LA studio musicians who recorded the soundtrack of the 1960s profiled in Denny Tedesco’s feature documentary
By Linda A. Rapka
You may not know their names, but you know their music.
The soundtrack of the late 1950s and 1960s was largely recorded by a group of Los Angeles studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. The Beach Boys, Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Sonny and Cher, Jan & Dean, Elvis Presley, the Monkees, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Mamas & the Papas, Simon and Garfunkel, the Tijuana Brass, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Rivers, and even Alvin and the Chipmunks are but a small few of the hundreds of popular artists for whom the Crew recorded, though more often than not were left uncredited on the album sleeve.
Typically knocking out several tracks in a single three-hour session, this core group of L.A. musicians played on anything from rock tunes to TV and film scores, jazz arrangements to cartoon soundtracks, and was the group responsible for Phil Spector’s famed Wall of Sound. They could churn out any style of music with unmatched skill. Hopping from studio to studio, the musicians during their heyday sometimes played up to four dates per day.
When Wrecking Crew member Tommy Tedesco, the most recorded guitarist in history, was diagnosed with a terminal illness in the late 1990s, his son Denny decided that the world needed to know the story of his father and the group of musicians who recorded the unmistakable soundtrack of the ’60s. He immediately began taping interviews with his dad and other Wrecking Crew members, and what he ended up with is nothing short of incredible. Now, two decades later, Denny Tedesco’s feature documentary film “The Wrecking Crew” debuts in select U.S. theaters, on demand, and on iTunes March 13.
Originally interviewed by Overture in 2008, we recently followed up with Denny about his incredible journey. Here is our updated interview with “The Wrecking Crew” fimmaker Denny Tedesco:
If someone has a favorite song from the ‘60s, chances are good they’ll hear it in this film.
It’s probably one of the biggest soundtracks in movies because there are so many songs. When putting it together I would meet with people – I won’t mention names – but someone came up with the idea that since there were so many songs, we should get “sound-alikes.” I said, are you kidding?! The whole point is about the sound. These people were the sound! The other thing people would say was, “Well could you narrow it down to 20 songs?” I said no. You don’t have the music, you don’t have the doc, ‘cause it’s really about the quantity of music this group of people in Los Angeles at the time did. They went from Sinatra to the Chipmunks, from Zappa to the Beach Boys – it was all over the place. They didn’t have technically “a sound.” They could play with anybody.
Your journey with this documentary began in 1996, when you began conducting your initial interviews. Now, two decades later, after tireless countless film festival circuits and fundraising events, “The Wrecking Crew” documentary is finally seeing its theatrical release. Was there ever a time you felt like giving up?
I don’t think there was ever a time I thought about giving up. But I was more concerned that it might never happen. There was that point in 2006 that I realized I had been working on this for 10 years and had nothing to show for it. In my life, I had quit many things: guitar, piano, sax and even accordion. So this was the project in life I wasn’t going to quit on. It wasn’t until 2010 when we started taking donations to help take care of the licensing, did I feel we actually could make this happen.
The biggest hurdle in releasing this film was paying the licensing fees, which was initially estimated to be $700,000.
Let’s just say the labels, publishers and the AFM helped out making sure we were able to release this film. When I went to the AFM in 2006 to discuss it, we knew we had an uphill battle with all the costs. It wasn’t so much the licensing, but the reality of documentaries. Docs do not make money. They are not blockbusters. So why would a distributor want to take a chance on investing something at the time seemed like it couldn’t make its money back? I personally didn’t believe that, but it was hard to convince anyone. So we had to basically get to zero before someone would release the film. We had gone as far as I could go by making the film over the 12 years at that point. I had maxed out the credit cards (rule number one in Hollywood: don’t use your credit cards!). I remember the initial meeting at AFM, saying, “As a director/producer, I need the best price possible from the AFM, but as a son and friend of the musicians, I want to make as much as possible for the musicians.” It was a thrill to have musicians calling and asking me what that AFM check was for. It made my day.
How did you secure the rights to the music?
The record companies have been amazing. Warner Bros. was one of the companies I first met, and they said, “We’re not gonna mess with you. It’s not a documentary about a chicken coop. It’s about our business and these people. We want this to be out there.” This isn’t like a kiss-and-tell book, this is a positive look at something that is not always so positive.
Your Kickstarter campaign was a huge success, becoming the third top documentary in the crowdfunding site’s history to reach such a high amount ($312,000). How was this money used to finally get the doc ready for its long-awaited theatrical release?
When we were initially looking to do Kickstarter, we had to decide how much to go for. In Kickstarter, if you don’t reach your goal, you don’t receive the money. So it’s a scary thought. Only 1% of projects over $100,000 make it and only 49% of all projects reach their goal.
Over the years, I was paying down the bills for the labels and the publishers. Every donation that came in, I turned around and took care of a license. It wasn’t until 2013 that we knew how much the AFM bill was going to be. It was $200,000, which I felt was very fair. Like I said, I wanted to pay this bill more than any. So we set up the Kickstarter drive and went for $250,000 which would cover the AFM; the other $50,000 was for the fees, rewards, and shipping. Many people thought I was nuts to go for that high of an amount. But I knew I was tired of hearing my own voice and I felt if I don’t go for the whole amount, I should give up. We built an audience over the years on Facebook and an email list that was very large. But the extra money helped out tremendously. We still had $100,000 to go in other licensing and editing costs that were looming.
How did these musicians come to be known as “The Wrecking Crew”?
It’s become something of folklore almost. The legend goes they were called the Wrecking Crew ‘cause the older guys, the traditional studio guys from the ‘40s and ‘50s, weren’t taking the rock dates ‘cause it was beneath them, so they said these guys were gonna wreck the business.
