Who Were The Wrecking Crew? – America’s Top 40 Hit Machine!

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Who Were The Wrecking Crew - Tommy Tedesco and Carol Kaye
Tommy Tedesco & Carol Kaye

If you have to ask, who were the Wrecking Crew, then you don’t know who recorded some of the biggest hits of the 60s and 70s!

They were America’s best-kept secret in the recording studio and music business, who helped transform numerous songs into top 40 hits.

This article will give you the basic rundown of who The Wrecking Crew was and what they accomplished. You might be amazed at what went on in the music business during these years.


I Had No Idea At The Time!

A photo of a man that is surprised.

What if I told you that for about 20 years, things were not quite what they seemed in the world of American sound recording, record-making, and marketing? Would you be surprised to learn that a particular group of elite musicians consistently created the amazing sounds that you thought were being played by your favorite bands and groups?

When I was in high school, I listened to the 60s and 70s music of some of the biggest names in rock, blues, and jazz, trying to learn everything I could on the guitar. Riff-by-riff I began to make progress and eagerly awaited the arrival of their next recordings.

Little did I know that many of these bands were not even playing their own music, but I’m not saying this in a bad way. In retrospect, this provided me with exactly what I needed to continue to grow as a guitar player.

As it turns out, much of the music was recorded by a unique group of Los Angeles-based studio musicians called “The Wrecking Crew.” During this process, the singers would add their vocal tracks to complete the recording.

Many of the most famous hit singles of the time were born this way. The music industry used the talents of these musicians to create and market bands like “The Monkeys,” many of which went on to become sensational teen and pre-teen idols.


A photo of a detective holding a magnifying glass.

The Plot Thickens

If you remember The Monkeys, then you will recall that they had their own television show, along with a seemingly unending supply of “Monkey merchandise and memorabilia” like posters, shirts, ns lunch boxes. The works!

I almost went to a Monkeys concert in 1967 to see Jimi Hendrix, who briefly toured with them as their opening act, but he was replaced with a more suitable band after just eight performances. For more info on Jimi, see Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame – The Killer Guitar Players!

Before going on concert tours, record companies actually provided some “recording artists” with lessons on their instruments to learn how to play the various parts of each song.


A Musical Force To Be Reckoned With

A stack of famous recording artists

These studio musicians were not well-liked by many of the older, more conservative players nearing the end of their career, who thought they would hurt the business with their casual dress and attitude. They eventually became somewhat unaffectionately known as “The Wrecking Crew.”

On the contrary, The Wrecking Crew worked extremely well together and became known as the musicians that could play absolutely anything and get it done right in a single take, which allowed them to finish 2 or 3 songs in an hour. They didn’t only add parts to songs; they recorded entire songs.

Generally speaking, their “superpower” was the ability to create or modify the music to a song so that it would become a smash hit on the radio and sell albums. This is an “art” that requires an exceptional ability, which is what put them so much in demand.

Many competent and even top-notch musicians requested took advantage of their talent. It got to the point where many famous recording artists refused to work with other studio musicians and rebooked their recording days to coincide with the availability of these “musical miracle workers.”

In short, the Wrecking Crew was the musical group that became America’s best-kept secret for Top 40 hits! None of their names ever appeared as contributors on any of the records or album liner notes. If you weren’t in the recording business, then chances are you never heard of the majority of them.

Now that you know who was the wrecking crew, continue reading to discover some of the great accomplishments they made to our musical heritage.


Who Actually Were The Wrecking Crew Members?

The Wrecking Crew album cover

The Wrecking Crew wasn’t just a bunch of guitar players. It also consisted of drummers, percussionists, keyboardists, brass, woodwinds, and harmonica players.

They consisted of 20 to 30 frequently-used players and as many as 40 or so musicians in total.

There is not really a strict membership definition when it comes down to it, but there was an impressive roster of notable regulars.

Here are just some of the guitar and bass Wrecking Crew band members.

