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Music

The Wrecking Crew: The unsung legacy of rock music's greatest studio band

‘The Clique’ or ‘The First Call Gang’ are a group of Los Angeles-based session musicians that defined the sound of the 1970s and, for many years, have been known by multiple different names. Today though, we’ll be using the name that drummer Hal Blaine popularised in his 1990 memoir, one which was inspired by the older musician’s belief that the group’s embrace of rock and roll was going to “wreck” the music industry. How wrong they turned out to be. Although ‘The Wrecking Crew’ received none of the praise, they played an essential role in producing some of the most important rock music of all time.

The Wrecking Crew were not – as the name might suggest – a group of demolition experts. Instead, they were a collection of highly revered and highly accomplished studio musicians who appeared on thousands of popular recordings throughout the 1960s and ’70s – including The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘California Dreamin” by The Mamas And The Papas, to name just two. The work of this phenomenally talented group of men and women gave the popular music of the golden age of pop its unique colour. The Wrecking Crew are, without a doubt, the most-recorded band in the history of music.

It’s hard to say how many musicians made up the era-defining musical collective, partly because they were hired on a very informal basis and were – tragically – often not credited for their work. The core of the group was made up of drummer Hal Blaine, bassist and guitarist Carol Kaye (who was one of the only female session players working at that time) and the guitarist Tommy Tedesco. The Wrecking Crew also included a whole host of names who went on to have dazzling careers in their own right, including Leon Russell and the ‘Witchita Lineman’ singer Glen Campbell, who became a central figure in the band during his time working under Tommy Tedesco.

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The Wrecking Crew were born out of LA producers’ need for a group of reliable standby musicians, who they could hire to contribute to a variety of pop songs, film scores and television music. The collective was comprised of incredibly technically gifted musicians, all of whom were exceptionally talented sight-readers. They functioned in much the same way as an orchestra, with members required to arrive at the studio, pick up the sheet music and get their part down in one take. It was incredibly hard work, as Bill Pittman, one of the guitarists for The Wrecking Crew, recalled: “You leave the house at seven o’clock in the morning, and you’re at Universal at nine till noon; now you’re at Capitol Records at one, you just got time to get there, then you got a jingle at four, then we’re on a date with somebody at eight, then The Beach Boys at midnight, and you do that five days a week… Jeez, man, you get burned out.”

Although they made a career out of recording the instrumental sections for the likes of The Monkees and Harry Nilsson, many of the group’s members were accomplished jazz musicians. Session trumpeter Chuck Findlay, for example, had played with Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard and Lalo Schifrin, while the group’s drummer Frank De Vito had worked with Charlie Parker. Then there was the saxophonist Gene Cipriano, who – as well as playing on hundreds of pop records – also contributed to recordings by Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald.

But perhaps the most famous jazz musician in The Wrecking Crew was the guitarist Barney Kessel, whose meticulous twiddling can be heard on recordings by both Julie London and Elvis Presley. But Kessel’s influence on rock music extends further than Elvis. He was the first person to introduce the 12-string guitar to rock and pop, an instrument he used on The Crystals’ recording of ‘Then He Kissed Me’. The 12-string went on to define the jangly sound of west-coast pop and is still perhaps one of the most evocative sounds of the 1960s. As if that wasn’t enough, Kessel also played the mandolin on ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ by The Beach Boys.

So why have The Wrecking Crew’s contributions to so many hit recordings gone unnoticed? Well, sadly, the studio musicians were working at a time when major labels wanted fans to believe that their artists played their own instruments. The quest to maintain this illusion has meant that The Wrecking Crew’s profound impact on the history of popular music has nearly been forgotten. As Kaye once said: “We all knew the game.” But, since the release of the 2008 documentary The Wrecking Crew, directed by Tommy Todesco’s son Denny, people are starting to give this astonishing group of musicians the recognition they deserve.

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