Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Wrecking Crew

Wrecking Crew Series: Part 1
Well, I think it's high time we look more into the awesomeness known as "The Wrecking Crew." A nickname given by drummer Hal Blaine for a group of L.A. session musicians, The Wrecking Crew played anonymously on dozens of hit records during the 1960s. Backed by numerous popular singers, they are one of the most successful groups of studio musicians in music history. These highly versatile musicians were "first call" players, used for nearly every style recording, including TV theme songs, film scores, commercial jingles, and almost every genre of American pop music. From The Beach Boys to Frank Sinatra, you'll be amazed at the variety of hits this group played on, and over the next several posts, we'll attempt to mention most of those hit albums.

And before we plow forward, I'd like to make a quick plug for the awesome documentary, "The Wrecking Crew," directed by Denny Tedesco, son of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco. Completed in 2008, this film has been shown at several festivals and screenings, but is still trying to raise money to pay for the numerous song rights. Check out the website here to find out how you can help get this film released onto DVD.

So in no particular order, we begin with a popular girl group from New York City, The Ronettes, and their best-known/most enduring song of the era, "Be My Baby." Utilizing producer Phil Spector's "wall of sound" production technique (a layered and reverberant sound that came across well on AM radio and jukeboxes), this song is recognized as one of the most influential songs of all time, and is described as a "Rosetta stone for studio pioneers such as The Beatles and Brian Wilson [of The Beach Boys]." Using many Wrecking Crew musicians, Spector recorded a large range of instruments including guitars, saxophones, multiple pianos, horns, and a full orchestra with innovative studio mixing and dubbing. Featuring Hal Blaine's highly influential drum opening, as well as guitarists Tommy Tedesco and Bill Pitman, singer Sonny & Cher and Darlene Love were part of the group of guests that provided additional background vocals. This classic tune was also a commercial success, reaching #2 on the Billboard chart and #4 in the UK, selling over two million copies in 1963. It's now ranked #22 on Rolling Stone's list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time."

Speaking of Brian Wilson, he tirelessly worked to recreate that "wall of sound" himself on Beach Boys albums, and didn't do too bad considering, in 1966, the group released one of the most influential records in the history of pop music and one of the best of the 1960s. Including songs like "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "God Only Knows," Pet Sounds featured the elaborate layers of The Beach Boys' vocal harmonies on top of complicated backing tracks played by members of the Wrecking Crew, like jazz guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Carol Kaye. Exploring the emerging psychedelic rock style and revolutionary baroque instrumentation,  the backing tracks were recorded over a four-month period, using major L.A. studios, with Wilson (like Spector) becoming a pioneer of  'the studio as an instrument' concept. From the album, the single "Sloop John B." was the fastest Beach Boys seller to date, peaking at #3 in the US in May of '66, and even hit #1 in several countries including Germany, Norway, Ireland, South Africa, and New Zealand (to name a few). Originally a West Indies folk song (and introduced to Wilson by Al Jardine), here's another memorable tune from one of the greatest albums of all time (#2 according to Rolling Stone).
The top-notch Wrecking Crew also played on most Simon & Garfunkel songs, with Bridge Over Troubled Water being probably the greatest album credited to the folk rock duo. Featuring critically and commercially acclaimed songs like "The Boxer" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water," this final album topped the charts in over 10 countries and received two Grammy Awards, plus four more for the title song. Recorded in late 1969 and released as a single in January 1970, WC musicians included on this title song were Hal Blaine (who also played the memorable, heavily-reverbed drum on "The Boxer"), Joe Osborn on bass, and Larry Knetchel on piano, who won a Grammy for his "gospel sound" piano arrangement. Part of the song was first heard by a national audience in Nov. '69, when it was included in a one-hour special TV special by Simon & Garfunkel on CBS called "Songs of America." You can hear the studio recording here, however, the footage below is a studio rehearsal cut for that TV special and is a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the guys working their craft. Definitely one of the best duos out there!
Another album amongst the greatest of all time, The Mamas & The Papas' If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears featured the WC rhythm section on every track. Including fantastic folk rock and sunshine pop songs like "California Dreamin'" and "Monday, Monday," the magic of this 1966 debut album was a combination of the group's distinct vocal harmonies, John Phillips' excellent musical arrangements, and the tight backing by the WC, all creating this "genuinely new sound" at the time. Reaching #1 on the album pop charts after its release that March, this album (and the group's subsequent albums in the '60s) used those same 'first call' musicians as Bridge Over Troubled Water, including Larry Knetchel, Joe Osborn, and Hal Blaine (oh yeah, have we mentioned yet that Blaine in particular played on 50 #1 hits? Yeah, this guy is one of the most prolific drummers in history!). Since this album's hit singles were previously featured (see links above), here's another feel-good, classic Mamas & Papas' tune, "Go Where You Wanna Go." And random side note, this original album cover is a collector's item now, since some stores felt the toilet was indecent, and alternate covers were made to cover up that corner of the picture (I own the one with a scroll/box over the toilet listing the hit songs on the album, too funny).   

