Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Wrecking Crew Movie - A Great Tribute

"'The Wrecking Crew' documentary by Denny Tedesco is a must see. It opens our eyes to one of the most unique group of musicians in contemporary music. They are the well from which the rest of us have drawn." Leland Sklar.
You may be forgiven for not knowing Leland Sklar. His leonine visage may actually be more familiar, what with him having graced the stage as the 'go to' bassist for James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Genesis, Toto, and countless other acts for the last few decades. He should be better known for being one of the most recorded and talented musicians in modern history. Leland's skills as a session player are legendary - session players are musicians who, in the words of Wikipedia, "...are instrumental or vocal performers who are available to work with others at live performances or recording sessions. Usually such performers are not a permanent part of a musical ensemble and often do not achieve fame in their own right as soloists or bandleaders." Boy, that's a little clinical, but it sure says a mouthful.

The records of acts that were the creations of marketing and record company executives, such as The Monkees, and The Archies are well known to have largely been the work of behind the scenes session players. However, not so well known is the work of unofficial and loosely membered groups (collectives?) known as The Funk Brothers, The Muscle Shoal Rhythm Section, The Nashville A-Team, The Section (which included Sklar), MFSB, and The Wrecking Crew. These six aggregations created records that sold more copies than most likely did The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Elvis combined.

The Funk Brothers - they were Motown's men, playing the music that made Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, and many others so successful. In fact, many experts consider Motown bassist James Jamerson to have been the greatest session musician of all time. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section were The Swampers mentioned in Lynyrd Skynyrd's Sweet Home Alabama - providing the soulful and muscular backing for Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, The Staple Singers, and most every other act that mattered out of the American South in that era. The Nashville A-Team owned the country & western charts throughout the 1950s and '60s. The Section defined the singer/songwriter sound out of California in the '70s. MFSB were TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia), creators of the masterful tracks of The Stylistics, The O'Jays, Wilson Pickett, The Spinners, and Teddy Pendergrass.

Then there is The Wrecking Crew. This nickname was coined by Drummer Hal Blaine, perhaps long after the fact - allegedly echoing the words of the previous generation of serious, suit wearing, note reading sessioners who claimed that these young, unshaven upstarts with their noisy rock and roll would 'wreck the music business.'

The Wrecking Crew first became known as the team of musicians utilized by studio prodigy/pop producer Phil Spector. It featured a revolving team of talent that included Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, Carol Kaye, Tommy Tedesco, Barney Kessel, Hal Blaine, Howard Roberts, Al Casey, and many others. Whether the Crew's largest legend is The Beach Boys Pet Sounds, or maybe being the musicians who created Spector's famous 'Wall of Sound,' it may safely be said that no other group of musicians ever played on more hit records. To say that they were the major pop/rock music making machine of the American '60s and '70s is an accurate statement.

Leland Sklar adds, "The 'Wrecking Crew' were the guys, just before my run started. I was in a band in 1966, and when we went into the studio it was those guys who played on our record. I sat there looking through the window in United A studio, and was in awe. There was Hal Baine, Jim Gordon, Bobby West, Tommy Tedesco, Mike Deasey, Dennis Budimir, Mike Melvoine, Larry Knechtel, Mike Rubini, and others. Within three years I was working with these guys on a daily basis. They were my mentors. A more fun and giving bunch of characters you could not have asked for."

I'm sure that most of you reading this are aware that Tommy Tedesco's son, Denny, has made a full length documentary called The Wrecking Crew. I've just viewed a private copy, and I can tell you - it is the best film you will ever see about one of the most exciting times in musical history. It stands proudly beside Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the award winning documentary that so wonderfully told the story of Detroit's Funk Brothers, as a musical bookend to that fabulous era of record making. Tedesco has compiled an incredibly loving, and touching tribute to these musicians, their time, and their place in musical history.

Even though I already knew most of the stories the film tells before I ever saw it, I will still be going back and re-watching this documentary for years to come - for the sheer joy that it brings. Tedesco has done a fine, fine job of pacing, mixing interview clips compiled over the years with still photos, and filmed scenes from behind the scenes as the music was made. It is the kind of film that will have you wondering where the last two hours went. As I said, I knew most of these tales previously, but what an enjoyable flight to take, to finally be able to watch the telling of these anecdotes in such an entertaining way. Everyone I have talked to that has seen the film agrees - it is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking.

Sadly, the days of the session player have largely passed. To a large degree, it died off alongside the record business. In fact, this movie is suffering for a lack of commercial release itself. It's been lauded far and wide, screened for thousands, but due to the huge expense of licensing the amazing music contained within (some 130 song clips), it remains unreleased. It seems that the record companies are so pinched for profits that they can't see the wisdom of foregoing a license fee, in spite of the fact that the movie will surely stir up an avalanche of sales for back catalog when the film does (if it does) get publicly released. If nothing else they should forgive the licensing as a thank you to the musicians involved, letting the players now get the well deserved credit that avoided them in their primes.

