Guitar Player magazine once described guitarist Tommy Tedesco as the most recorded guitarist in history. The funny thing is that most listeners would never even know it was him playing. The twangy galloping acoustic guitar on the “Bonanza” theme? The fuzzy, distorted intro riff to “Green Acres?” The silly wah-wah solo that signaled the beginning of “Three’s Company?” All Tommy Tedesco. It turns out, Tedesco was only one of the unsung studio musicians of the Los Angeles scene. There was a group of about twenty or so seasoned professionals who seemingly played on every record made on the west coast in the sixties and seventies. This group, and the documentary film that is named after them, is known as The Wrecking Crew.
Directed by Tommy Tedesco’s son, Denny, The Wrecking Crew tells the story of the studio musicians who were behind the most successful records in the history of pop music. The project was born in 1995 when Tommy was diagnosed with terminal cancer and Denny wanted to get as much of his father’s story on film as possible. Tommy had many friends and was popular with his peers within his scene, so everyone jumped at the chance to be in the film. Because of this, The Wrecking Crew is packed with tell-all interviews.
The Wrecking Crew is basically an oral history of the group of musicians, combining the on-camera interviews with old photographs, archival footage, and amateur video to illustrate exactly how sought after this group of musicians was. As one producer puts it in the film: “if they can’t get the Crew, don’t book the date.” The veteran session players talk candidly about the old days of the music industry, a time when producers would cut the tracks first and form the group later. This is why the same handful of musicians played on most of the records; they were the ones who could get it done right, get it done cheaply, and get it done quickly.
And The Wrecking Crew did play on just about every record made in Los Angeles in the sixties and seventies. Really. The Wrecking Crew played on the later Beach Boys records when Brian Wilson started to write music that was too complex for the band. The Wrecking Crew recorded the backing tracks for The Monkees before the television stars learned how to play their own instruments. The Wrecking Crew were the session musicians behind Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. And so much more. Half of the fun of the movie is hearing how many of the songs on which these talented musicians played have been ingrained into the fabric of American musical history.
The most fascinating segments of The Wrecking Crew are ones in which Denny Tedesco put together a round table discussion between his father, bassist Carol Kaye (the only woman in the Crew), drummer Hal Blaine, and saxophone player Plas Johnson. The four musicians don’t even need any prodding from the interviewer; they fall right into a comfortable conversation about everything and anything, letting the cameras just observe them like flies on the wall. It’s like they never stopped playing together; four friends talking about music and life in the music industry of old-time Los Angeles.
Carol Kaye also gives some great solo interviews during the film, holding a bass or a guitar the whole time and not being shy about breaking into song, demonstrating exactly how valuable of an asset she was to any session in which she participated. For example, she plucks the original bass line to Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On,” singing the vocal melody over it, then replaces the vanilla bassline with the grooving one that she came up with for the recording – the signature riff of the song. Moments like that show just how much The Wrecking Crew brought to the table when they were hired.
And they were just hired players, but they accepted that. None of the musicians that were interviewed for the film seems upset that their music went to the top of the charts and won award after award, making millions of dollars for the faces on the record covers. They treated their sessions like any other job; they showed up, played their parts, and cashed their check, much like a plumber or an electrician would. In one interview with Tommy Tedesco, the guitarist explains that he never felt ripped off when a record sold a million because he also never gave the producer’s money back if the record flopped. The Wrecking Crew did their jobs, and then moved on to the next one.
There is much more of a story to The Wrecking Crew than just what shows up onscreen. Denny Tedesco started production in 1995 and the film wasn’t finished until 2008, and that’s when the troubles really began. The film was a festival hit, but in order for it to gain wide distribution, music licensing fees would have to be negotiated and paid. There are pieces of over 100 songs in the film, all of which needed to be cleared. It took six years for all of the rights to be attained, meaning almost twenty years had passed between the inception of The Wrecking Crew and its release. Because of this, the film is a time capsule, and not just because of the archival footage; the interviews are interestingly old as well. Tommy Tedesco died in 1997, so his clips have a nostalgic feel to them, but there are also interviews with an articulate pre-stroke Dick Clark and a clear-minded pre-Alzheimer’s Glen Campbell (who was a fixture guitarist in The Wrecking Crew until he scored a record deal of his own). These interviews are simultaneously touching and heartbreaking, but important all the same, not just for the story of the Wrecking Crew, but for the legacies of both men.
The days of The Wrecking Crew began to wind down when the public started demanding that the artists from whom they were buying records actually played on those records. There doesn’t seem to be any resentment among the musicians in The Wrecking Crew (even though Milli Vanilli is referenced more than once in the film), only a respect for what they’d been able to accomplish in their heyday, and this respect is shared by the audience. There’s always been a certain consistency to the sound of the recordings that came out of Los Angeles during the reign of The Wrecking Crew, and now everyone knows why; those records were basically all made by the same guys (and gal).