Last week I was on assignment for the Wall Street Journal in Palm Desert, Calif. I was there to interview drummer Hal Blaine, who is probably America's greatest living rock and pop musician (you can read my article in today's edition here). If you're like me and grew up in the '60s listening to the radio, then you know Hal well—even if you don't know his name. More in a moment.
Remember the scandal that broke in 1967 about the Monkees not playing the instruments on their hit records—like Last Train to Clarksville, Daydream Believer and I'm a Believer? If not, let me fill you in: Back then, a magazine outed the Monkees, a cuddly clone of the Beatles, by claiming they were a front group of actor-singers, many of whom couldn't read music and that studio musicians did all the heavy lifting.
Well, it turns out the Monkees were just the tip of the vinyl iceberg. Except for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and a few other groups, most rock bands of the early and mid-1960s didn't play on their own records. Which groups? Try the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds, Jay and the Americans, Gary Lewis and the Playboys and dozens of others.
Who did? Hal Blaine and a tight-knit ad hoc group of about 30 highly skilled Hollywood studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. They could read anything put down in front of them and could nail the song the first time through, bringing enormous snap to the results. For years I've been fascinated by this little-known secret hit-making machine.
How big a deal is Hal? He recorded on 39 No. 1 hits on Billboard's Hot 100. Which hits? Here are just a handful: Can't Help Falling in Love, He's a Rebel, Surf City, I Get Around, Everybody Loves Somebody, Help Me, Rhonda, Mr Tambourine Man, I Got You Babe, My Love, These Boots Are Made for Walkin', Monday Monday, Strangers in the Night, Cracklin' Rosie and The Way We Were.
Hal also was the drummer on six hits to win the Grammy for Record of the Year for six years in a row. A staggering stat. Which six? A Taste of Honey, Strangers in the Night, Up, Up and Away, Mrs. Robinson, Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In and Bridge Over Troubled Water. Hal also was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
Like Detroit's Funk Brothers who backed up virtually all of the Motown groups, the Wrecking Crew did the same in Los Angeles. The difference, of course, is that everyone knew the Funk Brothers, and the artists they played behind were singers. The Wrecking Crew, by contrast, was a phantom band of killer musicians, and their vast contribution wasn't disclosed on albums until recently on CD re-issues.
As Hal told me, teens wanted to believe that the cool-looking bands on their album covers were the sole creators, the record companies didn't want to spoil a good thing, and the Wrecking Crew didn't want to bite the hand that fed them.
Who was in the Wrecking Crew? Some of the most most creative studio rock musicians in Los Angeles at the time. The list includes Glen Campbell [pictured], Leon Russell, Tommy Tedesco, Carol Kaye, Plas Johnson and many others. As good as the music parts were back then, they were lead sheets—just notes on a page with chord changes. The Wrecking Crew was brought in to give songs enormous lift and make them snap.
Back in 1961, Southern California was exploding with pop-rock energy. Kids who were born in the late 40s were coming of age and driving cars with radios. Radio stations, meanwhile, were multiplying and many played a rock format. As a result, record companies were under enormous pressure to crank out rock singles and albums that featured the singles.
But there was a problem. While there were catchy pop-rock songs pouring out of New York's "Teen Pan Alley," and singing groups were plentiful, most of the acts signed by record companies were garage bands. "Producers realized quickly that many of these kids didn't have the chops to produce records teens would buy," Blaine told me. "After the first few sessions we were on, my phone didn't stop ringing."
How did the Wrecking Crew get its name? Here's what Hal told me:
"I got a call from Disney Studios one day in 1961 for a rock and roll job. Since 1957 I had played with the Raiders, who backed Tommy Sands, a teen idol at the time. [Pictured: Hal Blaine and Tommy Sands, right]
"When I arrived at the movie lot with a few of the musicians I knew, the conductor was just dismissing a large group of older studio musicians. They all wore blue blazers and ties. They were very proper. We had showed up in jeans and polo shirts, very casual and laid back.
"The conductor turned to us and started talking as though we were 12 years old. He said, 'Thank you for coming. We need some of your rock and roll music for our movie. We have parts written out for all of you. We work off a click track here to be sure the music will fit the length of a scene. But don't worry, we'll take it nice and slow at first so you all can learn your parts and get used to the track.'
"There were instruments all set up for us and parts on stands with about 100 measures. After we took our places, the woman who was running the click track hit the button, but she accidentally forgot to dial it back. The machine started clicking off time at the intended pace. We played the entire thing through perfectly the first time.
"When we finished, the conductor was blown away. He said, 'How, how did you guys do that?' Tommy [Tedesco] [pictured], our guitarist and a first-rate cut-up, stood up and said innocently: 'Well, sir, we practice a lot in our spare time.' Goodness that was so funny. The truth is we were all cocky perfectionists.
"After the Disney date, my phone didn't stop ringing. I was getting calls constantly from the different record studios in need of a rock sound for records or movies. About a month after that Disney date, I was in a restaurant having lunch and someone told me they overheard one of the older, blue-blazer studio musicians remark about us to another one: 'Man, these guys are going to wreck the music business.'
"Very quickly I got so busy that I had to hire an answering service to field all the calls. To make life easy, when the service would call for another rock job, I'd simply say, 'Round up the Wrecking Crew.' The name stuck."
What did the L.A. jazz musicians think?
"Many of them played on rock dates, but it's largely undocumented. Saxophone Plas Johnson [pictured] and drummer Earl Palmer were regulars in the Wrecking Crew. Red Callender played bass on dates. Drummer Frankie Capp, too. At first, most of the jazz drummers brushed me off, saying, 'I'll never play that garbage.' Once we started earning, they started to call and ask if they could drop by the studio and watch to see what was going on."
"Shelly Manne, Mel Lewis and Jake Hanna."
Did you play on the televised T.A.M.I. Show in 1964?
"Yes, along with the Wrecking Crew. After the show, the Rolling Stones came back to my house in the Hollywood Hills. We jumped into my Cadillac Coupe de Ville. I lived on Castilian Drive in a house that had been Lee J. Cobb's home. That's how well I was doing.
"As we drove off, there were about 10,000 kids in cars chasing us. As we got near my house, I hit a device under my dashboard that automatically opened my garage. It was a General Motors item. This is before garage door openers became popular.
"We drove straight in and I closed the door behind us right away. All the kids drove past the house and kept going. The Stones drummer Charlie Watts asked how the door opened like that. At first I put him on, telling him that my house knew my car and that the garage opened when I drove nearby.
"Then I showed him the device. For the first five minutes, we all sat in the car as the Stones opened and closed the garage with the switch."
And Elvis Presley?
"I played on just about all of his movie albums, starting with Blue Hawaii in '61, as well as his comeback special in 1968. The thing with Elvis was he was so catered to. He'd say, 'Wow, I'm thirsty,' and seven people with Cokes knock over the instruments in the studio to be the one to hand him the soda. [Pictured: Elvis Presley and Hal Blaine, left, on A Little Less Conversation]
"I remember one time Elvis was running down a song written by these two kids. They were in the back of the studio against the wall. We ran down the song, with Elvis singing off the sheet music. The kids' faces were just beaming. If Elvis decided to record it, they'd be all set. About three-quarters of the way through, Elvis tossed the song, saying, 'I don't want to do it.' Those kids were crushed and melted on the wall. It was so sad to see."
Tomorrow, a closer look at the Wrecking Crew and a completed documentary that's struggling to be distributed.
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