Music to My Ears

The Wrecking Crew: The Legends Behind the Hits

Issue 135

In 1966 Sonny and Cher were recording a song with Los Angeles session players. The bass player, Carol Kaye, related that she was on the session and was shown the song, which she considered a dud. Knowing it needed a hook, she wrote this bass line.

 

With Kaye’s help “The Beat Goes On” was released as a single, hitting No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1967. Brian Wilson once claimed that Carol Kaye was the best bass player in the world.

Before 1955 the recording industry was dominated by studios based in New York. There was jazz recording going on in Los Angeles, country in Nashville, blues and R&B in Chicago, and Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis was living the rockabilly dream. However, New York was the dominant scene in 1955. Stax, Motown, and Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals were but dreams in the minds of extraordinary men and women.

The period of 1957 to 1960 saw the dreamers wake up. Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton solidified Stax from its origins as Satellite Records as the Memphis/Southern soul music center. Berry Gordy bought a house in Detroit, named it Hitsville and started Motown. Jim Hall gathered some high school kids from a sleepy town called Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to start Fame Records, and Sam Phillips had sold Elvis Presley’s contract to Colonel Tom Parker for $40,000 so he could invest in other artists.

Not a great plan, but good for him.

New York music producers began turning their attention away from the buttoned-down record machines to these new formats that were creating the flexibility and muscle feeding the rock and roll explosion.

Also moving in that direction was a small group of LA session musicians including Barney Kessel, Ray Pohlman, Earl Palmer, and Hal Blaine among others. Blaine remembers in his 1990 memoir Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew that the suit and tie set of musicians in the LA sessions at the time claimed these guys were going to wreck the recording industry with this rock and roll music which could not last.  The moniker “the Wrecking Crew” was born sometime in the 1960s, but group names like “the Clique” and the “First Call Group” are also remembered by surviving members of this iconic and largely unknown group of session players. We’ll just refer to them as the Wrecking Crew or the Crew for ease here.

 

The great Carol Kaye on bass.

The great Carol Kaye on bass.

 

By contrast to the Crew, Motown, Stax and Muscle Shoals had relatively finite groups and set of players. Ask any member of the Wrecking Crew how many players there were during this time and the answer will vary from 10 or 12 to 30.

The hits that came out of Stax, Motown and Fame were staggering and got a lot of attention from New York producers like Jerry Wexler. I would however venture that what happened in LA in less than a decade defies belief.

Interviews with people like Dick Clark about this period state that no one knew who these players were on all those hit records. We didn’t know but didn’t much care. Growing up in this period, I personally never believed that all these groups like Sonny and Cher, the Association, the Everly Brothers, the Righteous Brothers and all those Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” groups like the Crystals and Ronettes were playing their own music. As we later found out, what we did not realize was that each of those back-up groups on all those records were one shifting menagerie of players who recorded all of it. Take a deep breath and let’s dive in.

 

The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds set a bar for rock and roll that inspired the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Brian Wilson had arranged to have the Crew play all the band’s parts while the boys were touring. The other members of the Beach Boys were miffed when they found this out, but after watching some sessions, realized these Crew members were a highly efficient machine that could get done in a day what would have taken them weeks. Lee Sklar, a momentary member of this crew, estimates he has played on 2,500 albums over 50 years. Dig that math. That is 50 albums a year and he spent most of his time touring! Drummer Earl Palmer related that the Crew could do an album a day – and often had to.

Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Monkees, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, the Byrds’ first single, “Mr Tambourine Man,” Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, the Fifth Dimension, Dean Martin, Petula Clark and Johnny Rivers, except for vocals, all Crew. They backed up Ike and Tina Turner, Jan and Dean, Ricky Nelson, the Mamas and the Papas, Frank Sinatra on “Strangers in the Night” and Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s “Somethin’ Stupid.”

 

Of the 20 or so players who loosely were members of the Crew, a few were central, and some even went on to illustrious careers of their own. Two remarkable examples were Glen Campbell and Leon Russell. There is a documentary, The Wrecking Crew, which, if you are interested, tells many of the stories that I won’t spoil by relating them here. But to hear Glen, Leon and Cher reminiscence about each other and other crew members is historic and fun.

