If you think — and want to continue to think — that Brian Wilson played that signature roller-rink organ on “California Girls,” read no further. If you've labored under the illusion that Karen Carpenter tapped out that delicate drum part on “Close to You,” or that Papa John Phillips strummed the sweeping intro to “California Dreamin',” prepare for a rude awakening.
On hundreds of hits from the late 1950s through the mid-'70s by acts such as The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, Elvis Presley, Harry Nilsson, The Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, The Carpenters, The Ronettes, Simon and Garfunkel, Frank and Nancy Sinatra and many, many more, the backing band was a group of faceless studio musicians.
The jazz-trained instrumentalists were L.A.'s first-call players for pop, TV and movie work. They were the consummate pros, the fixers, the one-takers, the guys (and gal) behind the guys.
They were the Wrecking Crew.
Back when L.A.'s recording scene was a hit-minting machine that ruled the airwaves, they worked up to four three-hour sessions a day. Some say they slept in the studio. Huge money was made. Family lives suffered. Marriages crumbled.
Yet they clocked in and out, somehow always sounding inspired for the big names and pretty faces on the record covers, creating what has become the soundtrack to two decades of American life.
But who were these deft, anonymous masters?
Director Denny Tedesco tackles that question with The Wrecking Crew, a heartfelt, engrossing documentary 19 years in the making, which finally sees theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles on March 13. It joins the formidable ranks of behind-the-scenes music docs including Muscle Shoals, Standing in the Shadows of Motown and 20 Feet From Stardom, and it's a story Tedesco is singularly qualified to helm.
His late father, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, was one of the core members of that integral session group, and a man whose sense of humor was as big as his six-string talent. The guitar intros to TV's The Twilight Zone, Green Acres, Bonanza, M*A*S*H and Batman? That's Tommy.
Tommy Tedesco, originally from Niagara Falls, N.Y., succumbed to cancer in 1997 after a decades-long, three-pack-a-day smoking habit. His illness was the catalyst for the documentary.
“When they said he had a year to live, my concern was, if I don't do it, it's going to be the biggest regret of my life,” says Denny, who had worked in Hollywood as a grip and set decorator but, in terms of directing, “had no idea” what he was doing. “It wasn't going to be just about my dad; it was going to be about the group of them.”
“Them” is a bit tough to define. It was not “a set group of musicians,” Tedesco explains. Depending on who you talk to, it's “15, 20, 35 players,” but the core group included the bassist extraordinaire Carol Kaye, drummers Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, guitarists Al Casey, Tommy Tedesco and Glen Campbell (later of “Rhinestone Cowboy” fame), keyboardists Don Randi and Leon Russell and sax player Plas Johnson.
Tedesco began shooting in 1996, embarking on a job that would see him interview 76 musicians, producers, writers, arrangers and engineers; 29 made the final cut. He shot “on 16mm film, 8mm, 3/4[-inch] tape and Beta tape,” he says. “Everything but IMAX.”
He went into debt. His wife, Susie, footed the family bills. Friends donated. He used Kickstarter. His biggest financial hurdle was licensing 110 songs, including some of the biggest hits known to man.
“We had a $750,000 bill before we could even release this film theatrically,” Tedesco explains, “so no one was touching us. We still had this thing around our neck. Documentaries don't sell, and music docs are the worst.”
Interviews and images were available but archival film, not so much. There's likely more footage of Bigfoot sashaying through the woods than there is of the Crew actually playing sessions. In fact, film of the group would be nonexistent were it not for Hal Blaine.
Blaine, now 86, started drumming behind strippers in mob-run Chicago clubs in the late 1940s. In the studios of L.A., he played on 40 No. 1 singles and 150 Top 10 cuts. He supplied the beat behind eight Record of the Year Grammys and was the rock in Phil Spector's Wall of Sound.
Think of the Ronettes' “Be My Baby.” Boom. Boom-Boom. Crack. Boom. Boom-Boom. Crack. That's Hal Blaine.
He retired to Palm Desert years ago, to a nice pad in a gated community. You approach the house and hear a dog growling and barking. You see pictures of a Doberman taped in the window by the front door. It opens, and there's Hal. No Doberman, however.
“That's Otto,” Blaine says, pointing to a speaker in the entry hall. He shuts it off and chuckles.
As to that rare Crew footage…
“Somehow I got hold of an 8mm silent pornographic film,” explains the most prolific studio drummer in history. “It was a nasty, filthy thing. Probably was done some time in the '20s or '30s.
“I had a camera, and I took it to work and I became a director of sorts. And I'd tell people like Tommy, 'Hey, Tom, do me a favor. I'm gonna take a film of you. Just come walking into the studio, and all of a sudden pretend you've walked into a great big orgy going on here. There's all these naked women and guys.' And we're laughing about it. I did that with Glen Campbell, all the guys. They were happy to do it. I stayed up all night and edited it together. When Denny needed some film footage, I thought of this ridiculous thing.”
Unlike their strictly-business predecessors of the '40s and '50s, the Wrecking Crew were cooler, hipper, downright casual.
“They looked down on us and this filthy new rock & roll. We were in Levis and T-shirts. These older guys in their ties and blue blazers, carrying around their little ashtrays, said, 'These kids are going to wreck the business,'” recalls Blaine, who takes credit for coining the moniker Wrecking Crew.
Carol Kaye reportedly disputes the name, insisting that, back in the day, they were called the Clique.
Don Randi has a slightly different take as well. “We were [called] the Wall of Sound. We started with Spector,” says the affable keyboard titan. You may recall the holy keyboard pulse on a little Beach Boys number called “God Only Knows.” That's Don Randi.
“The Wrecking Crew came later on. It's an iconic phrase and people love it. But people would call us the Wrecking Crew because we could wreck a [session]. If you were a stupid producer, we could take you on a ride that you'll never forget,” Randi says.
Whatever you want to call them, the group's musical contributions are indelible, and Tedesco's film is a long-overdue homage that puts these familiar strangers into perspective.
“It's important,” Randi says. “It's almost a piece of history. It's a time that won't be repeated again because the technology has taken all of that away, that liveness that we had. Although now some of the bands are starting to come back to it again. You know, let's all get in a room and kill one another.”
“You're only as good as your last hit,” Blaine says, “and no one had more hits than we did.”
For more information on where you can see The Wrecking Crew, visit www.wreckingcrewfilm.com.