An Interesting "Wrecking Crew" Article

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Mr Bill

Gentlemanly Curmudgeon
Staff member
I just got back from spending a week at sea (okay under the sea is more accurate) and have spent the bulk of the day catching up on emails and the dozen or so websites I'm involved with...

My friend Dave send me a couple articles regarding the Wrecking crew that I felt were interesting enough to post here and share with you all...

This first one is the longer of the three and focuses mainly on the late Tommy Tedesco. The two shorter follow-on articles are on Hal Blaine and Carol Kaye, respectively. A final post will feature side bar items regarding these session players of legend...

At least we now know another name from the session that gave us "A Taste Of Honey"...

Time of the Session
When the music was fast, and the players anonymous

by Robert Lloyd

Most of the music you will ever hear will be played by people you will never see and whose names you will neither know nor think to ask. It will be recorded in windowless rooms, witnessed sometimes only by an engineer or producer, the now-ancient technology of the overdub making the presence even of other musicians unnecessary. For every superstar singer or guitar heroine whose name adorns a T-shirt or tattoo, there are hundreds whose work is done anonymously, or as good as. Who play their part, collect their pay and go home.

One day 15 years ago, I drove out to the Valley to interview Tommy Tedesco. Tedesco, who died in 1997, was a Hollywood session musician, a professional guitarist, a player in fact of nearly any plucked string instrument he could tune like a guitar. His near-complete obscurity among the public — that is, everyone apart from his peers, his students at the Guitar Institute of Technology, readers of his “Studio Log” in Guitar Player magazine and the credit-rooting scholar-nerds of ’60s pop — was in inverse relation to his actual profile in popular music. We walked into his kitchen at one point; a radio was playing “A Taste of Honey” by the Tijuana Brass. “That’s a record I was on,” he said nonchalantly. The odds were good he could have said the same thing had we walked in five or 15 minutes later. Tedesco also played on “Good Vibrations,” “Strangers in the Night,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” Lumpy Gravy and “MacArthur Park,” and on the soundtracks of The Godfather, MASH and Bonnie and Clyde, among uncountable other tracks, songs, dates, jingles and sides — more than he could, or would want to, remember. “I am whatever the part calls for,” he told me. “If it’s a raucous thing, I’m raucous; if it’s a rock & roll 15-year-old, I’m there, in my body, turned into whatever. When I play banjo, I really feel banjo licks; when I play mandolin, it’s going to be just exactly the feeling you’re gonna want to hear.”

Opting for high-paid anonymous studio work over the flashier rewards of the spotlight, Tedesco had been a mainstay of the loose but exclusive company of L.A. players who would latterly be known, in drummer Hal Blaine’s formulation, as the Wrecking Crew. They would dominate local pop productions for a golden decade, lending their talents to untold thousands of “sides” and helping create the signature sounds of such Top 40 auteurs as Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Lee Hazelwood and Jimmy Webb — sounds that continue to cycle through a musical culture informed by nostalgia and sampling, wherein all music past is eternally present. These players built their careers on an ability to be both extraordinarily present and completely invisible — an ability appropriate to the making of music, the most ethereal art. (It is made literally of air.) They had their triple scale, and were content.

“Studio musicians were not interested in becoming ‘stars,’” bassist Carol Kaye, one of the few women to be part of this world, writes on her Web site. “We were part of the process in business to make people into ‘stars.’” And yet something beats within the American breast that finds such modesty . . . suspicious, tragic, even perverse — that demands credit where credit is due, longs to hear the unsung hero sung, the secret identity revealed. We like this story almost as much as the one about being rich and famous before turning 20. Surely the success of the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, like The Buena Vista Social Club before it, has something to do with this feel-good narrative of belated recognition. (And like the musicians of The Buena Vista Social Club, Motown’s Funk Brothers have taken their newfound fame on the road.) Carol Kaye has a Web site, after all, as do Blaine and such other former associates as guitarists Billy Strange and Mike Deasy, harmonica player Tommy Morgan, pianist Mike Melvoin and bassist Joe Osborn. They have finally taken it upon themselves to let the world know who they are and what they have done. So we are here, as James Brown famously said, “to give the drummers some” — and the bassists, and guitarists, and piano players of the L.A. studios, and all those superanonymous string and brass players whose credits are beyond the interest of even the most avid pop trainspotters. And who are, unfortunately, too numerous to mention.

