(Straight From Nashville is a weekly column written by CMT.com managing editor Calvin Gilbert.)
Record labels, artists and songwriters have conflicting opinions about Spotify, Pandora and other streaming services, but the people who help create the aural magic are — once again — not getting all the credit they deserve, thanks to the online delivery of music.
I’m talking about session musicians.
If you’re a true music fan who has never attended a screening of The Wrecking Crew film, you really need to check it out when it’s released Friday (March 13) on iTunes, on demand and in select theaters.
A collection of elite musicians in Los Angeles, the Wrecking Crew played on countless hits that became part of America’s soundtrack during the ’60s and ’70s. The number of artists they backed is too extensive to mention although the short list includes Dean Martin, the Carpenters, the Partridge Family, Seals & Crofts, Johnny Rivers, Nat King Cole, the Mamas & the Papas, Byrds, Sam Cooke and the legendary recordings created by producer Phil Spector.
Granted, the vast majority of these were not country records, although Glen Campbell was a member of the Crew and played on Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling,” the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” and Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. As a recording artist, Campbell was backed by the Wrecking Crew on the original recordings of “Gentle on My Mind” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman,” among others.
The Wrecking Crew film is a true labor of love for director Denny Tedesco. The project began simply enough in the mid-90s as a personal tribute to his father, legendary guitarist Tommy Tedesco. In addition to hit records, Tommy’s lead guitar work can be heard on iconic TV themes such as Bonanza, Green Acres and Batman. (Try to get any of those riffs out of your head once you’ve heard them.)
“My dad had cancer and was dying,” Denny told me during his 2011 visit to Nashville for a screening of the film. “I wanted to get his history down and the history of his peers and friends. I just put them in a roundtable and started talking.”
Subsequently, he interviewed scores of musicians, artists and songwriters and put together a film that tells a compelling story about the music and the crazy lives of creative musicians.
The film screenings have taken place throughout the world and have been universally praised by musicians and fans alike. But you can’t tell the Wrecking Crew story without including the records they played on, and it took until late last year for Tedesco to finally raise the money to pay the licensing fees for more than 130 songs.
The Wrecking Crew weren’t the only session musicians working in relative anonymity. Nashville had the A-Team, which included musicians such as Charlie McCoy, Buddy Spicher, Pete Drake, Lloyd Green, Harold Bradley, Hargus “Pig” Robbins, Hank Garland and others. In Memphis, there were the musicians at Stax Records, American Studio and Royal Studios. The musicians in the house band at Rick Hall’s Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, were highlighted in the 2013 documentary, Muscle Shoals. And, of course, Detroit had the Funk Brothers, Motown Records’ house musicians who finally got widespread recognition in the 2002 film, Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
A primary theme of The Wrecking Crew and Standing in the Shadows of Motown is that the session musicians usually weren’t credited in the ‘60s, so people tended to assume that acts like Paul Revere & the Raiders and Association were playing on their own records in L.A. As for the situation at Motown, it was clear Supremes and Temptations weren’t playing the instrumental parts on their records, but nobody seemed to care.
I can’t even pinpoint exactly when musician credits started routinely appearing on pop and country records, but I don’t recall it becoming a standard practice until the vinyl albums of the mid to late ‘70s. As is often the case, it all began with rock acts and was later embraced by country artists and labels.
So the big covers of 12-inch vinyl records started including the names of those session musicians, and some people started recognizing the players. Then once CDs took over in the ‘80s, the reissues tended to shrink down the original album artwork to such a small size, the names weren’t as easy to read or recognize. Even when the artwork was being specifically designed for a CD booklet, it became more of a chore to read the 6-point type of the credits.
Which gets back to downloads — which seems destined to become a dinosaur in the years ahead — and music streaming services. How many times have you downloaded an album that includes the artwork, only to never even open the artwork, much less print it out for future reference? As for the streaming services, we’re entering an era where studio musicians seem destined to become even more anonymous than they are now.
With the music industry veering toward a singles-driven attitude, a lot of us are in fear of the album becoming an endangered species as far as a cohesive, carefully-sequenced work. Between that and uncredited musicians, it’s almost like technological advances are forcing us to return to 1965.