By Jeff Marcus
If you were asked to name the best bassists in rock music, Paul McCartney and John Entwistle would quickly come to mind. Ask for legendary rock guitarists and Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen would be uttered frequently. Seek the names of some great rock drummers and chances are you’d hear Keith Moon, John Bonham and Ringo Starr.
But if you browsed my list, you’ll find bassists Carol Kaye and Chuck Berghofer, guitarists Tommy Tedesco, Al Casey and Bill Pitman, and drummers Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer and Jim Gordon at the top. After scratching your head in puzzlement, I’d probably hear, “Who the hell are they?” as a common response.
Their names may be unfamiliar, but you’ve played air guitar, pencil-on-desk drums and hummed along to hundreds of classic hit records, commercial jingles and TV and movie themes from the late ’50s throughout the mid-’70s on which these and several other key session musicians performed. They are The Wrecking Crew.
These elite Los Angeles players were the “band” for countless acts, from Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley and The Ronettes. They were Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, as well as The Association, The Monkees and The Partridge Family. Initially, they were even The Byrds. Columbia Records executives deemed that band members David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Gene Clark and Mike Clarke were not polished enough to play on their No. 1 debut single “Mr. Tambourine Man,” so the record company called in the team of chart-busting L.A. session musicians. The only actual Byrds band member to play on the track was James McGuinn, who later changed his first name to Roger.
Whether it was Wayne Newton singing “Danke Schoen” or The Fifth Dimension inviting you to go “Up, Up And Away,” The Wrecking Crew, as it has come to be known, was the band that made the songs rock. They are the cats who caused Nancy Sinatra’s boots to walk. They are the band that you sing along with every Christmas when Alvin of the Chipmunks asks for a hula hoop.
The above-named Los Angeles session musicians, along with 45 to 50 others, including the string and horn sections, formed a versatile unit that played the role of the actual group on more hit records than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and several other classic rock acts combined.
During most of the mid-’60s, Beach Boys backing tracks didn’t feature any of the Beach Boys at all. It was Brian Wilson’s decision to experiment and push the music in another direction. That musical vision went beyond the scope of the actual band.
“And to do that, he enlisted the best of L.A.”, said Denny Tedesco, director of The Wrecking Crew documentary and the son of late session guitarist Tommy Tedesco. You may not be familiar with Tommy’s name, but you sure know his guitar licks. Be it the themes from TV’s “Bonanza,” “Batman” or “Green Acres,” to The Mamas and The Papas’ “California Dreamin’” or the legendary hits produced by Phil Spector and his stable of artists, Tommy and the other members of this group of musicians played on so many historic tracks, there is hardly enough space allowed to even begin a proper list.
The Wrecking Crew didn’t set out to conquer the world of rock and pop. Its members just fell into it; call it being in the right place at the right time. In the early days of rock and roll, New York City was the mecca for performers. But as rock music was for young people and a youth explosion was taking place in California where all of the youthful movies were being made, naturally, the musicians followed.
The Wrecking Crew’s core group of players came from a jazz background, and it served them well when they made the transition to rock and roll.
“And we were all starving,” keyboardist Don Randi said with a chuckle. “You could make more money playing rock and roll than jazz any day.”
But that jazz training did give these musicians the ability to improvise freely, which came in handy during the recording process.
“Very rarely did we have parts totally written out for us,” explained Randi, who began his professional recording career by playing on The Crystals’ hit “He’s A Rebel.” “We made our own parts, our own arrangements. By giving us the freedom, I think that’s where all the better records came from.”
Tommy Tedesco once lamented the difference between the musical composition and its performance.
“I’ve always said they put the notes on paper, but that’s not music,” he said. “You make the music with what you do with the notes. It’s what you put into it.”
While Blaine explained that musicians were simply in charge of producing their own parts, Kaye described the production experience as more of a communal event.
“Everyone donated lines. Like jazz players, we did it together,” Kaye said.
Brian Wilson credits Kaye, the lone woman who held her own in what was predominantly considered a man’s world at the time, with the success of classic tracks including “California Girls” and “Good Vibrations.” In 1957, Kaye was playing jazz guitar when she was asked to do studio work. One of her earliest rock dates was playing chord guitar for Ritchie Valens’ hit “La Bamba.”
“When I started to do the Ritchie Valens stuff, I missed playing bebop jazz. I started doing rock bass on guitar, and I just didn’t like it. But, he was so nice to be around, and he appreciated the studio guys. I thought if they were all like this, then I’m staying in the studio work.”
