ‘How would a kid play this, that’s so stupid, he doesn’t know what he’s doing?” Leon Russell talks about This Diamond Song, “We cut that record, and I said, ‘Oh my God. I hate this shit.”
(If your image of Leon Russell is the white-haired guy with the thick beard,
this is a bit before that.)
There’s an extended sequence about These Boots Are Made for Walking and its iconic bass line, which put Chuck Berghofer on the map. Nancy Sinatra talks about how she wanted to do the song, and the producer said, “No, it’s not a girl’s song.” Berghofer says that song took him from doing two studio dates in his life to doing three a day.
Plas Johnson, the great jazz tenor sax player, played The Pink Panther Theme, probably one of the world’s most recognizable sax solos. He talks about growing up in New Orleans during World War II,
where his mother and father were both employed as musicians, since the city was so busy with soldiers and sailors getting shipped out to the war. He and his brother moved to LA, and “proceeded to starve around town for about two years.” Eventually he started getting work. That’s him on the piccolo in Rockin’ Robin. Also the sax on Surfer’s Stomp. There was no group called The Marketts, but when the song became a hit, they got a group of kids together to go on the road, just as if they’d been a real group all along.
Herb Alpert talks about The Tijuana Brass, and how they opened for Dave Brubeck, and Paul Desmond said, “I don’t know what I just heard, but I think I like it.” The Crew cut The Lonely Bull. Alpert talks about Hal Blaine’s bass drum solo on A Taste of Honey, which was really just a way to give the beat to the musicians so they could come in together.
As an aside: can you think of any short piece of music that would just scream “Sixties!” faster than Spanish Flea? We’ll rule out rock ‘n’ roll, protest songs, and anything Counterculture for this exercise; after all, most of the population was not Counterculture (that’s why it was called “counter”).
The Monkees talk about their shock and disappointment that they didn’t get to play on their own records. Mickey Dolenz says they told him, “You’re going to start drum lessons on Monday.” He goes on, “After a year of it, I was pretty good. Of course, I only had to play Monkees songs.”
Glen Campbell became a star in his own right. Of course, he hired the session musicians he already knew, and one asked, “So, are you still talking to us peons?” He said, “Some of ‘em.” Carol Kaye came up with the bass intro to Wichita Lineman, and tell how once she heard the song in a store and it just brought tears into her eyes. It does mine, too.
In the late 60’s and early 70’s, groups starting playing their own instruments, and the session work dried up. Carol says, “We all went into it knowing it could stop any second.” Tommy Tedesco started doing seminars, which he loved doing, and there’s a funny part where he demonstrates how he played Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Bolivian music for different producers. I won’t spoil it for you.
Tommy Tedesco’s wife and son Denny narrate the end of the movie, and Denny says Tommy taught him some important things in life: “give more than you take. He loved his family and friends, and would always help the younger guitar players. knowing it was only a matter of time that they soon would take his place, just like he took someone else’s seat 40 years earlier.”
Finally, we have a song that isn’t in the movie, but Jimmy Webb, the composer is, so I thought I’d make it our last Wrecking Crew song. A lot of people hate this song, for some reason. Maybe it’s those ridiculous, over-the-top lyrics (“the sweet green icing flowing down”, “I’ll never have the recipe again”). Too bad. I’ve always liked it.
One Movie to Skip: “Rumble, The Indians Who Rocked the World”
Link Wray was hugely influential in rock history. Here he is live. His raw sound, like the guitar strings the thickness of overhead power lines, was awesome. He used distortion and power chords in a way that still resonates today. He was a Native American.
Robbie Robertson of The Band wrote The Weight, one of the greatest songs of all time, covered by nearly everyone. Here he is with Levon Helm, who voiced a lot of his songs. He was also part Indian, or “First Nation” as they call it in Canada.
There were other Indians who were very successful and influential in rock ‘n’ roll, like Jesse Ed Davis. However, this movie is more of a political screed than anything else.
RUMBLE shows how Indigenous music was part of the very fabric of American popular music from the beginning, but that the Native American contribution was left out of the story - until now.
It was left out because it was a short chapter, not out of any conscious desire to leave it out. If you’re particularly interested in Native American rock ‘n’ roll players, by all means watch this.