For every generation, there’s an attic full of songs that magically captures the coming-of-age connection between the pineal gland, the heart, and the groin. In fabulous hormonal excess, these songs embody all the yearning, heartbreak, and wordless hope of youth. For graying boomers, there remains something bewitchingly irresistible about the pre-psychedelia Top 40 hits that dominated popular radio from 1963 to 1967. Groups like The Mamas & The Papas, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and Sonny & Cher produced an amazing number of songs that still pack an emotional immediacy today. Lost to the backwash of nostalgia and generational narcissism, however, is the compelling story of how those songs came to be. This Saturday evening, filmmaker Denny Tedesco will shed a light on that process when he screens his very-long-in-the-making documentary, The Wrecking Crew, at Carpinteria’s recently refurbished Plaza Playhouse Theater.
The Wrecking Crew was a loose-knit constellation of Los Angeles studio musicians that provided the essential sonic brick and mortar upon which so many pop hits were built. Tedesco’s father, guitar player Tommy Tedesco, was a key member of the Wrecking Crew, along with bass player Carol Kaye, guitarist Glen Campbell, and drummer Hal Blaine. Back then when music producers needed a hit, they didn’t leave it up to bands like Gary Lewis and The Playboys, or even The Byrds and The Beach Boys, who were known for their compositional virtuosity. As Denny recounted in a recent interview, The Byrds might produce “Turn, Turn, Turn” in 77 takes on their own, but when they recorded their first hit, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” it was with the Wrecking Crew, and it took them three hours to crank it out.
The Wrecking Crew also backed up Frank Sinatra on “Strangers in the Night” and his daughter Nancy in the unforgettable “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” featuring one of the most instantly recognizable bass hooks of all time. They were the band behind Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” When mad genius Phil Spector needed a band for “Be My Baby,” he tracked down the Wrecking Crew. And as soul crooner Sam Cooke was “Twistin’ the Night Away,” naturally, it was the Crew backing him up.
For Denny, the making of the documentary has been an epic quest. When his father was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996, the younger Tedesco — who’s carved out a successful career making short documentaries and commercials — started filming interviews with his father and any member of the Crew he could find. Along the way, he snagged conversations with Cher, Dick Clark, Herb Alpert, and Brian Wilson. Though still a work in progress, the film was “released” for limited screenings in 2008. Today, Denny is still hammering out licensing arrangements for a handful of the 130 songs included as part of the soundtrack.
As for Tommy, who passed away in 1997, he was a blue-collar bear of a man who grew up Italian-American in Niagara Falls, New York, and who fell into the music business only by accident. Early on, when Tommy attended a dance with his wife, he discovered the band was in need of a guitar player. In the blink of an eye, he signed up and took to the road. Although he would be let go several months later (in favor of a musician who could both play and sing), there was no going back; Tommy’s wife, stung by the doubters back home who never thought he’d make it, wouldn’t allow it. But over the years, Tommy developed an astonishing, blazing technique, and as a studio player, his music-reading skills were second to none. Though he was creating indelible music memories for millions of people, to Tommy it was just a job, which some years saw him playing as many as 400 studio gigs. “It’s okay to be an assembly-line worker,” his son commented. “Some days you make a Rolls-Royce; other days you make a Pinto.” Or, as Tommy himself quipped when asked why he never invited his wife to some of the sessions he played, “A plumber doesn’t take his wife to work.”
As a kid, young Denny was oblivious to his father’s work and rarely witnessed him in action. In fact, the first time he remembers seeing his father play guitar was in the 1970s, at a club on the Ventura waterfront called Charley’s. By then, the family had bought a condo there, and Tommy had started playing in a band with Santa Barbara attorney Paul Capritto.
As the psychedelic movement gained steam in the late ’60s, Top 40 hits were dismissed as canned and trite. Bands insisted on playing their own songs, and skilled session players were forced to scrounge. Tedesco — who played anything with strings and frets — shifted first to TV and then into movies, where he recorded scores for films like Field of Dreams and Schindler’s List. Musically, though, he never stopped growing.
“I can say that in his sixties, he was a much better musician than he was in his thirties,” offered Denny. It would be a stroke that finally slowed him down, robbing Tommy of his amazing right-hand dexterity. The stroke, said both Tedescos, came along at the right time, however perversely. It allowed Tommy to hang it up before the calls stopped coming.
This Saturday, Denny will appear alongside his film in Carpinteria and stick around to answer audience questions post-screening.
The Wrecking Crew screens at the Plaza Playhouse Theater (4916 Carpinteria Ave., Carpinteria) on Saturday, September 27, at 7 p.m. For tickets and info, call (805) 684-6380 or visit plazatheatercarpinteria.com.