During the 1960s, a group of Los Angeles studio musicians, known as “The Wrecking Crew,” recorded hits for the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, Sonny and Cher, Jan & Dean, The Monkees, Mamas and Papas, Tijuana Brass, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Rivers — and they were Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Now, director Denny Tedesco’s documentary about these unseen players is finally coming to a theater near you.
~By Harvey Kubernik
The movie The Wrecking Crew from Magnolia Pictures, tells the story of the unsung musicians in the Hollywood area who provided the backbeat, the bottom and the swinging melody that drove many of the number one hits of the 1960s. The Rock Beat label is also issuing a companion album of Wrecking Crew veterans.
The film documents their music-making regional studio work in Hollywood inside the immortal recording facilities like Gold Star, Radio Recorders, RCA, Wally Heider, United Western, Columbia and Sunset Sound.
It’s a fun and moving tribute from Denny Tedesco to his father Tommy and to the music, the times and to the secret star-making machine who would be known as “The Wrecking Crew.”
National screenings in North America are slated for the last part of March and all April, including dates in states California, Arizona, Washington, Texas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Louisiana, and Tennessee as well as VOD and iTunes.
Denny Tedesco and his dedicated team interviewed: Al Casey, Al Jardine, Bill Pitman, Bones Howe, Brian Wilson, Carmie Tedesco, Carol Kaye, Cher, Chuck Berghofer, Dave Gold, Dick Clark, Don Randi, Earl Palmer, Gary Lewis, Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine, Herb Alpert, Jimmy Webb, Joe Osborn, Julius Wechter, Larry Levine, Leon Russell, Lou Adler, Lew McCreary, Micky Dolenz, Nancy Sinatra, Peter Tork, Plas Johnson, Roger McGuinn, Snuff Garrett, Stan Ross, and Tommy Tedesco.
“I started this project in 1995 when my father, Tommy was diagnosed with terminal cancer,” wrote Denny on his official Wrecking Crew website.
“I guess it was a way of me dealing with what was going in our lives and at the same time wanting to let the world know about what impact he and his friends made in musical history. I was so determined at first to actually say to in the interviews, ‘please say ‘Tommy’ instead of your dad.’ I really wanted to keep myself out of the picture but in the end, I came around and embraced it.
“The hard part was to telling the story of the ‘Wrecking Crew’ and at the same time telling my father’s story. Finally a friend mentioned to me that you really couldn’t tell one and not the other, so you might as well literally acknowledge it. Once we did that, it was easier and felt right. “You have to realize, these guys and Carol, the only woman, were at the top of their game at the right place and at the right time. They really don’t have much to complain about. My dad was thrilled to be able to make a living at guitar. To make a living at an instrument puts you in a small minority. But to record as many hits as they did, they were even part of a smaller minority. “So when years pass by and you still have your chops as a musician and you’re wondering why no one is calling, I think it takes its toll. Everyone has it in every career. Sometimes you last longer than others and some take it better than others. My father always said he was like a baseball player. You have your time in the minors, you make it to the majors and then you slowly move on out while the new guys come in. That’s how he broke in. It’s part of the cycle.”
“We created a lot of music that became renewable copyrights just by what we played.” Mike Melvoin told journalist, Kirk Silsbee earlier this century.
“Sometimes they’d put a lead sheet in front of you that just had a few basic chords, and we brought that stuff to life and made music out of it. Many times, people booked sessions and they didn’t have the faintest idea of what they wanted. The L.A. studios had the reputation of being able to interpret and create any kind of music and sounds that you wanted.”
“There was very little overdubbing done then,” engineer/producer Al Schmitt mentioned to me in a 2002 interview. “The nice thing about doing everything at one same time was that you knew exactly what it was going to sound like. When you started layering things you were never sure. Then a lot of experimenting came in and it took longer and longer to make records and the expenses went up and up.”
I’ve been writing about the Wrecking Crew and the Gold Star principals for over 40 years in articles long before it was fashionable.
