The Wrecking Crew – Interview with Director/Producer Denny Tedesco
They were behind some of the most famous acts in music. But chances are, you’ve never heard of them.
They’re The Wrecking Crew, and tonight a documentary about this group of studio musicians will play at 7pm at the Downer Theater as part of the Milwaukee Film Festival.
Radio Milwaukee interviewed the Producer/Director of the film, Denny Tedesco.
Radio Milwaukee: What is The Wrecking Crew?
Tedesco: The Wrecking Crew is the story of the Los Angeles session musicians, the guys that were doing recordings in the 60s for the Beach Boys, Sinatra, 5th Dimension, Mamas and Poppas, Elvis… anything that was being done in Los Angeles in the 60s and early 70s most likely had session musicians on it. They really did everything.
The record companies in the early days didn’t trust the actual groups to play because it was really difficult to get recordings done well. A lot of these groups were young kids and they weren’t sure if rock ‘n roll is going to sell, so to make sure they cover their bets, they hired musicians.
Radio Milwaukee: Today any kid with a laptop can make a record. I can’t imagine the cost of tape, engineers…
Tedesco: Ah yeah, I mean it is crazy when you think about it. Here’s the other thing that's interesting, you know in those days in the early 60's, let's just say… Glen Campbell is one of the studio musicians. Glen said, “I was playing with Michael Jordan, but everybody in the room was a Michael Jordan.” You can’t make mistakes because, don't forget, you had maybe six to 10 people in a room and you had three hours. In those three hours you had to create record three to four songs. You had to knock it out. And don't forget there was no technology at that time to punch in, it was just one track so you had to basically go from top to bottom, beginning to the end without making mistakes, because there was no overdubbing.
There was no cut in, “Let's take it from here, we’ll cut it in later.” So if you blew it, you blew it for everybody. So yeah, the pressure was on. These musicians were that good, they just knocked ‘em out.
Radio Milwaukee: They must have gotten better and better because they had to keep up with each other?
Tedesco: Absolutely. I was born in ‘61 and the story started actually because my dad, Tommy Tedesco, was the guitar player of these musicians. I was born in ’61, but I never saw my father play guitar at home until maybe ‘76 when he started to his own jazz albums. They were working 12 hours a day to go to three or four different sessions. They could be a Capital Records in the morning, then Universal in the afternoon, the Gold Star later and then maybe back to United Western. they could events around all day long so they were constantly working and they got really good at it. My dad never saw the same piece of music, ever.
Denny and his father Tommy Tedesco
It was weird, because when he came home, I never saw him put on music. I never saw him play a guitar; it was work to him for a long time.
Radio Milwaukee: So it was just like an insurance salesman coming home that didn’t talk insurance at the dinner table?
Tedesco: “We’re not going to talk insurance, kids.” It’s funny somebody asked, “did you know what he was doing?” No, not really. He didn’t even know what he was doing sometimes. When you go to work sometimes, the group wasn’t there. Like “Up, Up and Away” is a perfect example. The Fifth Dimension won the Grammy of the year and Jimmy Webb the composer sent all the guys a little bracelet. [My dad] said, “What's this for?” [Webb] says, “it was for what we did with the Fifth Dimension, they won the Grammy.” He didn’t even know he was on it, because when they're recording songs, they're not recording hits. They’re recording songs.
He might be playing it two, three, maybe four or five times and that's it. Walk away. Let's do another song.
Radio Milwaukee: He probably doesn’t remember half of what he recorded?
Tedesco: It doesn’t hit him until maybe much later. Maybe when it's on the radio maybe it sounds familiar, but maybe not.
Radio Milwaukee: They traveled from studio to studio, so it wasn’t just one studio where all the magic happened?
Tedesco: In the early 60's all the pop records were coming out of New York, Detroit, London, Nashville country stuff. L.A. was doing not really pop stuff. But they had a infrastructure because they had all the movie studios here, they had TV here. So they had studios and they had all these orchestras, so when things started moving West, then it got really busy. Now you can go literally within a mile and a half or two miles and you could hit ten different studios at Sunset and Vine. These guys will be bouncing around. The producers would say, “Guys, are you available on Thursday?” They would say “no.” “How about Friday?” “Great, let’s book it on Friday.” Those producers were holding up a lot to make sure that they had the right guys they wanted.
Radio Milwaukee: Was The Wrecking Crew a package deal?