Five years later, a bass player failed to show up for a recording date at Capitol Records. It was then that Carol received the musical equivalent to a Willy Wonka golden ticket.
“Somebody there had a Fender bass, placed it in my lap and asked me to play it. During the guitar years, I was the fourth call on the list, not No. 1 like I got to be on the bass around 1964,” Kaye said.
Carol recalls how the bass players were relying on very simple lines. In her mind, though, the bass should be doing something else.
“Without a good bass line, the tune doesn’t pop. You know, it doesn’t snap like a big hit record,” Kaye said when describing her contribution to Sonny And Cher’s 1967 No. 6 hit, “The Beat Goes On.” According to Kaye, the original bass line “laid there like a dead dog.”
The previous era of session musicians — the suit-and-tie-set — were unwilling to experiment and felt that rock and roll was beneath them.
“We came in there with Levi’s, T-shirts and smoking cigarettes, and the older guys were saying that these kids are going to wreck the business,” Blaine recalls.
At the time, this new studio team wasn’t known by any specific name. Hal Blaine is repeatedly credited as hanging the moniker “Wrecking Crew” on the session group in later years, although it’s possible that the media latched on to it and it stuck.
Randi’s take on the name stems from the fact that “we were the biggest jokesters and pranksters, especially with producers. We respected them, but they would sometimes drive us crazy, and we’d get even. So, we were kind of like, we could wreck a date, so to speak. And that’s how it got started, I guess. Somebody said, jokingly, these guys are gonna wreck another date.”
Nobody who gravitates in this orbit can agree completely, nor is everyone thrilled with the name. It hardly matters. They could be called the International Silver String Submarine Band and that still wouldn’t alter the fact that these musicians contributed more to American popular culture than anyone else walking the planet.
Randi offers a fly on the wall perspective in describing what it was like to be in the studio at the time most of these songs were being recorded.
“We knew we were making great records, but a lot of the time when we went in, we had no idea what was going to happen in the end.”
It was common for musicians to lay down the tracks and singers to record their vocals to the arrangement at a later time. To the musicians who were there, it was simply a job. A Brian Wilson session may have paid the monthly mortgage. A Phil Spector date was a car payment. These players were so busy that they simply didn’t have time to analyze their work.
“We would record four songs in three hours,” Kaye recalls.
Most often, the musicians never heard the final product until they heard it on the radio. “The only record I remember that I knew was an instant hit that Brian Wilson did was ‘Help Me, Rhonda,’ Randi said. ‘He had that sucker down and knew exactly what he wanted.”
Depending on what the session required, members of The Wrecking Crew could switch from rock, pop, R&B, blues, Latin and jazz at the drop of a hat, which is precisely why the team was so busy.
“Nobody was in that room because they were a friend of someone else,” said Denny Tedesco. “They were there because they earned it. Back then, you didn’t have the technology to save your butt.”
While sex, drugs and rock and roll were the credo for many of the musical acts of the day, The Wrecking Crew proved to be the exception to the rule, at least as far as drugs were concerned.
“To clear up that myth, there were none,” Blaine said. He submits the body of work as proof, for to perform as many sessions as those session musicians did and stay on their “A” games, drugs were not a consideration. In the studio, time was money, and if you didn’t deliver, you didn’t come back.
“In the ’60s, nobody in the studio used drugs,” Kaye proclaimed. “We could cut a hit album in six hours.”
By the 1970s, it was a different story, and the end of an era.
“Then it took a month to cut an album,” Kaye said with a laugh.
For all of their accomplishments, the musicians of The Wrecking Crew were not credited on record covers or labels. For the most part, very few of them let on that receiving no name recognition for their efforts was an issue. There is one visual in Denny Tedesco’s documentary with sax legend Plas Johnson describing his contribution on 1962’s “Surfer’s Stomp,” released under the name The Mar-Kets, where his body language clearly shows that he was bothered by the fact that his name and likeness never appeared anywhere on the record. The record company enlisted a group of well-scrubbed teens that would appeal to white America and pose as the actual band once the song began to sell. By the way, if you ever whistled the theme to “The Pink Panther” or “The Odd Couple,” please give props to Mr. Johnson.
To this day, the majority of music fans have no idea what went on behind the scenes. Certainly, some of the talent that received the credit was embarrassed to come forward. Record companies feared that if the public knew the truth, they couldn’t sell the records. If, as a teenager, you picked up an album and saw a heavy-set guitarist who resembled comedian Lou Costello instead of a cuddly mop-top like Davy Jones, what would you think?