The Wrecking Crew compose, of course, merely a chapter in an ongoing tale that properly begins 127 years ago, in a laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where young Tom Edison first recorded sound — making possible record hops, jukeboxes, Alan Freed, Clive Davis and the international fame of the Shaggs. Until then, the only way to hear music was to be present where it was being made. A single performance, inscribed in wax and reproduced ad infinitum, could travel through not only space but time, and be everywhere present with godlike simultaneity. On the one hand, this was good, opening up new avenues of exchange and influence. But at the same time it meant that a few players might stand in for many; it created a kind of musical elite, a new breed of highly skilled, faceless artisan — the session musician, studio musician or “yo cat” — working largely in the few big cities where the record business and the parallel, intertwining technologies of radio, television and film were based.

It was not, to be sure, a single set of skills. Recording the score of an animated cartoon, for instance, with its precise architecture of flurrying notes and abrupt time shifts, is a world away from filling in the details on a thinly sketched pop song. Some players are brilliant readers who can easily navigate “flyspecks” — the fast little notes that can blacken a page — or passages written high above the staff, or tricky meters. Others might be prized more for their feel, or their funkiness, or tastiness, or their intuitive grasp of the pocket, or trademark licks. (Kaye theorizes that it was precisely their inferior reading skills that forced session players Glen Campbell and Leon Russell to become pop stars instead.) But certain things hold true for all “first call” players: Each is, within his niche, as near as possible the Platonic ideal of drum, bass, guitar, piano, horn, harp or whatever. Like Olympic athletes or people who can write out the Gettysburg Address on the head of a pin, they are better coordinated than the rest of us are. They have a more finely tuned sense of time and tone. They are quick studies able to rapidly apprehend the job at hand, to access or emulate whatever mood or emotion is called for (faking is acceptable show-business practice) and get it recorded as close to immediately as possible.

Notwithstanding the gunslinging glamour of the job, they are required also to be workaday professionals: dependable, amiable (as Blaine used to say, “If you smile, you stay around awhile; if you pout, you’re out!”), diplomatic and egoless — able to leave opinions, taste and even pride at the door.

The workday could run from 9 a.m. to midnight, fueled by coffee and cigarettes and vending-machine meals, with naps stolen on the studio floor, and might include as many as three or four or even five sessions — a session being defined by the union as three hours, in which time three songs would typically be recorded. Brian Wilson would usually spend a whole session on a single track, and often go overtime, which endeared him to the players. There is much to be said for a job that goes into overtime after three hours. (The basic session rate for a sideman is currently $339.20, though not all dates are union dates, to be sure.)

It was a “clean, highly professional on-time no-nonsense business,” in Kaye’s words. One hesitates to call it hackwork, because the best always played better than they had to, and much beautiful music was made. Still, if one considers the thousands, even tens of thousands of dates claimed by the busiest players in the busiest years — the 1960s, when the pop factories were running overtime manufacturing the mod sounds that set young America frugging — and subtracts the share of that music which might have been great or even moderately interesting to play, that leaves a lot of bad music to have been party to. But that isn’t what we remember.

The first Hollywood studio musicians worked, appropriately enough, for the Hollywood studios; as sound remade the movies, every studio established its own music department — full-service organizations, with composers, conductors, copyists, librarians and a standing orchestra — and in the process threw out of work thousands of musicians across the country who had played live behind silent films.

In those days, you had to be a member of the union local for a year before you could even qualify for studio work. It was a plum job, steady and well-paid, with an average workweek of something like 24 hours. The musicians were accordingly first-rate: In 1945 Leopold Stokowski, Walt Disney’s co-conspirator on Fantasia, organized the Hollywood Bowl Symphony from their ranks. Around the same time, the Hollywood String Quartet was formed by some top-level studio hands, including violinist Felix Slatkin (concertmaster at Fox) and Eleanor Aller Slatkin (first-chair cello at Warner Bros.). The Slatkins recorded Ravel, Beethoven and Schoenberg to wide acclaim, and also served Capitol Records as a kind of staff quartet for pop and jazz projects — they’re the sole accompaniment on Frank Sinatra’s 1957 album Close to You. (Felix was also behind Liberty Records’ Fantastic Strings, Eleanor can be found playing on Monkees records, and together they also produced conductor Leonard Slatkin.) And the L.A. Woodwinds of bassoonist Don Christlieb — the father of jazz and session saxophonist Pete Christlieb — were longtime staples of the L.A. avant-garde, participating in the seminal Evenings on the Roof and Monday Evening Concerts series and the local debuts of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Christlieb would later work with Frank Zappa.

