The Wrecking Crew: Midcentury Music's Unsung Heroes

Artwork by Em Spooner

Artwork by Em Spooner

by Karigan Wright

When L.A. needed musicians, The Wrecking Crew was called.

Most people are familiar with The Beach Boys, Sonny & Cher, The Crystals, Simon and Garfunkel, Frank Sinatra, and The Mamas & The Papas. However, people are rarely familiar with the names; Hal Braine, Carol Kaye, and Tommy Tedesco; the heroes often uncredited on famous albums of pop stars we know well.  

The Wrecking Crew was a collective of musicians active from the 1950s to the 1970s that were brought in by music producers when popular bands or soloists needed instrumental backing. The Wrecking Crew was made up of around 350 musicians. Stars grew to know them well, calling the crew every time they needed backing.

While the musical stars of the time valued and recognized The Wrecking Crew, the public was not as aware; that is until a documentary named after the group of session musicians responsible for backing the iconic albums of the 50 ’s, 60’s, and 70s. In 2008, Tommy Tedesco’s son, Denny, released “The Wrecking Crew,” a work in progress since the 90s, when Tommy  Tedesco found out he had cancer. Denny began to work on the project highlighting the talent of his father and the ensemble his father played in. The documentary features renowned musicians, including Brian Wilson, Cher, Dick Clark, Glen Campbell, Frank Zappa, and more, as they tell their stories of The Wrecking Crew, all recognizing just how much work they put in even though they weren’t being recognized for any of it. The Wrecking Crew wasn’t necessarily looking for fame. Most, if not all of them were grateful to make a living off of performing. But in any case, isn’t there the possibility of deceit in the famous artists and bands taking credit for work that wasn’t really theirs?

The Wrecking Crew were great contributors to popular music at the time, as Jimmy Webb remarked, “They were a product of the 40s, 50s, and 60s and they were great musicians who came of age when Rock n Roll came of age and here they are at the height of their physical powers with all of this talent and they’re in the right place and it’s the right time and they get to do this”.

The Wrecking Crew were the most talented musicians of their time, able to adapt to any music they were asked to play by the music industry’s favorites. Dick Clark commented, “The people we’re talking about played for so many people in so many different styles. That’s a fascinating thing.  They could walk into a pop sound and play it. They could do rhythm and blues. They could do soul music. I guess they could have done classics if they’d had to, but they had the magic touch.”

Even with all of the musical success centering around the work the Wrecking Crew played on, it seems essential to question the ethical side of these circumstances. Radio stations and audiences alike were completely oblivious to the fact that their favorite artists weren’t playing the instruments on some of their favorite albums. In fact, the record companies intentionally misled the music community to believe the artists were playing their own music. Carol Kaye even said, “We all knew the scam that the record companies perpetrated”.

It is important to assess what pattern the Wrecking Crew potentially established. Artists in the coming years only sang or played some of each track’s instruments, having their own group of musicians to provide support.

Was the deceit of lying to the music community even necessary? Nowadays many artists do not play their own music, but without the intentional lies, no one seems to care if their favorite band isn’t responsible for the entire ensemble of instruments. But what is a fan’s reaction when they find out their favorite artists didn’t play on all their records? As featured in Goldmine Magazine, Carol Kaye revealed how fans reacted to Brian Wilson revealing the boys didn’t play on many of their later tracks, saying, “I have never seen so much hate mail in my life,” Kaye admitted. “The public couldn’t handle it. I have people email me and say, ‘You played on my favorite hits. How dare you?’”. Besides these harsh reactions, most people today still do not know about The Wrecking Crew and are completely oblivious to who they’re really listening to on nearly any given record from the 60s or 70s.

It’s imperative to highlight Carol Kaye, one of several women in the group. As she told Tommy Tedesco the challenges she faced being a female musician, “It was more important to have a ‘Mrs.’ in front of your name than it was to have a career”.

The ironic part of this fabrication was that many members of The Wrecking Crew hated the music they played. Leon Russell specifically stands out, discussing his memories of recording “This Diamond Ring,” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys.

