Unsung pros

Interview with The Wrecking Crew director Denny Tedesco

The Wrecking Crew: Count the Fenders
  • The Wrecking Crew: Count the Fenders

From Sinatra (Frank and Nancy) to Seville (David and his Chipmunks), the artists included in The Wrecking Crew backed them all. We close on a disclaimer that jokingly reads, “No musicians were harmed during the making of this film.” While it’s true that no member of this elite corps of unsung studio pros known as the Wrecking Crew ever went broke performing backup on thousands of recognizable pop tunes from the ’60s and ’70s, there’s much to be said for an artist helping to deliver a million-seller and failing to receive so much as a cursory mention in the liner notes.

Nearly two decades have passed since Denny Tedesco reunited four members of the Crew to commit their memories to Memorex. Seated around the table were Denny’s father Tommy Tedesco, King of the L.A. session guitarists, with drummer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Hal Blaine (a force who helped pilot 40 songs to the top of the chart), guitarist Carol Kaye (she provided the pounding bass line that opens Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On”), and saxophonist Plas Johnson, whose satiny opening purr to “The Pink Panther Theme” has become one of the most widely recognized riffs in movie history.

The Wrecking Crew: Movie Trailer

Though completed and ready for release in 2008, for years this staggering lesson in uncharted music history was destined to be the best documentary about the music industry that no one had ever seen. What began as a loving tribute to a father from his son wound up a historical document. A favorite on the film festival circuit (and locally at the Cinema Society of San Diego), thanks to Magnolia Pictures, the film is finally set to reach a wider audience. You’re not likely to have a better time at the movies all year.

Denny was fresh out of the dentist’s chair when I caught up with him. All the Novocaine in the world couldn’t dull his enthusiasm.

Scott Marks: My intention was to scan through the film and see if anything new had been added and, no surprise, I wound up watching the entire movie. I was surprised to see that the earliest interview dates back to 1996. You’ve been working on this for almost two decades.

Denny Tedesco: I know. It’s weird to hear it put that way. Someone else described it as a generation.

SM: It had been a few years since I’d watched the film at the Cinema Society of San Diego, and as I said, I was curious to see if any new footage had been added. And, of course, there was.

DT: Last year, we added Leon Russell and the Brian Wilson interview about “Good Vibrations.”

SM: The film closes with the joke disclaimer, “No musicians were harmed during the making of this film.” While it’s true that no member of the Wrecking Crew ever went broke performing backup — Carol Kaye says at one point in the ’60s she was making more than the President — weren’t there still bad feelings from artists over not being recognized for their contributions?

DT: By who? They never felt that way.

SM: Here’s the quote from Plas Johnson: “Worse than not getting the money is to have played on a hit record that sold a million copies and not even have your name on it. And they go dig some white kids out of high school, put them on the road, and call them a name.”

DT: Everybody has different opinions. I think Plas was more upset because it was that one album. I don’t think that overall he was upset, and I don’t think the rest of the guys ever felt that way. They were recognized among their peers and among the artists. When someone asked if they felt like they should have been stars, absolutely! They were stars. Those guys made a huge living, but I don’t think there was any bitterness.

SM: The Crew not only posed a threat to established musicians, they must have made it next to impossible for certain bands to perform live.

DT: No, because what happened was, they would always have time to rehearse. Guys like (the Monkees’) Mickey Dolenz had weeks to rehearse. Even (Beach Boy) Al Jardine said that. Don’t forget, my dad and the guys would go in, have a piece of paper thrown at them, and be expected to knock it out in three hours. They got three or four songs done. At the end of the day, my dad’s probably played on 12 different songs. Whatever band they recorded that day, those guys only had to do ten songs for a concert. They had a chance to learn it. They don’t have that red light syndrome going where they’ve got to nail it every time.

SM: But Gary Lewis talked about your dad’s hypnotic riff in “Sure Gonna’ Miss Her...”

DT: Well, yeah. Tommy Tripplehorn who was the guitar player in the band (Gary Lewis & the Playboys) said, “I’m on The Mike Douglas Show and we’re doing a playback — we’re not even playing live. All of a sudden I hear your dad’s acoustic thing and I didn’t know what to do.” He couldn’t even begin to fake it. In concerts, there is a lot of leeway.

SM: The name, the Wrecking Crew, was so inside that some members of the group didn’t know about it until years later. Who came up with the name?

