The Wrecking Crew: Back When Music Was Good

Having recently watched the highlights (or lowlights?) of the recent Grammy Awards, I reflected on a movie documentary about the early days of Rock and Roll, The Wrecking Crew. If you are a fan of 1960’s rock music, you need to check this out. These were the people who actually played on the records released in the 60’s. The bands were out on the road while the Wrecking Crew was putting together the soundtrack in the studio.

More recently I discovered that there was a book on the same topic, “The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret”. I initially thought it was maybe the basis for the documentary but have been pleasantly surprised that they are not the same.  The documentary was directed by Wrecking Crew member Tommy Tedesco’s son and has priceless video from the classic West Coast rockers.  The book, by Kent Hartman, began after he spent time driving Larry Knechtel of the supergroup, Bread, during a reunion concert tour. Larry’s roots in rock and roll were firmly planted in his work in the Wrecking Crew. It also follows more closely three members, drummer Hal Blaine, and guitarists Carol Kaye and Glen Campbell. Yes, that Glen Campbell. They all achieved a level of greatness through a combination of hard work, talent and perseverance.

So…two quick stories, one from the movie and one from the book.  Glen was playing guitar for a recording session with Frank Sinatra for the song, “Strangers in the Night.” Frank did not particularly like the song, and Glen made a rare mistake playing forcing Frank to do another take.  Frank being Frank, was not happy and decided to trash the song so it would not be used. At the end there is his now iconic lyrical ad lib, “Doobie Dobbie Do”.  Instead of ruining the song, it made the song as memorable as it is today.

Another instance of an ad lib turning out well is the story of songwriter and guitarist Billy Strange. He was listening to a song on the radio with a friend and commented that he could write something better in 5 minutes.  His friend laid a $100 bill on the seat between them, and the clock started. 5 minutes later he had a tune that was decent enough that he pocketed the $100.  Weeks later, while playing for a recording session for Ricky Nelson, the producer asked the musicians, Billy being one of the studio guys,  if any had some new music that he might consider producing.  Billy had several of the players stick around and did a demo of his 5 minute work, “What a Monotonous Melody.”

The musicians laughed and kept repeating the sole line, “What a monotonous melody.” That tune was used by an instrumental group, the Champions, (Glen Campbell’s first band), was retitled “Limbo Rock”, and began generating some royalty checks.  A producer for Chubby Checker was looking for something to resurrect his artist’s popularity following ‘The Twist.’  He heard ‘Limbo Rock’ contacted Billy and asked if he could write some lyrics.  That was fine with Billy who soon forgot until he received a BMI royalty check for $63,000.  He decided to check about this obvious error. The BMI representative asked, “You were the songwriter for something called ‘What a Monotonous Melody?’”  Chubby Checker had taken the song to #2 on the Billboard chart.

He continued having a great career playing and writing for many other artists as the years progressed, and I had never heard of him. Rock and Roll is filled with these ‘feel good’ stories, and it reminds us that for every Elvis and Cher there were several Billy Stranges in the background, contributing to the musical score of our youth.

So, for the those of you interested in the golden era of Rock and Roll, check out both the movie and the book. (Available for free at the Quincy Public Library!) The time spent watching this movie will be less than it took to watch the entire Grammy’s Show and, in my mind, is much more enjoyable. Both are fun musical trips and may help erase any unwanted memories from Grammys!

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