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You May Not Have Heard of The Wrecking Crew, But You’ve Heard Them

It’s hard to characterize the size of the contribution a musicians’ collective known as The Wrecking Crew made to popular music. It was everywhere and impacted everything, though few people know who they were. The influence lives on – and quite strongly – today. Turn on a classic rock radio or jazz station. You will hear The Wrecking Crew. For instance, Carol Kaye arguably was responsible for making Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” a hit by inventing the unmistakable opening bass line.

How fluidly the group crossed genre lines tells a lot about the times.  The Wrecking Crew backed scores of musicians and bands, including Jan & Dean, the Mamas & the Papas, the 5th Dimension, Dean Martin, Simon & Garfunkel, The Righteous Brothers,  Nat King Cole, Frank and Nancy Sinatra, the Byrds, Bob Dylan, the Monkees and the Beach Boys. And don’t forget Elvis. The list goes on. Notice that it is liberally sprinkled with established jazz and young rock names.

The New Yorker posted a short feature on a movie made by Denny Tedesco, the son of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, about the group. Its impact is summed up nicely near the top. (The trailer of the film is above):

Rarely credited on record, the Wrecking Crew nevertheless played for, with, and in the service of nearly every prominent American pop performer of the decade, to the point that it’s probably easier to make a list of the acts it didn’t support.

The collective helped Phil Spector’s develop the famous Wall of Sound. And it didn’t just play on a lot of records. It played on important ones. These include The Byrds’ version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” album.

the_wrecking_crewThe most famous alums of The Wrecking Crew are Leon Russell, Dr. John and Glen Campbell. Others, such as Kaye, drummers Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, achieved some level of notoriety. Blaine, Wikipedia says, is estimated to have played on 140 top ten songs. Forty of these reached number one. Blaine and Palmer were inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and were among the first sidemen to be honored in this way. Another drummer, Jim Gordon, played in Derek and the Dominos and Traffic.

From Jazz to Pop to Rock

The Wrecking crew seems like a perfect name for the group. Wikipedia offers several ideas on when it came about and who was responsible. Most involve Blaine. The most logical is that the older studio musicians, who dressed and acted conservatively, resented the young upstarts, who played rock and roll and wore jeans and tee-shirts. These kids, they said, would wreck the business. That’s a short jump to actually being called “The Wrecking Crew.”

At another level, the story of The Wrecking Crew can be seen as representing the explosive changes to American popular music during the middle part of the last century. The old generation of studio musicians were fading and things were evolving so rapidly that one group of talented musicians could support everyone from Frank Sinatra to The Beach Boys. Another example is Little Feat’s Lloyd George, who was a studio musician for both Sinatra and Frank Zappa.
The sense from the clips is that they were a close-knit group of people. There are funny stories. Leon Russell, for example, comes off as an eccentric kid from Oklahoma. Several people, including Cher, tell funny stories about him.

At some level, these folks probably realized that they landed in the right time and place. Many of the musicians were trained in jazz and classical music and probably found rock and roll to be pretty easy. They were lucky as well as talented. The group stumbled onto the scene when this new world of music was at its inflection point. And, since rock was based on the music that preceded it, they also had entry into that world. They happened to own a gold mine right at the time that somebody figured out that gold is valuable.

The Wikipedia page has a full listing of the members of The Wrecking Crew, though it’s likely one or two are missed. What comes through in the clips is that these people really liked and respected each other. Of course, feelings tend to be warm and hurts put aside in retrospect.

The video below is from a different movie, which was directed by Gil Baker. The commentary at YouTube is good. It’s a broader look that mentions other studio groups, such as The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and talented collectives in New York City, Philadelphia, Nashville and elsewhere.

Here is an insightful review of “The Wrecking Crew” at The Forgetful Critic.

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