Tedesco: Not at all, they were all freelancers. You had two drummers that were primary, which was Hal Blaine, a great drummer and Earl Palmer and they had other drummers like Jim Gordon, Johnny Guerin. For guitar players you had about eight to ten of them, because you had two or three in a session. You had my father Tommy Tedesco, Glen Campbell, Billy Strange, Bill Pittman, on guitars. Carol Kaye was a bass player; the only woman in the group, and there was Joe Osborn, Ray Pullman, were bass players. You could have two or three sessions.
Radio Milwaukee: I haven't seen the film and I'm really excited about it. I did watch the trailer and as a bass player, I’m really interested in Carol Kaye. Especially since it seemed like a boys club.
Tedesco: Absolutely. At the same time, to give the boys the credit, they didn't treat her as a woman. Which is probably not nice, either. They treated her as one of guys and you can imagine, these guys were not Boy Scouts. They are musicians you know, they're not alter boys up there. What she must've gone through, she was there because she could hold their own. As a bass player or guitar player, she wasn't a percussion player. I don’t mean to degrade percussion players, but she wasn't hidden. She was driving the van with the drummer, so it says a lot.
That was their job. Someone said they should have even been paid more. No, that’s their job.
Radio Milwaukee: That’s what I was wondering. Do they just get paid for the session or do they get some kind of royalties if an album gets big?
Tedesco: They get paid for the session. But they were union guys, so they get pension and welfare. If the songs get in a movie, or they go on a commercial, they get paid again for a session fee. So when my dad did “Be My Baby” he maybe made fifty dollars on it. Maybe now, my mom gets a check and it’ll be $350. That was something that was beneficial for them. But my father said in the movie, “Listen – I made hundreds of hits, but I made thousands of bombs. I never gave anybody their money back.”
They felt it was very fair. You can't hold that creativity. Once you have that job, you're there to get the next job.
Radio Milwaukee: As a string player, I would think about what it would be like to be a studio musician during that time, but it probably wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds.
Tedesco: You know, I don't think any job is glamorous. You can be in the middle of glamour, and it’s not. BUT, at the same time, it's great to be paid for something you love doing, right? And that's what they loved.
Radio Milwaukee: What was it like for the Crew to be anonymous on the backs of these hits?
Tedesco: People always assume they wanted to be stars, but they were the stars. They were stars among their own. When you walked in the studio and Nancy Sinatra is there and she's just happy to see the guys. Or Brian Wilson – that movie “Love & Mercy” with Brian in the studio with the guys was real. In a sense it’s based on Brian's respect for the musicians. They were the stars.
?Brian Wilson and Bill Pitman
Don’t forget, when my dad was not going to be a guitar player for profession. It was just by accident.
Radio Milwaukee: How did that come to be?
Tedesco: Well, what happened was my dad and mom are from Niagara Falls, New York and if you know, it's pretty poor. It's not a great area. This was 1953 and they are Italian heritage and they go this dance and there was a big band there. And someone said, “Hey the guitar player in the big band is leaving” and told him that my friend plays guitar. So my father just basically tried out that night and got the gig and they went around the country.
He got fired in Dallas and the big band leader hired someone that could play guitar and sing so he knocked out two people, he downsizing. So my father with his pride coming from small town did not want to go back to Niagara Falls, New York. He just didn't want to go and he had been to L.A. now, because he's seen the West Coast.
You gotta realize, New York was a huge trip from Niagara Falls. For him to go cross-country was huge. He took my mom went cross-country. I asked my mom, “What was it? A year, year and a half?” She said, “No. Three weeks.” Dad picked us up and we left. Then he tried to get jobs in, which was very difficult.
I asked, “was dad working a lot in Niagara Falls as a guitar player?” And she goes, “No. He was in a chemical factory.” He worked occasionally; they called them “casuals.” Where you do a wedding or party or something. She says he had a jazz gig that weekend of the dance in Pennsylvania and he didn't want to go to the actual dance, because he finally got a job. She says you gotta go to this dance, I spent $35 on the dress. And that was everything. You know what a musician’s like, he probably begrudgingly went. But that changed his life. It changed my life.
Radio Milwaukee: How old were you?
Tedesco: I wasn't. I was born in ’61 so they moved with my older brother who was two at the time. Cross-country, Route 66, get to LA. He would just sit in clubs and to try to meet people and then meet other people and sooner or later that would turn him onto jobs and later he started playing. Then got recommended to studio work. He would take jobs that others wouldn’t take, because he was a gambler in so many ways. He would take chances, he had nothing to lose.
Radio Milwaukee: Was it growing up in L.A. that got you into film?
