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The Wrecking Crew

June 2024
14min read

Was Hal Blaine one of your favorite musicians back in the 1960s? How about Larry Knechtel? Carol Kaye? Oh yes they were.

On a cool, overcast February night in Hollywood, near the slightly scruffy, down-on-its-luck intersection of Vine Street and Santa Monica Boulevard—the final stretch of Route 66—a group of highly talented musicians gathered in a weathered, non-descript former dentist’s office are about to make rock ’n’ roll history. No one present, from the bass player to the drummer to the guitarist, has any inkling that this particular studio session is likely to differ from any other. For the song being cut this night is by the Beach Boys, one of the biggest bands in pop music, and a band quite accustomed to churning out Top 10 AM radio favorites.

As Brian Wilson, the group’s producer and chief songwriter, calls out instructions from the control booth over the talk-back speaker—“let’s play a little tighter on that first break, okay, guys?”—the drummer clears his throat, counts off “one, two, three, four,” and suddenly a staccato burst of Hammond B2 organ notes, punctuated by the rhythmic thump of a Fender bass guitar and a cleverly syncopated snare drum, begins to fill Gold Star Recording Studios. The sound of the future number one hit “Good Vibrations” is clearly evident. Yep, this is the Beach Boys all right. Except it’s not. In fact, there’s not a Beach Boy in the room.

During the sixties and seventies, perhaps the most fertile period of popular music our nation has ever produced, recording stars such as the Monkees, Carpenters, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Jan & Dean, the Beach Boys, the Association, the Grass Roots, Simon and Garfunkel, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Kenny Rogers & the First Edition, the Mamas and the Papas, and dozens more ruled the airwaves. However, most listeners are likely unaware that a good share of these legendary artists seldom, if ever , played any of the instruments on their own records.

That’s right. Virtually all the instruments were played by an uncredited close-knit group of Los Angeles studio musicians, often referred to today by insiders as the Wrecking Crew (a name coined by the drummer Hal Blaine after the fact to describe how he and other sidemen had revolutionized the recording industry). From “Last Train to Clarksville” to “Monday, Monday” to “Mrs. Robinson,” these same studio pros time and again provided most or all of the guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, horns, and more on hundreds of the best-known singles and albums of all time. Their collective story provides a surprising behind-the-scenes glimpse of the creation of the songs that became the soundtrack for one of the most socially volatile periods in American history.

Radio listeners and record buyers never knew the truth, and that was just the way the major labels like Columbia, Liberty, Dunhill, A&M, and Capitol wanted to keep it. Preserving the illusion that famous bands played their own instruments was big business, very big business. As the Wrecking Crew bass player Carol Kaye dryly observes, “We all knew the scam that the record companies perpetrated.”

Most listeners are unaware that many legendary artists never played on their own records.

Image was (and is) everything in the music industry. And if a band’s image in the 1960s was all about playing some hip jangly 12-string guitar riffs and creating some funky grooves, as in “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds, then you can be sure companies like Columbia Records (the Byrds’ label) discouraged the public from knowing what really went on behind studio doors. To make certain he got the best possible performance for this all-important first single release, Terry Melcher, the Byrds’ producer (and Doris Day’s son), hired the Wrecking Crew to play all the backing instruments on the song. In other words, there was not a Byrd in sight, with the exception of the guitarist Jim (Roger) McGuinn, who was allowed to play his Rickenbacker electric 12-string on the song. But as far as the record-buying public knew, this future gold record featured nothing but all five Byrds in full flight.

Radio stations were kept in the dark too. The famous sixties Top 40 disc jockey Arnie (“Woo Woo”) Ginsburg, formerly of WMEX Boston, recalls that he certainly had no idea. “Back then,” says Ginsburg, “I never paid much attention to the recording side of the business, and the record labels certainly never said anything to us about who really played on what. So we never knew.”