“We cut that record and I said ‘Oh, my God, I hate this shit.’ Two weeks later it was number ten or something. So, I have to give it to Snuff [the music producer] in terms of a certain kind of pop awareness. He had it, but it was not exactly my cup of tea,” Russell stated.

In fact, many of the musicians were jazz musicians, or musicians from a genre other than pop, playing music they happened to be completely unfamiliar with. The Wrecking Crew overcame this barrier, perfecting sight reading so that they may perform any piece of music that was thrown at them.

While the Wrecking Crew never got recognized for their work, some musicians couldn’t have cared less, they were just happy to make a living off a career they loved. However, some musicians, like Plas Johnson, were visibly upset when they didn’t get credited for their work. Goldmine even goes as far to infer that he was bothered, writing, “There is one visual in Denny Tedesco’s documentary with sax legend Plas Johnson describing his contribution on 1962’s  “Surfer’s Stomp,” released under the name The Mar-Kets, where his body language clearly shows that he was bothered by the fact that his name and likeness never appeared anywhere on the record,” giving a brief look into the different views each musician from The Wrecking Crew had.

Many musicians were doing it for the work, not for the fame. Nonetheless, there were several members of The Wrecking Crew who rose to fame, such as Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, Earl Palmer, and Steve Douglas.

“I was basically a jazz drummer, but I realized that I’m making a living off of it. I’m going to continue to do that, I got to play that like that’s my favorite music,” Earl Palmer remarked.

Some of the many standout records featuring The Wrecking Crew include “The Beat Goes On,” by Sonny & Cher, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” by The 5th Dimension, and “Good Vibrations,” by The Beach Boys.

As heard in “The Beat Goes On,” the Wrecking Crew had an incredible brass section. The musicians create a bright and vivid sound, melting into the deep and silky voices of both Sonny and Cher. You can even hear the rhythmic synthesizer and steady beat of the drum, keeping time to the musical chaos The Wrecking Crew was responsible for. This collective was an amazing addition to the talents of Sonny and Cher, perhaps even giving the singers more vocal freedom since they weren’t responsible for playing the backing tracks. “The Beat Goes On,” is a brassy anthem that evokes the in-your-face and extravagant feel prevalent in the late 60s.

Different musicians are highlighted in “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” The clear sound of the flute opens the piece. From there we experience the sharp and distinct accents the brass section places on the harmony, creating the airy yet rigid sound we all remember. The highlight of this piece, however, comes around halfway into the song, where the musicians make a tight and quick shift from the rather relaxed sound to a vibrant and abrasive brass section with loud and accented notes, creating a celebratory vibe. The Wrecking Crew truly played completely outside of their comfort zone, and in so doing creating an iconic piece still popular today.

The Wrecking Crew proves how diverse their sound can be with “Good Vibrations.” Here, they play the Beach Boys’ typical beachy and fun sound. As the song transitions to a more pop psychedelic feel, the talented musicians adapted, building a lively and chaotic mood. Their talent shines through as Brian Wilson continued to write more complex music, it never being too much for the crew. The Wrecking Crew complimented the heavenly sound of the Beach Boys’ vocals, assisting the track’s spiritual experience.

Though not to downplay the incredible talent of The Beach Boys, Sonny & Cher, and the like, without the Wrecking Crew, pop music would have been completely dissimilar to what we are now so familiar with. Would the Beach Boys release the iconic Pet Sounds if the Wrecking Crew wasn’t present to take on the insane music Brian Wilson was writing? Would Sonny & Cher have been in the eye of the public had they not been known for their musical ability? Would the 50s and 60s have been such an iconic part of music history had it not been for the Wrecking Crew? It is likely the answer to these questions are no, or at the very least not definite yes’s.

The Wrecking Crew was a crucial part of music in the 50s and 60s, which, based on the social and cultural movements at the time, was one of the most powerful and revolutionary times to be a musician. As we continue to share the legacy of our favorite artists, we must also celebrate the musicians we never knew we loved, crediting them for the work that has stayed unrecognized for decades.

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