From the beginning, it was always there. In the kick drum intro of “Be My Baby”. In the swirl of heavenly accompaniment to the Beach Boys’ masterpiece “God Only Knows”. From the Monkees to the Partridge Family, the Mamas and the Papas and the Byrds (and many more), the Wrecking Crew provided the foundation for hit after hit after hit.
Before the concept of a singer/songwriter/performer or a musical artist playing on their own records, the biz was awash in acts with names like the Funk Brothers (Motown), Booker T. and the MGs (Stax), and the Nashville A-Team. Even when a group could play their own instruments (like Brian Wilson and his band mates), the Crew was brought in to make sure that the sound was as sweet as the breeze wafting over a SoCal beach scene.
They were the “Wall” in Phil Specter’s “Sound”, the aural genius as imagined by a Pet Sounds-era Wilson. They gave everyone from Frank Sinatra to his novelty daughter, Elvis and a few of the Fab Four their solo outing shimmer. By the time the mid ’70s rolled around, however, their services were no longer needed, and they faded into obscurity — well, most did. Some, like Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, and Dr. John, pooled their obvious talents into careers as name acts. Others, such as Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, and Tommy Tedesco became the bearers of early recording history, dug up and dragged out whenever someone wanted to discuss Specter’s echo-heavy symphonies for the kids, or something similar.
Luckily, Tommy’s son Denny saw that his father and friends weren’t getting all the respect they were do and put together this terrific documentary, The Wrecking Crew. Like Standing in the Shadows of Motown or 20 Feet From Stardom, this is a look at session players as people, their instrument and their talent taking a backseat to stories about their introduction to the group, the various artists they worked with, and the experience of being a highly paid musician one moment, a broke security guard the next (as happened to Hal Blaine, thanks to several marriages and divorces). It’s not a documentary about enlightening the masses so much as shining a light on a well known industry secret.
Tedesco began his first attempt at an overview via a sitdown with four of the most famous members of the “group”: his father, drummer Blaine, bassist Kaye, and saxophonist Plas Johnson (who, famously, provided the familiar hook to Henry Mancini’s Oscar-nominated theme to The Pink Panther). At a roundtable discussion, they talked about getting started, being recommended, going from one or two sessions a week to five or six a day, and what it was like to sit in the studio while Sinatra argued over timing or Specter did dozens of takes of the same thing. Tedesco then went out and found many of the surviving members — Leon Russell, Bill Pitman, Earl Palmer, Glen Campbell, and several more — and gave them a chance to add their insights. .
He also interviewed many who worked with the group, including Wilson, Cher, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, Jimmy Webb, and Nancy Sinatra. Even Frank Zappa makes an appearance, speaking about how special the Wrecking Crew’s combined efforts really were. Indeed, when you think that these are the same people who played on “Strangers in the Night” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”, the mind boggles. As Blaine explains, however, it was just a job. Only with certain artists and producers did the gig turn into something truly special. Along the way, we hear clips of all these songs, and each time one is played, the trademark talent is wholly on display.
There was a downside, however, one scoffed at by most in the movie. Fathers rarely saw families, and the single stayed that way because there was no time to date. Carol Kaye made sure to be home for her kids as much as possible, but Tedesco speaks for most when he describes leaving the house before his children were awake and coming home long after they were in bed. Blaine’s personal aside is also very sad. As mentioned before, he married and divorced several times, explaining how he lost a mansion, a yacht, and his livelihood in one stroke of a lawyer’s pen. Before becoming a backing musician for touring acts, he was living in what he called a “closet”.
If there is a fundamental flaw to this film, it’s that it is so fascinating that all we want is more. We want to hear Campbell talk about going from sessions to touring with the Beach Boys to his own stardom. We’re entranced by Nancy Sinatra’s sense of self. We enjoy Cher’s initial naiveté, the then-16 year old sitting with her boyfriend Sonny as Phil Specter raced around the studio, running charts. One of the most intriguing stories centers on Brian Wilson. Since he could not read music, he would simply start on one side of the room and recite the player’s part to them. Of course, by the time he got back to the beginning, the first musician would have forgotten what he was supposed to do, forcing the boy wonder to do it all over again — flawlessly.
Sure, there is stuff missing. We would love to hear about the time Specter brought back some of the Crew to work on the Ramones’ End of the Century. We’d also like to hear about the aborted (and then recovered) Smile sessions. We get little of the music made before the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll and clearly, the less said about the end of the Wrecking Crew’s reign as studio aces supreme, the better. Still, for the brief time that its onscreen, we are struck by how all encompassing their influence was, and how fleeting fame can be in our current social media mania clime. Hopefully, The Wrecking Crew will introduce these mythic musicians to a new audience. On the other hand, almost everyone has already “heard” of them.