Studio musicians are the Navy SEALS of instrumentalists. These anonymous versatile players earn top dollar for their skills, their ability to quickly master musical arrangements and collectively create new arrangements on the spot. Several studio bands are iconic: Motown's Funk Brothers, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and Nashville's A-Team come to mind. In 1960s LA, an aggregation of players informally dubbed The Wrecking Crew played pivotal roles in many classic pop and rock hits.
Unknown to most of the public but legendary to other musicians, core members included drummers Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer; bassists Carol Kaye, Joe Osborn and Ray Pohlman; guitarists Glen Campbell, James Burton, Bill Pittman, Al Casey and Tommy Tedesco; pianists Leon Russell, Don Randi and Larry Knechtel; and saxmen Steve Douglas, Plas Johnson and Jim Horn.
Before Tedesco died in 1997, his son Denny, who's produced programs for A&E Biography and Comedy Central, began filming "The Wrecking Crew." He'll appear at a screening for the as yet unreleased documentary Sunday at Duquesne University's Power Ballroom, kicking off the 25th anniversary of the Pappert School of Music's annual Guitar and Bass Workshop, which runs Monday through July 29.
The group's nickname originated in the hostility that older big band-era Hollywood studio musicians held toward these younger, rock-minded players. "Somebody said they're gonna wreck the business," Denny Tedesco explains. "It stuck ... and it's been a great name." While they worked often with singers, Crew members also played on records by some noted '60s rock bands.
Why would a great rock band need studio help? "Let's just say the Beach Boys, the Association or whoever, were good musicians live," Mr. Tedesco says. "But they were not great musicians to knock out two or three songs in three or four hours. That wasn't what they did. These [studio] guys could."
Case in point: the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man." Playing on the record were five Crew players and one Byrd, singer, frontman and 12-string guitarist Roger (then Jim) McGuinn. David Crosby and Gene Clark added vocal harmonies. Producer Terry Melcher, says Mr. Tedesco, wasn't yet confident in other members' instrumental skills.
Two of rock's most eccentric luminaries, Phil Spector and the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, also availed themselves of the Crew's services. The players, Mr. Tedesco insists, went with the flow. "They had respect for both individuals. Brian was a gentle kid, and they knew that. And whatever Brian needed, they gave him. Phil, they just knew it was gonna be a long session."
While the Byrds and Beach Boys escaped criticism for using studio players in the '60s, the Monkees were outed and assailed for the practice. In the film, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, reminding everyone the group was originally conceived as a sitcom, praise the Crew. Says Mr. Tedesco, "Micky said if they had given the guys credit on the album originally, there probably would not have been a big problem."
Working four or more sessions a day, the players took everything in stride. "I asked all the musicians, were you ever intimidated by any of the artists you played for? They all [said] no, not at all." But when recording with a certain Chairman of the Board, everyone, says Mr. Tedesco, snapped to. "With Sinatra it was not intimidation as much as you were on your game."
"Glen Campbell [filmed years before his Alzheimer's issues] had a great line, and this works for all the sessions. When you were in a room together, it was like playin' with Michael Jordan. The thing is there were five, six, maybe 10 Michael Jordans in that room playing together. When you're on a team, doing maybe three, four sessions every day with the same group, you kind of get that groove going ... you know where that other person's goin'. That's what made it work."
Did the musicians realize they were making history? "There was no way they thought these songs would last 40 years," Mr. Tedesco says. "As my father said, 'We recorded hundreds of hits, but we did thousands of bombs.' Going to work every day for 15-20 years, think of how much they recorded that never made history.
"I started this documentary because my dad was gonna die," Mr. Tedesco admits. "I knew I had a limited amount of time to record his history and the guys around him, and I wasn't gonna waste time. What I didn't have was financing." He finished the film in 2008. "[It] got into South by Southwest, into film festivals and it was gold! People were reacting. It was wonderful."
The barrier to release: licensing 133 clips of tunes these musicians played on from record companies and music publishers. Respecting the film's historical mission, they agreed to special licensing terms, but Mr. Tedesco is still raising the required amount. "We know it's not going to be a moneymaker," he admits. "It's impossible. But you know what? I want this story out there." He accepts donations at his website (www.wreckingcrewfilm.com.)
Of the film itself, he says, "You don't have to be a musician to get it. "You'll hear music differently once you see the movie."
Music historian Rich Kienzle writes the Get Rhythm blog on post-gazette.com.