Back in June 2009, I talked a bit about a group of session musicians I had never heard of that became informally known as “The Wrecking Crew.”
Last night, I was fortunate enough to attend a screening of the movie itself. I am still shocked and delighted. The article linked above should give you all the information you need to know about these fine musicians, but I can’t emphasize enough that any lover of music — of any genre — must see this movie. If you speak any English at all, this music has been a part of your life — and probably even if you haven’t.
The audience was as interesting as the movie in some ways. There were plainly many professional session musicians and others there with an emotional investment in the subject matter although many people were simply music lovers. (The fellow sitting next to me — if the fingernails on his right hand were any indication — was a guitarist.) Their reactions to the movie were fun to watch in and of themselves. A few examples:
1) Herb Alpert’s “The Lonely Bull,” his first album which subsequently netted him a ton of money, was made on a very frayed shoestring. He was a lone trumpet player who had no money at the time, and the session players he chose were asked to do the job as a favor. It was, as one musician named Julius Wechter said candidly, a “scab date.” The record was released and went through the roof … and Alpert promptly went to the union, paid the fine, and had checks mailed to all of the musicians for what they would have been paid had it been above-board. Spontaneous, generous, and very heartfelt applause greeted this. As I learned later in the Q&A session with producer/director Denny Tedesco (with Don Peak and Don Randi, OMG yes that Don Randi), Alpert very generously allowed Tedesco to use the clips of his music in the movie for free. If Herb Alpert ever needs a kidney later in life, he can probably count on a number of donors thanks to this film.
2) Bass player Joe Osborn is, like the great Carol Kaye, one of the best in the business. One of the simplest, most moving little pieces of film I’ve ever seen featured Osborn sitting with his bass guitar in his lap and wearing headphones, playing a lovely, bare bass line. As he progressed, the music of 60s pop vocal group 5th Dimension slowly faded in over the bass line … and the entire audience suddenly realized in delighted amazement that we were listening to mega-hit “Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” Then, the music slowly faded away and we were once again left with the virtuoso Osborn playing along to the music in the privacy of his own mind. Once again, spontaneous and very moved applause. Absolutely lovely. Earlier in the movie, something similar had been done with drum legend Hal Blaine and the Elvis Presley classic “A Little Less Conversation,” which has always struck me as a catchy but unfortunate song.
3) Mickey Dolenz, Monkees real vocalist and faux drummer, stating bluntly that the Monkees was simply a television show about a fake band. Evidently, people needed to be told. His judgment on those who think that rock and roll shouldn’t be fun! — “It’s very serious! You’re not supposed to enjoy it!” — complete with mock Sgt. Schultz accent, got guffaws. As did Cher’s hilarious observation that while the musicians respected producer Phil Spector’s talent, “they thought he was nuts. Of course he was nuts … ”
Great moments in the movie itself included:
1) The completely honest awe and admiration that all of the musicians had for Beach Boys’ lead composer Brian Wilson, who was widely regarded by everyone who worked with him as a genius. Carol Kaye’s demonstrations of his innovative bass lines were a very memorable part of the film.
2) Drum legend Earl Palmer discussing the volatile Phil Spector’s behavior toward him. Spector had already irritated Hal Blaine to the point of no return and feared that a walkout by Palmer would leave him without either of the two best people behind the drum set. Palmer’s deadpan statement: “So we got along just fine.”
3) Palmer’s statement that one should never consider any type of music “beneath you. It’s not beneath you if it’s supporting you. If it’s beneath you, don’t play it.” He made a statement that all musicians everywhere can take to heart when he observed that he wasn’t a fan of rock and roll but instead preferred jazz. However, if he was asked to play rock and roll, he had to play it “as if that was my favorite music.”
4) Brilliant saxophone player Plas Johnson talking about playing various clubs with his brother, also a musician. “We played blues, boogie … We wanted to play bebop but nobody wanted to hear it.”
5) In general, the number of these people who started later than the ridiculous kindergarten ages considered mandatory by classical music lovers was very large. Kaye began at age 13, and Tommy Tedesco, an awe-inspiring deity on nearly anything with fretted strings, began well after his teens — at least, to hear him say it. “You hear people who say, ‘I had […] chops […] when I was twelve!’ I don’t know about you, but when I was twelve, I was playing marbles, y’know?” Blaine, considered to be the greatest drummer in the history of music, began formal training after leaving the armed forces on the GI Bill.
6) However, the number of these people who had musician parents was enormous. Strangely, their kids often did not play themselves. But so many of them had parents who played instruments and worked as jobbing musicians that it became quite clear that a strong family support system and expectation of musicality was far and away the most important thing, well beyond beginning out of the crib. The late starter isn’t a strange event. The lone starter is. Where there is family music, there will always be music.
7) The single most important piece of advice to be gained for anyone looking to make a living from music: Take the job. As guitarist Al Casey said, “If you sit at home and wait for the phone to ring, it won’t.” It doesn’t matter if a musician dislikes a certain type of music. If they turn that job down, someone is waiting behind them is salivating to play just that sort of music, a fact stated by Casey’s guitar colleague Bill Pitman. This ecumenical attitude gave these fine people a far more important quality than mere virtuosity. It gave them versatility. Nothing matters more than playing. Play, anything, everything, any time, anywhere. Just play.