And we'll conclude today's "tip of the iceberg" post with another fantastic vocal group, The 5th Dimension and their Grammy Award-winning Record of the Year. Released in May 1969, The Age of Aquarius was the quintet's fourth album, and as usual for the group, the WC played all the instruments, including the musicians just previously mentioned as well as guitarist Tommy Tedesco (you may remember his fabulous Flamenco guitar-picking in the group's '67 hit "Up, Up And Away"). After the success of the "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" single, a San Diego DJ began playing "Wedding Bell Blues" from the album, and upon the seeing its potential, their record label put it out as a single as well. Featuring the lead vocals of Marilyn McCoo (who would sing parts of the song to group member and fiance' Billy Davis, Jr. during TV performances like this), this Laura Nyro-penned tune soared to #1 on the pop charts and easy listening charts, even becoming a hit in Canada and the UK. Gotta love the pure talent from all these superb singers and musicians in this entire post! 

And stay tuned for many more posts featuring the Wrecking Crew!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Double Farewell

This past December, the music world lost two more talented (and quite contrasting) performers of the 1960s. The day after Christmas, St. Louis R&B singer Fontella Bass passed away after complications of a heart attack at the age of 72. She was best known for her 1965 hit single, "Rescue Me," which reached #1 on the R&B chart, #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #11 in the UK. Although songwriter credit is given to Raynard Miner and Carl William Smith at Chess Studios in Chicago, many sources also credit Bass herself as a co-writer. Recorded in just three takes, the call-and-response sounds of "umm, umm" were unintentional and were in place of forgotten lyrics during the taping. This song also included Maurice White, later of Earth, Wind & Fire, on drums. With her fantastic vocals on this soul/pop tune, here's the late Fontella Bass performing on Shindig! in 1965.


Earlier in the month on December 11th, the best-known contemporary Indian musician Ravi Shankar passed away at the age of 92. In the mid-'50s and '60s, Shankar toured Europe and America playing classical Indian music on the sitar, and recorded albums with World Pacific Records. The Byrds also recorded at the same studio and heard Shankar's music, which led them to incorporate some of its elements in theirs, introducing the genre to their friend George Harrison of The Beatles. Harrison became interested in Indian classical music, bought a sitar, and used it to record the song "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)". This led to Indian music being used by other musicians, thus creating the raga rock trend and impacting psychedelic music. In 1966, Harrison went to India for six weeks to study the sitar with Shankar, an association which greatly increased Shankar's popularity, making him "the most famous Indian musician in the world." In 1967, he won a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance for West Meets East, and performed at the Monterey Pop Festival where he was introduced to new generation of music fans. Here's an excerpt from his four-hour performance (whow!) at the Pop Festival, as captured for the historic D. A. Pennebaker documentary (Shankar appears at about 7:00 into the clip).

Farewell to these talented performers, and thanks for the music!