Denny Tedesco and his team are now showing the film in private screenings being sponsored around the country in order to raise the funds necessary for the film to be shown to the public. 

When I say that the film has garnered great and loving reviews, I kid not. Here's a sampling from some folks you may know:
"A wonderful, touching, and hilarious film about the unsung heroes of so many songs that you carry in your heart." Elvis Costello

"It was incredible! I felt like I was sitting right there with them at that table. It had everything that I wanted to see, and more that I didn't expect. Thank you for making this film!" Peter Frampton

"Denny Tedesco has given us an amazing look at a musical moment in history that everyone who loves rock and roll should see." Christopher Guest (director and star of Spinal Tap, and other great mockumentaries)

"The Wrecking Crew is in the league of the best music documentaries ever made!" Dan Forte, Vintage Guitar Magazine, Dec. 2009

"If I had known they were available, I would have used them on my records! The Wrecking Crew is the best documentary yet about the recording scene. I loved it." Steve Miller (Gangster of Love)

"They were the unsung heroes - if those guys were playing sessions today, they would be known, people would know about them. It would be something more than just session musicians." Cher

"I highly recommend this to everyone to see. It's terrific, hard hitting with the right punches, and filmed as only experienced, and fine filmmakers can do. I know your revealing film will be enjoyed and appreciated by the public for years to come." Carol Kaye
 Carol Kaye? Isn't she on record as being vehemently against this film?

She is, indeed, and as Leland Sklar has remarked about the situation, "I just don't get it!"

I do not doubt that there is a possibility that the name The Wrecking Crew may have come after the fact. And, as the film was made by Tedesco's son, I'm not too shocked if Tommy gets a lot of screen time, but I will add that the elder Mr. Tedesco introduced a great many of us to the realities and the existence of studio/session musicians many years ago in his brilliant columns in Guitar Player Magazine for so many years. Without the Tedescos, we might still be wondering who made all this great music.

Ms. Kay is treated fabulously in, and by this film. I would certainly call her one of its stars, and recognize her as one of the greatest musicians to ever record a note. Her legacy is as unquestionable as her occasionally bewildering and curmudgeonly ways. This is not the first time she has been embroiled in controversy, but I can't say that I've uncovered much to support her views of this film. Her issue seems largely to do with the name given this 'group' of musicians who dominated the '60s recording industry in LA, and her denied, but rather obvious dislike of Hal Blaine. I take no sides here, other than to state that as a very educated, and I like to think reasonable music writer I can only say that while obviously not perfect, this film is a stunning and wonderful tribute to those it portrays. I would hope that she and Danny Tedesco may someday settle their differences, and be friends again.

Before I actually watched the film, I experienced a degree of trepidation - had young Tedesco went off the reservation, and made something egregious that would in some way shame his proud father's past? I had certainly hoped not. I would be neither the writer I am, nor the musician I am were it not for Tommy Tedesco. His writing inspired me, making me believe that one could communicate honestly, and passionately, even without a degree in English. His guitar playing made me realize the value of not just knowing the notes, but how to make them beautiful. I had the pleasure of meeting Tommy at a well-known music store I helped manage in the late '80s. It was there that I learned the best lesson - that no matter who you were, no matter how far you had risen in your field, you could and should still be above all, a nice guy. Denny has done his father a great honor.

I'll close with a comment from studio guitar legend Mitch Holder that sums things up pretty well. Mitch, of course, nailed it on the first take.

Mitch Holder says, "Denny Tedesco has done a super human job in documenting the great group of studio musicians who carved out so many hits of the '60's. The fact that they all played together in the studio at the same time is almost a thing of the past now. Sure, it happens every now and then but not like it was done back then. The crossfire of ideas that developed recording that way are in evidence on all of those records. Denny's film takes you back to that golden era of recording for all of posterity."

If Denny Tedesco didn't get every nuance right, I'm OK with that. If Hal Blaine has somehow elevated himself in stature as he has raised the awareness of the story and plight of the session player, all is forgiven. This is a documentary film, I understand, but it is also a piece of entertainment. And it's a great piece of entertainment - one that will have you watching again, and again - and maybe even buying some old records. You're going to love this movie.

I hope that this fine film makes its way onto your screens - it is truly one of the best music documentaries I have ever seen, and it deserves its audience.

Here is a link to the movie's website. Contribute if you are able, or see if there is a possibility of holding a screening of the film in your neck of the woods:

Great thanks to Leland Sklar, Denny Tedesco, and those who made my viewing possible.

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