The Wrecking Crew (music)
|"The Wrecking Crew"|
Members of the Wrecking Crew employed for a session at Gold Star Studios in the 1960s
|Also known as||
|Origin||Los Angeles, California|
|Years active||1960s–1970 s|
|Past members||See below|
"The Wrecking Crew" (sometimes called "the Clique" and "the First Call Gang") was a loose-knit circle of Los Angeles' top studio session musicians whose services were constantly in demand during their heyday in the 1960s and early 1970s. In varying configurations, often anonymously, they backed dozens of popular acts on numerous top-selling hits of the era. They are considered one of the most successful session recording units in music history.
The group's ranks began to materialize in the late 1950s, but in the early 1960s they fully coalesced into what became their most recognizable form when they became the de facto house band for Phil Spector, sometimes credited as the Phil Spector Wall of Sound Orchestra, playing on many of the hits that he produced at the time, and contributing to the development of his Wall of Sound production methods. After the initial success of Spector's records, they became the most requested session musicians in Los Angeles, playing behind many popular recording artists such as Jan & Dean, Sonny & Cher, Barry McGuire, the Mamas & the Papas, Frank Sinatra, and Nancy Sinatra. They were sometimes used as "ghost players" on recordings credited to rock groups, such as the first two albums by the Monkees, the Byrds' cover version of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" (1965), and the Beach Boys' album Pet Sounds (1966).
Keyboardist Leon Russell and guitarist Glen Campbell later became popular solo acts, while drummer Hal Blaine is reputed to have played on over 140 top ten hits (including approximately forty number one hits).[clarification needed] Other musicians that constituted the unit's ranks were drummer Earl Palmer, saxophonist Steve Douglas, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, and multi-instrumentalist Larry Knechtel (later a member of Bread).
Two of their members, Blaine and Palmer, were among the inaugural "sidemen" inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, while the entire Wrecking Crew was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2008, they were the subject of the documentary The Wrecking Crew.
The name "Wrecking Crew" is believed to have been coined by drummer and member Hal Blaine. According to Blaine, the name was derived from the impression that he and the younger studio musicians made on the business's older generation, who felt that, in their embrace of rock and roll, they were going to "wreck" the music industry. Other names, such as "the Clique" and "the First Call Gang", have been applied to the musicians. Blaine's account and even the "Wrecking Crew" name is strongly disputed by Carol Kaye, who has stated, "We were never known as that. Sometimes we were called "the Clique", but that's a Hal Blaine invented name for his own self-promotion in 1990, and most of us are really, really angry about that film, too." Research by Songfacts concurs, noting, "We couldn't find any references to 'The Wrecking Crew' in any publications from the era." In reference to accusations from Kaye that Blaine invented the moniker to sell his book, Blaine denied that anyone had ever heard the name "The Clique". Earlier, in the late 1950s, an embryonic version of the group was headed by Ray Pohlman that was sometimes referred to as "the First Call Gang", since they were the musicians many record producers would call first.
Background and context
In the era when the Wrecking Crew was most in demand, session players were usually active in local recording scenes concentrated in places such as New York City, Nashville, Memphis, Detroit, and Muscle Shoals, as well as Los Angeles, the Wrecking Crew's base of operations. Each local scene had its circle of "A-list" session musicians, such as the "A-Team" in Nashville, who played on numerous country and rock hits of the era, the group of musicians in Memphis, both The Memphis Boys and the musicians who provided the backup for Stax/Volt Records, and the Funk Brothers in Detroit, who played on many Motown recordings. At the time, multi-tracking equipment, though common, was less elaborate than today, and instrumental backing tracks were often recorded live in the studio. Musicians had to be available "on call" when producers needed a part to fill a last-minute time slot. Los Angeles was then considered the top recording destination in the United States—consequently studios were constantly booked around the clock, and session time was highly sought after and expensive. Songs had to be recorded quickly in the fewest possible takes. In this environment, Los Angeles producers and record executives had little patience for needless expense or wasted time and thus depended on the service of reliable standby musicians who could be counted on to record in a variety of styles with minimal practice time or takes, and help deliver hits in short order. The Wrecking Crew were the "go to" session musicians in Los Angeles during this era. The Wrecking Crew's members were musically versatile but typically had formal backgrounds in jazz or classical music, and were exceptional at sight reading. The talents of this group of "first call" players were used on almost every style of recording, including television theme songs, film scores, advertising jingles and almost every genre of American popular music from the Monkees to Bing Crosby.