When they first were booked into the studios around Hollywood, they really weren’t collectively referred to as the Wrecking Crew. They were known as Musician Local 47 members.
My 2014 book, Turn Up The Radio! Rock, Pop, and Roll In Los Angeles 1956-1972 (Santa Monica Press) devotes chapters to many involved in those landmark sonic creations.
“I did various recordings with the session musicians and the players later to be heralded as the Wrecking Crew,” added the recently departed but still omnipresent, Kim Fowley. “Al Casey was the real Duane Eddy. Tommy Tedesco. Aggressive on a Lee J. Cobb level during the filming of On the Waterfront. Carol Kaye was everybody’s favorite schoolteacher and big sister. Cher was everybody’s fantasy.
“Don Randi did not look down at you playing on rock ’n’ roll recordings, even though he was a jazz genius. Earl Palmer was a gentleman and very helpful to young producers. Glen Campbell wore alpaca sweaters and was very efficient. Hal Blaine would always come an hour early to set up, so no time would be wasted. Joe Osborn was a genius bassist from the Dale Hawkins band. Plas Johnson and Jackie Kelso were supportive to young musicians and new producers. And arranger H. B. Barnum. Extremely talented. He played piano on a record by the Robins and worked with singer Oma Heard, who I cut in my West Coast doo-wop period. Jack Nitzsche used to do my lead sheets for ten dollars on onion skin paper.”
“The thing that struck me most about the session players—I was amazed that grown men, smartly dressed in beach costumes, would be playing good rock ’n’ roll,” remarked musician/broadcaster/ and author Ian Whitcomb in my book.
“Because, in England, there was nobody who specialized in that. A mixed group in age and color. But what impressed me was here were adults playing rock ’n’ roll, and playing it well. It was like their first language. They were good musicians who could read music, but they could also play freely.
“I got in there as a neophyte, and there was this array of really smartly dressed, really slick men with fabulous haircuts and sideburns, all wearing velour and had tight trousers that were tapered down. Nothing like I had seen in England or the East Coast. Now it turned out, these were the members of what would later be called the Wrecking Crew.”
“Gold Star’s echo chamber gave it the wall of sound feel,” admitted Gold Star co-owner Stan Ross to me during a 2002 interview published in Goldmine magazine.
“Dave (Gold) built the equipment and echo chamber and personally hand-crafted the acoustical wall coating. We had so much fun with that echo chamber; it never sounded the same way twice. Gold Star brought a feeling, an emotional feeling. Gold Star was not a dead studio, but a live studio. The room was 30’ x 40’.
“It was all tubes,” he instructed. “When you have tubes, you have expansion and it doesn’t distort so easy. We kept tubes on longer than anyone else. Because we understood that when a kick drum kicks into a tube it’s not gonna distort. A tube can expand. The microphones with tubes were better than the ones without the tubes because if you don’t have a tube and you hit heavy, suddenly it breaks ups. But when you have a tube it’s warm and emotional. It gets bigger and it expands. It allows for the impulse. And, we didn’t use pop filters and wind screens, we got mouth noises. Isn’t that life?”
I recorded with the Wrecking Crew a handful of times during 1978. On one session I provided percussion and banged tambourine along with Rodney Bingenheimer and Phil Seymour on what many consider the very last time Phil Spector assembled the Wrecking Crew.
It was for a Paley Brothers’ recording track for “Baby, Let’s Stick Together,” cut at Gold Star that Larry Levine engineered.
Bingenheimer and I also hand clapped during tracking dates on the Spector-produced End of The Century Ramones’ album at Gold Star. In 2002 I penned the liner notes to a deluxe CD of End of The Century.
“I used to have a theory,” the late Larry Levine confided to me in 2002, “and I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but part of the reason we took so long in actually recording the songs was that Phil needed to tire out the musicians, or they got to the point where they were tired enough so they weren’t playing as individuals. But they would meld into the sound more that Phil had in his head.”
