We are in the middle of an embarrassment of riches when it comes to music documentaries. In the fine tradition of shining the spotlight on the unsung heroes of the music business (think “Twenty Feet From Stardom”), a new documentary reveals the history and personalities of the musicians behind some of the most classic rock tracks to appear at the top of the charts and across the airwaves.
The Wrecking Crew was a group of studio musicians who were the backbone of an almost unimaginable number of songs. No one can decide exactly how many members passed through the Wrecking Crew, but their skills drove hits by The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Nancy Sinatra, Sonny & Cher, The Monkees, The Association, Mamas and Papas, Nat “King” Cole, Elvis Presley, The Fifth Dimension, The Righteous Brothers and myriad others. Indeed, for six years in a row in the 60s and 70s the Grammy Record of the Year went to a Wrecking Crew recording.
The film essentially opens with the classic American origin story of westward migration, in this case session musicians from NYC. With the burgeoning Los Angeles music and film scene in the 60s, folks were ‘Californian by birth or option.’
Jimmy Webb speaks of the dreamy, perfumed air and the night blooming jasmine.
Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, Cher, Lou Adler, Nancy Sinatra, Dick Clark, Herb Alpert, Franks Zappa and a bounty of others provide insight into the major contributions of Crew members like bassist Carole Kaye, drummer Hal Blaine, drummer Earl Palmer, guitarist Bill Pittman, pianist Don Randi and guitarist Tommy Tedesco (whose son Denny produced the film). Tommy was hired into a band based in Niagara Falls, but quickly moved back to California. When he died, all the newscasters led with the irony that everyone has heard Tedesco, but no one knew his name.
With the Beach Boys at the forefront of the scene, Brian Wilson takes the lead in recording with the superb musicians comprising the Wrecking Crew, while the band is off touring. “Pet Sounds” is justifiably pegged as the hallmark of the era.
Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound was built by the Wrecking Crew. His suspicions ensured the same cast of musicians (and the same studio, brand of recording tape, etc.) were used consistently.
The film is chock full of great stories. One is a delightful tale of being hired by Disney Studios to play ‘one of your rock and roll songs’ as the house musicians in their blue blazers would not deign to perform the track. Later, Nancy Sinatra tells how her Dad finished a recording session with his musicians, and then she came in with the Wrecking Crew to record “Something Stupid” with him, becoming his first #1 hit. Herb Alpert hired a few of the musicians as scabs for “The Lonely Bull.” When it topped the charts, Alpert went to the musician’s union, confessed, paid the fine and sent full scale payments to the musicians. Roger McGuinn describes the recording of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and how they knocked out two tracks in three hours with the Wrecking Crew (he was the only Byrd on those recordings, having been a studio musician in NYC), but when the rest of the Byrds (including David Crosby and Chris Hillman) recorded together it was 77 takes before they finally finished “Turn Turn Turn.”
Each of the Wrecking Crew members talks about the 24/7 nature of playing back to back sessions, and the risk of saying no to a gig. But as their stature grew, many producers would delay a session until Crew members were available.
Glen Campbell (himself the subject of a tremendous recent documentary “I’ll Be Me”) describes his excitement about becoming a singing star after years in the shadows, and bringing along the Wrecking Crew for his recordings.
The Wrecking Crew members acknowledge that the times shifted with the rise of self-contained bands like Buffalo Springfield, which eschewed outside performers. The epic shift from hit singles to albums augured the bursting of the bubble. Tedesco was one who was able to slide seamlessly into TV and film work, recording on dozens of projects.
Others were not so fortunate. After having played on seven Grammy Records of the Year, on a present day driving tour of Los Angeles past the locations of various recording studios Hal Blaine describes how he went from a mansion and a Rolls Royce to a divorce and a security guard job in Arizona. His induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame clearly eased the pain.
Anyone with an awareness of these songs and a curiosity about how effectively they were made will dive deeply into this documentary. Of course, the soundtrack can’t be beat.