“The Wrecking Crew” shares stories of 1960s session musicians

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The stories behind the “The Wrecking Crew” come from a group of Los Angeles-based studio musicians like Frank Zappa, Brian Wilson and Glen Campbell, who were behind some of the biggest hits from the 1960s.

Session players were bought into the studio for a number of reasons. Those in the band weren’t as skilled as musicians that they could hire to record. In the early 1960s there was only a single track so no one was allowed to make a mistake because everyone would have to start over. Most of the backing track from The Beach Boys in that decade didn’t actually feature any of The Beach Boys but session players instead.

The son of session player Tommy Tedesco, Denny Tedesco both produced and directed the documentary starting when his dad was battling cancer in the late ’90s. It took him 19 years to complete the film from start to distribution. It premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2008.

“Heyday for session players were early 1960s to ’67 or ’68,” Tedesco says. “The reason they were in the heyday is because rock ‘n’ roll was starting to kick in. Record companies don’t believe that rock ‘n’ roll is staying.”

The musicians came from a variety of backgrounds. Some were classically trained while others couldn’t read a note. Some were more modern while others specialized in jazz and country. They all felt fortunate to be in the places they were, Tedesco says. They were barely out of their teen years, and they were being paid to play an instrument which was basically unheard of at that point.

“They were never envious of the fact that no one really knew their names,” Tedesco says. “They’re going to make monster hits. That’s the key thing. Hundreds of hits, thousands of bombs. You go work and do the best you can.”

While some of the names people did learn to know, most of the session players never had their chance in the spotlight. Luckily, that was never what some of them were after. Once their job was done and the need for session players was starting to go extinct, many of them began touring with bands or they went into TV and film.

“When I interviewed Glen [Campbell] in 2003, there was a great example,” Tedesco says. “He loved those days when he wasn’t the guy… Glen was a session guy first. As soon as he had the responsibility of the show and this and that, he became the leader and he hated it. He just wanted to be a side man most of the time.”

The popularity of session musicians began to fall in the late ’60s because groups began to become better musically. The transition from the use of single tracks to multi tracks also helped push it along. People could now go into the studio and record individually rather than all together.

For more information on “The Wrecking Crew” go to www.wreckingcrewfilm.com.

VIDEO: GOOD EVENING. WELCOME TO THIS SPECIAL MUSIC EDITION OF ARIZONA HORIZON. WE START WITH THE STORY OF THE WRECKING CREW, A GROUP OF MUSICIANS BEHIND SOME OF THE BIGGEST HITS FROM THE 1960s, FROM BE MY BABY, TO CALIFORNIA GIRLS, STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT TO MRS. ROBINSON. A DOCUMENTARY ON THESE MUSICICANS IS AIRING TONIGHT RIGHT HERE ON ARIZONA PBS. ♪

BRIAN WILSON: I WENT TO GOLD STAR. I MET MUSICIANS TO PLAY FOR PHIL. IMMEDIATELY STARTED BOOKING THEY’RE CALLED THE REGULARS: THE WRECKING CREW. AND STARTED BOOKING THEM FOR ME AND MY STUDIO

VIDEO: SESSION PLAYERS WERE BROUGHT IN FOR A VARIETY OF REASONS. IN FACT, MOST OF THE MID 1960s BEACH BOYS BACKING TRACKS DIDN'T FEATURE ANY OF THE BEACH BOYS. IT WAS BRIAN WILLIAMS DECISION TO PUSH THE MUSIC TO ANOTHER LEVEL.

AL JARDINE: WE WERE ON THE ROAD 150 DAYS OF THE YEAR. BRIAN WAS GETTING A LITTLE MORE COMPLEX IN HIS ARRANGEMENTS. IT WAS TOO DIFFICULT TO COORDINATE OUR ITINERARIES. AND THAT'S WHEN THE WRECKING CREW STEPPED IN.

VIDEO: AND WHEN I HEARD THAT SOME OF THE GUYS SAT IN FOR SOME OF THE BEACH BOYS, THAT SURPRISED ME. AT THAT POINT THE BEACH BOYS WAS BRIAN WILSON.