It was not an absolute meritocracy. Well into the 1950s the studio orchestras — including radio and then television bands, as Los Angeles became increasingly a broadcast center — remained almost exclusively white, even as jazz musicians began to join them. Drummer Lee Young (brother of Lester Young, and a longtime Nat Cole sideman) had been for a long time the only black staff musician at a major studio; Phil Moore, an African-American pianist who had been an arranger at MGM, told Down Beat magazine in 1943 that studio executives believed that blacks were undisciplined and would not play music as written. In fact, until 1953, Los Angeles had separate union locals for white musicians and black, with predictable results. (“We didn’t have the good-money jobs until we merged,” recalled the late bassist Leroy Vinnegar.) Reedman Buddy Collette — who with alto saxophonist Benny Carter and pianist Marl Young was a prime mover in the single-union campaign — became the first African-American to play regularly in a network orchestra when Jerry Fielding hired him to play for Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life. Collette left the Chico Hamilton Quintet, of which he was a founding member, in favor of Fielding and steady work, and watched many of his former associates (including Hamilton, Dexter Gordon and Charles Mingus) decamp to New York and eventual greater renown.

There was some feeling that studio work was antithetical to a serious jazz career. Another Chico Hamilton alumnus, guitarist Dennis Budimir, who went on to play with Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits and the Partridge Family, would remember, “When I first got into studio work, I think some of the fellas . . . were saying that I’d ‘sold out.’” But as Vinnegar pointed out, “To survive you had to do other things, because the jazz scale in L.A. was so low that you couldn’t raise a family.”

Fortunately, there was a lot of day work available. From the late ’50s until the early ’70s there reigned in Los Angeles a golden age of session work. It began perhaps with the hi-fi boom and the advent of the LP, which meant more grooves to fill — with filler, often — and it certainly had something to do with the westward migration of the music business, and the heady commercial youth of rock & roll. “There was a great influx in the mid-’60s,” recalls Van Dyke Parks, whose own first session was playing piano on “The Bare Necessities” for Disney’s The Jungle Book, “and I think that all of it had to do with the technology of the time. Records became a concrete part of the human experience.” And it was typical then for a good-selling artist or band to release two albums a year, about four times as many as most manage now.

At the same time, the breakup of the studio orchestras — hurried by a 1959 musicians’ strike that resulted in soundtrack recording being shifted temporarily overseas — opened that market to freelancers. The main players did every sort of date, from soundtracks to jingles to rock & roll singles. Mostly jazz musicians, with a sprinkling of country players, they were the bridge that connected West Coast jazz with the film music of Henry Mancini and Lalo Schifrin, the Top 40 reflections of whatever fads the Youthquake threw up, the easier listening of Herb Alpert and Peggy Lee, and the brief flowering of what might be called Southern California art pop, from Spector and Wilson to Randy Newman to the much-sampled composer-arranger David Axelrod; they form the common denominator of “The Pink Panther Theme,” “River Deep, Mountain High,” “Strangers in the Night,” “Spanish Flea,” “California Dreamin’,” “I’m a Believer,” “Surf City,” Pet Sounds and Newman’s “Davy the Fat Boy.” They were even cutting some early Motown records here, though just which ones remains a source of unresolvable controversy.

But even while many recognized the special gifts of a Spector or Wilson, few believed they were making music for the ages. Indeed, the whole point of the 1960s was to embrace the immediately replaceable now, which from an industrial standpoint meant feeding the maw of a market based on novelty. “Believe me, I didn’t get excited about the Batman theme,” Tommy Tedesco told me. “That was work, you know?” When asked once if there were any rock sessions he enjoyed, guitarist and bass player Bill Pitman, whose work includes “Good Vibrations” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” answered, “No. Absolutely none.” Even Earl Palmer, who, as the drummer for Fats Domino and Little Richard, actually helped invent rock & roll, was cool on the subject. “I lived in a jazz world,” Palmer told his biographer. “I was not interested in Little Richard or Fats Domino. It’s something we did that was not important to us musically.” To keep their sanity, many contrived to play jazz in their off hours — and there were the occasional jazz dates as well, like Cannonball Adderly’s 1968 “Accent on Africa,” with contributions from session stalwarts like Palmer, Kaye, saxophonists Buddy Collette and Plas Johnson, pianist Don Randi and guitarist Howard Roberts.