Guitar Players:

Tommy Tedesco

Bill Pitman (guitar and bass guitar)

Barney Kessel

James Burton

Glen Campbell

Carol Kaye (guitar and bass guitar)

Howard Roberts

Louis Shelton

Al Casey

Ray Pohlman

Bill Aken

Doug Bartenfeld

Rene Hall

Billy Strange

Mike Deasy

Irv Rubins

Bass Guitar And Double Bass Players:

Carol Kaye

Jerry Cole

Jimmy Bond

Joe Osborn

Lyle Ritz

Red Callender

Max Bennett

Chuck Berghofer

If you recognize some of these names, it’s not difficult to imagine how hot these players sounded working together as an elite team! They were responsible for creating many of the awesome sounds and songs that we still listen to with reverence.

Today, of course, musicians generally play their own instruments and have the option of bringing in studio musicians as guest performers to record particular parts like difficult solos. There are very few (if any) “ghost-players,” so artists are generally recognized and credited for their work on each song.

For more info on James Burton, see Best Telecaster Players – These Tele Masters Will Shock You!

Here are a few of the guitar players that were frequent-fliers in The Wrecking Crew. It’s not possible to present them all in detail without writing a book.


Carol Kaye – A Very Special Woman!

A photo of Carol Kaye

Carol Kaye was a key musician in The Wrecking Crew. She added so much to the group as both a guitar and bass guitar player that it’s difficult to overstate her contributions. She was equally awesome on both instruments but became particularly well-known for her exceptionally innovative bass lines.

Carol was the only female member of The Wrecking Crew, to the best of my knowledge, with of exception of The Ron Hicklin Singers.

Whenever you watch a Mission Impossible television episode or movie, that’s Carol’s bass line! It’s so catchy that you want to hum it (and probably do) every time the movie starts. She also played the iconic bass line for The Beach Boys’ tune “California Girls.”

Carol mainly played a Fender Precision bass using a pick (plectrum) through a Fender Super Reverb Amp and played various 6-string guitars when the situation called for it.

Here’s a YouTube video clip that demonstrates how Carol transformed an extremely mundane and boring bass line for Sonny And Cher’s song “The Beat Goes On” into the dynamic opening riff that helped make the tune a smash hit.


Tommy Tedesco – Guitar Player Extraordinaire!

Who were the wrecking crew - Tommy Tedesco

I first became aware of Tommy Tedesco when he was doing “Studio Log,” a monthly column in Guitar Player Magazine. His approach to sight reading a lead sheet for the guitar was utterly fascinating, and it was always the first column I read.

I remember reading an article about him in Guitar Player, during which they called him “the most recorded guitarist in history!”

If you ever find yourself trying to mimic the “dah-dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah-dah” thing from the original “Twilight Zone” television series, whenever something freaky happens then, you have heard him play.

Tommy also played the theme songs for Bonanza, Green Acres, M*A*S*H, and numerous film soundtracks like “The Godfather” and “Jaws.”

As a sideman, Tommy played with top artists like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, and Neil Diamond. During the course of his career, he played on literally thousands of recordings.

Tommy used a fantastic collection of Gibson, Fender, Martin, and Ramirez guitars. He was well known for having large instrument-containing road cases delivered to many of his recording gigs.

Here are some of the more interesting instruments that Tommy would play when the occasion called for it.

  • 1962 Fender “Mandocaster”
  • 1985 Ibanez IMG2010 Electric Synth Guitar
  • A balalaika (Russian triangular-shaped 3 string instrument)
  • 1971 balalaika mandolin
  • 1950s 6-string lute
  • 1920s tenor ukelele

Tommy could play anything with strings on it!

He also used a variety of amplifiers including Fender, Gibson, and Ampeg models.


Bill Pitman – The “Rock And Roll Guy”

A photo of Bill Pitman

Bill originally got his start as a session player after working for American jazz and pop singer Peggy Lee. As a first-call session player, he became one of the true innovators of rock and roll guitar during his time with The Wrecking Crew.

