The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret, by Kent Hartman

From the time that the Do-Wop and Brill Building sounds of New York filled most radios through the Beatles and the English Invasion, there was a persistent drive in pop music percolating in the Los Angeles area. Some of this was driven by producers like Phil Spector, others by musicians with a unique California perspective like The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean.

Riding behind this music was a loose group of studio musicians who came to be known as The Wrecking Crew. Many were extremely inventive musicians in their own right, a few who were working toward their own stardom while others preferred the regular lifestyle and salaries that came from recording jobs in the LA area.

These musicians provided their own musical creativity to everything from recordings by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to massive productions by Phil Spector and albums like Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys.

This book reads like an oral history of those rich years, sharing stories from recording sessions along with some gossip by many of the people who were there. Some went on to their own careers. Glen Campbell was one, who worked as a studio guitarist on scores of records as well as Leon Russell who had a phenomenal career (and went on to support and nurture artists like Tom Petty) following his Wrecking Crew days.

The stories here give the artists’ perspectives on what they brought to the recordings. These were guitarists, bass players, drummers, and keyboard artists who would be expected to create the perfect bit of fill at just the right moment. More than that, they were often the recording studio version of several bands, including the first two albums by The Monkees, mostly actors chosen for their TV personas, and groups as well known as The Byrds, where producers convinced the artists that stage performances could be loose but recordings had to be perfect.

Some of the stories are amazing or horrifying … or a bit of both. There’s the story of the multi-talented Jim Gordon, a long time member of The Wrecking Crew who was hired as the drummer for Derek and the Dominoes. Gordon was already suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia when he signed on. The group was looking for a way to round out the sound of the song Layla. Between takes Gordon was at the piano playing a piece he’d been working on that the rest of the group was sure would bring the song to a perfect end. So, with Gordon on piano, they recorded the long piano exit for the song. However, given the drug fest the whole band was on they only recorded one album and never toured. Gordon later, in a drugged and/or schizophrenic state, later drove to his mother’s house and bludgeoned and stabbed her to death. He still resides in a psychiatric facility in California.

It’s an interesting picture of careers rising, stalling, and collapsing over 20 or so years. Some of the stories are interesting, like Frank Sinatra improvising the “doo-be-doo-be-doo” during the second take of Strangers in the Night. Some less-so, like Mama Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas forgetting the lyrics to a song and calling a local music store to dictate the the lyrics over the phone.

It’s an atmosphere, in a digital age where any den or garage can become a recording studio, that will probably never happen again. At the time The Wrecking Crew had competition in other regions, such as the studios at Mussel Shoals and Nashville. One of the book’s more insightful moments comes when actor Richard Harris used some of the musicians to record MacArthur Park, a song originally rejected by radio stations as too long but eventually received extensive radio play. Hartman notes that this song, in some ways, had the musicians writing their own epitaph. As longer songs began to fill the airways the call for studio musicians began to fade, no longer needed to fill the constant market for three-minute classics.

It’s a fun book for anyone raised in that era. Hartman says he still finds out about new recordings backed by Wrecking Crew members through union records of studio sessions. It’s also an interesting look at the rise and fall of musical icons from the heart of the rock-and-roll era.