The saga of the first-call Los Angeles session musicians who powered some of the biggest hits of the 1960s and ’70s.
In truth, the Wrecking Crew isn’t the secret it once was: Drummers Hal Blaine and the late Earl Palmer penned books about their lives in the studio, and a documentary about the unit by Denny Tedesco, son of Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, has made film festival rounds. It’s nonetheless a fascinating story, albeit one not always well served by Hartman’s approach. After kicking off with background on three key players—Blaine, bassist Carol Kaye and guitarist/pop star-to-be Glen Campbell—the author delineates the group’s genesis as top-paid hired guns on producer Phil Spector’s elaborate “Wall of Sound” sessions. Subsequently, a core unit of adept but uncredited pros became go-to backup musicians for a seemingly endless round of L.A. record dates, playing behind acts ranging from the Beach Boys to Simon & Garfunkel. Hartman notes that in the Crew’s heyday, record labels called the shots, and groups like the Byrds, the Monkees, the Union Gap and the Association were compelled to reluctantly drop their instruments in favor of the anonymous studio aces’ polished work. Only after the wind shifted in the ’70s in favor of self-contained bands did the Crew’s impact wane, and its members moved on to film and TV gigs. Hartman makes a compelling case for the skill of his subjects, who often fabricated the crucial hooks that brought their clients fame. Some chapters, such as one about the recording of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” are rich in fly-on-the-wall detail. However, the musicians frequently disappear within their own story, as Hartman chooses to focus on others, like producer Jimmy Bowen and songwriter Jimmy Webb, who played major roles in hits they worked on. Some Crewmen, like drummer Jim Gordon, a schizophrenic who murdered his mother, receive in-depth treatment, but too many are names merely mentioned in passing. The book’s greatest failure is the format, which weaves interview and source material into a novelistic structure with re-created dialogue that often falls flat.
These gifted players sadly remain too faceless.