“I grew up going to Gold Star and Wrecking Crew recording sessions with my dad, Barney Kessel (guitar) and my stepmother B.J. Baker (vocal contractor/background singer), who were both on all kinds of records with the Wrecking Crew,” offered musician/producer and deejay, David Kessel.
“I was impressed as a kid how these guys could construct a record in the studio, and then I’d hear it on the radio. I had the privilege of growing up to be 2nd generation, playing on lots of records produced by Phil Spector. This includes recordings with John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Cher, Celine Dion, Darlene Love, Leonard Cohen, Dion, and the Ramones,” Kessel continued.
“What a complete profession thrill it was to work with the best of the best of musicians. The Wrecking Crew had a mixture of Rock and Jazz musicians that could almost read each other’s minds. This included Hal Blaine, Don Randi, Terry Gibbs, Tommy Tedesco, Don Peake, Jim Keltner, Frankie Capp, and host of greats.
“The Wrecking Crew were the best of the best, if you wanted a great record. I can hear my dad and Hal Blaine all over The Beach Boys Pet Sounds and hundreds of other records.
“A lot of the sessions I attended as a kid and started playing on as a teenager we’re done at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood. One funny thing really blew my mind. If anybody got a sexually transmitted issue (the story to the wife or girlfriend), was that they would always blame it on the bathroom at Gold Star. Which wasn’t true of course,” David laughed.
“It is with much positive emotion and appreciation, that I’m happy The Wrecking Crew movie, directed by Denny Tedesco is having a theatrical release. What a rare group of recording musicians.”
“We were doing a job,” admitted Hal Blaine. “We used to say: TTMAR. Take the money and run,” he joked. “Nobody knew how long it would last. The Wrecking Crew could lock in with anybody. When we finished we had to go out and do another session. I might have had two other gigs that day. Our job was making hit records and we loved it,” enthused Blaine.
“Larry Knechtel was on bass, and one of the great keyboardists. He played guitar, too. The guitarist Mike Deasy was a later day Wrecking Crew member. He was our mystical guru of guitar sounds when psychedelia entered the recording studio world,” noted Blaine.
“After being a member of both Kaleidoscope and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, I began working as a sideman for Linda Ronstadt, John Stewart and Hoyt Axton,” recollected instrumentalist/songwriter Chris Darrow.
“During this period I ended up doing a lot studio work in Hollywood and Los Angeles with Stewart and Axton as well as James Taylor, John Fahey and many others. As a member of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 47, I would have to call and see if the money from the sessions had come in. If so, I would drive to the office on Vine Street with copies of my W-2 forms and pick up the checks. Since I lived an hour away in Claremont, rush hour became an issue for me.
“One day I went to the Union and the check line was pretty short, so I was all ready to go visit a friend of mine until the traffic cleared. I was third in line and noticed that the person in front of me was the great drummer, Hal Blaine. The first guy in line picked up his check and was out in a flash. When it was Blaine’s turn, he pulled out a big stack of W-2s and laid them out on the counter. It took over 20 minutes for him to go through all the checks he was going to get that day. That’s how popular he was! I picked up my two checks and was out of there in no time.”
Bassist Chuck Berghoffer formerly worked with Shelley Manne and Pete Jolly. He’s featured on Nancy Sinatra’s signature tune “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ and heard on the Elvis Presley ’68 Comeback Special.
“Tommy Tedesco had the most common sense of anyone I ever met. Musically he could read and play anything. But he had the greatest attitude. He taught us all how to handle this stuff.
“In Jazz I play a lot more notes in four bars than I would all day long with the other stuff. Jazz was more of an improvisation thing where you kind of do your own thing. This stuff was very structured. You follow the exact tune and play the roots. No fancy stuff at all. Just laying down the bottom, playing the roots simple. Let the man sing. With jazz it’s a lot more open with solos.”
“If you ask me what I did to inform or benefit the records I would say you can make records but you can’t make records with any kind of feel unless the musicians are comfortable where they are in the rooms,” detailed engineer/record producer Bones Howe, a guiding force of the Radio Recorders, Wally Heider, and United/United Western studios to me in a 2012 interview. Howe, a drummer, came out to Hollywood in 1957 on the invite of Shelley Manne.
