Film Review: “The Wrecking Crew”

“The Wrecking Crew”
Produced & Directed by: Denny Tedesco

When you hear the term “wrecking crew” you think of demolitions. Ask those however who were involved in the Los Angeles recording industry in the 1960s and early 1970s about “The Wrecking Crew,” and the odds are that you will get a response that borders on idolization about the studio musicians who played on the records of nearly everyone who was anyone on the pop charts who was from the USA.
Just exactly who was a member of the Wrecking Crew is debatable. Among the best known studio sessions who went onto have successful solo recording careers were Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack. The vast majority of the musicians such as drummers Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine, keyboardist Don Randi, bassist Carol Kaye, guitarists Al Casey, Bill Pitman and Tommy Tedesco were content to stay in the shadows collecting session recording checks while avoiding the wear and tear of travel that many of their colleagues had to endure.
Denny Tedesco, the son of Tommy Tedesco, whose rapid-finger Spanish guitar licks can be heard on many Gary Lewis & the Playboys hit records, has made a documentary about his dad and his colleagues that is naturally titled “The Wrecking Crew.”
I am not sure if this would qualify for an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records but it has taken Denny almost 20 years to get this documentary released. In 1996 he staged a reunion of some of the more prominent members of the Wrecking Crew to sit around a table in an LA recording studio to simply talk about the good old days. He was trying to emulate the old “Sports Writers on TV” show that used to run on Chicago’s WGN and was syndicated on the now-defunct Sports Channel around the country on cable.
The reason for the lengthy delay was not because of lawsuits but rather on account of the hefty licensing fees that were involved with using even snippets of the many hit recordings on which the Wrecking Crew played.
It’s a joy to eavesdrop on Tommy Tedesco reminisce about the “Something Stupid” recording session that featured Frank Sinatra and his daughter, Nancy, as well as Carol Kaye showing how she improvised the bass line intro to the Sonny & Cher classic, “The Beat Goes On.”
Denny Tedesco was able to get the normally reclusive leader of the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, to speak at length about how The Wrecking Crew was able to play every note that he heard in his head and recreate them in recordings. Sometimes the process was rather quick, while in the case of creating “Good Vibrations,” it took six months. Tommy Tedesco didn’t mind since he tells us nonchalantly that “Capitol Records was picking up the tab.”
The documentary makes a big distinction between touring musicians and those who worked strictly on session recordings. The Beach Boys’ Al Jardine said that he and his band mates did not take umbrage to the Wrecking Crew doing the heavy lifting on their albums since they were on the road so much that it would have been impossible for them to be in a studio tackling new material.
The Monkees’ Peter Tork, who is a talented guitarist in his own right, admitted that it bothered him a great deal that he was told to sit and watch the Wrecking Crew recording Monkees tracks at the time. With age comes wisdom. Tork confesses that he now understands why these guys, many of whom are now in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, were used. On the other hand, Herb Alpert said that many of the members of his old group, the Tijuana Brass, were always resentful that they did not have anything to do with their records except pose for the album cover.
Although they were not well-known to the public, the Wrecking Crew who recorded with everyone from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to Jan & Dean and the Grass Roots, were well-compensated. In one of the sadder moments of the documentary drumming legend Hal Blaine talks about how at one time he owned a Rolls-Royce, a 23-room mansion in Hollywood Hills, and a yacht, and then lost it all through a series of divorces. Blaine’s finances became so precarious that he had to work as a security guard in Scottsdale, Arizona because session work had dried up as rock bands demanded to record their own material. Record companies, fearing backlash from increasingly more sophisticated music fans, were eager to have the bands record their own tracks.
“The Wrecking Crew” nicely follows in the footsteps of last year’s Academy Award-winning documentary about background singers, “20 Feet From Stardom.” This may be the golden age of pop music film docs as “All Things Must Pass,” which looks at the rise and fall of Tower Records, just had its debut at the South X Southwest pop culture festival in Austin, Texas.

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