Monday, March 09, 2015

The Wrecking Crew: Trust Me, You’ve Heard Them Before

They never had a hard and fast membership, but their big sound was immediately recognizable, especially for the record producers who kept them constantly gigging in the Los Angeles studio scene throughout most of the 1960s and 1970s. If you played a number of studio sessions with Earl Palmer, Plas Johnson, Al Casey, Carol Kaye, Hal Blaine, Don Randi, and Tommy Tedesco then you were probably a member—and you could surely lay down a killer groove. Filmmaker Denny Tedesco pays tribute to his guitarist father and all his friends in the hugely entertaining documentary, The Wrecking Crew (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The Wrecking Crew played with just about everyone, including the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Monkees, Nat King Cole, Sonny & Cher, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, Herb Alpert, and the Chipmunks. They were Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. They were largely unknown to the record buying public, but at least one Wrecking Crew veteran made good as a solo act: Glen Campbell. Naturally, whenever Campbell returned to the studio, he made sure his old pals were the ones backing him. His road band always resented it, yet he was really being true to his roots. They powered six consecutive Record of the Year Grammy winners, but they rarely saw their names on record jackets. In many cases, they were the recording industry’s equivalent of a ghost writer. Still, it was a pretty good living while it lasted.

For obvious reasons, the musical licensing was an absolute nightmare that has delayed the film’s release for years. It is a truly decades-in-the-making project that Tommy Tedesco (1930-1997) sadly never lived to see completed. Yet, the film is better thought of as an upbeat celebration of the musicians and their music than a bittersweet elegy. In fact, it is often wildly funny. These cats (and bassist Carol Kaye) can tell a good story, particularly the wickedly droll Blaine, who shows a drummer’s perfect sense of timing with one zinger after another.

There is nostalgia in Tedesco’s doc, but there is an even greater sense of camaraderie. It is also gratifying to see these unsung heroes of pop music finally getting their due. Hard core jazz record collectors will especially enjoy hearing from Don Randi (who recorded some excellent sessions for Pacific Jazz) and Plas Johnson, who might be the most widely heard tenor saxophonist in the world. Seriously, you know that “Pink Panther Theme?” That was him.

Wrecking Crew will bring to mind films like Standing in the Shadow of Motown and Muscle Shoals, which also paid tribute to some of the under-appreciated artists who helped make so many beloved hit records. They are all very good films, but Wrecking Crew is far more fun. Worth the wait, it delivers a lot of laughter and generous helpings of dearly licensed grooviness. It is just a blast from start to finish—and audiences will want to hang through the credits because there is a stinger worth sticking around for. Highly recommended for anyone who has ever listened to music recorded in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, The Wrecking Crew opens this Friday (3/13) in New York, at the IFC Center.