Search for the Wrecking Crew on Spotify or any steamer and you won’t find a studio album, single or greatest hits album. But the chances are you’ll know the songs they played on. You’ll know singles like Good Vibrations, Strangers in the Night, Mr Tamborine Man, Wichita Lineman or Bridge Over Troubled Water. You may even know some of their names like Hal Blaine, Carol Betts, Leon Russel or Glenn Campbell. For the wrecking crew aren’t just any band – they were simply a collection of immensely talented studio musicians that played on almost all of the great tracks coming out of Los Angeles from 1962 to 1972.
Known to the music world as the Wrecking Crew, this group comprised a rotating cast of immensely talented studio musicians who laid down the tracks for countless hits pouring out of Los Angeles between 1962 and 1972.
That iconic Hammond organ on Good Vibrations? That was the Wrecking Crew. The famous opening and bass line from Wichita Lineman? That was the Wrecking Crew. Those drum smashes in The Boxer? That was the Wrecking Crew. And Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound? You guessed it – The Wrecking Crew.
The crew served as the invisible foundation of the music industry during that era, yet their story is only now being told, thanks to the efforts of Denny Tedesco, son of guitarist Tommy Tedesco who was a key part of the crew at their peak.
The Crew were at heart a group of individual session players that often played together. Not every member was on every but collectively they contributed to a large chunk of the great music coming out of Los Angeles at the time.
(Some of) the Wrecking Crew Members
Some of the crew went onto to be venerated stars like Leon Russell who was an idol of Elton John, and later a collaborator with Joe Cocker, George Harrison and Elton himself. Glenn Campbell went onto be a huge star in his own right, but others were happy playing their part. Here are some of the names you should know.
I first became aware of Leon Russell when I saw the movie of Goerge Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh. Known for his striking white hair and trademark top hat, Leon Russell was more than just a session musician. He was a songwriter, pianist, and producer of extraordinary talent. His skills at the piano were nothing short of exceptional, honed by years of session work in L.A.’s demanding music studios like Capitol Records and Sunset Sound.. He played on some Wrecking Crew tracks and went on to wrote songs for the carpenters (a Song for You), Joe Cocker (Delta Lady) as well as his own catalogue of albums.
Like his contemporary Elton John, Glenn Campbell demonstrated a natural aptitude and passion for music from an early age. By the time he was 10, Campbell could play any tune on his humble guitar and was also blessed with a melodious singing voice, which he honed in the church choir.
His talents took him on the road from the age of 13, paving his way into the bustling L.A. music scene where he eventually became part of the Wrecking Crew. Campbell’s versatility was a significant asset, his guitar work was unparalleled, and his vocal abilities added a unique texture to the songs he worked on. When Brian Wilson stopped touring with the Beach Boys, Campbell seamlessly stepped into his shoes, touring with the group while the Wrecking Crew recreated their iconic sound in the studio. He’d go onto even bigger things but continued to work with the crew. That ‘do do dodoo’ opening bass line from Wichita Lineman was an idea suggested by Carol Kaye – the legendary bassist t and only female in the crew.
.Kaye started her career as a jazz guitarist before switching to the bass. With her impeccable sense of rhythm and innate musicality, she provided the underlying pulse for hundreds of hits, making her one of the most recorded bassists in history. You’ll hear her work on the iconic Pet Sounds album ; songs like ‘La Bamba’ and ‘The he Kissed Me’ and soundtracks, That cool bass in Steve McQueen’s Bullit or the famous Mission Impossible theme are both played originally by Carol.
A first-call bassist, Joe Osborn’s distinctive sound was a crucial part of many popular songs in the ’60s and ’70s. He played on numerous hits produced in Los Angeles, working with artists like Simon & Garfunkel, The Mamas & The Papas, and America. Osborn’s solid, melodic basslines were a defining characteristic of the Wrecking Crew’s sound.
Earl Palmer was one of the most recorded drummers in history, having worked with a litany of artists spanning various genres. He was known for his solid beat and adaptable style, which suited rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and jazz. Before joining the Wrecking Crew, Palmer had already established a formidable career in New Orleans, playing on seminal R&B tracks.
Considered one of the most prolific drummers in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, Hal Blaine’s innovative drumming patterns can be heard on numerous hits from the ’60s and ’70s. His impeccable timing and creative flourishes were integral to the Wrecking Crew’s sound. Blaine was also a founding member of the Wrecking Crew and played on more number one hits than any other drummer in history.
An incredibly versatile guitarist, Bill Pitman contributed to countless sessions with the Wrecking Crew. His ability to adapt to different genres and playing styles made him a highly sought-after musician. Pitman’s talent can be heard on everything from movie scores to pop hits, a testament to his wide-ranging musicality.
Larry Knechtel was a versatile musician who played bass, keyboards, and harmonica with the Wrecking Crew. Perhaps his most notable contribution was his piano work on Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Knechtel’s versatility allowed him to adapt to any session, contributing significantly to the Wrecking Crew’s success.
Touted as one of the most recorded guitarists in history, Tommy Tedesco was known for his lightning-fast sight-reading skills and versatility. He played on numerous movie and TV scores as well as chart-topping hits. Tedesco’s contributions to the Wrecking Crew helped to define the sound of pop music in the ’60s and ’70s.
The Wrecking Crew – a short Discography
Collectively the crew played on way more tracks than I can list. But here are some of the ones you may know.
- “A Taste of Honey” – Herb Alpert
- “Mr Tamborine Man” – The Birds
- “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – Simon & Garfunkel
- “The Beat Goes On” – Sonny & Cher
- “River Deep – Mountain High” – Ike & Tina Turner
- “Eve of Destruction” – Barry McGuire
- “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” – Nancy Sinatra
- “Sloop John B” – The Beach Boys
- “Help Me, Rhonda” – The Beach Boys
- “Pet Sounds” (Album) – The Beach Boys
- “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” – The Beach Boys
- “Let’s Go Get Stoned” – Ray Charles
- “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” – Glen Campbell
- “Unchained Melody” – The Righteous Brothers
- “Everybody Loves Somebody” – Dean Martin
- “Something Stupid” – Frank & Nancy Sinatra
While the Wrecking Crew was arguably the most famous of these groups, they were far from the only talented ensemble of session musicians creating magic behind the scenes. Across the country, a similar collective was shaping the sound of a different musical tradition.
Down in Alabama, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, affectionately known as the Swampers, were making their mark on the world of music. The Swampers were integral to the distinct ‘Muscle Shoals Sound,’ a blend of rock, country, and R&B that has influenced generations of musicians.
They became so well-known that their name was immortalised in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic “Sweet Home Alabama,” with the line, “In Muscle Shoals, they’ve got the Swampers.” This reference underscored the Swampers’ influence and reputation, acknowledging their essential contributions to the music of the time.
Just like the Wrecking Crew in L.A., the Swampers were largely uncredited on album sleeves, but their distinctive sound and musical intuition made them a go-to team for artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones.
The stories of these studio musicians, the Wrecking Crew in Los Angeles, and the Swampers in Muscle Shoals, are a reminder of the unsung heroes of popular music. Their immense talent and dedication have shaped countless classic tracks, and their influence continues to resonate, reminding us of a golden era when anonymous musicians ruled the charts from behind the scenes.
Read More, Watch More Wrecking Crew
There are so many stories, about these musicians and the music they played on. If you want to learn more, I recommend you seek out the 1998 documentary from Denny Tedesco. Kent Hartman’s excellent book The Wrecking Crew – Inside Rock n’ Roll’s Best Kept Secret is also worth a read.