I will speak to a few of the moments that stand out, while noting that all these guys and gals were remarkable and important on their own. First up, the drummers.

Hal Blaine

Born Simon Belsky in 1928 in Holyoke, MA, his family moved to my old stomping grounds of Hartford, CT, (pronounced Hahtfed) and then to California, where Blaine studied drums with Roy Knapp and started playing the big band and jazz circuits around the country with the likes of Count Basie, Patti Page and Tommy Sands, where he perfected his sight-reading skills.

 

Hal Blaine.

Hal Blaine.

 

By the late 1950s he’d given up touring and settled into session work. He particularly enjoyed playing the rock and roll of the period and became a fixture in Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” sessions, sometimes involving more than a dozen musicians. Brian Wilson relates that the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” was the perfect pop song, and forced him to pull his car over to the side of the road when he first heard it. There is that famous stop in the end where Blaine pops out the count with a snare on 4 that he claims was a mistake, but Spector left it in.

Blaine played on an estimated 140 Top Ten records and 40 No 1 hits. His work included movie and television sound tracks as well as some of the most remembered rock songs from the period.

 

Earl Palmer

He was born in New Orleans and started as a tap dancer in his mother’s vaudeville act. He served in World War II and after the War, picked up drums and percussion. While still in New Orleans he backed up acts like Fats Domino and Professor Longhair, and played on a lot of Little Richard’s hits. In 1957 he moved to LA and began an incredibly busy career in session work.

Besides his work with the Crew, he played on movie soundtracks as eclectic as Judgement at Nuremberg, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Cool Hand Luke, In the Heat of the Night, Robin and the 7 Hoods and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. To name a few television credits: The Flintstones, 77 Sunset Strip, I Dream of Jeannie, Peyton Place, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Green Acres, Mission Impossible, M*A*S*H and Ironside. Crazy, because you know he played on many more duds than hits.

Palmer’s career continued into the ’70s and ’80s playing for folks like Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat and Elvis Costello.

The man credited with coining the term “funky” died in 2008, but not before becoming one of the first session players to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Some of the others…

Ray Pohlman – Bass

Pohlman was an early member of the Wrecking Crew and probably the first rock bass player of whatever this group was. He played both upright and electric. His list of artists he backed up is as nuts as the rest of the Crew’s and includes Ann-Margret, Pat Boone, Leonard Cohen, Sam Cooke, Doris Day, Duane Eddy, Merle Haggard, Emmy Lou Harris, Willy Nelson, Bette Midler, Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Turtles among others. Phew.

Carol Kaye – Bass

Kaye is my personal favorite member and a big influence of mine. Her impact was enormous and she was well-known as a player that could take a dull track like “The Beat Goes On” and give it the hook for a hit.

Kaye started as a guitar player doing session work for a living. She was a single mom and the session schedule allowed her to be home in the evening. This is remarkable considering it was a vastly male-dominated industry at the time. She had to have been tough to survive in that environment. Kaye took over on bass on a session when the bass player didn’t show, and because her ear was always listening to the bass anyway, she settled right in on the instrument.

Think about what this next song would be like without the bass part in the beginning and then driving the chorus. Kaye says Brian Wilson wrote the bass part, which I believe, but Kaye gave it life. And that’s Hal Blaine providing counterpoint with the syncopated drum part before the choruses.

 

Paul McCartney has stated that his bass parts on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band were inspired by Kaye’s bass playing on Pet Sounds. Quincy Jones said in his autobiography Q that “women like bass player Carol Kaye could do anything and leave the men in the dust.” Dr. John noted, “she’s a sweetheart as well as a kick-ass bass player.”

A few of her credits: Buffalo Springfield’s debut album, Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin,” “Batman Theme” by the Marketts, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” by Simon and Garfunkel, Richie Valens’ “La Bamba,” and amazingly, Freak Out! by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.

Plas Johnson – Sax

Born and raised in Louisiana, at the age of 24 Plas moved to LA and settled into session work after backing bands like B.B. King and Johnny Otis.