“When I did Ornette Coleman for Atlantic that Neshui Ertegin produced, they were so close to each other they could reach out and touch each other. Like they were on the bandstand at Shelley’s Manne-Hole. That was the format. And then use the directional qualities of the microphones and as little baffling as possible but sometimes between the bass and drums. Just to let it be free and let the music be in the air. Instead of people being all the way across the room from somebody.
“I tried to find the real things I loved about a song and enhanced them. It was percussive in nature. The bass part on the Association’s ‘Windy’ is partially percussion. A marimba in there. I’m sure the complex harmonies that ended up in the records that I made were all because of my jazz upbringing.
“One of the things I did was that I kept the musicians close together. It’s hard to play jazz if you are all the way across the room from somebody. That I think was the one thing that kind of singled me out. When I first started I played in a band. I understood that people had to be close. I figured out ways to use the directional qualities of the microphone so that I could have the horn players close to the rhythm section. I could have piano, bass and drums all close to each other. And that’s the way I did it,” dispersed Howe.
“So many recordings from the 1956 to 1972 time period had background vocalists as well. They were more than just coloring the recordings. Lead and background were really part of the records at the time. I mean all the group records I made were a lead and background. And the lead changed and so the background changed.
“When I was an engineer I was there to serve the producer and the music. I never lost touch of that. By the time they were done I could sing along with every record I made. I suppose what I did was that I did what I was told except I found ways to do it but I thought benefited the performance of the musicians in the studio.”
Guitarist Don Peake studied with Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts and Joe Pass. Peake then toured with the Everly Brothers during 1961-1963, and became a first call guitarist for Phil Spector, Brian Wilson Sonny Bono, Barry White and Freddie Perren-produced recording sessions.
In 1964, Don became the first white guitarist to play and record with Ray Charles. That stint lasted for ten years. Peake arranged “If I Were a Carpenter” for Bobby Darin and is the lead guitarist on Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”
Peake has arranged recording dates for Roy Orbison, Minnie Riperton, the Fifth Dimension and the Monkees.
“For the Monkees I hired Mike Deasy and Glen Campbell,” mentioned Peake. “I’m the guy who hired Glen to come in. I’m still not sure as to who played the beginning lead on ‘Mary, Mary.’ I don’t know if it was Glen or Mike Deasy. I think Jim Gordon was playing on some of those sessions.
“I had known Lester Sill, who helped put the music together for the Monkees, from years earlier, including playing on Phil Spector sessions,” he volunteered.
“I believe that’s the way it is in this industry, you know. There’s a kind of a continuum and it’s we’re all on this kind of string. And we’re the best of string that keeps the pearls that makes the necklace.
“On the Monkees’ dates I would sometime pick up a guitar and sometimes I would not. But I was always the guy standing up on the podium. I was the leader. And Mike Nesmith depended upon me to communicate in musical terms and on paper what he could not. I was thrilled to be doing it with him.
“My life as an arranger and player is easier when the tune is good,” concluded Peake. “And there were a lot of good tunes. Longevity has to do with the song. Yes, there are good performances and yes there are certain records where performance means a lot, but truly the thing that makes something memorable is the song. I had great fun on those sessions. I later played on the Jackson 5 records and then the Partridge Family.”
“I was a spectator on some of the Sonny and Cher sessions,” revealed the multi-instrumentalist and record producer Dan Kessel in Turn Up The Radio! “My dad doubled the bass on ‘The Beat Goes On’ for Sonny [Bono].
“Sonny and Cher would call my dad ‘the professor.’ He stood out from the mostly younger, California casual-dressed musicians. As a world-traveled jazz artist, with hipster-jazz beard and suits from Boshard-Doughty and Carroll and Co., he could easily pass for a Zurich psychiatrist.
“Many of the guys smoked a lot back then,” stressed Dan, “but Sonny chain smoked to the degree that he always kept two cigarettes in his hand—the one he was smoking, and the next one he would soon be lighting with the one he was currently smoking. It was like one long, continuous cigarette throughout the session.”
