New Book Gives Session Aces the Wrecking Crew Their Past Due

The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Best-Kept Secret By Kent Hartman Thomas Dunne Books, 304 pp., $25.99.

Motown had the Funk Brothers, Nashville had the A-Team, and Stax/Volt had their Memphis men, but gold-record-for-gold-record, no group played on more hits in the '60s and '70s than the Wrecking Crew.

With a fluctuating, lineup and no membership card required, this coalition of L.A.-based session musicians added punch and power to tracks by acts like the Beach Boys, Byrds, Monkees, Grass Roots, Mamas and the Papas, Sonny and Cher, and even Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. And almost any Phil Spector-produced record.

Their group's moniker came from the fact that older, more staid-and-suited session musicians, who hated playing rock and roll, thought these laid-back, casual dressing, younger players would "wreck" the music industry.

Yet, since they played for mostly session-by-session fees -- and, in the case of playing for "groups" remained somewhat anonymous -- only music nerds know names like Hal Blaine, the Crew's ringleader who wrote his own entertaining memoir; and then Carol Kaye, Tommy Tedesco, Billy Strange, Larry Knechtel and Don Peake. Two Wrecking Crew members, however -- Glen Campbell and Leon Russell -- went on to do pretty OK on their own.

Combining new interviews and research, Hartman tells a fast-paced (though detailed) version of the Crew's story and often unsung contributions to music, with plenty of anecdotes. Like the time a drunken Strange took up a challenge to write a song in five minutes, then was amazed to get a $63,000 royalty check when his "Limbo Rock" became a smash for the Champs and Chubby Checker.

Or when the Caucasian Peake, touring with Ray Charles, pretended he was Hispanic to avoid Southern cops looking to, um, take him off the bus.

Or when Grass Roots guitarist Creed Bratton (nee' Chuck Ertmoed) was fired from the group for taking LSD and exposing himself onstage during a concert. That Bratton would later resurface as an actor, playing the creepy "Creed" on American TV in The Office, only seems appropriate.

By the mid-'70s, with more band's members playing their own instruments in the studio, the use of electronic sampling, and a newer breed of even more laid-back session musicians coming up, the Wrecking Crew began to crumble.

But anytime you her Blaine's powerfully percussive intro to the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," or Kaye's thumping bass line that buoys the otherwise one-note torture of Sonny & Cher's "The Beat Goes On," or Knechtel's gorgeous, gospel-influenced piano intro and breaks in Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (for which he did get writing credit), you'll know this motley Crew had a lot to do with crafting the sound of an era.

It's good that ensuing decades have given them the credit they richly deserve.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero