The Wrecking Crew - The Behind the Scenes Sixties Supergroup
You may have never heard their name, but you've heard their music. The Wrecking Crew were a large collective of session musicians in the 1960s and early 1970s.
In case you don't know, a session musician, or studio musician, is an instrumentalist who is hired to perform on other artists’ work. They are the hired guns of the music business.
With classical or jazz training behind most of them, these particular hired guns were among the best in the industry at the time. Working in the Los Angeles area, this group helped to record countless recordings, many of which are iconic works from the decade. Among their more famous accolades are: Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends, the Mamas and the Papas’ If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, and Nancy Sinatra's Boots. The band was also a key component of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production style.
This name did not exist when the collective was active in the music business, this term would be coined later by drummer and key Crew member Hal Blaine (who we’ll be discussing shortly) in his memoir.
We want to dive further into the mythology of this group, because they are notably underrated. Such is the topic of their 2008 documentary of the same name. This group of musicians featured on countless hits of the 1960s, but the majority of listeners have never heard of them. As such, we’ve compiled a list (along with a brief biography) of a few of the key members of the collective, along with a few examples of their work. This way we hope to familiarize you with some of the most prolific behind the scenes musicians of all time.
Hal Blaine passed away just this last week, and with him left a major reason to the relatively recent fame of the Wrecking Crew. For it was his autobiography which brought the name and story of the Crew to devoted fans of music. Blaine was one of the dominant members of the Wrecking Crew, and indeed a dominant member of the recording industry, at an estimated 35,000 recorded sessions under his belt. With jazz, big band, and rock n’ roll alike, Blaine was without a doubt one of the most important session musicians of all time, earning an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “sidemen” category.
Among his particular hits are: Beach Boys’ I Get Around, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man, and Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe.
Another of the most prominent members of the group, Carol Kaye was a notable exception to the male domination of the music industry in the 1960s. Raised by two professional musicians, Kaye started her career as a guitarist before moving to bass after a bassist did not show up for his session. Following this switch, she became an integral part of the Crew and one of the most in demand session musicians in Los Angeles. In an interview for the Wrecking Crew documentary, she said she believes that during her most active period, she was likely making more money than the President.
A small sample of her most successful recordings include: Ritchie Valens’ La Bamba, the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out, Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High, and the theme music from Mission: Impossible, and M*A*S*H.
Pitman had what was perhaps one of the most diverse careers of the members of the Wrecking Crew, operating as a session musician in Los Angeles for almost forty years. Although particularly a guitarist, Pitman also performed on an array of instruments including: bass guitar, banjo, ukulele, and mandolin. His instrument of choice was a Gibson ES-335. Similarly beginning in the genre of jazz, sitting in on sessions with the legendary likes such as Buddy Rich, Pitman would transition to rock n’ roll like many of his other Crew contemporaries in the late 1950 after a chance encounter with producer Phil Spector.
Among his most famous hits, the following: Frank Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night, the theme music for the Wild Wild West, Ironside, and Bonanza, as well as the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations.
You may have heard this name before. After Glen Campbell’s successful career among the Wrecking Crew, he would go on to become a highly prolific and successful country music star, television host, and actor. He produced over 70 albums throughout his years as a musician, including nine Billboard number one hits. During his session musician career, Campbell worked as a guitarist. He would go on to take his guitar skills as well as his vocal talents to become a superstar of country music.
During his time as a session musician, Campbell worked with: the Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole, Merle Haggard, Bobby Darin, and Dean Martin.
Not much is known about the prolific saxophonist with the Wrecking Crew other than his accolades. It is known that he started as an R&B musician in the 1950s, after working with Phil Spector in their own band during high school, before being recruited later as Spector established himself as a producer. Douglas died with a dedication to music, when he passed away of heart failure during a rehearsal was Ry Cooder.
Douglas worked with the likes of: Duane Eddy, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, the Ramones, and Aretha Franklin.
The final of our highlighted members of the Wrecking Crew, Knechtel was perhaps the most notable keyboard player of the group, getting his start at a young age with piano lessons. From there, he first fully established himself as a part of guitarist Duane Eddy’s backing band the Rebels. He joined the Wrecking Crew collective like many of his colleagues, through connection with the producer Phil Spector. Knechtel also found himself a solo record deal, in which he quickly released two studio albums, to moderate success. This was his final period of full-time work in the music industry before entering semi-retirement, working occasionally with producer Rick Rubin until his death in 2009.
Among Knechtel’s important features: his Grammy winning performance on Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, the Doors debut album, Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and working with the great Chet Atkins.
We hope you enjoyed the look into the career of a supergroup unlike any other, that many of you may not have known about before reading this article! If you’d like to know more, we highly recommend you check out the Wrecking Crew documentary, Hal Blaine’s autobiography entitled Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew, as well as Kent Hartman’s The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Best-Kept Secret.