VIDEO: HE WAS IN CONTROL, HE BROUGHT IN THE CHARTS THAT HE WROTE HIMSELF. AND MOST OF THE TIME, I MEAN, THE MUSIC WAS ENTIRELY HIS. THERE WERE VERY FEW TIMES WHERE WE MADE UP LYRICS

VIDEO: HE HAD IN HIS HEAD WHAT HE WANTED.

BRIAN WILSON: FIRST WAS SUMMER DAYS AND SUMMER NIGHTS, BEACH BOY ALBUM. ROY PALMAN WAS A GREAT BASE PLAYER. STEVE WAS SO ON THE MARK AS A SAXOPHONE PLAYER, HE JUST BLEW MY MIND. HE PLAYED WITH SUCH FINESSE. AND HE USED TO GET REAL CLOSE TO THE MICROPHONE TO GET THE BEST BENEFIT OF HIS INSTRUMENT. THEY WERE ALL GREAT. ♪ HELP ME, RHONDA, HELP, HELP, ME RHONDA ♪ ♪ HELP, HELP ME RHONDA ♪

TED SIMONS: THE PRODUCER AND DIRECTOR OF THE “WRECKING CREW” DOCUMENTARY IS DENNY TONASCO IS SON OF WRECKING CREW GUIARIST TOMMY TONASCO. WELCOME TO ARIZONA HORIZONS.

DENNY TEDESCO: THANK YOU.

TED SIMONS: THIS IS A GREAT STORY. I'M LOOKING FORWARD TO HEARING ABOUT THIS. SESSION MUSICIANS. WERE THESE FOLKS SELF-TAUGHT, WERE THEY CLASSICALLY TRAINED, COULD THEY READ MUSIC?

DENNY TEDESCO: BOTH. EVERYTHING AND ABOVE. DAD ACTUALLY WAS BORN IN NIAGARA FALLS, NEW YORK. HE WAS PRETTY MUCH SELF-TAUGHT. HIS TEACHER ACTUALLY SAID HE WAS THE WORST STUDENT HE EVER HAD. HE DIDN'T GET TO WHERE HE FELT HE WAS IN BETTER POSITION UNTIL HE COULDN'T GET WORK AND THEN HE REALLY WENT AT IT. HE WOULD PRACTICE EIGHT, TEN HOURS A DAY. SOME OF THE GUYS WERE CONSERVATORIES, OTHERS GUYS WERE JAZZERS, COUNTRY GUYS, GLENN CAMPBELL, ONE OF THE GREAT GUYS, HE COULDN'T READ A NOTE. YOU GIVE HIM A CHORD CHART, BUT COULD NOT READ THE MUSIC. BUT YOU LET HIM LOOSE, YOU JUST TELL HIM WHAT IT WAS AND HE WOULD JUST AMAZING.

TED SIMONS: THEY PLAYED, I MEAN, FROM SINATRA AND ZAPPA, THEY COULD PLAY THESE THINGS. DID THEY ENJOY PLAYING THESE THINGS? OR WAS IT A JOB?

DENNY TEDESCO: IT WAS ALWAYS A JOB. BUT THESE GUYS ARE COMING OUT OF KIDS, WORLD WAR II KID, LIKE THEY ARE GETTING PAID TO PLAY AN INSTRUMENT. THAT'S NOT EVEN HEARD OF AT THAT POINT. SO WHEN DAD IS GOING TO WORK AND GOT TO PLAY THREE CHORDS, IT'S LIKE WHATEVER, I WILL DO IT. HE LOVED IT.

TED SIMONS: WHAT KIND OF RELATIONSHIP DID THEY HAVE WITH THE ARTISTS?

DENNY TEDESCO: GREAT. ARTISTS LOVED THEM. MOST OF THE ARTISTS, OTHER THAN SINATRA, SINATRA IS MUCH OLDER THAN THESE GUYS, NOW THEY ARE WORKING WITH FRANK. THEY DON'T EVEN HAVE TO SAY THE LAST NAME. ESPECIALLY FOR THE ITALIAN GUYS LIKE MY DAD. THE OTHER GUYS ARE ALL KID. BRIAN WILSON IS ONLY MAYBE 19, 18 AND DAD IS 30. THESE GUYS ARE KID. THEY DON'T HAVE THE CHOPS, AS THEY SAY, TO GO IN THE STUDIO AND KNOCK THIS STUFF OUT.