DT: Hal Blaine came up with it after the fact when he put out his book, The Wrecking Crew. The older guys feared they were going to wreck the business. Go back to 1960. The established session players didn’t want to do these rock dates for a couple reasons. One, they’re demos. Demos were illegal. The established guys didn’t want to do it because they didn’t want to get busted by the union. Guys like my dad and Hal were breaking in. They’re gonna do those cash dates. That’s why the older guys thought they were going to wreck the business doing that rock ’n’ roll stuff. That was Hal’s explanation. It wasn’t like anyone said, “Get me the Wrecking Crew!”

SM: Was Glenn Campbell the only member of the Crew to find success as a solo act?

DT: Don’t forget Leon.

SM: Leon Russell. Of course. He wasn’t in the initial cut.

DT: He finally came around and did the interview, and I am so grateful.

SM: It seems that just about every major musician was eager to help you pay tribute to the Crew. Was there anyone whose participation you courted that turned down your request for an interview?

DT: None! I have so many interviews I couldn’t even put in. Bill Medley, Petula Clark, Jackie DeShannon, Richard Carpenter, Barry McGuire...

SM: So how many discs can we expect in the DVD release?

DT: I’m hoping for two discs of outtakes. I’ve never stopped interviewing people. I just did one last month with Marilyn McCoo of the Fifth Dimension.

SM: Maybe because it’s been with me for a few years, this is one of those films that I took a personal interest in. Every year brings at least one or two fine rock documentaries — 20 Feet From Stardom did for Darlene Love what The Wrecking Crew does for your dad and his cronies. After every one I was reminded of your movie and wondered if it would ever get a theatrical release. How do you feel, after 20 years, now that the world is finally ready to see your baby?

DT: We’ve been pushing this for so long. After a screening, I said, “If there are any distributors in the crowd, always look at a film with an audience.” I was turned down for so many years. It’s not a niche film. I’ve watched this film hundreds of times around the country and I watch the audience. They’re reacting. They love that music. They love those guys.

SM: One aspect of your dad’s career that’s barely touched upon are his contributions to film soundtracks. The titles fly by rather quickly, but one of the earliest was Cat Ballou in 1965. Tell me a little about Tommy’s involvement with the movies.

DT: I think his first movie was a decade or so earlier, Around the World in 80 Days. My dad’s career went much longer than most because he could read music. Even the guys who played alongside him didn’t know how he did it. When he was studying, breaking in, really trying to learn in the ’50s, he was flipping the music upside-down. He didn’t memorize parts, so it was always fresh to him. He’d do this for eight to ten hours a day. When someone asked what he wanted to be remembered for...any of the guys alongside him could have put out the rock ’n’ roll stuff. In was in the ’80s, when guys like John Williams or Jamie Horner asked Dad to please keep the first two weeks open in September for a score that would be all guitar-driven...that’s when you know you’ve made it.

SM: Your dad broke in working on a film whose music was composed by Victor Young. It doesn’t get much better than that.

DT: Remember the scene in the film where Dad says, “You blew it,” after the composer was yelling for the guitar? I think that was Bernard Herrmann.

SM: Your dad described approaching a portion of his work as if he was “a 13-year-old learning how to play music.”

DT: With certain songs, you can’t be too sophisticated. You have to dumb it down if you have to. Whatever the [client] wants. Dad used to say that he played for smiles. If the guy was smiling, he was doing his job right. There were times where what he thought didn’t matter. [Producer] Snuff Garrett said, “I didn’t make it for [Tommy]. I made it for people to buy.”

SM: Who or what in your estimation is to blame for taking a wrecking ball to the Wrecking Crew? Was it the singer/songwriter teams that killed the session musicians?

DT: It’s just time. It was a natural progression. They no longer needed these guys. Now we have multiple tracks. We no longer need all of the musicians in one room. It’s a different era. My dad continued to work, but he went into movies and TV. He was lucky. Some of the guys weren’t so lucky.

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Wrecking Crew 5.0

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SM: Originally, it was scheduled to open in five theatres. What’s it up to now?

DT: 75 theatres!

SM: It’s so nice to be able to connect faces with songs. Plas Johnson’s opening to “The Pink Panther Theme” is as recognizable as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Did you ever accompany your dad to one of his sessions?

DT: We all went because the family was leaving town and Dad had one last job to work. It was Green Acres. I must have been five or six and all I remember is Vic Mizzy, the composer-conductor, throwing his arms up in the air. I thought that was the funniest thing in the world.

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I thought it was the director of the Dean Martin as "Matt Helm" vehicle. (no pun)

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