He was known as the “rock and roll guy” after playing on Elvis Presley’s film “Blue Hawaii.”

Bill also played on numerous hit songs by artists like Jan and Dean, The Everly Brothers, and The Mamas And The Papas.

If you remember the theme song to the 1965 television series “The Wild Wild West,” which later became a movie in 1999, then you have heard bill play.

Bill’s main setup was a Gibson ES-335 played through a Polytone amp. He favored a Telecaster, and Danelectro guitar played through a Twin Reverb amp for rock and roll tunes.


Barney Kessel – A Jazz Guitar Legend!

A photo of Barney Kessel

One of the greatest jazz players of all time, Barney Kessel, was a very active member of The Wrecking Crew, along with many other jazz guitarists. He also worked with various pop and rock artists and added a 12-string guitar influence to these musical genres.

His recordings spanned everything from Billie Holiday to The Beach Boys. He also worked as a sideman for artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins, Benny Carter, Shorty Rogers, Art Tatum, and Julie London.

Barney played his own Gibson signature artist model guitar, which was a modified ES-350 with the P-90 pickup replaced by a Charlie Christian- unit. It was manufactured from 1961 to 1974 and was available in a standard and custom model.

For amplification, Barney used a Gibson GA50 tube amp, a Merson Minimax transistor amp, and a Walter Woods solid state head, which he plugged into a variety of speaker enclosures.

He was named the number one guitar player in Downbeat and Playboy magazine polls between 1947 and 1960.

In the late 70s Barney left studio work and returned to playing live exclusively.


The Wrecking Crew movie on Blu Ray

The Wrecking Crew Video

This Video is a 1-hour 42-minute documentary available on DVD and Blu-Ray that chronicles the life and times of some of the most notable musicians in the Wrecking Crew. It is narrated mostly by Dick Clark and Denny Tedesco (Tommy Tedesco’s son), who also directed the movie.

One of the great things about this video is that it shows the extent to which these musicians were involved in essentially every genre of music. They worked with everyone and everything from Frank Sinatra, to The Beach Boys, to The Alvin Show.

I was somewhat surprised to learn how much money key members of The Wrecking Crew earned. Carol Kaye mentions that she was “making more money than the president of the United States” at the time!

They really helped define the essence of what rock guitar would become. In this video, Jimmy Web (composer) calls The Wrecking Crew “the stone-cold rock and roll professionals.”

A large portion of the movie centers around a reunion that Denny organized in 1996, which included Tommy Tedesco (guitar), Carol Kaye (guitar and bass), Hal Blaine (drums), and Plas Johnson (sax).

During this get-together, these iconic musicians fondly reminisce about many of the most pivotal and amusing moments of their 20-year career. It’s an absolute must-see video!


Famous Songs Recorded By The Wrecking Crew

Here is just a small representation of the material recorded by The Wrecking Crew. If you are too young to recognize any of these songs, then take a look through your parents’ record collection. Some members worked on literally thousands of tunes!

Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home) – The Crystals

Be My Baby – The Ronettes

Surf City – Jan and Dean

Little Old Lady (from Pasadena) – Jan and Dean

The Lonely Bull – Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass

California Girls – The Beach Boys

I Get Around – The Beach Boys

Help Me, Rhonda – The Beach Boys

Good Vibrations – The Beach Boys

Mr. Tambourine Man – The Byrds

Never My Love – The Association

Mary, Mary – The Monkeys

Valleri – The Monkees

California Dreamin’ – The Mamas & The Papas

Monday Monday – The Mamas & The Papas

Up, Up and Away” – The 5th Dimension

Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In – The 5th Dimension

Tiptoe Through The Tulips – Tiny Tim

Dizzy – Tommy Roe

Cracklin’ Rosie – Neil Diamond

(They Long to Be) Close to You – The Carpenters

You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ – The Righteous Brothers

