Who really played the music

Who really played the music August 11, 2015

If you grew up in the 1960’s or 1970’s, if you love the music of that time, and if you listen to the oldies stations to this very day, you have got to see the documentary  The Wrecking Crew.  (Shot back in 2008 but just released this year, the film is available for instant view on Netflix.)

It turns out that a single group of studio musicians known as “the Wrecking Crew” played on virtually all of the hit records that came out of California during that time period.  It didn’t matter whose name was on the record or what the style of music was–rock ‘n’ roll, surf, soul, pop, jazz, standards, ad jingles, movie scores, TV themes, or whatever–these musicians were playing it.They are the ones playing the music for the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, the Righteous Brothers, the later Elvis Presley.   Also Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole.  Also the Platters, Fifth Dimension, Sam Cooke, and Neil Diamond.  Also the Mamas & the Papas, The Byrds, Sonny & Cher, Simon & Garfunkel.   They were Herb Alpert’s “Tiajuana Brass.”  They did all those instrumentals whose licks you may have tried to do yourself, such as “Classical Gas.”

They gave us “Surfin’ USA,” “Da Roo Ron Ron,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,” “California Dreamin’,” “I Got You Babe,” “Strangers in the Night,” “Up, Up, and Away,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Holly Holy,” and on and on.  (See this for a partial list).

They were mostly uncredited, though a couple went on to become stars of their own:  Glen Campbell became a countrified pop vocalist of note, though music insiders knew him best as a virtuoso guitarist.  Leon Russell played keyboards and later struck off on his own.  (He was from Tulsa, where I would go hear him play when I was growing up around there.  Now I understand why he knew Eric Clapton and virtually everybody else on the rock scene.)  Lesser known to the public but still venerated in the recording industry are musicians like guitarist Tommy Tedesco, whose son Denny made this movie as a tribute to his father.  Also saxophonist Plas Johnson, drummers Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine, and bassist Carol Kaye, who, with other surviving members, are interviewed in the documentary.

For all the talk about the music of America’s youth, most of the Wrecking Crew were adults, with families and mortgages.  One member says that he had never heard of rock ‘n’ roll until he was asked to play it at a recording session and said, “yes, I can play this.”  Mostly schooled in jazz or classical music, these were freelance musicians who took every gig they could find to make a living.  I especially loved the interview with Carol Kaye, a working mom with two kids, who came up with some of the most recognizable bass lines in popular music.  In the documentary, she looks like one of those venerable ladies in church, who then talks rock ‘n’ roll and tosses off stunning licks on her electric bass.

But what about the bands?  Were our beloved groups just faking it?  Not really.  Most of these early performers were vocalists.  Their producers in the recording studios called in the Wrecking Crew to play–and usually arrange–the music.  There were legitimate groups like the Beach Boys, but Brian Wilson got to be so musically ambitious that the other members of the band couldn’t play the music.  It was too hard.   On the documentary, the players said that sometimes they would be brought in to “augment” the band, adding keyboards or a saxophone to fill out the sound.  But often they, said, they would give the band’s percussionist a tambourine, so that he could say he performed on the record, and they did the heavy lifting.  And often, as with the Association (“Windy”), they just played everything.   Sometimes, we are told, the recording came first, and then a band would be assembled who could do the playing on tour.   Or sometimes they would come up with simplified arrangements that the band could learn.  But making an actual record required the best musicians they could find, and the Wrecking Crew–especially with all of the practice playing together–was the best of the best.

After awhile, as the 1970’s drew on, bands were formed that could really play.  Groups such as Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young were known for their musicianship.  Then there were performers like Eric Clapton, known not just as a vocalist but for his guitar playing, and groups like Cream.   The rise of these “stand alone” groups, who played their instruments both live and on their records, led to the demise of the Wrecking Crew, whose members went back to the role of filling in with extra instruments and playing with the band.

This documentary is a tribute not only to these musicians but to music in all of its multiple styles, and to professionalism.  Also to sheer, jaw-dropping God-given talent.  This is, in fact, a movie about VOCATION.

HT:  Frank Guliuzza


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