Unsung ’60s musicians score in pop doc ‘The Wrecking Crew’
“They were the ones with all the spirit, all the know-how.” So says Brian Wilson at the beginning of Denny Tedesco’s entertaining music documentary The Wrecking Crew, and he’s not talking about his fellow Beach Boys. Wilson’s praise is directed toward a loose aggregate of LA-based recording studio session musicians collectively known to insiders as “The Wrecking Crew.” In the burgeoning West Coast pop music scene of the early 1960s, these were the players that smart producers called in to lay down the basic groove under some of the best-known hit songs of the era.
Hot on the heels of recent behind-the-scenes showbiz docs like 20 Feet From Stardom and Muscle Shoals, Tedesco’s film continues the tradition of honoring these unsung heroes with the recognition they deserve. What Tedesco brings to the mix is his particular insider’s perspective. His father, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, was one of the key players—an imprecise number guesstimated as anywhere from 12 to 20 folks—on the producers’ A-list.
In the film, jovial, puckish Tommy Tedesco mentions the plight of the Wreckers as, “Guitar licks everybody recognizes, but nobody knows your name.” But Denny Tedesco knows, and his mission is to rescue them all from obscurity. He was smart enough to organize a round-table discussion with his dad and some of his cohorts sharing their memories, an informative anchor at the heart of the film that plays in counterpoint to plenty of tasty vintage footage of the Wreckers in the studio, laying down tracks for the stars their music supported—Sonny and Cher, The Mamas and the Papas, The Association, Frank and Nancy Sinatra, The Byrds, and The Righteous Brothers, for producers like Lou Adler, Phil Spector, and Snuff Garrett.
And their forte wasn’t only pop songs. Prized for their versatility within the genre (“The same guys were doing Nat ‘King’ Cole as did The Beach Boys,” says one observer), these studio musicians were also involved in some of the most popular and recognizable TV show themes of the day, from Bonanza (that’s Tommy Tedesco’s guitar) to Mission Impossible.
Session men like Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Herb Alpert (all providing commentary here) went on to find their own fame. But filmmaker Tedesco also celebrates lesser-known groove-masters like his dad, as well as the legendary Hal Blaine (who evidently played drums on every single song produced in the ’60s), uber pianist Don Randi, and Plas Johnson (who played sax on “The Pink Panther Theme” and flute on “Rockin’ Robin”), among many others.
But the most intriguing Wrecker, and the movie’s unofficial heroine, is bass guitar player Carol Kaye. As a woman in what was perceived as a male medium (although, she notes, a lot of women were playing jazz a decade earlier), herself the daughter of musicians, she got a gig playing back-up for Sam Cooke in 1957 and never looked back.
A merry woman with an infectious laugh (and a great look in the old footage, with her blonde hair and trademark big glasses), Kaye also had the chops for the work. It’s mentioned in passing that in her heyday she was supporting two kids and her mother. “Without a good bass line, the tune doesn’t pop,” says Plas Johnson. Like the downbeat to “The Beat Goes On,” which Kaye improvised on the spot, and which became the backbone of the song. “We learned how to play rock ’n’ roll right on the job,” she says.
It was demanding work. The movie is rife with anecdotes in which the Wreckers rise to the challenge of turning out four songs in three hours, or completing an album in a day. With the Wreckers, notes Roger McGuinn, The Byrds could cut a No. 1 record in three hours; when the group played by themselves, they might need “77 takes.”
The Monkees, famously pre-packaged for TV (a gig, says Micky Dolenz, that he always approached as an actor, not as a musician), were so lambasted for not playing their own instruments that the studio musician era declined as more new groups started to play their own music. Some of the Wreckers eventually made it into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. For the rest, they have Tedesco’s affectionate film.
THE WRECKING CREW
*** (out of four)
A film by Denny Tedesco. A Magnolia Pictures release. Rated PG. 95 minutes. Photo: Vintage footage abounds in new pop doc ‘The Wrecking Crew.’ Here, members of the Wrecking Crew sit in a recording session with producer Phil Spector.