The Mystery of the Wrecking Crew - A Tribute to Glen Campbell

Paul Charles reflects on Glen Campbell’s membership of The Wrecking Crew, the legendary collection of studio musicians who played on some of the greatest songs of all time - without you necessarily knowing about it!

At one point in the late 1960s, the best-selling group in the entire world (most likely with the single exception of The Beatles) was a group no fan ever screamed at. There were no known photographs of this group. No one knew their favourite food, drink, actor, actress, movie nor even what clothes they wore.

Not only that, but no fan ever knew who they were. The reason for this was quite simply because the record companies didn’t want you to know. The identity of this group was their biggest and most carefully guarded secret. It was vital to their continued financial stability that it remain so.

Should anyone outside the hallowed corridors of the Capitol Records building in LA, CBS’ BlackRock in NYC etc uncover the truth, it would most likely have killed the careers of some of the biggest groups in the industry, and totally reshaped the landscape of the music business as we know it today.

If I dropped the names Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Tommy Tedesco, Al De Lory and Larry Knechtel into a conversation, one would certainly be forgiven for mistaking them for a bunch of lawyers.

The response would be entirely different if I mentioned, (in no particular order): ‘He’s A Rebel’, ‘Surfin’ USA’, ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’, ‘Be My Baby’, ‘I Get Around’, ‘Everybody Loves Somebody’, ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’, ‘Help Me Rhonda’. ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, ‘California Dreaming’, ‘Eve Of Destruction’, ‘I Got You Babe’, ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘Monday Monday’, ‘River Deep Mountain High’, ‘I Am A Rock’, ‘Strangers In The Night, ‘These Boots Were Made For Walking’, ‘Never My Love, ‘Up Up And Away’, ‘San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)’, ‘The Beat Goes On’, ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘MacArthur Park’, ‘Mrs Robinson’, ‘Young Girl’, ‘Classical Gas’, ‘Galveston’, ‘Holy Holy’, ‘Let The Sun Shine In’, ‘Aquarius, ‘The Boxer’, ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’, ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’, ‘I Think I Love You’, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, ‘Rainy Days And Mondays’, ‘It Never Rains In Southern California’, ‘Yesterday Once More’, ‘The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia’, ‘The Way We Were’, ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’, ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’, ‘I’m Not Going To Miss You’, ‘Half Breed’, ‘Dizzy’, ‘Indian Reservation’, ‘Young Girl’, ‘Surf City’, ‘This Diamond Ring’…

Yes, phenomenally at the recording session for each and every one of the above 50 classic singles were the house band, aka. The First Call Gang, aka The Phil Spector Wall of Sound Orchestra, but mostly known as the legendary Wrecking Crew. The members included, amongst others, the aforementioned Carol Kaye on bass and lead guitar, Hal Blaine on drums, Tommy Tedesco on guitar, Al de Lory on keyboards, and Larry Knechtel (later a member of Bread) on keyboards. They were frequently joined by future recording stars in their own right, such as Leon Russell on keyboards, and the sadly departed Glen Campbell on guitar.

Legendary Classic Album

The Wrecking Crew were often part of a much larger ensemble. Their membership numbers depended on the requirement of the producer. For instance, Phil Spector, in search of the Wall of Sound he was forever hearing in his head, loved to absolutely pack the studio to overflowing in an attempt to fulfil his dream sound.

The above-mentioned musicians and their occasional fellow Wrecking Crew members were by no means shrinking violets, nor did they have the proverbial “great face for radio.” No, their preference for studio work was not based on their looks, but on the fact that they didn’t want to become road musicians, continuously on tour while trying to retain a personal life and endeavouring to make ends meet. This group of musicians’ preference was to remain based in LA as part of the lucrative session musician élite.

The centre disc and sleeve on many a record may have proclaimed the names of acts like Jan and Dean, Sonny & Cher, The Mamas & The Papas, The Beach Boys, The Monkees, The Byrds, The Righteous Brothers, Ike & Tina Turner, Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, The Crystals, The Ronettes, The Association, The 5th Dimension, The Carpenters – but the studio call sheets would have more accurately listed a version of the Wrecking Crew and that is the group of musicians we hear on all these wonderful records.

So you can see why the record companies needed to keep all of the above a J. Edgar Hoover size, national secret. I remember the absolute shock-horror when the UK red top newspapers sensationally broke the story that The Love Affair didn’t play on their own songs. History records that the love for them was not, alas, everlasting.

Brian Wilson as we all know retired from the road so that he could spend his time writing songs; and as his brothers and fellow band members continued to tour around the world without him, Mr Wilson would be busy in the studio with the Wrecking Crew, recording the next “official” Beach Boys album. One of their joint creations was Pet Sounds, the album that allegedly “scared” the Beatles into writing and recording Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

In addition to the above list of groups, the Wrecking Crew also recorded with Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, Neil Diamond, Barbara Streisand, Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen – and many more.

The Wrecking Crew were the collective of musicians featured on a staggering 140 top ten hits! Even more astounding is the fact that no less than 40 of those 140 top ten hits made it the whole way to the coveted No. 1 spot in the charts.

Indisputable Mass Appeal

Several of those top ten hits were as the house band for Glen Campbell, a member of their own ranks. It seemed obvious to Glen, and his producer Al De Lory, to use the Wrecking Crew, as both were ex-members themselves. Records were really put together differently in those days and the American way was certainly a lot different to the British way. The Wrecking Crew with their few favoured producers certainly knew how to build classic records out of great - or sometimes even just good - songs. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Wrecking Crew were responsible for creating a lot of the pivotal records of my life and by extension helped (along with the British pop groups of the ’60s) set the foundations of my musical taste.

A perfect example of this would be some of the classic records by Glen Campbell.

Glen was one of the best singers of the day in that he had a great story-in-a-song type of voice. His voice was infused with the soul of his Scottish/Irish heritage. He never let his voice get in the way of a brilliant song, sometimes (a lot of the time) surpassing the original writer’s version. Simultaneously, Jimmy Webb was undoubtedly a brilliant songwriter, but he needed a singer who wouldn’t get in the way of his songs. In other words they were the perfect match.

Together they made perfect 45s at a time when you could never underestimate the impact a million-selling single would have on a lifetime’s career. Glen Campbell was one of the best guitarists around the LA session scene. He was Republican, and appeared wholesome and righteous with an acceptable haircut, which you’d have to say he wore way beyond its sell-by date. He wasn’t limited (or hamstrung) by having to record only the songs he had written himself.

He was the first artist to see the potential – and have the clout and the sense – to successfully popify country music.

The reality is that if there hadn’t been Glen Campbell, then there most certainly wouldn’t have been The Eagles. There were other massive artists, like Johnny Cash for instance, who crossed over from the country scene. However, paid-up Wrecking Crew member Glen Campbell was the only one who enjoyed, not just the credibility, musicianship and smarts, but also the indisputable mass appeal of being an all-American boy. Yes, he stumbled but he definitely didn’t fall, and you know what, he might even have been the last of the age of innocence survivors.

So here’s to the memory of Glen Campbell and the members of the Wrecking Crew who were so good the record companies didn’t want us to discover their identity.

• Paul Charles has written 19 novels, including 10 in the Inspector Christy Kennedy series; and four non-fiction works about the music industry, including The Best Beatles Book Ever. His latest novel, 2016’s One Of Our Jeans Is Missing, is available now. He is a partner in the Asgard Agency and his clients include Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, The Waterboys and Christy Moore, among many of the leading lights of contemporary music.


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