For example, the first two Monkees albums on Colgems ( The Monkees and More of the Monkees ) made no mention of the fact that Micky, Davy, Peter, and Mike merely showed up to sing their parts and then went home. The public assumed that the “Prefab Four” played all their own instruments. And why shouldn’t they? The Monkees clearly played them on TV every week—or did they? In fact, the Monkees, like many other “live” television performers of the era, simply lip-synched the words to each song while handling instruments that weren’t even plugged in. As it was, both Monkees albums shot straight to number one on the charts.

The ascendancy of the Wrecking Crew began with the gradual demise of the studio system at the big film companies in the late 1950s, resulting in the inevitable breakup of the big studio orchestras as well. With these formal orchestras no longer in place, but with an ever-increasing need by producers to record soundtracks for television and film, a new generation of studio musicians found a growing demand for their services. At the same time, early rock ’n’ roll began sweeping the country. These factors combined to create an unprecedented demand for topnotch studio players able to handle a variety of dates, from soundtracks to jingles to singles. And as the established studio players who had come up with the big orchestras prior to World War II began to retire, in stepped the future members of the Wrecking Crew, one by one, to take their places.

Who were they? The Wrecking Crew included such superb players as Mike Melvoin, Don Randi, Larry Knechtel, Leon Russell, and Al DeLory on keyboards; Billy Strange, Howard Roberts, Al Casey, Jerry Cole, Louie Shelton, Glen Campbell, Mike Deasy, Tommy Tedesco, Bill Pitman, and Barney Kessel on guitar; Lyle Ritz and Chuck Berghofer on standup bass; Carol Kaye, Joe Osborn, and Ray Pohlman on electric bass; Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, and Jim Gordon on drums; and several horn players who often appeared on sessions, among them Chuck Findley (trumpet), Plas Johnson (sax), Ollie Mitchell (trumpet), Lew McCreary (trombone), Jay Migliori (sax), Jim Horn (sax, flute), Steve Douglas (sax), Allan Beutler (sax), Roy Caton (trumpet), and Jackie Kelso (sax).

These rising studio players couldn’t have come from more varied circumstances. Some had jazz backgrounds; others had never played anything but country. Some were trained pros, able to sight-read anything put in front of them; others couldn’t read music at all, relying instead on ear, intuition, and finesse. They came to L.A. from Delight, Arkansas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Cleveland, Ohio. A more unlikely, disparate group of music hopefuls would have been hard to find. But one thing they all shared was a passion to play their instruments. And did they ever play!

The older studio players from the forties and fifties were formal, tending to wear blazers and neckties to each date and often treating sessions as if they were punching a time clock. The new players tended to be informal and spontaneous, often collaborating with the producers on arrangements as opposed to relying strictly on sheet music and chord charts. This all made for a great difference in how records were cut.

Hal Blaine has played on more than 40 number one records, an achievement unmatched in popular music history.

The drummer Hal Blaine recalls that “producers knew that our involvement with a production was different. Nine times out of ten the producer or arranger would tell us to use the charts as a guide, that’s all. We were encouraged to go for it, to go beyond what had been written. We had the opportunity to create, to be a team of arrangers.” The well-known producer and former record label owner Lou Adler (the Mamas and the Papas, Jan & Dean, Carole King) agrees: “For me, I’m not a trained musician. These were people that not only could read me but could read my mind, in a sense.”

As word began to spread about this unusually talented bunch of new session players, all the big L.A. music producers naturally wanted in, and many of the Wrecking Crew began to spend more time with their instruments than with their families. “I was working three and sometimes four 3-hour sessions per day, and that was six days a week,” recalls the thrice-married Blaine. “There were times, when a session ran late into the night, that I just laid down on the studio floor right next to my kit for a few hours of sleep.”