“I like to have all the musicians there at once,” Phil Spector explained to me in 1975 during an interview for the weekly Melody Maker. “The better the talent is around you, the better the people you have working with you. The more concerned, the better you’re gonna come off as a producer, like a teacher in a class. The musicians I have never outdo me. I’m not in competition with them. I’m in complete accord with them. You need the ability, so you hire the best. I have the creativity. I know what I want.
“When you see a Kubrick movie, you tell me how many names you immediately remember in the cast. One? Two? It’s the same with Fellini, and that’s what I wanted to do when I directed a recording. Singers are instruments. They are tools to be worked with,” implied Spector.
“Let me tell you a story,” Brian Wilson professed to me in a 2007 interview. “I went to Gold Star and asked Larry Levine, the engineer, ‘What is the secret of the Phil Spector echo trip?’ ‘Well, we have two echo chambers under the parking lot. Phil uses both the chambers at the same time.’
“So I tried that myself and it worked. I also Larry Levine what Phil Spector did with his basses. Larry said Phil uses a standup and a Fender both at the same time. And the Fender guy used a pick. So I tried it out at my session and it worked great! You also get a thicker sound putting the two basses together. I start with drums, bass, guitar and keyboards. Then we overdub the horns and the background voices.”
“I met piano player Don Randi around 1960 at a club on La Cienega,” recalled Jack Nitzsche. “He was cool. He looked like a beatnik. His hair was right. He had the attitude. He didn’t smile when he played.”
During 2014, I talked with Don Randi. For the last 45 years he’s been the proprietor of The Baked Potato club. Randi’s autobiography will be published in September by Hal Leonard.
“Most of the times when we did those studio jobs we were asked to be somebody else. We were cloned. You know, if somebody wanted Floyd Cramer you had to come out. If somebody wanted a more Ray Charles’ sound you had to come up with it. If somebody wanted more of a Phil Spector sound then I knew exactly what they wanted. Tommy Tedesco is the master guitarist of everybody who had the capability of whatever he was doing sound better than what you ever expected.
“And, as great as it was, we were making up parts half the time. With Jack [Nitzsche], Phil [Spector] was able to go to Jack and he would translate what Phil wanted. There was camaraderie. You got to remember we all were together. Jack Nitzsche, Phil Spector, myself and Sonny Bono, who Jack knew from the late ‘50s at Specialty Records,”
“You know what kills me, every time I hear Jack’s ‘The Lonely Surfer.’ I’m on it. It still gives me chills because it’s a great song. Jack wrote a great song. I didn’t hear it until the day we went in. You know, we never rehearsed. (laughs). The composition. I’ll tell you what gripped me was his brilliance. And the smart producers realized that and they would put together some combinations that actually forced that because they wanted that edginess.
“Jack and I never judged artists by their voices. To me it didn’t matter ‘cause I loved the music so much. And Neil was able to sell it. There are some people you can’t stand them on record until you see them live. And once you see them live you can understand their records. That doesn’t happen a lot. But it does happen,” Don maintained.
“You gotta remember, by 1967 some of the recording studios in town, like Columbia and Sunset Sound now had 8-track tape machines. When it happened I welcomed it but all I thought of at that point, ‘well the studios are gonna get rich now.’ Because nobody is gonna know how to mix this stuff.
“And when they mix it they’re gonna have to come down to mono because nobody has got stereos to play it on. And guys like Jack and Neil with 8-track now had more options and tracks to fill. But what makes me wonder how did Brian [Wilson] do it on 4-track?”
In March 2015, a companion book to Denny Tedesco’s film was published by Wreckling Crew LLC. Sound Explosion! Inside L.A.’s Studio Factory with the Wrecking Crew by Ken Sharp art design by Mark London and John Sellards.
Harvey Kubernik, a Los Angeles native, has been a music journalist for over 42 years and author of eight books on rock ‘n roll and popular culture