TED SIMONS: DID IT MATTER WHO THE ARTIST WAS THEY WERE WORKING WITH? DID YOUR DAD EVEN KNOW WHO HE WAS WORKING WITH THAT DAY?

DENNY TEDESCO: SOMETIMES NOT. HE WOULD GO IN THERE THEY DON'T KNOW WHAT THE MUSIC IS. IT’S FUNNY ‘CAUSE I ASKED MY DAD THAT, TELL ME THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A SESSION PLAYER AND SPECIALIST. HE SAID A SPECIALIST, IS SOMEONE LIKE A BB KING, SEGOVIA. THAT'S WHAT THEY DO. YOU CAN'T PUT SEGOVIA BEHIND THAT DOOR AND THERE’S A READING PIECE AND ITS BLUES. YOU CAN'T PUT BB KING IN THERE AND IT'S A CLASSICAL PIECE AND THERE’S READING. YOU CAN PUT TOMMY TEDESCO OR AL CASEY OR BARNEY KESSEL OR HOWARD ROBERTS IN, THEY ARE GOING TO NAIL IT.

TED SIMONS: THEY ARE GOING TO NAIL IT, YOU WILL GET A MONSTER HIT AND THE PEOPLE THAT ARE THE FACE WHETHER IT'S THE MAMMAS AND PAPAS, BEACH BOYS, THEY ARE GOING TO GET RICH AND THEY ARE GOING TO BE FAMOUS. AND YOUR DAD WAS GOING TO REMAIN A SESSION MAN. WERE THEY EVER ENVIOUS OF THAT?

DENNY TEDESCO: NEVER. IT’S FUNNY BECAUSE YEAH THEY ARE GOING TO MAKE MONSTER HITS, THAT'S THE KEY THING. WE MADE HUNDREDS OF HITS, WE MADE THOUSANDS OF BOMBS. HE SAYS I NEVER GAVE ANYBODY THE MONEY BACK. SO YOU GO WORK, YOU DO YOUR BEST YOU CAN, I PLAY WHAT I THINK HE WANTS. IF HE DOESN'T LIKE IT, I CHANGE IT UP. I PLAY FOR SMILES. UNITL HE SMILES I’M GOING TO KEEP PLAYING. YOU TRY YOUR BEST. THERE IS NO GUARANTEE.

TED SIMONS: DID YOUR DAD HAVE GOOD MEMORIES OF THOSE YEARS?

DENNY TEDESCO: ABSOLUTELY. ABSOLUTELY

TED SIMONS: WHAT ABOUT THE OTHERS? DID THEY ASK YOU?

DENNY TEDESCO: GLENN, IT'S FUNNY, WHEN I INTERVIEWED GLENN IN 2003, THAT WAS A GREAT EXAMPLE. HE LOVED THOSE DAYS WHEN HE WASN'T THE GUY. GLENN WAS A SESSION GUY FIRST. HE CAME FROM ARKANSAS THROUGH ALBUQUERQUE, THEN ARIZONA. HE WAS THE GUY THAT WAS WITH THE OTHER GUYS. HE WAS JUST A GUY. AS SOON AS HE HAD THE RESPONSIBILITY OF A SHOW AND THIS AND THAT, HE BECAME A LEADER AND HE HATED IT. VERY DIFFICULT. HE WANTED TO BE A SIDE MAN.

TED SIMONS: HE WAS QUITE A GUITARIST HE WAS. AN AMAZING GUITARIST.

DENNY TEDESCO: OH MY GOD. PEOPLE HAVE NO IDEA. GUITAR PLAYERS KNOW, MUSICIANS KNOW. HI, I'M GLENN CAMPBELL. THAT'S GLENN BEING, YOU KNOW, A STAR. BUT DAD SAID THERE WAS NO ONE BETTER.

TED SIMONS: HEYDAYS 1960s OR SO.

DENNY TEDESCO: HEY TAKE FOR SESSION PLAYERS IS THE EARLY '60s TO '67, '68. THE REASON THEY WERE IN THE HEYDAY ROCK AND ROLE IS STARTING TO KICK IN. RECORD COMPANIES DON'T BELIEVE ROCK AND ROLL IS STAYING. HOW DO WE GET THE PRODUCT OUT FAST ENOUGH TO MAKE MONEY. LET'S GET THESE SESSION PLAYERS TO KNOCK IT OUT THREE, FOUR, HOUR AS DAY.