The origins of the Wrecking Crew can be traced to the late 1950s with a group headed by bassist and guitarist Ray Pohlman, sometimes referred to as "the First Call Gang". Pohlman became perhaps the first session musician in Los Angeles to use an electric bass in recordings, and by the early 1960s became highly sought after in rock recordings, playing on many of the records by acts such as Jan and Dean and early records by the Beach Boys. Earl Palmer was originally from New Olreans and had recorded on many of the Crescent City rhythm and blues classics, such as with Fats Domino, often recorded at Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studio. He moved to Los Angeles in the late 1950s and in the 1960s would play on hit records by a vast array of artists such as Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Glen Campbell, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Paul Anka, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, the Ronettes, the Everly Brothers, Willie Nelson, Sonny & Cher, and Neil Young. Along with Pohlman and Palmer, some of the early members of the unit in the late 1950s were Mel Pollen, Bill Aken (aka Zane Ashton), Barney Kessel, and Al Casey. Their home base at the time was Hollywood’s General Service Studio.
Peak years 1962–73
As Phil Spector's session unit
In 1962, Spector started a new label, Philles Records and set about recording the song "He's a Rebel", which would be credited to the Crystals. He enlisted the aid of his high-school friend, saxophonist Steve Douglas, who was also working as a consultant paid to recruit session personnel for studios. Douglas helped him corral the backing unit, which included Pohlman, guitarists Howard Roberts and Tommy Tedesco, pianist Al DeLory, upright bassist Jimmy Bond, and Hal Blaine on drums. They booked Studio A at Gold Star Studios, which became the preferred recording facility for Spector, known for its deeply reverberant echo chambers. Spector's records backed by the Wrecking Crew usually featured arrangements by Jack Nitzsche. For Spector the unit operated under the name "the Phil Spector Wall of Sound Orchestra" and were an essential component in creating his "wall of sound" starting with "He's a Rebel" and a series of several more hits by the Crystals ("Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Then He Kissed Me") and other girl groups, such as the Ronettes ("Be My Baby" and "Baby, I Love You"). It was on these recordings that the Wrecking Crew emerged in their most recognizable form and became the most coveted session players in Los Angeles' thriving recording scene. Spector went on to produce other Wrecking Crew–backed records by the Righteous Brothers ("You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'", "Ebb Tide", and "Unchained Melody") and Ike and Tina Turner ("River Deep - Mountain High").[nb 1]
Choice of noted producers
The Wrecking Crew proceeded to work with dozens of other noted producers, such as Brian Wilson, Terry Melcher, Lou Adler, Bones Howe, Jimmy Bowen, and Mike Post. Beach Boys member and songwriter Brian Wilson used the Wrecking Crew's talents on many of his mid-1960s productions, including the songs "Good Vibrations" and "California Girls", and albums, such as Pet Sounds and the original recordings for Smile. Members of the Wrecking Crew served as "ghost players" on the first single by the Byrds, "Mr. Tambourine Man", because Columbia Records—namely, producer Terry Melcher—did not feel that the Byrds (except for Roger McGuinn) were seasoned enough to deliver the kind of perfect take needed, particularly in light of the short amount of time and limited budget allocated to the newly signed and unproven group—on a label that was only just beginning to embrace rock. Lou Adler was one of Los Angeles' top music executives and produced records by acts such as Jan and Dean and the Mamas & the Papas, which were often backed by the Wrecking Crew, as on "California Dreamin'" and "Monday Monday". Bones Howe had worked as an engineer under Adler and used the Wrecking Crew when he produced hits by the Association (including "Windy", "Along Comes Mary", and "Never My Love") and the 5th Dimension (including "Up, Up and Away", "Stoned Soul Picnic", and "Aquarius"). Sonny and Cher recorded several hits backed by the Wrecking Crew including "I Got You Babe" and "The Beat Goes On", which were produced by Sonny Bono, who had previously worked as Phil Spector's aide. Notable artists who employed the Wrecking Crew's talents included Jan & Dean, Bobby Vee, Nancy Sinatra, the Grass Roots, Simon & Garfunkel, Glen Campbell, the Partridge Family, David Cassidy (in his solo work), Cher (in her early solo work), the Carpenters, John Denver and Nat King Cole. During this heady period the Wrecking Crew worked long hours and 15-hour days were not unusual, but they were paid exceedingly well. Carol Kaye commented, "I was making more money than the President." Mike Post produced Mason Williams' 1968 hit "Classical Gas".