“When Brian Wilson let the cat out of the bag about 15 years ago that he used studio musicians, I have never seen so much hate mail in my life,” Kaye admitted. “The public couldn’t handle it. I have people e-mail me and say, ‘You played on my favorite hits. How dare you?’”
Often times, the Wrecking Crew’s pool of talent gave mediocre material a jolt of much-needed electricity. Without the assistance of players like Chuck Berghofer, who provides the double bass line that opens “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” the song wouldn’t be nearly as memorable. The same goes for the seven consecutive Top 10 hits of Gary Lewis and The Playboys. Session musicians were The Playboys on record, and songs like “Sure Gonna Miss Her” would be almost unlistenable if you took out Tommy Tedesco’s Latin-flavored guitar work. All that would be left is Gary’s nasal singing voice and lame lyrics like “I’m sure gonna miss her/He was walking with her/I’m sure gonna miss her/Yes, I am.”
While there was a difference in working styles with various producers, the end goal was always the same: Get the best production values possible. A producer such as Brian Wilson, who was a musician, as well, would do take after take until he got what he wanted. Someone like Snuff Garrett did not play an instrument and came from an era where he felt he was hired to make a hit in the most efficient way possible. Denny Tedesco stated that it didn’t matter if his father was working for Wilson or Garrett, because both producers felt that “if you hire the right people, you’ll be covered.” Denny Tedesco added that a producer such as Snuff Garrett wasn’t concerned if a musician or singer liked the song or not; he recalled Garrett telling him that “I didn’t make ‘Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves’ for your father or Cher.”
“Lou Adler and Snuff Garrett were more like company guys. They were more concerned with the budget. Phil Spector and Brain Wilson didn’t care about that.”
With a unit of session musicians that housed some 60-odd players, one thing is certain after examining the contracts that Denny Tedesco so graciously shared. There were 15 to 20 names that appeared on almost all of them. Besides Tommy Tedesco, Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Don Randi, Al Casey, Plas Johnson, Ray Pohlman, Bill Pitman and Larry Knechtel, who later joined Bread, there was one guitarist who became a household name: Glen Campbell. One of the busiest guitarists in the fold, Campbell worked on the iconic Phil Spector sessions, as well as with The Beach Boys. In fact, when Brian Wilson quit touring in 1964 and submerged himself in the studio, it was Glen that took his place on the road. When Campbell launched his successful singing career in 1967, it should be no surprise who he called to play on his sessions.
In reflecting back on his father’s work, Denny Tedesco shares a compliment that Campbell once gave his colleagues: “It was like you were playing with Michael Jordan. But I was playing with five Michael Jordans.”
The Wrecking Crew’s peak came in the late 1960s, particularly in 1967. By the early 1970s, it was the end of the era, Denny Tedesco said.
As FM album rock gained popularity and groups were playing their own music, the musicians of The Wrecking Crew were replaced by the next generation of players. Tommy Tedesco substituted records with TV and film work like “The Godfather,” “Jaws” and “Field of Dreams,” the gig that Denny Tedesco says made his father most proud. “When a composer like James Horner or John Williams was writing for him, there is no bigger high in life.”
In his later years, Tommy Tedesco gave seminars and wrote for a guitar magazine. In video footage during some of those seminars, Tommy Tedesco looked like a kid in a candy store. He died of lung cancer Nov., 10, 1997, at the age of 67.
For Blaine, who played on 39 No. 1 hits, the road after the glory days was a rocky one. Divorce forced him to sell his mansion, Rolls Royce, yacht and gold record awards. The man who is in the record books for playing on six consecutive Grammy winning Records of the Year, from 1966’s “A Taste Of Honey” for Herb Alpert to 1971’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” for Simon & Garfunkel, was reduced to taking a gig as a security guard in Scottsdale, Ariz. “It looked like the end of the line for me,” reflects Blaine, who also advises against giving up. “I wasn’t against manual labor. I guess I did what I had to do.”
Eventually, the phone began ringing again. “They couldn’t take my drum talents away from me. Little by little, I was back in the swing of things,” Blaine said.
For Kaye, 76, jazz has always been in her heart. If she didn’t have the responsibility for providing for a family and being away from her kids, Kaye would have been happy to leave the world of pop and rock music behind and join George Shearing’s jazz group.
Randi, now 74, still thinks that life is a highway. In addition to touring, which still includes gigs with his pal, Nancy Sinatra, he records music ranging from jazz to electronica.
When I asked Don when it came to an end for him, he answered me without hesitation. “It never did.”
Jeff Marcus is author of the two volume book series American Record Sleeves Volumes 1 & 2. Visit his site at www.recordsleevebooks.com