During the early 1960s, especially until about 1966, studio technology, or, rather, its lack, also contributed to the need to hire a large number of session players for each recording date. As high-fidelity stereo recordings became popular—along with the growing desire by producers like Brian Wilson, Bones Howe, and Snuff Garrett to explore the creative limits of what their studios could handle—the number of tracks available for recording became a pressing issue. Compared with today’s recording studios, which offer a virtually unlimited number of discrete tracks on which to record individual instruments and voices during a session, studios back in the early to mid-sixties were lucky to have four. This paucity necessitated simultaneous participation by multiple players, since individual overdubbing or layering would have been technically and sonically problematic and undesirable.

For the Wrecking Crew, each session was just another day at one of several “offices.” Sometimes it was Gold Star Recording Studios, where hundreds of hit singles were recorded during the sixties and seventies. Other sessions were held at Western Recorders on Sunset or perhaps over at Radio Recorders on Santa Monica Boulevard. And if it was a Columbia act or a large orchestra date, then CBS Studios on Gower became the likely destination. The Monkees’ producers were fond of using RCA Victor Studios, as was Colonel Parker, whose “boy,” Elvis, cut many tracks at RCA when he was in town to film movies (“Love Me Tender” was recorded there, for example).

Of course, the leading studio players of the sixties and early seventies were by no means wholly relegated to cutting three-minute rock ’n’ roll singles for the multitude of L.A. bands aspiring to become Tiger Beat magazine’s next cover story. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin also routinely took advantage of their services; Jimmy Bowen, then a brash producer still in his twenties responsible for such hits as “Strangers in the Night,” “Somethin’ Stupid,” and “Everybody Loves Somebody,” recalls that when you wanted the best, you hired the Wrecking Crew. “I loved Hal Blaine. Hal could push a big orchestra so good, like on a Sinatra session. And Larry Knechtel was one talented guy. I used him a bunch on both bass and piano.”

Hal Blaine was perhaps the best-known and most eagerly sought member of the Wrecking Crew. From the late fifties through the mid-seventies, he recorded nearly 35,000 tracks as the primary drummer for artists such as Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Carpenters, John Denver, and dozens upon dozens of others. By the way, that’s Blaine’s big, crashing drum sound on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”—where he notably accompanied himself by slamming tire chains on the floor. That’s also his signature bass drum thump on “A Taste of Honey” from Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass. As the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson reveals in the liner notes to the Pet Sounds Sessions box set, Blaine “gave the right tempos. As a matter of fact, he came up with more of the tempos than I did. I just said, ‘Look, I want it to feel like this. I want it to be happy, I want it to feel ‘up,’ happy and very straight ahead,’ and … he would move around, he would move his hands and I went, ‘Yeah, there we go’ and he’d just take it from there.”

To date, Hal Blaine has played on more than 40 number one and 350 Top 10 records, an achievement unmatched by anyone else in popular music history. “Even for me, it’s kind of a mind-blowing thing to think about,” he says. Mike Botts, former drummer for the soft-rock group Bread, remembers: “Every studio I went to in the late sixties, there was a rubber stamp imprint on the wall of the drum booth that said, ‘Hal Blaine strikes again.’ Hal was getting so many studio dates he actually had a rubber stamp made. He was everywhere!”

Born Harold Simon Belsky on February 5, 1929, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, this son of Lithuanian and Polish immigrants began his career drumming for a variety of nondescript touring bands that routinely crisscrossed the United States through-out the 1950s, playing casinos, supper clubs, and small theaters. Catching a luck break in 1957, he managed to hook on with the up-and-coming teen idol Tommy Sands. “Everything went wonderfully with the Tommy Sands show. I was getting some great studio experience and was meeting all of the producers at Capitol Records.”

Styles changed. In the 1970s the big record labels started signing artists who insisted on playing their own instruments.