Not all the players were prejudiced against pop, obviously. And even the skeptics understood the new music in a way their predecessors did not, and were at least willing, if not always happy, to play it. The challenges were creative rather than technical: Virtuosity counted for nothing in rock, which is — pace prog — unschooled music, vernacular, organized from the bottom up, a thing of inspired and resourceful amateurism. Yet once it became clear there was money to be made out of it, producers and labels moved to professionalize the process and the product. Plus, the emphasis on hit records, within the narrow funnel of the Top 40, encouraged a kind of magic thinking: To say that something sounds like a hit is, after all, to say it sounds like another record that already was a hit. And anyone or anything — a musician, a studio, an engineer, a drum sound — associated with one hit record was hired to ensure the next. “They were so superstitious,” Bill Pitman once remarked, “that if somebody put a cigarette in an ashtray or something, and it was burning at the time, they’d have to do it on the next date.” Which meant even more work for the best players: It was a kind of gracious circle.

This pop gold rush found its ultimate _expression in 1966 in a completely manufactured band, the Monkees (penultimate _expression, if you count the Archies). Their roots, if that word may serve here, were in such previous phony groups as the Marketts (“Surfer’s Stomp”), the Fantastic Baggys (“Tell ’Em I’m Surfin’”) and the Avalanches (“Avalanche”), all made entirely of session players. Tommy Tedesco is on all those records, as he is on Deuces, T’s, Roadsters and Drums alongside Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, keyboard player David Gates (later of the group Bread), and bassists Carol Kaye and Jimmy Bond. A few fads down the road, there were the Ceyleib People, whose Tanyet, an album of Indian-inflected raga rock, featured session guitarist Mike Deasy, bassists Joe Osborn and Larry Knechtel (also later of Bread, and with Osborn a semiregular rhythm unit with Hal Blaine), drummer Jim Gordon, pianist Mike Melvoin, and reedman Jim Horn, with a new young session player named Ry Cooder. The Tijuana Brass, which didn’t exist as an actual group until after they’d had a few hit records, was a similar simulacrum. And it was already standard practice for record producers to augment or even replace the musicians in “real” existing groups — the Beach Boys, the Association, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Mamas and the Papas — with more adept pros. The Monkees were in this sense “traditional.” Even the outside, cultish Love had their date with the Wrecking Crew. But for the time being, this practice was a kind of trade secret.

Real anonymity ended in the early ’70s, when the Musicians Union began to require sleeve credits, at least for rhythm sections. This was bound to change in any case: After the Beatles, who seemed so heroically self-contained and self-directed, the old show-business paradigms no longer applied, or at any rate could not be seen to apply. The ascendant counterculture, with its insistence on authenticity, on being real, made it inevitable that the Monkees would demand to play their own instruments. In some sense, that was the beginning of the end of the golden age of session work.

Still, there were good times ahead. In the hippie-sprung communal world of the rock era, and with the music press and public taking a more active interest in the creative particulars, session musicians were given a share in rock’s outlaw glamour. The hired “friends” of Delaney & Bonnie & Friends — including pianist Leon Russell, bassist Carl Radle, Texas hornman Bobby Keys, and studio drummers Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon — most of whom also served as Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, were not only credited but saw their pictures on album sleeves, and wound up playing variously with the Rolling Stones, George Harrison and Eric Clapton, where they seemed less like hired guns than special guests. If some of the new session players were less endlessly adaptable than the old, this could be taken as further proof of their authenticity. James Taylor bassist Lee Sklar, who was studying to be a sculptor, became a session musician almost by accident by virtue of his association with a hit record and a “new sound” everyone wanted to buy — suddenly he was being called to play with Carole King, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and Rod Stewart. And Ry Cooder’s reputation as an artist in his own right remains inextricable from his reputation as a sideman.

The ’70s also saw an emphasis on traditional aspects of “good musicianship”; it was the age of rock hyphenates — art-rock, prog-rock, country-rock and jazz-rock — all of which were concerned to various degrees with chops. Joni Mitchell hired musicians from the mellow-jazz L.A. Express and the Crusaders. Drawing from the same pool was Steely Dan, which was not a band at all but a shifting cast of pros hired to realize the quirky ideas of oddball perfectionists Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. “‘Studio musician’ — to us, there were no grander words in the English language than these,” they recall in their notes to the reissue of Pretzel Logic. Along with the likes of saxophonists Plas Johnson and Wilton Felder, guitarist Larry Carlton, pianist Joe Sample, percussionists Milt Holland and Victor Feldman, and bassist Chuck Rainey, they would use nearly every great studio drummer of the day, including Gordon, Keltner, Blaine, Paul Humphrey, Rick Marotta and new kid Jeff Porcaro, the son of studio percussionist Joe Porcaro and heir apparent to Keltner and Gordon — as Keltner and Gordon had been to Blaine and Earl Palmer. (Porcaro’s first recording session was a double drum date with Keltner, whom he idolized; he was 17, his mother drove him to the session, and he threw up on the way.) Porcaro and David Paich, the son of the arranger Marty Paich, were later part of the session-man supergroup Toto, which though it smelled of calculation was essentially their high school garage band writ large. As with Steely Dan, the crisp perfection of their playing was celebrated by some, reviled by others, but they sold millions of albums, and their “Rosanna” still sounds good.