TED SIMONS: WHEN DID THINGS START TO SLIDE DOWNHILL FOR THE CREW?

DENNY TEDESCO: EVERYTHING STARTS FLYING AROUND IN THE LATE '60s. NOW THE GROUP THEMSELVES CAN HOLD UP THE INSTRUMENTS. THERE’S MORE TRACKS IN THE EARLY DAYS, THERE WAS ONLY ONE TRACK. NO DIGITAL. THERE WAS NONE OF THAT. ONCE MORE TRACKS AND GUYS FELT MORE RESPONSIBILITY, THE GROUPS THEMSELVES COULD DO IT, THE GUYS GO ON THE ROAD. DIFFERENT GROUPS OR DAD WENT INTO TV AND FILM.

TED SIMONS: HOW DID IT AFFECT FAMILY LIFE? HOW DID IT AFFECT YOU GUYS?

DENNY TEDESCO: THE GREATEST LINE IN THE MOVIE, COMES FROM PLAS JOHNSON I ASKED HIM, HOW WAS YOUR PERSONAL LIVES LIKE? AND HE PAUSED, AND HE SAYS LET'S JUST SAY I'M A BETTER GRANDFATHER THAN A FATHER. AND THAT MEANS IT’S NO DIFFERENT IF YOU ARE A PLUMBER, YOU’RE A NEWSCASTER, OR WHATEVER WE ARE ALWAYS TRYING TO MAKE IT WORK, ALWAYS TRYING TO PUT FOOD ON THE TABLE. AND THERE IS A POINT WHERE YOU GIVE AND TAKE.

TED SIMONS: IT'S A FASCINATING STORY. IT'S A PERSONAL STORY FOR YOU. WHY DECIDE TO MAKE THIS FILM?

DENNY TEDESCO: DAD WAS PASSING AWAY,96, DAD WAS PASSSING AWAY. HE HAD CANCER, TERMINAL CANCER. THEY GAVE HIM A YEAR. I QUICKLY JUMPED INTO DOING THE ROUNDTABLE THAT'S IN THE FILM AND JUST KEPT BUILDING ON IT. HE NEVER SAW ANY OF THIS. I KEPT GOING, IT TOOK 19 YEARS FROM BEGINNING TO ACTUAL DISTRIBUTION.

TED SIMONS: ANY SURVIVING MEMBERS HAD A CHANCE TO SEE THIS?

DENNY TEDESCO: OH, YEAH.

TED SIMONS: WHAT DO THEY THINK ABOUT IT?

DENNY TEDESCO: IT'S GREAT. THAT'S THE BEST. WHEN I SEE HALL BLAINE, THE FIRST TIME HE SAW IT HE WAS CRYING. I KNEW I WAS ON THE RIGHT PATH IF I TOLD THAT STORY.

TED SIMONS: REACTION FROM YOUNGER MUSICIANS, DO THEY UNDERSTAND THE COMMERCIAL NATURE, THE BUSINESS NATURE, THE SESSION NATURE OF WHAT WAS GOING ON?

DENNY TEDESCO: I HOPE SO. YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE A MUSICIAN. EVERYBODY HAS TO UNDERSTAND WHAT IT TAKES TO MAKE PRODUCT. YOU GIVE AND TAKE. YOU'RE AN ARTIST FIRST, BUT YOU STILL HAVE TO DELIVER. AND YOU HAVE TO DELIVER WHAT THE PRODUCT IS EVEN IF YOU DON'T BELIEVE IT, YOU KNOW, YOU KNOW WHAT I'M SAYING.

TED SIMONS: SURE. THE MUSIC OF THAT ERA, ALWAYS ON TOP 40 RADIO. TOP 40 RADIO WAS KING IN THOSE DAYS.

DENNY TEDESCO: RADIO PUSHED EVERYTHING. BECAUSE RADIO WAS PUSHING THE LABELS. OH, MY GOSH, WE GOT A HIT, WE GOT MORE ALBUMS TO SELL.

Denny Tedesco: Producer/Director, The Wrecking Crew

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