Tedesco: In a sense, I mean I went to school for film. Most of my friends from high school, 80 percent of us aren’t in film, doctors and salesman. I grew up in L.A. in the “valley” as they call it. I wasn’t affected by the business because my dad never brought it home. My dad went to work like any other dad, except in the trunk he didn't have a drill, saw or hammer. He had a classical guitars, a steel string, a twelve string, a mandolin, a banjo and a Telecaster. That was what his tools were, always in the car. And he would go session to session unless someone asked him to bring something else, but that's how we went around for years.
Radio Milwaukee: How did how did you come to the point that you turned the camera on your dad?
Tedesco: It was ’96, dad was a musician. He wasn’t a drinker, wasn’t into drugs at all. His drugs were cigarettes, coffee, gambling, and eating. If he could do all four at once he would.
The cigarettes caught up to him, he quit in 1980, but he was a 3-pack-a-day. ‘95 he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, so they gave him a year and in 1996 is when I quickly started filming him. I put together him, and three or four of them at a roundtable and started filming. It was great because when you put musicians together all they do is to chit-chat. I mean, they talk. I call it my quartet without instruments. I never saw my father play, I never went to the studio. Just very small once. It was a Green Acres session. I only remember because the conductor conducting and I thought that was the funniest thing in the world. To see him throw his arms up.
Yes I never saw my dad play, but I did see him always talk. You know, a musician's hang. I based my round table on the film Broadway Danny Rose. They sit around a table talking about Danny Rose who is Woody Allen. That's what these guys would do, they would talk about people, or talk about sessions. The only thing missing was the cigarettes at the roundtable because they all quit by then.
Radio Milwaukee: Have you heard of the Milwaukee Film Festival before?
Tedesco: I have. We have lots of friends out there actually. One of the greatest music companies Hal Leonard is there. Hal Leonard, for the folks that don't know, it was probably one of the biggest if not the biggest publishers in music. They actually handle my father's book. Hal Blaine's book called “The Wrecking Crew.” I think they're going to do to distribution for the DVD in music stores. What people don't realize that might have seen the film on Netflix, but the DVD has six and a half hours of outtakes.
When I started this in ’96, what people don't realize, why it’s just coming out now. Well, I had to pay off 110 songs. Every song you have to pay for in licensing. You gotta do it, it's the law, and it’s right. It keeps us going as a business. But no one ever thought this film would ever be affordable.
No one ever thought it would ever make money. No one ever thought it would be successful, and it's extremely successful. I'm very proud of that. People around the world have taken it and embraced it.
In 2008 we were in the film festivals, South by Southwest, and we did a few others. We did like 50 of them. But no one would pick this up, because there was this huge backend with music. So in 2010, what do I do, quit? I put everything into it. My inheritance, I refinanced everything, I did credit cards. The only choice I could do is keep going and hopefully get donations. That’s when I started plugging donations. We did Kickstarter in 2013. We raised money for the musicians union so that they would get paid. You know, it’s amazing.
In the end, you gotta hire an editor. I got Claire Scanlan come on as an editor/producer in 2006. That’s the one person you need to be consistent and the one person you really got to get along with and respect. Because if you don't, you’re in trouble.
Radio Milwaukee: I can’t imagine how many hours this took.
Tedesco: That was the thing, Claire even said, “at one point you gotta stop interviewing people. I can't put everybody in.” I said well, that's why God gave us D.V.D.'s. I never listened to her, that’s why we have 6 ¼ hours of outtakes on the D.V.D.
In the movie, Brian Wilson’s in it, Herb Alperts in it, Cher’s in it, Nancy Sinatra’s in it. Mickey Dolenz and Peter Tork of the Monkees are in it. But on the outtakes, I have Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers, so many people. I just never quit.
Radio Milwaukee: Did you know all these people from your father?
Tedesco: No. I didn’t know anybody. The musicians were easy to get, you know, the Crew. All the musicians, because they really have such respect for each other. For the stars, if you can get past the gatekeepers you might have a chance. Cher said yes. Cher was 16 and she still remembers. That was the best time of her life. She was a backup singer at that point, she was just thrown in the back of a Ronettes song. You know, “Be My Baby.”
Larry Levine said he would just kind of move Cher to the back. Because she had this voice. It was grating sometime but she didn’t have her chops yet. He pushed her to the back because she was really piercing through.
Radio Milwaukee: You’ll be there for the Q&A?
Tedesco: I’ll be there on the 6th for the Q&A. I'm really looking forward to it.
View the trailer for The Wrecking Crew below: