On Monday night I went to see a screening of a really good documentary called “The Wrecking Crew,” about a group of little-known Los Angeles studio musicians who played on hundreds of hit records in the 1960s.
In a sense, The Wrecking Crew were never supposed to be the subject of a documentary, or of a book by Ken Hartman that came out this year. They were union musicians, hired to lay down tracks, and their work was never credited on singles or albums.
Which, to the record labels, made a certain kind of sense. They probably feared what the public would think if they learned that the same few dozen musicians recorded songs for the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, Sonny and Cher, Jan & Dean, The Monkees, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Mamas and Papas, Tijuana Brass, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Rivers, and comprised Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound.
The Wrecking Crew in studio. Hal Blaine is on the drums. Carol Kaye is on the left, wearing white glasses and holding a bass.
Back in the early 1960s, a lot of groups became famous before they could actually play. Wikipedia says that members of the Wrecking Crew played on the first Byrds single recording, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, because Columbia Records didn’t trust the skills of Byrd musicians except for Roger McGuinn.
At the time, no one outside of other musicians probably cared about who played what (unlike jazz stations, which often credit every musician on a track). But now it’s a great story: These guys (and Carol Kaye, a bassist) were the core of a hit factory that included scores of number-one songs, and songs that won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year. (Here’s a list of the songs.)
How good were they? A New York Times review of Ken Hartman’s book has two anecdotes: Once, with only three minutes’ worth of studio time available, “they played a first-take, no-glitch version of ‘The Little Old Lady From Pasadena.’ As Roy Halee, Simon and Garfunkel’s engineer and co-producer, once said of a top Wrecking Crew bassist: ‘You never have to stop the tape because of a mistake by Joe Osborn. There just aren’t any.’”
The movie’s director, Denny Tedesco (son of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco), made the movie to tell his dad’s story — Guitar Player magazine once called him the most recorded guitarist in history — and to shed a little light on the other members, such as Carol Kaye, whose credits are staggering, and drummer Hal Blaine, who played on 32 songs that reached #1.
It’s nice to see these musicians get credit for their body of work, even if it’s belated. In a sense, the movie does for The Wrecking Crew what a documentary and book did for The Funk Brothers, the nickname for a group of session musicians in Detroit, Mich. who played on many of the hit Motown records from 1959 until 1972.
Though the movie’s been well-reviewed at film festivals, the record labels want money for the songs, and that cost has delayed the movie’s release. The screenings are fundraisers, pushing the movie closer to its revenue goal. (There are upcoming screenings in Washington and California.)
I’d like to say that I heard about this documentary on an oldies radio station, or in the newspaper, or somewhere prominent. Instead, I heard about it from a fellow musician. I’m glad he told me, and now it’s my turn to pass it along.
Because this movie and these musicians are excellent, and they deserve to be well-known.