Besides his session work with the Crew, he played in Henry Mancini’s band in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Mancini was doing an insane amount of television, pop and movie recordings. Mancini wrote the iconic sax part in the Pink Panther Theme specifically with Johnson in mind. I know as you read that, the sax solo started in your head. I know it.

In addition, Johnson played on sessions with Marvin Gaye, Dr. John, Maria Muldaur, Ry Cooder, Rita Coolidge, Boz Scaggs, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, Tom Waits, Benny Carter, Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli and others.

 

Tommy Tedesco – Guitar

Tommy Tedesco was a talented character named by Guitar Player magazine as the most recorded guitar player in history. Born in Niagara Falls, he always wanted to make a living playing guitar but knew that was not going to happen in Buffalo. In the late 1950s he moved his family to LA.

Tedesco had played as a sideman long enough that his grasp of the instrument and remarkable sight-reading skills got him work immediately. Some of the stories surrounding this guy are wonderful. Glen Campbell relates that he was on a Jan and Dean session with him when the track started and Tedesco started playing this weird succession of notes completely unrelated to the work at hand. Jan Berry, who was producing the session, went up to Tedesco and asked him what the hell he was doing. Tedesco had the sheet music upside down, and as a joke started playing it that way. As Campbell said, “he was a cutup.”  But think about that as a sight-reading lesson.

 

Lee Sklar remembers he was sitting next to Tedesco on a session, and the producer asked Tedesco to play a different instrument. The players were sitting behind these four-foot screens that kept the producer from seeing what Tedesco was doing, but the musicians could see each other. “How about a mandolin?” asked the producer. Tedesco bent over like he was picking up a mandolin and played the part, still on guitar. “That’s not it. How about a lute?” Tedesco repeated the previous antics. After going through a number of stringed instruments the producer was finally happy. Sklar was purple from trying not to laugh because he could see everything Tedesco was doing, which was just playing the parts slightly differently on the same guitar. To this day Sklar has what he calls a “producer switch” on several of his electric basses, none of which are wired to anything. I’m still amazed Sklar would tell that story; there must be long list of producers out there thinking, “Wait a minute…”

The list of Tedesco’s credits is ridiculous. I’ll put a few in your head and you will know the guitar parts:  Green Acres, Bonanza, the “Batman Theme,” M*A*S*H, and The Twilight Zone. It’s all Tedesco. He also did movie soundtrack work on The Godfather, Field of Dreams, The French Connection, Jaws, The Deer Hunter and countless others.

We lost Tedesco way too early in 1997, aged 67. The television news tributes at the time consistently reported the death of a man for whom no one knew his name, but everyone knew the music. One station reported the death of “Tony Tedesco.” Irony as perfection.

Tommy Tedesco’s son Denny produced the The Wrecking Crew documentary, and included interviews with key members including the ones I mentioned above, along with people like Herb Alpert, Lou Adler, Dick Clark, Frank Zappa, Sam Cooke, Carole King and other who knew all these remarkable people well.

 

Header image of the Wrecking Crew from Denny Tedesco.

2 comments on “The Wrecking Crew: The Legends Behind the Hits”

  1. Thank you. I will never listen to pop, soundtrack, Broadway albums, etc. again without thinking about the flesh and blood musicians behind what I hear. Every time I play an orchestral CD I wonder about the brilliant musicians being directed by the named conductor. The producer -who is half the time screwing up the sound- is often named. Why aren’t the orchestra musicians named, even if in small print? The same for “wrecking crew” musicians. Why aren’t they named on the album or CD insert? The lasting joy they bring to listeners forever after is worthy of being given names that last as long as their music.

  2. “Backbeat: Earl Palmer’s Story” is a great read if you want to hear what Earl lived through.

    And the Tedesco family licensed & released lots of audio from the documentary too. My vague recollection is that I bought a 2- or 4-CD set as part of a kickstarter campaign they did to raise funds for making the movie, but that’s lost somewhere in the clutter of my storage room, so I can’t offer any more helpful info like the proper title or UPC.

    Seeing and hearing the 5th Dimension at the Renaissance Faire in the Agoura Hills around 1968 or 69 is the first live concert I remember. As a tot, I knew that their day-glo outfits didn’t really fit in with the RenFaire costumes, but folks there were really excited to see the show.

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