After Dark: Film spotlights session musicians

10:07 AM, Aug 15, 2013

Guitarist Tommy Tedesco died in 1997 from lung cancer. (Provided by Denny Tedesco)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

What:
The Wrecking Crew.
When: 7 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday, followed by a question-and-answer session with director Denny Tedesco.
Where: The Little Theatre, 240 East Ave.
Tickets: $15.
Premiere party: Following Friday’s screening at 9 p.m. with Tedesco, Honeoye Falls resident Gary Lewis of Gary Lewis & the Playboys, cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and Bobby Henrie & the Goners. Admission is $20; tickets available at thelittle.org.

Tommy Tedesco’s wife learned early on that she and the kids weren’t really welcome when he was going off to his job. “A plumber doesn’t take his wife to work,” he’d say.

To Tedesco, it was just a paycheck: playing guitar in the studio for people like Brian Wilson, Frank Sinatra, Cher, the Monkees. Hundreds more. Playing on songs like The Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” The Everle Brothers’ “You’ve Lost the Lovin’ Feeling,” Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas,” the Frank Zappa album Lumpy Gravy. Thousands more.

Making up for that lost time, for the past 17 years Denny Tedesco has cobbled together a documentary film, obsessed with his father’s work. To the point that The Wrecking Crew taxed the health of the 52-year-old Tedesco, also working as a producer and director of commercials, video and television shows in California, after Tommy Tedesco moved the family from Buffalo in search of gigs out west.

The Wrecking Crew, telling the marvelous story of these anonymous session musicians who cranked out so many familiar hits, has been done since 2008, when Tedesco began showing it at film festivals. Yet it’s still evolving. Tedesco recently found some 1960s documentary footage of his father playing in the studio with The Mamas & the Papas. And one-time Wrecking Crew member Leon Russell finally conceded to an interview. That’ll all go into the final product.

What’s the holdup, as Tedesco brings The Wrecking Crew here for showings Friday and Saturday at the Little Theatre? Money. It’s always money, isn’t it? Some of the proceeds from the screenings and accompanying parties will go back to the Little, as the theater upgrades its equipment for the digital age. That’ll cost half a million bucks. The rest goes to The Wrecking Crew, which faces a monstrous financial task of its own. More than 130 songs are heard in the documentary, and most are big hits. The licensing fee for that music adds up to more than $300,000. And, as Tedesco points out, “without the music, there’s no show.”

The recording industry has always employed studio musicians, but The Wrecking Crew was the first generation to play on the pop and rock records of the ’60s. Phil Spector, then an unknown producer, was one of the first to assemble these new, unknown pros (although a few, including Russell, Glen Campbell and Dr. John, became stars). One of their own, drummer Hal Blaine, dubbed them The Wrecking Crew. “It could be folklore, I’m not sure if it’s true or not,” Tedesco says. “But the older guys said they were going to wreck the business, playing this rock and roll stuff.”

But “this rock and roll stuff” pushed aside the old guys. Spector may have been a strange one — “he was like one of those ghosts who you never see, he had a reputation, he was wacky,” Tedesco says — but he continued to use the new players as the new music took over. Sure, Roger McGuinn could play guitar, but the label wasn’t so sold on the rest of The Byrds’ musicianship. So that’s The Wrecking Crew that you hear backing the band’s vocals on “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

The Wrecking Crew remained an assembly line of popular music for a decade, and many of the musicians played on long afterward. “Imagine being a carpenter or a handyman, and you’re going to three or four jobs a day, you don’t remember what you did,” Tedesco says. “If you were working for Frank Sinatra, then you take note. But most of the time you don’t know who you’re working for. One day Jimmy Webb, the songwriter, gave the guys a bracelet charm, because ‘Up, Up and Away’ had just won a Grammy for best song. My father asked, ‘What was this from?’ Webb said, ‘That was from that gig we did with the Fifth Dimension.’ And my father didn’t even know he was on it.”

The Wrecking Crew is assembled from interviews, still photos and film of the acts performing, but precious little actual footage of The Wrecking Crew itself at work. “Why would anyone bring a camera to work?” Tedesco says. “It was just a job to them.”

Except for Blaine, a camera enthusiast. “One time, we had a party, and I took my 8 mm camera to the studio,” Blaine told Tedesco. “Then I went home and cut it between a porno.”

The film turned up in Blaine’s attic. Nearly 50 years old and so brittle that Tedesco had to take it to a high-tech photo lab to transfer the images to today’s technology. And yes, there were indeed porn clips inserted into the party film as a joke. But at least Tedesco now had images of The Wrecking Crew in the studio.

His main idea for presenting the story was to gather a handful of Wrecking Crew members, sit them at a table and let them talk. Like the Woody Allen film Broadway Danny Rose. “Musicians are great, they love to banter,” Tedesco says. He started in 1995 with his father, Blaine, saxophonist Plas Johnson and bassist Carol Kaye, the only woman among the 60 or so members of The Wrecking Crew.

Tedesco was now in a hurry to get the project underway. His father was dying. Tedesco got the priceless footage of his father’s memories, but Tommy Tedesco never saw what became of it. He died in 1997. Phil Spector was at the funeral, before he shot a B-movie actress and went to prison. So yeah, The Wrecking Crews’ suspicions about Spector were right all along, he was crazy.

What Denny Tedesco has assembled “is like opening a drawer in someone’s home and you see a picture of your parents that you’ve never seen before,” he says. They’re warm memories, but sometimes haunt. Tommy Tedesco, who by some estimates is the most-recorded guitarist in music history, was only 67 when he died. “Lung cancer,” his son says. “Almost every picture of him in the movie, he has a cigarette in his hand.”