By James A. Fragale
In my opinion, unfair, I tell you, downright unconscionable, the G. D. Wrecking Crew. Allow me some overwrought-ness! A not so sweet Tweet-storm.
(Sour Grapes Alert.)
Me, innocent, naïve guy, new in New York, a working stiff, from Clarksburg, West Virginia, plunking down blood-sweat-tears-hard-earned-cash to make expensive studio demonstration records of the songs I wrote. Sometimes, it took every penny I had to make “demos.” Young, I naively longed to produce music that would make the world sing, at least, hum. Other friends were investing in stocks, bonds, and property. I was pissing in the wind.
These go-to sessions musicians, first call players were versatile, sight reading experts, and could simulate every type of recording: advertising jingles, film scores, theme songs–all genres of American Popular Music. Synthesizers, we’re told, could approximate the sound of most instruments. Drum machines were sometimes used.
In an early account, they were cavalierly called “The First Call Gang” — a previous rendition of the group featuring some of the same musicians and headed by Ray Pohlman, that would later be called The Wrecking Crew – sometimes a disparaging term. At that time, guitarist/bassist Carol Kaye claimed a group called “The Clique” who made (thousands of studio recordings) the hits of the day. These players were the most requested session musicians in Los Angeles. Where were they and how could I find them? Nobody would tell me. Later, I was to learn the “loosely affiliated” assembly of admittedly accomplished, experienced, as The New Yorker called them “highly trained,” musicians were playing together at Los Angeles’ Gold Star Studios — making music for the prominent American pop performers, name recording acts, at the time sotto voce.
The A-listers were: Niall O’Driscoll, Sean Carroll, Joe Harrison, Cameron Kline, Darcy Smash, keyboardist Leon Russell, Glen Campbell (his “Witchita Lineman”); –later a popular solo act; Dr. John, Jim Gordon (later drummer for Derek and the Dominos); Joe Osborn, Larry Carlton, Earl Palmer (New Orleans had already played r & b behind Fats Domino hits), Fred Carter, Jr., Barney Kessel, Billy Strange, Don Randi, Al De Lory, Carol Kaye, Bill Pitman, Irving Rubins, Roy Caton, Jay Migliori, Steve Douglas, James Burton, Earl Palmer, Larry Knechtel, Jack Nitzsche; drummer Hal Blaine, who passed away March 11, 2019, at 90,** and previously acknowledged, Ray Pohlman.*
Though not included, I often wondered if Captain Daryl Dragon, (Mr. Toni Tennille) was, at times, included. Jackie Kelso, Gene Cipriano, Bill Green, Allan Beutler, Richard Hyde, Lew McCreary, Dick Nash, Bud Brisbois, Roy Caton, Chuck Findly, Ollie Mitchen, Tony Terran, Tommy Morgan; Joe Osbon, Earl Palmer, saxophonist Steve Douglas, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, and keyboardist Larry Knechtel, (who later joined hit-maker “Bread.” FYI, “Bread’s” hits: Billboard Hot 100: Number One: “Make It with You;” “It don’t Matter To Me;” and, “Baby, I’m-a Want You.”) … By the way, when the song called for back-up vocals, The Ron Hicklin Singers were called in.
Unfair, I tell you. Downright unfair. Here’s why: Many of these players associated with what would eventually be dubbed The Wrecking Crew had formal classical and jazz backgrounds. OK. But these musicians, with no official name in their early years of working together, were not available to everyone, particularly me.
The story: in the 1960s and early 1970s, The Wrecking Crew was hired to play in thousands of studio recordings–hundreds of Top 40 hits for big names–released under well-known, established performers/players. Though these studio musicians were not publicly recognized, they were viewed with reverence by industry insiders.
In retrospect, now they admit to being the most successful and prolific session recording units in record-waxing-vinyl-burning history–playing behind and in front of hit recording artists Frank and Nancy Sinatra (“Strangers in the Night,” and “These Boots Are Made for Walkin;’”); Sonny and Cher, “Bang Bang;” “The Beat Goes On;” Cher’s Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves,” The Partridge Family, “I Think I Love You.” The “Batman” theme, The “Mission: Impossible Theme, The “Hawaii Five-O” Theme, The “Born Free” Theme; M*A*S*H* Theme; The “Pink Panther” Theme; The Fifth Dimension, on both “Up, Up, and Away, and “One Less Bell to Answer;” the Mamas & the Papas, Simon and Garfunkel (“Bridge Over Troubled Water;” The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,”–even Jan and Dean (in case, the duo slipped your mind, “The Little Old Lady [from Pasadena],” and “Surf City.”). More: Tina Turner (“River Deep- Mountain High”); the Everly Brothers; Mason Williams (“Classical Gas”). Incidental music and backing for: Chuck Berry, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and Lesley Gore. Jeezy-Frinnin’-Peezy.
