Would you believe me if I told you that the hits of The Beatles, The Zombies, The Kinks, Dusty Springfield, Scott Walker, Tom Jones, Bernard Cribbins, Matt Monro and Shirley Bassey plus the theme music to all the James Bond films plus Steptoe and Son and The Double Deckers’ TV themes were all played by the same musicians?
No? Well, you’d be correct, but across the Atlantic many of the biggest US hits of the 1960s, solid gold classics still played on the radio to this day, were played by the same group of musicians. I don’t quite mean that ‘John, Paul, George, and Ringo’ played on them all, but working in LA throughout the 1960s were a bunch of around forty session players second to none on their respective instruments who would be called up whenever a producer (primarily from the Reprise, Capitol or A&M labels) needed flawless musicianship that could nail a hit record in one take.
Producers and executives such as Phil Spector, Herb Alpert, Lou Adler, Gary Paxton and Brian Wilson realised that even commanding the highest fees (Carole Kay claimed that her 15 hour days were earning her more than the President!) these cats could not only work quicker, but they played better, than the artists whose name would appear on the record and whose faces would be seen on a million tv screens. Time is money and the Wrecking Crew, as this collective of musical super-talents came to be known, would save you all the time in the world.
The Wrecking Crew were never a ‘group’ as we would understand it but were all individuals for hire on a session by session basis. However, word soon got around as to who were the best so naturally the same cats would find themselves together in the same room session after session whether they be playing surf, beat, doo-wop, soul, folk, folk-rock, mainstream pop, sunshine pop, mellow ballads, adverts, or TV or film themes.
Their origins can be traced back to session musicians known as the ‘First Call Gang’ who would be used to play backing with the likes of Bobby Vee and the surf craze hits of Jan and Dean and the Routers. At about the same time a young producer and label owner called Phil Spector developed his ‘wall of sound’ technique at Gold Star Studios with high-school friend saxophonist Steve Douglas, who recruited a reliable team to play the backing tracks to Spector’s iconic girl groups The Ronettes and Crystals, plus his legendary work with Ike and Tina Turner and the Righteous Brothers.
Someone may one day perform the task of archiving all Wrecking Crew sessions and calculating the number of hits. It’ll make the careers of Elvis Presley and the Beatles seem like sunk-without-trace showbiz has-beens.
I have a special fondness for the sunshine pop sounds and vocal harmonies of the Mamas and Papas and the Beach Boys, and it is the Crew who made up a veritable orchestra to lay Brian Wilson’s incredibly complex and ground-breaking arrangements on to tape on the Pet Sounds album and the astonishing Good Vibrations single.
I have also included what is probably my favourite Beatles cover, which also happens to be my favourite Beatles tune. Check out the Sandpipers’ delightful and delicate Things we Said Today. Compiling this list has reminded me what a superb pop song Bobby Vee’s The Night Has a Thousand Eyes is. A jaunty all-time classic that reminds me of childhood holidays.
I am also a huge fan of, wait for it… Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. They are to my ears just as important a part of the 60s cultural tapestry as The Beatles and the timeless songs of Bacharach/David and it was only relatively recently that I found out that Herb was using the Wrecking Crew giants to record his swinging Mexicali trumpet sound.
Once you realise that all these great but disparate acts are featuring the same musicians you get to tune in to their sound. Common to all is the Californian sunshine beating down outside these often-windowless studios. All these songs require to be listened to with a cold drink to hand.
So, would you believe me if I said the same musicians were playing on the hits of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, the Beach Boys, Ike & Tina Turner, the Mamas and Papas, The Association, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra and the theme to the Pink Panther? You’d better believe it.
In part two covering 1967-75 we’ll look at some of the individuals behind the hits.