Music Makers and Image Breakers: The Wrecking Crew

One of the most popular bands in American history has no face. We wouldn’t recognize them in album credits, nor would we crowd them for autographs on the street. We all have their music lodged in the trenches of our vinyl collections, or on rotation in our itunes; they have taken on many personas over the years. Maybe, I should say many of their personas have taken credit for their work. For anyone familiar with the music business, this is no surprise. Studio bands have helped churn out hits for years, pushing a singer from dive clubs to concert halls. Among the studio band legends, The Wrecking Crew of Los Angeles is largely responsible for the 60s sound.

Up until the late 1950s, backing bands were the large movie studio orchestras. They played on all soundtracks, recorded jingles and backed pop artists of the day. With the restructuring of said studios into smaller working units, most of the orchestras were disbanded. At the same time, the underground movement known as “Rock and Roll” was knocking down the doors of the American home, through gritty 45s recorded in small DIY studios across the country. The cutting edge was proving that it could cut a pretty penny for those who were invested, so the major labels jumped on the bandwagon. Rather than waste their time recording artists that they didn’t think could play their own instruments, they called in the professionals. In LA, the first call musicians became known as “The Wrecking Crew” (coined by drummer Hal Blaine). The name has been attributed to some of the city’s older players, who once worked in the studio orchestras, accusing these new players of wrecking the business.

By the early 60s, session players were in high demand, and the best ones were always called first. The same musicians were playing all the same sessions together, so they became known as a band, a singular unit. Separately, they did great things, but when they were together, they proved to be unstoppable. They created all the licks we are so familiar with, from the opening drum pulse in The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” to the Hammond B2 organ heard throughout The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album. They are the band behind three Hall Of Fame inductees, The Mamas and The Papas, The Monkees and The Byrds, although the Byrds began playing their own instruments later on.

Each of them came from different worlds; some were old hands from the studio orchestra day, some were fresh off the bus from Nowheresville, USA. They were old, they were young, classically trained, naturally tuned-in, road dogs and teachers. Their cultural and religious heritage ran the gamut, their personal histories and musical tastes spanned a wide gap. Half of the time, they hated what they had to play, but like anything else, it was a job. Unlike some of the music they had to deal with, they loved playing. They loved working together; they loved being involved in the creative process. They weren’t relegated to play what was on the page. Often they were given charts as a guide, but encouraged to go for broke when the red light went on. And they did, every time. The lineup included Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer and Jim Gordon (drums); Julius Wechter, Gary Coleman and Frank Capp (percussion); Carol Kaye, Joe Osbourne, Max Bennett, Chuck Berghofer, Ray Pohlman, Larry Knechtel, Lyle Ritz and Jimmy Bond (bass); Leon Russell, Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, Mike Melvoin, Don Randi, Larry Knechtel, Al Delory and Mike Rubini (keyboards); Glen Campbell, Barney Kessel, Tommy Tedesco, Al Casey, Carol Kaye, Billy Strange, Don Peake, Howard Roberts, James Burton, Jerry Cole, Bill Aken, Ray Pohlman and Mike Deasy (guitar); Steve Douglas, Jay Migliori, Jim Horn, Plas Johnson, Nino Tempo and Gene Cipriano (saxophone); Roy Caton, Tony Terran and Ollie Mitchell (trumpet); Lou Blackburn, Dick Hyde and Lew McCreary (trombone); Jack Nitzsche (conductor/arranger) and Tommy Morgan (harmonica).

Hal Blaine was the most well-known of the players. He is known as the most recorded drummer in history and his played on thousands of hit recordings. He can be heard behind Gary Lewis and The Playboys, The Carpenters, Simon and Garfunkle (specifically “Bridge Over Troubled Water”), The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, The Ronettes and on. He played on 40 #1 and over 300 Top 10 albums throughout his career. He was the first to have a drum tech, often playing back to back sessions on opposite sides of town, and needing someone to go around setting up his drums before he got to the studio. He spent many nights in the studio, catching a couple of hours sleep on the floor, next to his kit, before the early morning session began.

Carol Kaye is another studio legend. Not only was she the only woman in the group, she was the only woman session player at that time to receive the status she did. Carol was the best electric bass player in LA, probably the whole business and she is the most recorded in history. Along with being a sought after teacher, she had a prolific career, as both a touring and session bassist. You can hear her notes thumping behind The Beach Boys on “California Girls”, Sonny and Cher on “The Beat Goes On”, the Shaft theme song, plus guitar credits on “Then He Kissed Me” (The Crystals), “La Bamba” (Ritchie Valens), “Danke Schoene”(Wayne Newton), “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling (The Righteous Brothers) and countless others. She has over 10,000 credits to her name, plus a string of instructional books and teaching credits.

Glen Campbell was one of the Crew that went on to have a successful solo career. He began recording his own albums in the late 60s, using the rest of the Crew as his backing band. He was an incredible player, able to hear something once and having it memorized. He could improvise crazy solos that producers loved, and got along great with everybody. Others that went on to have successful careers outside were Leon Russell and Max “Dr. John” Rebennack, both as songwriters. Once technology started changing in the late 60s, with the ability to record multiple tracks and the reorganization of the recording industry, the use for studio bands became less necessary. Bands were going in and playing their own songs, overdubbing until they got their parts just right. This became the end of studio bands as were then known.

The Wrecking Crew silently laid the foundation of music’s legendary performers. They were the ones behind the proverbial curtain; it wasn’t until after their decline that we were allowed to pull the curtain back to see how the wizard actually operated. Alongside the legendary producers, such as Phil Spector, they masterminded the sounds that created an era. Theirs was a generation of quiet greatness and they paved the way for the modern musician. They raised the bar on proficiency and creativity, fleshing out the songs that bring back our favorite memories. In rare instances, business is able to mix with pleasure, creating a movement that continues long after the participants have packed away their instruments.

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