The Wrecking Crew is an unparalleled phenomenon in recording history. How did this one group of musicians come to play so many different sessions together?
When they’re breaking in the early ‘50s and early ‘60s, rock ‘n’ roll was still in its infancy, as were recording techniques. You didn’t have ProTools, DVs, CD players, computers to help you learn how to play music or even record music. In those days you had to be all in one room together as a band, together ‘til the end, everybody flawless.
What inspired you to make the film?
I started the documentary when I knew my father was going to pass away, in 1995, when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I knew he didn’t have much time and I figured we’ve already lost a lot of these musicians – Ray Pohlman was gone, Steve Douglas was gone. I felt if I don’t record this, nobody’s going to. There were so many stories I used to hear, the laughter from all these musicians. It was always fun listening to these guys. So I decided I’d put together a roundtable discussion to start things off, and in 1996 brought together Carol Kaye, Hal Blaine, my father and Plas Johnson. I was influenced by “Broadway Danny Rose,” the Woody Allen movie where they sit around that coffee shop and just talk about Danny Rose. It was like you were a voyeur to this conversation, and that’s what I wanted this to be. Unfortunately my father passed away before he saw anything cut.
One of the first star talents to come on board was Cher. She was 16 when she worked with these guys as a backup singer for Phil Spector’s groups. She knew them as the older guys – they were all in their late 20s and 30s, and she was just a kid. Then Dick Clark gave me an interview. Then I got Julius Wechter and Lew McCreary. Julius was a great percussion player and Lew was a great trombonist. That was a rush in time because I knew Julius was sick. I didn’t know Lou was sick. They both passed away about six months later.
When was the main period of recording for the Crew?
It was a time period from the late ‘50s early ‘60s to almost the late ‘60s, where things started turning in a different direction. Group albums became popular at that time, so now you didn’t want so many studio musicians on some of these albums. The highlight year for record dates was probably 1967 or ‘68 in that area. There were 400 dates, contracts that we could find. If you take weekends and holidays off, you must be doing three or four dates a day.
How did they feel about being largely uncredited on the several hit records they played on?
These guys didn’t complain. They weren’t whiners. They enjoyed what they did. They got paid for what they did. My father used to tell his students, “You pick up the guitar because you love to play guitar. You don’t start because you want to make a living of it. If you get paid for it, it’s a bonus. If you make a living at it, you’re in a small minority – congratulations.”
With documentaries like “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” it seems like there’s a strong public interest in what goes on behind the scenes.
I was thrilled that it came out, but I was more thrilled that it was successful, because it’s basically the same kind of behind-the-scenes story. Mine’s a different slant on it, but it does show that the public is interested and wants to know. There is a curtain, and us as humans it’s natural that we want to learn something new.
What was it like to be growing up, hearing all these songs on the radio and knowing that was your dad playing on most of them?
Most of the time I never knew it was my dad on the radio. These guys were doing three to four dates a day, they didn’t even know they were on some of these songs! There’s certain songs, like the Beach Boys where you know Hal was playing all the time, but my father wouldn’t know. You figure these guys did two, three, four dates a day for a while, and sometimes the groups weren’t there, it was just laying down the tracks. Don’t forget, there were hundreds of hits, but there were thousands of bombs. I didn’t realize the impact he and his friends were making. I don’t think they had an idea of the impact of what was going to happen 40, 50 years later, the fact that people are still listening to these songs. When you go 50 years before them in 1960, you’re talking 1910. Were they listening to songs from 1910? It never happened.
How was it trying to find a balance telling your father’s story and the story of the Wrecking Crew as a whole?
It was a big problem. When I started the film, I was never going to focus on my father, and I surely wasn’t going to be part of this. It was about this group of musicians. A friend of mine looked at our first 30-minute cut a few years ago and said, ‘It’s a History Channel documentary.’ That killed me. But he was right. The way I made that transition was by going, Here’s a story about my father and his extended family, the Wrecking Crew. Because you can’t have one and not the other.
It’s about having the story and not just the facts, which is what you did with this film.
I think unconsciously I was trying not to let go. I didn’t want Dad to leave and this was my way of holding on.
The film itself took 12 years to complete.
If I’d finished this in two years, five years or eight years, even 10, it would not have been as good because not just what I got later, but understanding the story more. What I’ve noticed about the film is the fact its working on two levels. Musicians understand it from the inside. They understand what it takes to be a musician, and you’ve got the music lovers, who are blown away – “Wow, that’s what happened?!”
It was quite the labor of love.
I used to hate that term. But it’s true. I had to finance it myself. It might have taken 12 years to actually make it, but it took a lifetime to understand it.
Throughout the years since you developed the initial cut, you’ve been adding updates here and there. How many incarnations of the film have you done over the years?
There were a few small changes, but small changes can really make a difference. We added new graphics, 5.1 mix, and a few more interviews that included Peter Tork and Al Jardine. I found some great footage of the guys in the studio with Brian Wilson on “Good Vibrations,” and saw my father in the studio with Hal, Larry, and Joe Osborn at a Mamas and Papas recording. But the big change for me was adding Leon Russell into the film, which is the cherry on top.
The big day is almost here, and the world will finally know the hidden story of “The Wrecking Crew.”
This film would not be here if it wasn’t for those supporters. When things got really tough mentally, it was the emails that came in that helped me keep going. At the end of the film, I took the names from the AFM contracts that we had and added them to the credits. There was nothing more satisfying than having another child of a string player coming up to me in tears at the end of a screening. She just saw her dad’s name on the screen. This is her story as well. I hope the average public understands that musicians love what they do, but they also have families to support. Our dads and moms went to work like any other parent. Except my dad had a classical guitar, 12-string, mandolin, banjo, Telecaster and amp in the trunk instead of a hammer and saw.