Carol Kaye, unassuming and sly, shows how a couple of changes to the bass line transformed “The Beat Goes On” into an infectious slice of rhythm and a huge hit for Sonny and Cher. A few minutes later, she matter-of-factly explains how she came up with the perfect six-note heartbreak intro for “Wichita Lineman.”
Kaye is as friendly and open as your grandmother, and one of the unsung heroes of American music. She played on 10,000 studio sessions, everything from Sam Cooke’s “Summertime” to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” to Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were.” She was a revered bass player in the Los Angeles music scene and a key figure in “The Wrecking Crew,” a free-floating group of musicians that played the music but didn’t get the credit on many of the biggest hits of the 20th century.
The Wrecking Crew has shaken off the anonymity that cloaked its genius and is the subject of several books, one an Oregon Book Award winner by Kent Hartman, and a new documentary by Denny Tedesco, whose father Tommy Tedesco has been called the most recorded guitarist in history. (His credits include sessions for Frank Sinatra, The Monkees, Frank Zappa, and the themes for “Bonanza,” “Batman,” “Green Acres” and hundreds of other movies and TV shows.)
The amazing accomplishments of the Wrecking Crew in the late 1950s to early ’70s – and the reasons they remained in-demand and in the background – are summed up in a couple of clips in Tedesco’s movie. The first is from an early Beach Boys performance: Mike Love explains how the group records a song, introducing drummer Dennis Wilson, guitarist Carl Wilson and the rest of the band, ending with “our leader, Brian Wilson.” Everybody chips in, see?
Not exactly. Brian Wilson, the architect of The Beach Boys sound, loved to use the Wrecking Crew and didn’t trust his brothers to execute his vision in the studio. Almost all of the great Beach Boys hits were played by the Wrecking Crew, including Kaye and drummer Hal Blaine and Glen Campbell (who played guitar and toured with The Beach Boys before his career took off). Al Jardine of The Beach Boys offers up the weak explanation that the band’s constant touring didn’t allow time for them to be in the studio, creating the music. (It didn’t stop The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, did it?)
Phil Spector loved the Wrecking Crew and booked them into the crowded studios where he created the Wall of Sound. They played on many of the songs that defined the L.A. rock sound, by The Byrds and The Mamas and the Papas and the pre-fab Four, the Monkees. Producers loved them because they were efficient and proficient, get in the studio, cut the record, get out. The musicians they replaced weren’t enthused. Roger McGuinn says the other Byrds were furious about being replaced in the studio; Peter Tork of The Monkees admits that he was annoyed although he doesn’t seem to remember.
This perceived lack of authenticity was the Wrecking Crew’s downfall. Real bands made their own records, and they didn’t want some studio guns for hire taking over for them.
Denny Tedesco started his movie almost 20 years ago, and it’s kind of a mess compared to “20 Feet From Stardom,” “Searching for Sugar Man,” “Sound City,” “Muscle Shoals” and some of the other excellent rock movies. There’s lots of interviews with cheerful musicians but not much focus or context. They’re wonderful people, though, Kaye and Blaine and Campbell and Tommy Tedeso and Leon Russell and their friends. The music they made is timeless, and Denny Tedesco deserves credit for giving them the credit they deserve and for working through the music rights issues that delayed a theatrical release for seven years.
The Wrecking Crew
B Cast: Herb Alpert, Hal Blaine, Glen Campbell, Cher, Mickey Dolenz, Brian Wilson, Carol Kaye, Dick Clark, Tommy Tedesco, Bones Howe, Jimmy Webb
Director: Denny Tedesco
Length: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Rating: PG (language, thematic elements, smoking images)