Soon progressing to regular studio work through his growing list of connections, Blaine became the first-call drummer for many of the biggest names in the music business—from Sinatra to the Beach Boys to Simon and Garfunkel—for the next 15 years. And his versatile playing and innate sense of timing also helped a number of fledgling performers evolve from studio neophytes to superstars. “Our group had never sung with anything but one acoustic guitar until that fateful day in 1965 when we came together in Studio 3 at Western Recorders,” says Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. “There, the Mamas and Papas ‘sound’ was created with the distinctive beat that Hal Blaine had already made himself famous for.”

If Hal Blaine was the unofficial king of the Wrecking Crew, the queen was the bass player Carol Kaye. The only female among this faceless band of pros, the California-raised Kaye (born Carol Smith in Everett, Washington) is considered by many to be one of the best electric bass players of all time. “Carol Kaye was the greatest bass player I’ve ever met,” says Brian Wilson. Which is curious because, as she says, “My background was the jazz world. I played electric guitar on jazz dates long before I started playing bass on the rock ’n’ roll sessions in the sixties. I played with people like Teddy Edwards, Jack Sheldon, and Billy Higgins.”

Because she came from such an accomplished background, some of the Wrecking Crew dates proved to be a little less than satisfying for the gifted Kaye. “To tell you the truth,” she says, “it was the Monkees that made me want to quit the business. I said to myself, ‘Jeez, I hate this music; it’s so uncreative.’” But her occasional lack of enthusiasm didn’t stop her from creating and playing some of the most famous rock ’n’ roll bass lines in history. Songs such as “California Girls,” “The Beat Goes On,” and even the “Theme From Shaft” all owe their bottom ends to her deft playing.

She has more than 10,000 sessions to her credit. “I almost feel embarrassed about all the credits,” she says, “but these tunes represent the work of everybody, not just me, not just the star of the tune, but mostly family-oriented musicians who were respected, in-demand, no-nonsense, coffee-driven professionals.” She also is regarded as a leading bass teacher, with dozens of instructional books, CDs, and videos to her credit. “I had no problems being the only woman,” she says. “In fact, I probably harassed them !”

Though several members of the Wrecking Crew are considered legends by music-industry insiders, only one actually has the particular appellation as part of his name. “Larry the Legend,” Larry Knechtel, was perhaps the most versatile player ever to step inside a recording studio. Born in Bell, California, in 1940, he spent his nascent musical years playing keyboard for the twang guitarist Duane Eddy and the Rebels. As the demand for session players grew during the early 1960s, he started playing a few dates for Phil Spector and quickly became a favorite choice of producers, arrangers, and contractors everywhere. “Larry Knechtel is a real musician,” says the famous L.A. producer Bones Howe (the Turtles, the Association, the 5th Dimension). “With his improvisational skills, he could have been a brilliant jazz musician.”

Even without jazz, Knechtel’s knack for just the right riff made the difference on a huge number of now-classic pop hits. From bass on “Mrs. Robinson” to organ on “Good Vibrations” to the magnificent grand piano on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (for which he won a Grammy), no member of the Wrecking Crew played so many different instruments on so many different hits. He played the harpsichord on the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You”; he even played the wah-wah guitar solo on “Guitar Man” by Bread. Of course, being so amazingly fluent occasionally drew the enmity of those whose names actually did appear on the album jackets. “I remember the Turtles, the Association—those guys—standing there in the studio watching me, hoping I’d either make a mistake or die,” he cheerfully recalls.

Most members of the Wrecking Crew were quite content playing lucrative studio dates six days a week—thanks to a very strong union—while the record labels’ marketing departments made sure only the singers and bands themselves received credit on the actual releases. “We were in the business of making stars,” says Kaye. “We didn’t want to be stars ourselves.”

However, one especially talented guitar player—who couldn’t read a note of music, by the way—did break away from the structure of the studio world to become a genuine music superstar, with more than 20 Top 40 hits and a weekly television show on CBS. He was Glen Travis Campbell. “Glen was a big part of the Wrecking Crew,” remembers Blaine. “He was one of those great guitarists who could hear a part once and he had it down pat. And the arrangers just loved that he could play these off-the-wall solos, just the wildest solos you ever heard!” The guitar riffs on “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “I Get Around” by the Beach Boys are just two examples of the style that made Campbell a first-call player.

