Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A nucleus of studio musicians who played on most of the baby boomers' favorite pop records in the 1960s. The post-war baby boom had resulted in the spread of suburbia and a great many schools being built and teachers graduated in a very short time, with profound changes in education and the American landscape; so too, when the kids were old enough to start buying millions of pop records, the record companies needed a lot of product in a hurry. It was a well-kept secret that most of the Boomers' favorite pop groups simply weren't good enough to make records. A new studio procedure began with producer Phil Spector's 'Wall of Sound' style; he wanted as many as twelve players instead of three or four jammed into a small studio, making rock'n'roll symphonies by groups that didn't exist ('Bobb B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans'). For that matter, other producers would make a record by a group that didn't exist, and if it was a hit they would throw a group together and hit the road. Soon all the best studio players were in big demand on the West Coast, and the good times lasted until well into the 1970s, by which time authenticity was becoming more important than slick playing, and the hours of studio time racked up by pop and rock stars playing on their own records went through the roof.

The Wrecking Crew got its name from a complaint of older musicians to the effect that they were going to wreck the studio business. See the entry for drummer Hal Blaine for some stories. Kent Hartman's book The Wrecking Crew 2012 is full of details about how it all began. It was a remarkable era: bassist Carol Kaye (b 24 March 1935, Everett WA) began working in a big band led by Henry Busse, a trumpeter who played on Paul Whitemen hits as early as 1919; she entered the lucrative studio niche playing on Sam Cooke sessions.

Among the stalwarts of the Wrecking Crew, many of whom became stars in their own right, were keyboardists Mike Melvoin (b 10 May 1937; d 22 February 2012, Burbank CA), Larry Knechtel, Leon Russell; guitarists Billy Strange (b 29 September 1930, Long Beach CA; d 22 February 2012, Franklin TN), Glen Campbell, Tommy Tedesco (1932-97, probably played electric guitar, unusual then, on Ralph Marterie hits in 1953), Dennis Budimer (b 20 July 1938, James Burton, Al Casey (b 26 October 1936, Long Beach, CA; d 17 September 2006, Phoenix, AZ: he worked with Lee Hazlewood and Duane Eddy, and was not the guitarist Al Casey who worked with Fats Waller); Bill Pitman (b 12 February 1920, Belleville NJ; d 11 August 2022, La Quinta CA: had played for Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Elvis Presley etc). Horns included Plas Johnson and Nino Tempo (Nino Tempo and April Stevens were a successful brother and sister pop act, but he also played saxophone); drummers besides Blaine included Frank Capp and Earl Palmer; and there were dozens more. As well as Plas, first-class jazz musicians like drummer Larry Bunker and guitarist Barney Kessel got calls when they weren't recording for Norman Granz at Verve.

Among the artists the Wrecking Crew made hits for (apart from Spector's roster): Herb Alpert, the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, the Righteous Brothers, Johnny Rivers, the Byrds, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Mamas & the Papas, Barry McGuire, Sonny & Cher, Simon & Garfunkle, at least two Sinatras, the Association, the 5th Dimension, Scott McKenzie, the Grass Roots, Richard Harris, the Monkees, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Mason Williams, Neil Diamond, Tommy Roe, the Carpenters, the Partridge Family... and that's just some of the hit singles, up to 1970. Knechtel was a member of Bread; Blaine and Burton played for Elvis Presley... the Wrecking Crew were everywhere. A film The Wrecking Crew was made by Denny Tedesco, Tommy's son; production began in 1996, but the hardest and most expensive part of making such a film is funding the song licensing; it was finally seen in 2008 at the South by Southwest Film Festival. The Wrecking Crew were also portrayed in Love And Mercy (2014), a biopic of Brian Wilson.