Doug Thompson: DON’T MESS WITH THE WRECKING CREW!

Doug Thompson headshot

So, what project in your life has taken you the longest to complete?  Has anything you’ve really wanted to do ever taken you 18 years?  Most likely not, but that’s how long it took director Denny Tedesco to complete his documentary on a small group of musicians in Los Angeles who, from the late 1950’s through to the 1970’s, supplied the rhythm section (drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, percussion, saxophone) for hundreds, if not thousands of hit records.

The Crew at Work

Performers on their recording sessions ‘hit list’ include The Ronettes, Elvis Presley, The Righteous Brothers, John Lennon, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, Tommy Roe, Neil Diamond, Jan & Dean, the Carpenters, The Beach Boys, The Mamas & The Papas, Sonny & Cher, George Harrison, The Crystals, Duane Eddy, The Grassroots, Nilsson, Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, John Denver, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Johnny Rivers, Petula Clark, The Byrds, Bobby Vee, Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Glen Campbell, The 5th Dimension, America, Captain & Tennille, Dean Martin, The Partridge Family, Darlene Love, The First Edition (with Kenny Rogers) and yes, even The Monkees.  Whew, what an amazing and diverse list!

Denny Tedesco“The Wrecking Crew” is the name of the documentary.  It truly was a labour of love for Denny Tedesco.  His father Tommy Tedesco, originally from Niagara Falls, New York, was one of those session players.  Tedesco played on thousands of hit records, TV themes and movie scores.  If you remember the theme to “Bonanza”, the long running hit TV series from the 1960’s, you’ll hear Tommy on lead guitar.

Tommy TIn 1996, Tommy Tedesco was diagnosed with lung cancer.  Denny wanted to document his father’s amazing career before he passed away and filmed several ‘story sessions’ with Tommy and other members from the ‘crew’ as well. 

Why did it take so long for this documentary to be completed?  One very simple reason…money.  We’re talking about using selections from over a Kickstarterhundred major hits and that’s a whole lot of coin that includes paying the American Federation of Musicians Union, the publishers as well as the record companies.  Plus, Denny still had to edit the film, mix the soundtrack and many other costs.  Tedesco didn’t have that kind of cash (he’d already re-mortgaged his home a couple of times), so he did the next best thing.  He launched a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of $250,000.00  When the dust Herb Alperthad settled on December 21st, 2013, he had raised $313,157.00 from 4,245 subscribers (I’m proud to say I’m one of those donors).  Herb Alpert, whose Tijuana Brass were actually The Wrecking Crew (in the studio at least), donated a substantial amount.

The name “The Wrecking Crew’ came from drummer Hal Blaine, and while there is a bit of controversy over when it was first used, the origins come from Hal Blainethe time when the ‘old guard’ LA session players used to come to the various recording studios or sound stages dressed as if they were heading to the country club after the session (and they may well have been).  Once rock‘n’roll reared its loud decibels, a new, younger breed of player started showing up in jeans, t-shirts and beat up sneakers.  According to legend, one of the old guard commented, “These new guys are going to wreck the music industry”.

And a catchy name was born.

While the members of The Wrecking Crew changed over the years, their ranks included:

The Crew

Drums: Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner and Jeff Porcaro.

Guitars: Tommy Tedesco, Bill Aken, Al Casey, Billy Strange, Carol Kaye (the sole female member of The Wrecking Crew), Barney Kessel, Bill Pitman, Howard Roberts, James Burton, Glen Campbell, Jerry Cole, Ray Pohlman, Mike Deasy, Rene Hall, Don Peake, Ray Pohlman, Irv Rubins, Louis Shelton, Doug Bartenfeld, John Goldthwaite, Al Vescovo and P.F. Sloan (writer of “Eve of Destruction” among many others).

Bass: Joe Osborn, Bill Pitman, Ray Pohlman, Lyle Ritz, Chuck Berghofer, Jimmy Bond, Red Callender, Max Bennett and Carol Kaye.

Keyboards: Al De Lory, Don Randi, Larry Knechtel, Leon Russell, Mike Melvoin, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) and Mike Rubini. 

Percussion: Frank Capp, Gary Coleman, Sonny Bono, Gene Estes, Julius Wechter and Joe Porcaro (father of Steve, Mike and the late Jeff Porcaro, all studio musicians in their own right as well as members of the group Toto).

Saxophone: Steve Douglas, Plas Johnson, Nino Tempo, Jim Horn, Jay Migliori and Gene Cipriano.

Jack NOf course, we can’t forget about Jack Nitzsche, the man who arranged many of producer Phil Spector’s records and so many others.  Nitzsche had his own Top 40 instrumental hit in 1963 with “The Lonely Surfer”.  With Jackie DeShannon, Jack co-wrote “Needles And Pins” (which The Searchers took into the Top 20 in 1964).  A few years later, Nitzsche worked extensively with The Rolling Stones and Neil Young, beginning with Buffalo Springfield and extending on to playing keyboards with Young’s band, Crazy Horse in 1970.

In 1982, he married Buffy Sainte-Marie and that same year, won an Academy Award for co-writing the Joe Cocker/Jennifer Warnes # 1 hit “Up Where We Belong” from the motion picture “An Officer and A Gentleman” (Sainte-Marie and Nitzsche wrote the music, Will Jennings, the lyrics).  Nitzsche scored the rest of that film as well as many other motion pictures.

