• “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys.
• “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra;
• “Mr. Tambourine Man,” by the Byrds
• “The Pink Panther Theme,” by Henry Mancini.
They were all performed by a legendary group of Los Angeles session musicians whose nickname was the Wrecking Crew. In this vastly entertaining and eye-opening documentary, “The Wrecking Crew,” you’ll learn the story of the men and women who were instrumental, in both senses of the word, in creating what seems like most of the hit songs of 1960s. Here are just a few more:
• “California Dreamin’,” by the Mamas and Papas.
• “Be My Baby,” by the Ronettes.
• “Mrs. Robinson,” by Simon and Garfunkel.
• “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” by the Righteous Brothers.
The late Tommy Tedesco, guitar wizard, was one of the main members of the Wrecking Crew. He’s the guy who played the guitar theme for TV’s “Bonanza,” the Latin-flavored guitar on the Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away,” and the leads on dozens of other hits. He is also the reason this documentary exists, because his son, Denny Tedesco, wanted to give credit to his dad in the best way he knew how, by making a film.
“I started it when my father was diagnosed with cancer in 1996,” said Denny Tedesco, by phone from L.A. “I thought, if I don’t do it now, I’ll always regret it.”
So Denny filmed his dad and some of other members of the Wrecking Crew telling stories about those great recording sessions. He also found footage of some of those old sessions. He interviewed Brian Wilson, Cher, Roger McGuinn, Jimmy Webb and Nancy Sinatra, who frankly and generously acknowledged their debt to the Wrecking Crew.
“I wanted to get it done before he was gone, but he never got to see any of the footage,” Denny Tedesco said. “He would have been very, very proud.”
The younger Tedesco should be proud, as well, for finally giving these amazing musicians their due. Most of them were never mentioned in the liner notes of those ’60s records. Why? Because it would look bad for the Byrds, for instance, if people knew that Roger McGuinn was the only actual Byrd allowed to play on “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
The Wrecking Crew is a loose designation, encompassing maybe a dozen or two players. In the movie, we get to know a few of these characters and some of their achievements, including:
• Hal Blaine – He was the drummer on an amazing eight Grammy Record of the Year winners, including six in a row in the 1960s. Do you remember the pounding drum intro of “A Taste of Honey,” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass? Or the drum sounds on the Elvis Presley hit “Can’t Help Falling in Love”? That was Hal Blaine.
• Carol Kay – She was a groundbreaking guitar and bass master in a man’s world. The inventive bass line in “Good Vibrations” is hers. In the movie, you’ll also learn how she gave Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” its distinctive bass intro.
• Plas Johnson – He’s the sax player who played the original “Pink Panther Theme,” and many other instantly recognizable sax lines.
• Glenn Campbell – Yes, that Glenn Campbell. Before he was the Rhinestone Cowboy, he was a busy and well-respected L.A. session guitarist, and the natural choice to replace Brian Wilson when he stopped touring with the Beach Boys. After all, Campbell helped record many of the Beach Boys’ hits.
“The Wrecking Crew” does a good job of answering the question: Why didn’t the members of these bands play on their own records? Weren’t they good enough?
Maybe. But the producers insisted on the Wrecking Crew, because these pros would lay down an instrumental track in one hour as opposed to the dozens of frustrating hours it might take for the younger and less-experienced rock-and-rollers.
“They would only have three hours of studio time to record three or four different songs,” said Denny Tedesco. “As a producer, you had to make sure these guys could knock it out.”
The Wrecking Crew – many of them skilled jazz musicians – sometimes got tired of churning out the simple, easy hits of the era, by the likes of the Monkees, Gary Lewis & the Playboys and even Alvin & the Chipmunks. Yet they were more open to the rock revolution than many of the older, suit-and-tie-wearing musicians of the era. Those older, Big Band-era musicians dubbed them the Wrecking Crew because they were “wrecking the business.”
The Wrecking Crew grew to have great respect for some of the people who hired them, notably the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, an uncommonly gifted composer and arranger. He was meticulous in writing his musical charts, but he also allowed the Wrecking Crew to contribute artistically.
The film also answers the question: Why didn’t this Golden Age for session-players last past the 1960s?
Because around 1970, the age of the singer-songwriter arrived. They insisted on using their own musicians. Multitrack recording also arrived, which meant that producers and musician could fix mistakes much more easily. No longer was it quite so crucial that the backing musicians nail it on the first few takes. And finally, the album, as opposed to the hit single, became the era’s predominant artistic statement.
The Wrecking Crew musicians themselves have mixed feelings about the demise of that era. On one hand, it was incredibly lucrative. Blaine had a yacht and a Rolls-Royce. Yet on the other hand, they never got credit, artistically, for most of their contributions.
This documentary would rectify that – if only it could get wide distribution. But right now, the only way to see it is in a special screening, like the one in Spokane tonight. You’ll search for it in vain on Netflix, because Tedesco can’t get a distributor to take on the burden of the music rights. The movie contains snatches of so many hit songs, the music rights for a wide distribution deal would cost $300,000 (negotiated down from the original $700,000). So Tedesco has been showing the movie on the film festival circuit, because the film-festival rights are much cheaper. It has won numerous film festival awards.
Now, Tedesco is also “touring” the film, hoping to raise enough money to pay for the music licensing so he can release it widely. He’s returning to Spokane partly because the movie had such a warm reception at the Spokane International Film Festival in 2009.
By the way, if you stick around for the credits at the end you’ll notice that the Wrecking Crew still gets no formal recognition from the music industry.
The credits still say, “ ‘Good Vibrations,’ performed by the Beach Boys.”