Carol Kaye provided an exception to the otherwise male-dominated world of Los Angeles session work in the 1960s. Originally a guitarist, she began doing session work in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, playing behind Richie Valens on "La Bamba" and in the 1960s becoming a regular contributor on Phil Spector's recordings as well as on Beach Boys' hits, such as "Help Me Rhonda" not to mention their subsequent Pet Sounds and Smile LPs. Ray Pohlman, who had assumed an early leadership position in the Wrecking Crew, became the musical director for the Shindig! TV show in 1965, resulting in reduced studio work from that point on. After Pohlman's move to television, Kaye began to gravitate to the electric bass. She supplied the signature bass line in Sonny and Cher's "The Beat Goes On" released in 1967. Other notable electric bassists who played with the Wrecking Crew were Joe Osborn, Bill Pitman, Max Bennett, Red Callender, Chuck Rainey, and Bob West, as well as Jimmy Bond, Lyle Ritz, Chuck Berghofer, who played acoustic upright bass.
Drummer Earl Palmer contributed to numerous hits in the 1960s with the Wrecking Crew, including Phil Spector-produced tracks such as Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" in 1964 and Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep - Mountain High" in 1966. Hal Blaine, with his abundance of musical skills, personality, and charisma, is also mentioned as having a prominent role in the Wrecking Crew's success during their heyday. Blaine (born Hal Simon Belsky in Holyoke, Massachusetts) spent most of his childhood in Hartford, Connecticut, but his family moved to southern California in the late 1940s where he became a professional drummer. Though he had played primarily big band and jazz, he took a job in Tommy Sands' rockabilly group in the late 1950s, discovering a newfound appreciation for rock and roll, which by the beginning of the new decade led to session work in Los Angeles studios, where he became acquainted with Earl Palmer and saxophonist Steve Douglas. Blaine played on Elvis Presley's 1961 hit "Can't Help Falling in Love". Shortly thereafter, he began playing on sessions for Phil Spector, quickly becoming the producer's preferred drummer, and, along with Earl Palmer, became one of the two top session drummers in Los Angeles. Blaine is reputed to have played on over 140 top ten hits including approximately forty top ten hits, such as "I Got You Babe" by Sonny & Cher, "Mr Tambourine Man" by the Byrds, and "Strangers in the Night" by Frank Sinatra, as well as countless others. Jim Gordon began as an understudy of Blaine, but with the passage of time emerged as a first call player in the Wrecking Crew, playing on parts of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album and on hits such as "Classical Gas" and "Wichita Lineman". He would eventually play in Derek and the Dominoes in the early 1970s. Jim Keltner is sometimes mentioned in connection with the Wrecking Crew, and though he is more often associated with the later generation of session players who succeeded the Wrecking Crew in terms of popularity in the 1970s, he had befriended Hal Blaine in the 1960s and would later play with the Wrecking Crew on John Lennon's Rock 'n' Roll album recorded in 1973.[nb 2] Other drummers who played in the Wrecking Crew were Frank Capp, John Clauder, and Joe Porcaro. Gary Coleman played vibraphone and a variety of percussion instruments and contributed to works such as the soundtrack of the musical Hair and Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water album. Some of the other Wrecking Crew percussionists were Julius Wechter, Milt Holland, Gene Estes, Victor Feldman, Frank Capp, and Joe Porcaro.
