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The Wrecking Crew: Top 40’s Hidden History

Kent Hartman’s new book The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock N Roll’s Best Kept Secret (Thomas Dunne Books/ St. Martin’s Press) is the multi-fold biography of a group of musicians who found themselves at the center of the perfect storm during the heyday of Top 40 Radio. This loose conglomeration of players became the go-to sessioneers for West Coast music producers during the 1960’s. Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Lou Adler all counted on them for their accurate and intuitive skills during recording dates. We all know the music they helped create, but who they were is looked at in depth, between two covers, here for nearly the first time.

During the course of this history you’ll meet Bassists Carol Kaye and Joe Osborn, drummer Hal Blaine, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, and many others. People whose names you don’t know but whose handiwork you have probably loved for 40 years. For instance, do the names Louie Shelton or P.F. Sloan ring a bell? It’s Shelton’s key guitar lick that drives The Monkees’ “Last Train To Clarksville,” while Sloan’s twelve string filigree adorns the intro of The “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and Papas. Others, like guitarist Glen Campbell, will be familiar. As one of the few “crew” members to rise to individual fame his biography is a cohesive thread throughout the book.

Rather than delineate each player’s biography on a chapter by chapter basis or write the book as a series of interviews, Hartman intertwines their formative histories during the outset of the book. This makes for an interesting narrative as seemingly disparate occurrences coalesce to bring these folks together. A series of small serendipities and coincidences – we’d call it networking these days – ultimately converge in the recording studios of Los Angeles at just the right moment in time. We know what’s coming, but how it gets there – well that’s the entertaining part.

SkeletonPete Says…
As a “boomer”, a life long music collector, and a musician myself, I did not come to this book without prior knowledge of many the players and some of the stories. From the Wrecking Crew’s origins at Spector’s Gold Star Studio sessions, through Don Peake’s tenure as the only white player in the Ray Charles Orchestra and drummer Jim Gordon’s sad homicidal breakdown, Hartman affords a timeline and a series of vignettes that make sense of the often incongruous pieces. His new interviews with key players add fresh information and clarification of some of the previous apocrypha. Highly recommended, The Wrecking Crew is a brisk read, filled with informational and inspirational anecdotes. Along with Always Magic In the Air, Ken Emerson’s Brill Building overview, it’s a book I’ll keep within quick reach as a reference.

The Harmony Game: The Making of Bridge Over Troubled Water

My current immersion in the creative recording process with Dance Half Done made the opportunity to see an advance screening of “The Harmony Game”, a new documentary on the making of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” album, an all-the-more special treat. When my wife saw that this early public peek would be at one of our favorite venues, City Winery, we jumped at the chance.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” marked the pinnacle of S & G’s recording career as well as the dissolution of their creative partnership for many years afterward. This film was created specifically to accompany the 40th Anniversary Edition of that 1970 album which is scheduled for release on March 8th, 2011. It will have a limited engagement in theaters throughout the month.

Like The Beatles, as Simon and Garfunkel’s public popularity grew in leaps and bounds, their creativity and imagination in the studio (and the record company’s willingness to indulge it) grew concurrently. The film is an enjoyable mix of anecdotes and archival footage, some culled from the contemporaneous TV special “Songs of America”, of that process. Along with new in-depth interviews with Paul and Artie , the 70 minute chronicle offers talks with co-producer/engineer Roy Halee, “wrecking crew” drummer Hal Blaine, arranger Jimmie Haskell, and others.In particular it is great to see the unsung hero of sixties pop hits, bass player Joe Osborn, finally get some face time on screen. Based on his session-ography he deserves a documentary of his own.

Halee, credited as the sonic architect of the duo’s recorded legacy, relates in some detail the process he used to get the group’s unique vocal sound, and the amount of experimentation – especially with natural ambiance – invested in the project. Blaine tells the legendary elevator story, the “instrument” playing the solo in “The Boxer” is revealed, as is who fingerpicks its beautifully fluid opening run. Unfortunately multi-instrumentalist session player Larry Knechtel passed away in 2009. It is his piano work we hear on the gospel inspired title song; a track that was the culmination of a 3 day session to work out its arpeggios, counterpoints and turnarounds to perfection. There is no mistaking that perfection was the goal, putting that many uber-talented “type A” personalities in one room made for a creative pressure cooker but their talents thankfully went beyond note perfect to soul perfection.

To some extent the film follows the now familiar “classic albums” formula, but leaves us short of what is often the most enjoyable part – a trip through the multi-tracks. As Osborn relates in one segment, a finished track was often a pastiche of the best pieces of several takes and a listen to bits that got left out, experiments that failed, etc. would have been fun. That is not to say that the soundtrack does not include bits of alternate and/or early takes.

40th Anniversary Edition, 1 CD - 1 DVD

For those of us who have already owned the album in any number of formats and remastered versions since it’s first release, it is this documentary that will make the 40th Anniversary Edition worth owning. At a street price likely to be under $15.00 for the whole package it is quite a bargain.

For more information on some of the artists mentioned above visit:
Simon and Garfunkel Website
Roy Halee: An in depth interview circa 2001 in Mix Magazine.
Drummer Hal Blaine and Bassist Joe Osborn. Their session credits are mind-blowing.

To purchase on Amazon
Bridge Over Troubled Water (40th Anniversary Edition) (1 CD/1 DVD)