Young Girl – Gary Puckett and the Union Gap

Strangers In The Night – Frank Sinatra

These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ – Nancy Sinatra

Somethin’ Stupid – Frank And Nancy Sinatra

Everybody Loves Somebody – Dean Martin

The Beat Goes On – Sonny And Cher

I Got You Babe – Sonny And Cher

Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves – Cher

Half-Breed – Cher

River Deep – Mountain High – Ike and Tina Turner

Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon And Garfunkel

Mrs. Robinson – Simon And Garfunkel

Rhinestone Cowboy – Glen Campbell

Galveston – Glen Campbell

Love Will Keep Us Together – The Captain & Tennille

I Think I Love You – The Partridge Family

Classical Gas – Mason Williams


Television And Movie Theme Songs

The Wrecking Crew handled most of the television and movie theme songs of the 60s and 70s. If you had a favorite weekly TV show, then the chances are that they played at least some of the music for it.

Here are a few of the more popular ones. How many do you recognize?

Bonanza

The Pink Panther

The Twilight Zone

Mission Impossible (TV series)

Barney Miller

Indiana Jones – The Last Crusade

Green Acres

Hawaii Five-0

M*A*S*H

Batman (TV series)

Love Boat

Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special


Final Thoughts

Final Thoughts On Who Were The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew was an elite group of studio musicians that could play or re-arrange anything at a moment’s notice. Their contributions helped shape the musical landscape of the time and significantly raised the bar on the quality of professionally recorded music.

It’s easy to get the idea that their job was to create the music for “incompetent” musicians, but that could not be farther from the truth. Their indispensable expertise was knowing how to create musical parts that would make a song a smash hit. They worked with many top bands, including The Beach Boys, and even added music to some of Frank Zappa’s albums.

They were associated with some of the biggest names in recording artists, like Sinatra and Presley. Listen to any studio recording, movie soundtrack, or television commercial jingle in the 1960s or 70s, and you will most likely be hearing some of their work.

It’s unlikely that a group of studio musicians of this magnitude will ever duplicate or surpass their contributions. I hope that this article has helped increase your awareness of the fabulous part they played in the development of our musical culture.


A rock band of figures made from nuts and bolts.

Tell Me What You Think 

Tell me what you think of this article in the comment section. Let me know I can help clarify anything.

  • Have you ever heard of The Wrecking Crew before now?
  • Are you surprised that they may have played some or all of the music of your favorite bands?
  • Do you have a favorite guitar player that was in The Wrecking Crew?
  • Did this article entice you to learn more about recording-making in the 60s and 70s?

About Frank


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4 thoughts on “Who Were The Wrecking Crew? – America’s Top 40 Hit Machine!”

  1. I had never heard of the Wrecking Crew so this was of interest to me.

    I was surprised to see the Beach Boys on the list of famous songs recorded by the Wrecking Crew. I thought they were all capable musicians themselves.

    A very interesting article and what a secret to have kept for all these years.

    Reply
    • Hi Mike,

      I appreciate your comments!

      The Wrecking Crew worked with many top-notch musicians, like The Beach Boys, to help make their songs a smash hit on the radio. Brian Wilson purposely sought their input to help make the album “Pet Sounds” the tremendous success it became.

      I added a little more about this in my article to make it clear for readers.

      Thanks,

      Frank

      Reply
  2. I knew that some bands (such as The Monkees and The Partridge Family) did not play their own instruments but I never once stopped to consider who did.  Talk about getting ghosted!  It’s amazing the big names and big talents who stayed behind the scenes, never getting any appreciation for their musical creations.  Thanks for giving credit where credit is due!

    Reply
    • Hi Cynthia,

      Thank You for your comments!

      It is amazing, all that they did anonymously, but that’s how the record companies wanted it and it was a financial “win-win” for all parties involved. Ultimately, everyone still got to enjoy the music they created, and that’s what’s most important.

      Frank

      Reply

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