Guitarist Al Casey continued to work for many years as a session musician. In similar fashion to Ray Pohlman who became the musical director for the Shindig! TV series, Aken became the musical director for Shock Theater, both shows being nationally televised. Aken was the musical director for the syndicated radio show The Country Call Line in the mid-1980s and also conceived, arranged, and produced the music for the first Farm Aid radio special in collaboration with Willie Nelson and LeRoy Van Dyke. Several members of the Wrecking Crew played in the house band for 1964's The T.A.M.I Show, which was captured on film and sent to theaters around the country. In camera shots showing the right-hand side of the stage, musical director Jack Nitzsche; drummer Hal Blaine; bassist Jimmy Bond; guitarists Tommy Tedesco, Bill Aken, and Glen Campbell; upright bassist Lyle Ritz; pianist Leon Russell; saxophonist Plas Johnson; and others can be spotted providing incidental music and backup for many of the famous acts who appeared on the bill, such as Chuck Berry, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and Lesley Gore.
Glen Campbell later achieved solo fame as a pop-country singer-guitarist in the late 1960s and 1970s. Leon Russell and Mac Rebennack (as Dr. John) both went on to be successful songwriters and had hit singles and albums. Nino Tempo, with his sister Carol (under her stage name April Stevens), had a U.S. number 1 hit song in 1963, "Deep Purple". Drummer Hal Blaine has played on tens of thousands of recording sessions, including Sinatra's, and has been mentioned by Drummerworld as perhaps the most prolific drummer in history. Among his vast list of recordings, Blaine is credited with having played on at least forty U.S. number 1 hits and more than 150 Top Ten records. Jim Keltner went on to a successful career as a session drummer for much of the 1970s–90s; he played in Ringo Starr's All-Starr band and was the drummer on both albums by the supergroup Traveling Wilburys, where he is credited as "Buster Sidebury".
The crew backed dozens of popular acts and were one of the most successful groups of studio musicians in music history. In 2008, the Wrecking Crew were featured in the documentary film The Wrecking Crew, directed by Tommy Tedesco's son, Denny Tedesco. In 2014, its musicians were depicted in the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. Two of their members, drummers Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, were among the inaugural "sidemen" inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, and the entire Wrecking Crew was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in 2007.
List of members
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- Electric bass: Max Bennett, Red Callender, Carol Kaye, Larry Knechtel, Joe Osborn, Bill Pitman, Ray Pohlman, Bob West
- Double bass (upright bass): Chuck Berghofer, Jimmy Bond, Lyle Ritz
- Conductor and arranger: Jack Nitzsche
- Drums: Hal Blaine, John Clauder, Joe Porcaro, Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, Earl Palmer
- Guitar: Bill Aken, Doug Bartenfeld, Dennis Budimer, James Burton, Glen Campbell, Al Casey, David Cohen, Jerry Cole, Mike Deasy, John Goldthwaite, Rene Hall, Carol Kaye, Barney Kessel, Lou Morrell, Don Peake, Bill Pitman, Ray Pohlman, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), Howard Roberts, Irv Rubins, Louie Shelton, Billy Strange, Tommy Tedesco, Al Vescovo, Vinnie Bell, P.F. Sloan
- Harmonica: Tommy Morgan
- Keyboards: Al De Lory, Larry Knechtel, Mike Melvoin, Don Randi, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), Mike (Michel) Rubini, Leon Russell
- Percussion: Larry Bunker, Frank Capp, Gary L. Coleman, Gene Estes, Victor Feldman, Milt Holland, Joe Porcaro, Julius Wechter - Note: though not usually mentioned as an actual member of the Wrecking Crew, Sonny Bono contributed percussion to some of their sessions for Phil Spector.
- Saxophone: Allen Butler, Gene Cipriano, Steve Douglas, Bill Green, Jim Horn, Plas Johnson, Jackie Kelso, Jay Migliori, Nino Tempo
- Trombone: Richard "Slyde" Hyde, Lew McCreary, Dick Nash
- Trumpet: Bud Brisbois, Roy Caton, Chuck Findley, Ollie Mitchell, Tony Terran
- Flute: Jim Horn
- Vocals: Ron Hicklin Singers often performed backup vocals on many of the same songs on which the Wrecking Crew had played instrumental tracks.
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