By the late 1960s, with producing help from his fellow Wrecking Crew member Al DeLory, Campbell began cutting the solo records that would launch his public career. His hits included “Galveston,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and, of course, his signature tune, “Rhinestone Cowboy.” “Those were fun days,” he says of his Wrecking Crew years. “They were all such great players I used them on all my songs too.”

The other Wrecking Crew member to make a commercial splash on his own was the keyboardist Leon Russell. Born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Oklahoma, this ambitious piano prodigy moved to L.A. when he was only 16 (he lied about his age) in order to try his hand at session work. His playing soon found its way onto releases by Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Byrds, Jan & Dean, Bob Dylan, Herb Alpert, and many others. “When I first started in this business, Leon Russell taught me what real showmanship was,” says Mark Lindsay, the former lead singer of Paul Revere & the Raiders. “In the early days, maybe around ’61 or so, on a tour where Paul couldn’t make it, we hired Leon to play piano. He took the stage that first night, kicked the piano bench backward like Jerry Lee Lewis, and proceeded to whip the crowd into a frenzy with his theatrical playing. I said to myself, ‘Ah, so this is how you do it!’”

The versatile, driven Russell also began to write his own songs, scoring radio hits in the early seventies with “Lady Blue” and “Tight Rope” on his own Shelter Records label. His body of work contains many songs covered by other major artists, including “This Masquerade” by George Benson, “Delta Lady” by Joe Cocker, and “Superstar” by Carpenters. Many consider Russell, still on the road today, the most talented Wrecking Crew pianist of them all. “He was a great, great player,” says Campbell.

Not every member of the Wrecking Crew found lasting success and happiness. One especially gifted player, the drummer Jim Gordon, co-writer of “Layla” with Eric Clapton, began to hear voices in the early seventies and gradually changed from a pleasant, curly-haired, almost shy drumming phenomenon into an undependable, unemployable recluse. “Jim originally got along great with everybody,” remembers Blaine, “but he started walking out on sessions and telling other musicians, ‘You’re trying to take my soul.’ Very weird, almost voodoo kinds of things.”

By 1983, with his once-thriving session career in virtual ruins because of an acute case of schizophrenia compounded by heavy heroin use, the six-foot-three-inch Gordon unexpectedly appeared at the North Hollywood home of his mother late one June evening and bludgeoned and stabbed her to death. “That whole thing that went down with him I couldn’t believe. I never even saw him do drugs or anything,” says Chuck Berghofer, the bass player responsible for the famous signature run on “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” At his trial in Los Angeles, James Beck Gordon was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 16 years to life. He lives today in the California Men’s Colony at San Luis Obispo, collecting royalties, taking his medications, and occasionally playing in the prison band.

Just as the influence of Top 40 AM radio began to lose favor among young radio listeners to the growing number of progressive, album-oriented “underground” FM stations by the early seventies, the musical climate in L.A. also began to change. Always attempting to reflect the attitudes of America’s youth in the music they released—if often a couple of steps behind—the big record labels began signing artists who insisted on playing their own instruments. Slick packaging was no longer hip. Authenticity—being real—was the new philosophy. So as self-contained bands like the Eagles, the Doobie Brothers, and Chicago came along, the job prospects for the Wrecking Crew began to dwindle. And with the advent of synthesizers, drum machines, and home recording studios, their eventual dissolution was inevitable.

Motown had its Funk Brothers. Nashville had its “cats.” Elvis even had his very own top-of-the-line sidemen. Every genre and locale had (and has) its supporting players. But no group of musicians has ever played on more hits with more stars than the Wrecking Crew. “The whole era was a magic combination of artists, writers, and producers,” says Larry Knechtel. “We loved what we did, and for about 10 years it was as good as it gets.”

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