The Wrecking Crew were the actual musicians who played on such hit instrumentals as 1966’s “No Matter What Shape (Your Stomach’s In)”.  Producer Joe Saraceno listed the name on the record label as The T-Bones.  At the time, there was no such group, only The Wrecking Crew.

Same thing with The Routers (1962’s “Let’s Go” and ‘63’s “Sting Ray”) and The Marketts (‘62’s “Surfer’s Stomp”, ‘64’s “Out Of Limits” and ‘66’s “Batman Theme”.  The Marketts were initially Wrecking Crew members Earl Palmer, Tommy Tedesco, Plas Johnson and Rene Hall.  Sessions for The Routers or The Marketts included whatever Wrecking Crew players were available for that particular recording date.  The Wrecking Crew were so busy with recording sessions (sometimes up to six a day), that they couldn’t afford the time (or the cut in pay) to actually tour as these groups.  The success of The T-Bones, The Marketts and The Routers had producer Saraceno scrambling to find musicians to go on the road using those group names.

Phil SpectorI interviewed several members of The Wrecking Crew over the past 30 years, including Hal Blaine, Carole Kay, Nino Tempo, James Burton and Glen Campbell.  I recorded over 5 hours with Hal Blaine alone.  Hal even brought me along to a recording session he had later the day I interviewed him.  In discussing Phil Spector sessions, Hal told me Phil was a stickler for secrecy. “Everyone in town wanted a seat at a Phil Spector session, just to watch and learn the magic of Phil, but he usually turned those requests down, yet anyone walking the halls at Gold Star [Spector’s favourite LA recording studio] would get dragged into the control room by Philip himself.  Why?  Because he was a showman more than anything.  He loved an audience.”  And yes, Hal confirmed that Phil would occasionally Larry and Philwhip out his gun during a session.  This was re-confirmed in an interview I did with Spector’s long time recording engineer Larry Levine and confirmed yet again in a Leonard Cohen interview.  Now who in their right mind would pull a gun on Leonard Cohen?  I think I may have answered my own question there.

Here’s a video of the making of The Beach Boys “Good Vibrations”, although it isn’t quite accurate as both Hal Blaine and Carole Kaye told me that the many sessions actually took place over a six month period where only tiny sections of the entire song were recorded.  Brian Wilson edited the various pieces together and The Beach Boys added their vocals later.  It definitely wasn’t like you see it here.  Hal Blaine and his legendary drums are featured throughout this video.

Carole KayeCarol Kaye lived about an hour outside Los Angeles, but the drive to her home was well worth it.  I spent several hours with her and the stories “just kept on comin’”.  She’s a delightfully wonderful, generous lady with an incredible musical history.  Carol will be 80 in March and she’s still teaching future generations of bass and guitar players in person and on her videos.

Jimmy Page session playerNew York naturally enough, had its own version of The Wrecking Crew, as did Memphis, Nashville, Detroit (Motown’s Funk Brothers, the subject of the documentary “Standing In The Shadows of Motown”), Toronto, Vancouver and London.  In fact, for several years, a young British musician by the name of Jimmy Page was one of the ‘first-call’ session guitar players. 

There are a number of books on The Wrecking Crew that can be found on Amazon.  2010’s “Hal Blaine and The Wrecking Crew” by Hal Blaine and David Goggin is one.  Another is “The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best Kept Secret” by Kent Hartman, published in 2012.  Last year, Wrecking Crew member Bill Aken wrote his autobiography, “Carry Your Own Guitar: From Abandoned Child To Legendary Musician”.

Wrecking Crew Documentary“The Wrecking Crew” documentary has been lauded and awarded at many Film Festivals over the past few years.  I saw it and fell in love with it a couple of years ago, but director Denny Tedesco has added new interviews, more music and vintage footage so I’m looking forward to seeing the new ‘final cut’.

“The Wrecking Crew” is scheduled for release in theatres this March, but you can catch advance screenings of this amazing award winning documentary at Film Festivals across North America, including Vancouver and Toronto in February.  Check out “The Wrecking Crew” website for more info, screening dates and cities.  It’s well worth seeing, even if you’re not an old fart like me.

I HIGHLY recommend it

www.wreckingcrewfilm.com

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Doug’s column appears here every 4th Monday.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com.

DBAWIS_ButtonDoug Thompson has spent his entire adult life in broadcasting, both in Canada and the U.S. and has won 152 awards for his work.  He worked with Canadian actor John Candy for 17 years, writing and producing commercials, specials and several weekly radio programs.

Currently, he’s writing and producing the second season of a television program for the Hi Fi channel in Canada called “Hi Fi Salutes”, a series of short biographical documentaries on Canadian musicians, producers and record industry pioneers.  One of those programs recently won a Platinum Award at the World Film Festival in Houston.

5 Responses to “Doug Thompson: DON’T MESS WITH THE WRECKING CREW!”

  1. Peter Montreuil Says:

    Great, simply great!

  2. The late Jeff Porcaro… Not Steve… Steve is alive and well. The stories of his demise have been greatly exaggerated 😉

  3. John Hanford Says:

    Thanks, Doug – must have been a labor of love, alright.

  4. Minnie Aken Says:

    Excellent Article… But my husband Bill is always disappointed because nobody gives Ray Pohlman credit for starting the whole thing in 1957. Ray chose Bill, Al Casey, Barney Kessel, etc and formed the first small group of 7. Soon known as ‘The First Cal Gang.’ And it grew from there. Bill documented it all in his book.
    Other than that, it is an outstanding historical treatise.. Thank you so much for mentioning my husband’s book.

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