BY JONATHAN VALANIA A little known fact outside of musician circles is that the instrumental tracks of many of the most beloved and iconic pop songs of the 1960s — The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” The Mamas & Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” The Monkees’ “Mary Mary,” Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas,” The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” to name but a few — were not performed by the artists credited. In reality, it was a crack team of Los Angeles session players who came to be known collectively as The Wrecking Crew that is responsible for what has become the soundtrack of our lives.
Rarely credited on album sleeve liner notes, the Wrecking Crew players would show up at the studio, lay down their parts, collect a check for union scale, and then race off to another studio to lay down the indelible riffs, grooves and hooks that would score a million wedding receptions, birthdays, bar mitzvahs, graduation parties and, really, any place where generations come together and both young and old can all agree, like they will agree on anything again, with a nod of the head and a shake of the hips: these songs are deathless.
It was a good gig while it lasted, with many of the Wrecking Crew pulling down upwards of a couple hundred grand a year. But by the late 60s the times had a-changed and bands insisted on performing their own instrumental tracks and work for most of the Wrecking Crew dried up or, in session player parlance, ‘the phone stopped ringing’ and some of the greatest players of 20th Century pop music faded into the twilight of obscurity, forgotten and unknown. Enter Denny Tedesco, son of Tommy Tedesco [pictured, below left], one of the Wrecking Crews’ most gifted and prolific guitarists, who played on everything from “The Batman Theme” and the “The Green Acres Theme” to just about every hit from the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, Phil Spector, the 5th Dimension, the Monkees, and Elvis Presley.
As a tribute to his father who passed away in 1997, Denny vowed to tell the story of the Wrecking Crew and assembled most of the surviving members to share their war stories on camera. The resulting documentary, The Wrecking Crew Movie, a must-see for anybody who likes music, will be screened tomorrow at 5 PM at the Annenberg Center as part of the XPN Music Film Festival. Denny Tedesco will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A session.
PHAWKER: When and how did you figure out that your dad wasn’t like the other dads?
TOMMY TEDESCO: Not until high school. When he did his own Jazz album and I heard his name on the Jazz station I started getting hip to him as a player and not just a dad. Even though I knew he played guitar with lots of groups and tv shows, I never realized the impact he had made.
PHAWKER: How does a teenager possibly rebel against a cool cat session player father?
TOMMY TEDESCO: It was tough. You couldn’t get anything by him! He knew way too much. He had ears like an elephant in the studios and at home. He could hear you on the phone in the other side of the house and bust you before you got out the door. He could see in our eyes, what we were up to and he would bust us with comments, like, “There they go again, staring at the ceiling”. We thought we could get away with smoking the pot, but never did.
He didn’t do any drugs but was always around it. His drugs of choice was cigarettes, coffee and pasta. But there were times, I could be up front with him knowing he would be there to listen. I remember coming home from college and asking to go to dinner with just the two of us. I told him why I was broke and other things. He wasn’t there to judge and I knew that. The great thing was telling him how I got away with an escapade in High School and how I got away. I think he was actually proud of me with that one…I got one on him finally.
PHAWKER: Out of all the iconic songs your dad played on, which was his favorite and why?
TOMMY TEDESCO: When I hear his gut string on “Memories” with Elvis, it means a lot. Its from the comeback special and it’s just Elvis and my dad at the beginning. But I was in a hotel last year in New York and this little four-year-old child was singing the Batman theme to his mom and dad. It made me smile and laugh knowing who played it first.
PHAWKER: Considering how they routinely came up with hooks, riffs and beats that were central to the songs becoming hits, how was it they never got a share of the publishing?
TOMMY TEDESCO: Here is the thing my father said and believed in. He went to work and his job was to play for smiles. If the leader, conductor or artist was smiling, he did his job. As he said, he may have been on hundreds of hits, he was on thousands of bombs. And he never gave that guy his money back.
Don’t forget, they did get a paid well and they didn’t have to mess around with too many jokers. They were in demand so they could call double scale and triple on occasion. As long as he was on a union Contract, he was cool. He knew it would pay off later as well. He would rather have his name on the contract than on the album sleeve. He retired with a pension and put his kids through school. That’s hard to do as a musician. Especially now.
PHAWKER: Legendary bassist Carol Kaye [pictured, below right], who besides being the only female member of the Wrecking Crew laid down all those crucial bass parts on Pet Sounds, boasts in the film that one year she made more than the president of the United States. How much did the Wrecking Crew players make in a good year? What was union scale?
TOMMY TEDESCO: That’s a good question. I want to say a musician at the time must have been making a couple of hundred thousand at the time in the 60s. Maybe 30 and hour in the early 60s. But then you could charge double scale if you were in demand. And then you got paid more if you played more than one instrument on a session. That was called Doubles. If you played an acoustic to start and then a Banjo, the banjo was 50% on top of that. It just added more and more when you used multiple instruments on one session. It was a sliding scale but it worked wonderfully for these musicians that played guitar. Its sucked for the string section. No doubles. Scale back then was $67.50 for a three hour session.
PHAWKER: Drummer Hal Blaine [pictured, above right]’s story is the saddest, he’s kind of a Willy Loman-esque figure. To go from playing on “Good Vibrations” and “Be My Baby” and a zillion other hits to a security guard in Arizona — the mind reels. And yet none of them come across as bitter, like they all knew the rules when they got in the game. It’s kinda heartbreaking that your father was almost grateful for his stroke because it gave him a good excuse for why ‘the phone no longer rings’. Can you speak to all that?
TOMMY TEDESCO: What was bumming me out as a son didn’t really bother him in his later years. In 60 years of age in 1990, he was a better player and musician than he was at 25 or 30. He was a monster with that instrument. But work changed. It was a natural progression that all of us run into eventually. One of my favorite lines in the movie came from Bones Howe the producer and engineer of so many songs. My question to him was, “What happens when you’re at the top of your game and then you’re not getting the calls anymore”. He paused and said it this way. “You have the ramp up for about 5 years and then you’re at the top for about 10 years. Then you have the ramp down. Its not about staying at the top, its about taking that ramp down as long as possible.”
PHAWKER: Any funny/crazy/cool stories your dad told you about working with Brian Wilson and Phil Spector?
TOMMY TEDESCO: Spector was always an odd duck but he and my father got along fine. Phil was a frustrated Jazz guitar player. So he loved the guitarists. Thats why he had Barney Kessel and Howard Roberts on the gigs. They were the kinds of Jazz guitar. If Phil was working into the breaks my father would bust his chops and phil liked that. Brian was just a sweet kid that wrote songs. I don’t think my father had any idea what Brian had planned. I don’t think any of them did until they heard the songs.