The top flight crew of L.A. studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew acquired their name, legend has it, because they “were wrecking the business for everyone else,” writes Janet Maslin at The New York Times, meaning older session players who couldn’t keep up. Drummers like Hal Blaine (“who justifiably calls himself ’10 of Your Favorite Drummers’ on his Web site”) and guitarists like Tommy Tedesco and Carol Kaye could play anything put in front of them perfectly, in one take, with the style and perfect timing that characterize the absolute best rock, folk, pop, and soul of the 1960s.
With some exceptions, this group kept a low profile and have only become known in subsequent retrospectives that reveal just how much they contributed to the music of the era. The answer is: more than anyone surely suspected at the time. But “the Wrecking Crew was not supposed to attract attention. Groups like the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Monkees and many others didn’t care to point out why they sounded so much better on records than on the road.”
Not only did members of the Crew “work miracles,” playing a “first-take, no-glitch version of ‘The Little Old Lady From Pasadena,’” for example, but in many cases, they composed iconic parts without which songs like “The Beat Goes On” or “These Boots Were Made For Walking” would probably not have become hits.
“Nine times out of ten the producer or arranger would tell us to use the charts as a guide, that’s all,” Blaine remembered. “We were encouraged to go for it, to go beyond what had been written. We had the opportunity to create, to be a team of arrangers.”
Though mostly unknown to listeners, the couple dozen or so musicians in this group of exceptional performers did produce two major stars, Leon Russell and Glen Campbell, who toured with the Beach Boys in the mid-60s until he became a major superstar with the Jimmy Webb-penned songs “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman,” both recorded, of course, with members of the Crew. They played on jazz records and recorded iconic TV theme songs like The Twilight Zone, Green Acres, Bonanza, M*A*S*H*, Batman, Mission: Impossible, and Hawaii Five-O.
The only female member of the Crew, Carol Kaye, was described as “the greatest bass player I’ve ever met,” by no less than Brian Wilson. Reported to have played on something like 10,000 sessions, she wrote basslines for songs from “California Girls” to the “Theme from Shaft.”
You can learn much more about the once-hidden work of some of the best studio musicians in the country, rivals of the best players in Motown, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals, in the documentary above directed by Danny Tedesco, son of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tony Tedesco. Or Kent Hartman’s book, The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret.
Listen to a YouTube playlist of classic Wrecking Crew tracks here. And see why when you thought you were listening to The Byrds, Beach Boys, Mamas and Papas, Monkees and even Simon & Garfunkel, you were really often listening to the Wrecking Crew.