“Good Vibrations.” “California Dreamin’.” “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Do you recognize those names?
All right, how about Hal Blaine? Larry Knechtel? Carol Kaye?
If you’re like most people, you may not have heard of these members of The Wrecking Crew, a group of L.A. musicians who played on some of the biggest hits of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Portland author Kent Hartman documents their lives and careers in his new book, as well as goes behind the scenes at the studios where they spent their time.
If you were an L.A. producer and you wanted to record a hit single, Hartman explained you’d call in The Wrecking Crew. Members of The Byrds, The Beach Boys, and The Mamas and the Papas would step aside as The Wrecking Crew laid down the instrumental tracks. Then the members of the main band would come back to add the vocals on top. During his recent appearance on Think Out Loud, Hartman shared some of the dynamic stories behind the songs that topped the charts.
“Be My Baby” by The Ronettes
One of the first hits for The Wrecking Crew was “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes. “It really started with Phil Spector in about ‘62,” explained Hartman. “He started hiring these session musicians and they started knocking out the hits.” And industry professionals noticed. Watching the explosive growth of Spector’s influential sound, insiders credited the success to his studio musicians, The Wrecking Crew. And they started hiring them as well.
Hartman highlights one of the iconic musical styles of The Wrecking Crew, “the signature drum lick,” at the intro to “Be My Baby”:
“Mr. Tambourine Man” by The Byrds
When listening to The Wrecking Crew play “Mr. Tambourine Man,” perhaps the most important instrument is the guitar. Hartman explained you want to listen for “Roger McGuinn of The Byrds playing his electric 1-string because he is the only Byrd on this song.”
The irony that there was only one Byrd playing on a “Byrds” song was not lost on the band. Unlike McGuinn, “the other four members of The Byrds were not happy…” Member and iconic American Folk musician David Crosby complained incessantly to his manager. Drummer Michael Clarke took a different route. “He had a four-letter word shouting match with the producer in the studio afterwards, saying, ‘Hey, we should be allowed to play our own instruments.’” However, Hartman stated, “…At the time [other than McGuinn] The Byrds were not very evolved as musicians.”
By the time of their next hit “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” The Byrds were playing their own instruments. To produce the song, however, it took The Byrds several days and over 70 takes. In contrast, when The Wrecking Crew played “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Hartman pointed out, “They were [in the studio] for all of maybe an hour, and did a few takes…”
“Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys
Brian Wilson started using The Wrecking Crew for one simple reason: Phil Spector did. “Phil Spector was Brian Wilson’s idol,” explained Hartman. The Beach Boys played instruments for their early hits like “Surfin’.” But as their sound changed, so did the musicians playing the tracks. Other than the vocals, Hartman elaborated, “When you hear ‘California Girls’ or ‘Help Me, Rhonda’ or ‘Sloop John B’ or ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ or ‘Good Vibrations,’ there aren’t any Beach Boys on there… that’s all The Wrecking Crew.”
“Just Dropped In” by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition
The Kenny Rogers song, repopularized by The Big Lebowski, is much different from his other hit only a year later. The iconic ‘60s sound of “Just Dropped In” is a testament to the musicianship of The Wrecking Crew. Knowing nothing more than a couple of chords before playing, The Wrecking Crew would sit in on a session and morph it into the sound the producers were searching for. Near the end of their career, they were arranging melodies much like we imagine the members of bands do.
For “Just Dropped In,” the producer “just had very basic chord charts for everybody, but he knew The Wrecking Crew were so great he wanted them to fill in and add things for him,” said Hartman.
Listen to the full conversation about The Wrecking Crew on Think Out Loud.
This article includes contributions from Think Out Loud’s David Blanchard.
- The Wrecking Crew Think Out Loud