The behind-the-scenes studio musicians who helped shape the sound of Motown finally got their due in the 2002 documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.” Backup singers to the stars received their long-time-coming acknowledgement in 2013’s Oscar-winning “20 Feet from Stardom.”
“The Wrecking Crew,” a music documentary, turns the spotlight on West Coast session musicians who helped shape the sound of the 1960s.
In addition to the hundreds of hit songs and classic albums musicians known as the Wrecking Crew performedon, recordings featuring those players won the Grammy Award for record of the year six years in a row.
“The Wrecking Crew,” a music-filled, appreciative but not fawning account of the musicians, opens a big-screen engagement Friday at the Prytania Theatre.
Denny Tedesco, the son of Wrecking Crew guitar virtuoso Tommy Tedesco, directed the film, devoting nearly 20 years to its production.
Wrecking Crew musicians — including drummer and New Orleans native Earl Palmer, saxophonist and Donaldsonville native Plas Johnson, bassist Carol Kaye, drummer Hal Blaine, pianist Leon Russell and guitarists Tedesco and Glen Campbell — were favorites of producers Phil Spector, Jack Nitzsche and Lou Adler, as well as artist-producers Brian Wilson and Herb Alpert.
The Wrecking Crew’s list of hits includes The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and “California Girls,” Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender,” Sonny and Cher’s “I’ve Got You Babe,” and a recording inducted this week into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”
Wrecking Crew players also played sessions for The Byrds, The Fifth Dimension, Johnny Rivers, The Monkees, The Mamas and the Papas, Neil Diamond and Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Exactly who the Wrecking Crew musicians were can be a nebulous designation. In the film, some musicians say they weren’t even familiar with the term. And it would be impossible for an identical group of musicians to play for all of the Los Angeles sessions recorded from the late 1950s through the early ’70s.
But certain players continuously appear. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Palmer is one of them. Before his move to Los Angeles in 1957, Palmer was the drummer of choice at Cosimo Matassa’s New Orleans recording studios.
Palmer, who died in Los Angeles in 2008 at 83, is among several Wrecking Crew players Denny Tedesco interviewed for the documentary. The L.A. music scene quickly noticed his talent.
Denny Tedesco dedicated the documentary to his late father, Tommy. During occasional voiceover narration, the director describes the film as “the story of my father and his extended family.” The elder Tedesco appears on camera often, but his appearances are always worthy, explaining, as they do, the lives of these remarkably gifted and busy studio musicians.
Tedesco’s interviews with his father’s peers include Kaye (a rare female studio player), Blaine, Johnson, Campbell and, another Louisiana native, bassist Joe Osborn. The film’s star interviews include Alpert, Nancy Sinatra, Gary Lewis, Beach Boys Brian Wilson and Al Jardine, Monkees’ Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork and The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn.
Maybe inevitably, “The Wrecking Crew,” a film about creative yet very practical artists and crafts people, doesn’t contain the emotion that surfaced in “20 Feet from Stardom.” But in revealing, entertaining ways, “The Wrecking Crew,” which follows Kent Hartman’s 2012 book (also called “The Wrecking Crew”), gives credit where credit was so long overdue. Palmer, Johnson, Tedesco, Kaye and the others had a huge hand in making the records great.