By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Most of the music you will ever hear will be played by people you will never see and whose names you will neither know nor think to ask. It will be recorded in windowless rooms, witnessed sometimes only by an engineer or producer, the now-ancient technology of the overdub making the presence even of other musicians unnecessary. For every superstar singer or guitar heroine whose name adorns a T-shirt or tattoo, there are hundreds whose work is done anonymously, or as good as. Who play their part, collect their pay and go home.
One day 15 years ago, I drove out to the Valley to interview Tommy Tedesco. Tedesco, who died in 1997, was a Hollywood session musician, a professional guitarist, a player in fact of nearly any plucked string instrument he could tune like a guitar. His near-complete obscurity among the public — that is, everyone apart from his peers, his students at the Guitar Institute of Technology, readers of his “Studio Log” in Guitar Player magazine and the credit-rooting scholar-nerds of ’60s pop — was in inverse relation to his actual profile in popular music. We walked into his kitchen at one point; a radio was playing “A Taste of Honey” by the Tijuana Brass. “That’s a record I was on,” he said nonchalantly. The odds were good he could have said the same thing had we walked in five or 15 minutes later. Tedesco also played on “Good Vibrations,” “Strangers in the Night,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” Lumpy Gravyand “MacArthur Park,” and on the soundtracks of The Godfather, MASH and Bonnie and Clyde, among uncountable other tracks, songs, dates, jingles and sides — more than he could, or would want to, remember. “I am whatever the part calls for,” he told me. “If it’s a raucous thing, I’m raucous; if it’s a rock & roll 15-year-old, I’m there, in my body, turned into whatever. When I play banjo, I really feel banjo licks; when I play mandolin, it’s going to be just exactly the feeling you’re gonna want to hear.”
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Opting for high-paid anonymous studio work over the flashier rewards of the spotlight, Tedesco had been a mainstay of the loose but exclusive company of L.A. players who would latterly be known, in drummer Hal Blaine’s formulation, as the Wrecking Crew. They would dominate local pop productions for a golden decade, lending their talents to untold thousands of “sides” and helping create the signature sounds of such Top 40 auteurs as Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Lee Hazelwood and Jimmy Webb — sounds that continue to cycle through a musical culture informed by nostalgia and sampling, wherein all music past is eternally present. These players built their careers on an ability to be both extraordinarily present and completely invisible — an ability appropriate to the making of music, the most ethereal art. (It is made literally of air.) They had their triple scale, and were content.
“Studio musicians were not interested in becoming ‘stars,’” bassist Carol Kaye, one of the few women to be part of this world, writes on her Web site. “We were part of the process in business to make people into ‘stars.’” And yet something beats within the American breast that finds such modesty . . . suspicious, tragic, even perverse — that demands credit where credit is due, longs to hear the unsung hero sung, the secret identity revealed. We like this story almost as much as the one about being rich and famous before turning 20. Surely the success of the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, like The Buena Vista Social Club before it, has something to do with this feel-good narrative of belated recognition. (And like the musicians of The Buena Vista Social Club, Motown’s Funk Brothers have taken their newfound fame on the road.) Carol Kaye has a Web site, after all, as do Blaine and such other former associates as guitarists Billy Strange and Mike Deasy, harmonica player Tommy Morgan, pianist Mike Melvoin and bassist Joe Osborn. They have finally taken it upon themselves to let the world know who they are and what they have done. So we are here, as James Brown famously said, “to give the drummers some” — and the bassists, and guitarists, and piano players of the L.A. studios, and all those superanonymous string and brass players whose credits are beyond the interest of even the most avid pop trainspotters. And who are, unfortunately, too numerous to mention.
The Wrecking Crew compose, of course, merely a chapter in an ongoing tale that properly begins 127 years ago, in a laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where young Tom Edison first recorded sound — making possible record hops, jukeboxes, Alan Freed, Clive Davis and the international fame of the Shaggs. Until then, the only way to hear music was to be present where it was being made. A single performance, inscribed in wax and reproduced ad infinitum, could travel through not only space but time, and be everywhere present with godlike simultaneity. On the one hand, this was good, opening up new avenues of exchange and influence. But at the same time it meant that a few players might stand in for many; it created a kind of musical elite, a new breed of highly skilled, faceless artisan — the session musician, studio musician or “yo cat” — working largely in the few big cities where the record business and the parallel, intertwining technologies of radio, television and film were based.