To further salt my wounds, these “ghost players” strummed behind on the Byrds’ debut rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man;” the first two Monkees albums, and, not chopped or fried liver, the Beach Boys’ LP “Pet Sounds.” If that’s not bad-good enough, the recording unit was house band for legendary Phil Spector, contributing heavily to his “original,” infamous, chart busting, bulls-eye Wall of Sound record-producing approach.
Crystals, “He’s a Rebel,” Paul Revere and the Raiders, “Kicks,” The Association “Windy,” “Califonia Dreamin’; The Monkees,“Last Train to Clarksville,” Herb Alpert, “A Taste of Honey.” The Champs’ “Limbo Rock” “Gentle On My Mind,” written by John Hardford, a hit for Glen Campbell; Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park.”
Blowing the lid off and on: The future Hall of Fame-ers: the musicians who formed the group’s rank and file (Huh!) were drummer Hal Blaine who, in his 1990 Memoir, blew their cover and popularized the name–Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew: The Story of the World’s Most Recorded Musicians***–attributing the term to established musicians who knew the group’s contributions to rock and roll was going to “wreck” the music industry. Blaine** himself is reputed to have played on more than 140 top-ten hits, including approximately 40 number-one hits. (How can that be fair, I ask again?)
Did it? (I would say, it did, but I have a hefty hatchet to grind.) Ergo, the Wrecking Crew’s “contributions” to hit recordings went largely unnoticed until the publication of Blaine’s memoir. (Scuttlebutt, once the memoir was out, Blaine’s colleagues corroborated his personal account.)
More recent news, in a January 21, 2019, New York Times obituary of “Music Industry Trailblazer Bonnie Guitar,” who passed in Soap Lake, Washington at 95, credit is given to a 1959 album Ms. Guitar recorded for RCA Records, “Candy Apple Red,” with fellow guitarists Billy Strange and Tommy Tedesco, and other future members, the Times added, of the famed Los Angles studio entourage known as “The Wrecking Crew.” Note, this musician/producer commanded obituary space in the New York Times. Not every tom, dick, and bonnie does. Ms. Guitar had supervised and played on a Dolton recording session the No. 2 Chart Hit of “Walk—Don’t Run,” a 1960’s instrumental, combo surf-rock-classic-pop hit, with the group known as “The Ventures.” Back home in West Virginia, as a teen, I paid 99 cents for a 45 r.p.m copy, danced to, played it over and over again, until it was worn. As teenagers, my sisters and I would bop to the repetitive melody-line in our house on College Street and Dennison Lane. Loved “Walk—Don’t Run,” and could hum it to you right now.
Lightning flash finish: Blaine and Palmer were among the “sidemen” inductees into the 2000 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2007, the entire Wrecking Crew was brought into the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum. Exhale.
To wrap, rap, cap, tap, sap: You don’t have to believe this, but compiling this record of making records made me want to cry, downright weep. Ahhh-men, men.
**Some of the sessions drummer Hal Blaine played on (and some repeats): “He’s a Rebel,” the Crystals, 1962. “Be My Baby,” the Ronettes, 1963. “Another Saturday Night,” Sam Cooke, 1963. “Mr. Tambourine Man,” The Byrds, 1965. “A Taste of Honey,” Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, 1965. “Good Vibrations,” The Beach Boys, 1966. “The Poor Side of Town,” Johnny Rivers, 1966. “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” Simon & and Garfunkel, 1966. “Drummer Man,” Nancy Sinatra, 1969.”Mary, Mary,” The Monkees, 1967. “Medley: Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures),” The 5th Dimension, 1969. “Lizzie and the Rain-man,” Tanya Tucker, 1975.
In 2008, The Wrecking Crew was a subject of an oft-re-aired, hard-to-miss, one-hour-forty-one- minute documentary. (Tommy Tedesco passed in 1997). Loose collective, indeed. The documentary is periodically trotted out on Public Television and one can see why. We were informed that most of the documentary could be viewed online. The final cut, we were also told included more than a hundred and thirty excerpts of pop songs. Question: what song are you now humming? I thought so.