Disco, a producer’s music nonpareil that favored live musicians and lots of them, was a last blast of general employment. “Everybody was working,” Jeff Porcaro recalled in 1990 at a Modern Drummer roundtable, two years before his untimely death. “You worked four sessions a day, grooved, and you stayed up.” Then, around 1980, the machines started to take over — the Roland TR808 and the Linn Drum and the Yamaha DX7 and a rapidly evolving race of gizmos that by acceptably simulating actual instruments seemed then to spell the end of work for everyone but keyboard players and drum programmers. “The more sounds they could synthesize,” Lee Sklar recalled, “the less guys they would call to do things.”

Older players had gravitated to film and television work as new blood arrived and the rock world shifted beneath them. But soundtrack work started to dry up, too: In order to avoid union surcharges and back-end reuse payments to players — when a movie is released on video, for instance — film composers were going overseas to record, as they had during the 1959 musicians’ strike, and often to Seattle, where symphony players seceded from the American Federation of Musicians in order to attract work. The nature of soundtracks also changed: With Easy Rider, filmmakers discovered that old pop records could do in place of newly recorded scores. (Which does benefit the musicians who originally played on the sides — for every new use, they’re paid again for the session.) Players began to leave town — some went to Nashville, where living musicians were still seen as essential; some just went back home. Drummer Chuck Blackwell opened a stained-glass shop in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Leroy Vinnegar moved to Portland and became a central figure in that city’s lively jazz scene. Carol Kaye started playing live again, as did Tommy Tedesco. “This is the last phase of my career,” he told me. “I want to go out how I came in — as a player.”

There are still session musicians making money — even a living — in L.A., as there will be as long as there are solo artists in need of temporary backing and producers who believe there’s a commercial edge to be gained from a professional touch, and still something to be said for the human touch. If they are not well-known to the general public, their names are legend to the ranks of readers of Modern Drummer and Guitar Player and the alumni newsletters of the Berklee College of Music and the Musicians Institute of Technology (originally the Guitar Institute, and founded in 1977 by session player Howard Roberts). There are bassists Nathan East and James “Hutch” Hutchinson; perennially moonlighting keyboardists Benmont Tench (from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers) and Rami Jaffee (the Wallflowers); drummers Vinnie Colaiuta, Danny Frankel and Don Heffington, each with his stylistic niche; violinist Lili Haydn; and so many more.

Nevertheless, no one coming up today will challenge Blaine’s claim of some 35,000 recorded tracks, or even bassist Lyle Ritz’s 5,000. The factory runs on different equipment and at a different pace. Hit records are not knocked off in an hour anymore, between dates for a jingle and a soundtrack. The manufacture of pop music has become decentralized, demystified and automated; this has not made music any worse or better, but it has changed the parameters of what it might encompass, and how it might be made, and by whom. Much of the most interesting music today involves no musicians at all — in the old-time sense of someone who could “play an instrument” — or just steals them from ancient vinyl. And consider this: For $139, considerably less than the cost of hiring him for a session, you can purchase a CD-ROM titled Heavy Hitters Greatest Hits, which includes ready-to-assemble samples of Jim Keltner playing “multiple dry/ambient hard, medium and soft hits” on his very own drums.

Still, we should not count the humans out. There is nothing quite like what happens when real people — even ones paid to be there — play music in a room together. Even as deceptively square a piece of old suburban fun as “A Taste of Honey,” the song I heard playing on Tommy Tedesco’s kitchen radio that day, rewards a close listening; it may be pure product, but you might even say it grooves. The clean-shaven Latinisms of Herb Alpert’s trumpet, Tedesco’s light-handed guitar, Julius Wechter’s watery marimba, the easy-walking bass of Lyle Ritz, and Hal Blaine’s famous four-count bass-drum intro — his own invention — and tumbling shuffle-fills all approach real perfection: the Platonic ideal of . . . Hollywood pop mariachi. It’s played so well that the players disappear, taking with them every trace of effort, of ego, of distraction. All that’s left is music.
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