The studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew at a session for producer Phil Spector. (Courtesy: The Wrecking Crew)
Throughout the 1960s, the recording studios of Los Angeles were churning out hits like clockwork. Everyone knew the vocalists, but not the musicians who played on the tracks. They were hired guns, one-take wonders, unflappable professionals.
Filmmaker Denny Tedesco’s late father, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, was a major part of The Crew, and is a major part of his son’s newly released documentary, "The Wrecking Crew," a film nearly 20 years in the making that reveals the men — and one woman — behind the big names on the record covers.
Director Tedesco says he started his project in 1996 after his father, a notorious three-pack-a-day smoker, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“When they said he had a year to live -- and I always wanted to do this story about The Wrecking Crew -- my concern was, if I don’t do it, it’s going to be the biggest regret of my life,” says Tedesco.
He began what would be years of interviews, hunting down archival photos and searching out extremely rare footage of the group actually in the studio.
“When it came to moving pictures, no one had it,” says Tedesco. “It’s like, if you were working at General Motors, why would you bring a camera to work? Same with these guys. It was work to them.”
He did finally discover a home movie a musician had made of the group, footage the player had edited into a porn film from the 1930s as a joke. Tedesco jumped on it.
The 19-year production schedule was a result of the first-time director’s do-it-yourself business plan, sustained on friends' donations, Kickstarter funds and his own wallet. The biggest hurdle was the cost of licensing 110 songs. Hit songs. Big hit songs, and that’s not cheap.
“We had a $750,000 bill before we could even release this film [theatrically],” says Tedesco, 53, who had screened a version to great acclaim at SXSW in 2008. “No one was touching us. We still had this thing around our neck. Documentaries don’t sell. Music docs are the worst.”
Though helming the film has brought him deep into the world of his father, as a kid Tedesco had no idea his old man was playing on the soundtrack of a generation.
“Dad just went to work like every other dad,” he explains. “I never saw my dad play guitar at home until ’75 or ’76, when he started doing his own jazz stuff. ’Cause if dad went to work, he was working 12, 14 hours a day, he’s coming home, never saw him turn on the radio, never saw him turn on music, never picked up a guitar. He didn’t have to practice. You know what I mean?”
The mainly jazz-trained group, which had up to 35 musicians at any one time, included names like future star Glen Campbell on guitar, bassist Carol Kaye (the only female member in this macho bunch) and keyboardist Leon Russell. The backbone was drummer Hal Blaine. If you know the iconic kick drum-snare intro to The Ronettes’ classic “Be My Baby,” you know Blaine.
“I just started contracting because people wanted me,” Blaine, 86, recalls. "We want the drummer that did ‘Be My Baby.’ "
The embryonic rock that Blaine and the others were hired to play was not exactly challenging.
“Everything that we did, rock 'n’ roll-wise, was absolutely childish,” says the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. “You had to play like you did the first time you ever picked up your drumsticks. … You wanted to make the rock 'n’ roll sound like the kids' rock 'n’ roll, but because of our expertise it really made it solid, made it great. We were at the right place at the right time with the right music, and the world jumped on this rock 'n’ roll genre.”
Accounts vary, but Blaine says the name “Wrecking Crew” evolved from older studio musicians' contempt for this raw new music and the casual attitude of these modern players.
“They were all classically trained, some of the greatest musicians in Hollywood,” Blaine explains. “They really looked down their noses on us and this terrible, new filthy rock and roll. And it really wasn’t filthy. It was a whole new thing that these guys thought was going to wreck the business.”
Some of The Crew’s best-known work was for Brian Wilson on hits like “Good Vibrations,” “California Girls,” and the landmark "Pet Sounds" album. Keyboardist Don Randi’s playing was all over the Beach Boys’ tunes.
“Brian, you knew he was making a hit but you didn’t know really a lot of times what it was, except one time. It was the song ‘Help Me, Rhonda.’ And we played it through one time, and as we started it the second time, I said, ‘Holy shit, this is a stone-cold hit!’ ”
Randi -- whose daughter, Leah Randi, has played bass with Pink -- offers some advice on what it took to cut it as a session player.
“Not having an ego would be the first thing,” he offers. “And being able to come up with what they want, even when they don’t know what they want. When we did ‘A Little Less Conversation’ with Elvis, that whole arrangement was done on the bandstand.”
Though the music wasn’t particularly challenging for a skilled musician like Randi, it wasn’t without impact.
“I still get the biggest kick out of listening to the radio and sometimes there’ll be five or six in a row, that’s me playing piano, you know? And I enjoyed it. I love the music. I had a great time. A lot of the guys couldn’t stand the music, but I’m proud of it.”
Advanced home studios and a changing music industry effectively ended the glory days of the studio session kings. By the ’80s, the members of the Wrecking Crew had gone their separate ways.
Randi and a small handful of them still work for hire. Hal Blaine retired to the California desert, and many of the group have died. But Denny Tedesco's film ensures that these people you heard, but never knew, won’t be forgotten.
THE WRECKING CREW opens in Los Angeles, Orange County, New York and additional regional cities on March 13. The film will also be available on VOD and iTunes.