Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Wrecking Crew

If you grew up listening to rock and roll records, back where there still were records, there is a phenomenon about which you might not know: Studio musicians.

All the major recording studios used them. These were players, usually local, usually men, who were adept enough at their instruments that you could just assemble a bunch of 'em in a room, give them lead sheets and chord charts, and lay down professional-sounding tracks in short order, didn't matter what style of music. Rock? No problem. Blues? Easy, Country? Jazz? No sweat. Three songs in three hours? Got you covered.

Mostly, they were only known in the industry. A few of them stepped up to star status: Glenn Campbell, Leon Russell, Dr. John, like that, but most were anonymous. You heard their work, but you never saw them. Didn't even know such things existed. Uh, you mean that wasn't the Byrds on Mr. Tambourine Man? Except for McGuinn? Nope. 

Motown had the Funk Brothers; New York City had its Crew; Memphis had the Nashville Cats, Muscle Shoals, Alabama had the Swampers. In Los Angeles, the loosely-knit association of studio guys (and one well-known woman) was called The Wrecking Crew.

If you listened to any pop or rock or movie music coming out of L.A. in the sixties or seventies, you heard them. They played on virtually everybody's records, and usually without credit. That piano behind Simon & Garfunkel on Bridge? The guitars and basses and drums behind everybody from Nancy Sinatra and her old man Frank, to the Beach Boys, to John Denver, to the Carpenters, the Byrds, Nat King Cole, Phil Spector's Wall of Sound? Studio guys.

Sometimes, there was a band that went on the road to do touring gigs, and an entirely different crew in the studio making the records. Groups that were good enough to play live, but not good enough to hit the marks for a record? More than a couple of those, and not just the Prefab Four, the Monkees ...

There was no formal group, the name apparently came from the top session drummer, Hal Blaine, and the membership shifted as people came and went, scores, even hundreds. But if you heard a record produced in L.A. from the doo-wop years up until the singer-songwriters, and sometimes even then, chances are your favorite licks were done by a studio musician you never heard of and still don't know about. 

Bass player behind some of the hits by Sonny & Cher, Joe Cocker, Beach Boys, Sammy Davis, Jr., Monkees, the Doors? Carol Kaye. Her credit list runs for pages. And that was after she shifted from guitar to bass–she had a slew of hits on guitar, too.

But wait: Don't forget the TV and moive themes she played on: M*A*S*H, Mission Impossible, Ironside, Kojak, Hawaii 5-0, Cosby, It Takes a Thief, Wonder Woman, ER, Lost in Space, Love Boat, Kill Bill, The West Wing, to rattle off fewer than half of 'em.

There was a film done about these folks, directed by Denny Tedesco, the son of one of the hot session guitarists, but apparently so many song rights tangled up in it that it never got a commercial release; it was shown at festivals and whatnot. They are still working to get it out.

The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Best Kept Secret, by Kent Hartman, a local guy, is just out, and if you like the behind the scenes stuff underpinning hit records, you'll probably enjoy this. Hartman interviewed a lot of folks, the credits at the end run for pages and pages, and probably you'll find out something you didn't know; certainly I did. 

Not a lot about who was sleeping with whom or what their favorite recreation chems were, but I found it fascinating. And man, could these folks play ...


Anonymous said...

Three of my all-time favorite guitar players, Larry Carlton, Steve Lukather, and Robben Ford, spent most of the 70's and 80's doing session work, and made a LOT of money doing it. Lukather's credits alone run around 2000 songs. I love reading/hearing about guys like that.


Shady_Grady said...

Sounds worthwhile. I remember that Kaye ran into some controversy for credits for work that was actually done by Jamerson or Babbit. I don't know if that was ever sorted out. Motown was iffy about properly crediting session musicians.

steve-vh said...

"50 ways to leave your lover"? one of the greats, Steve Gadd, MADE that song.

One set of studio musicians that did form a band and do quite well?

Toto. All in the Musicians Hall of Fame

Steve Lukather - guitar, vocals
Bobby Kimball - vocals
David Hungate - bass
Jeff Porcaro RIP - drums
Steve Porcaro - keyboards
David Paich - keyboards, vocals (Ever look at HIS bio? JEEEEEZZZ uh Thriller?)

Old Bull Lee said...

Fascinating post. I guess Carol Kaye is one of my favorite bass players ever, although I didn't know that until now!