His film The Wrecking Crew finally releases on March 13, with Q&A events at the NuArt that weekend. This interview by musician and producer Nick Waterhouse." /> L.A. Record


March 11th, 2015 | Interviews

illustration by dave van patten

It seems unbelievable now but it’s true: that hit after hit in decades of American pop music all came down to the talents of an elite group of L.A. studio musicians, who clocked in to back everybody from the Beach Boys to the Monkees to Frank Zappa like it was their job. Which of course it was. Like the studio system that once ruled old Hollywood, the unprecedented combination (or collision) of writers, producers, artists and the musicians that’d become known as the Wrecking Crew all soon found themselves at the very center of pop culture. Documentary filmmaker Denny Tedesco spent years—or his whole life, really—piecing together the history of his father, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, as well as such fellow crew members as drummers Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, bassist/guitarist Carol Kaye, keyboard player Don Randi and more. His film The Wrecking Crew finally releases on March 13, with Q&A events at the NuArt that weekend. Here musician and producer Nick Waterhouse finds out why there will be never be another Wrecking Crew.

I grew up around firefighters. My dad was a fireman. What struck me while watching is that firefighters joke the same way. They tell anecdotes the same way and most importantly they give each other shit the same way. So it’s like take 31 at a Spector session—who’s the one rolling their eyes, like, ‘Oh, he’s dropping the beat’? Who was getting the most shit from somebody else in that gang?
That’s what I talk about that first session at the table. I call it the quartet without instruments. All I wanted to do was be a voyeur. I’m glad it was the first thing up because at that point, it’s nineteen years ago or whatever it is—my interview chops aren’t there. I just want to be a voyeur because that’s how I grew up: as a voyeur, like you grew up around the firehouse.
You have such an insider view without being one of them.
I’m glad you noticed that. That was something that came up during the interviews because no one’s ever asked any of the questions I’m asking. When I was trying to push this thing around for so many years—when I had a fourteen-minute piece trying to get someone to buy into it—they said, ‘Well, we’d be interested in optioning this idea but we’d have to get another director.’ I thought, ‘I’m not going to do that because I know where the skeletons lie. I know what makes them tick. I don’t want to have to educate a director to do it.’ That kept me going.
This roundtable thing you started with—is this what you remember as a kid?
Yeah—whenever they’re together, whenever you’re in a session, like, literally in a recording session, they’d be busting each other’s chops all day long between takes. They live for it. Obviously they know when and when not to. At lunchtime and dinners and stuff, they’d tease each other. Do you remember Broadway Danny Rose? That and Diner are my two favorite movies where you’re kind of at the table and they’re just talking over each other. ‘Hey, can I eat that? Are you going to eat that?’ Or they’re talking about someone. That’s what it was like and that’s what I wanted this to be like, where they just step on each other and just let it go. Thank God my dad was there because he also kind of knew when to take it in a different direction.
Without you having to prompt everybody?
Exactly. Musicians are the best because they’re like comedians. They’re always trying to one-up each other. If it’s not soloing, it’s just jabbing each other.
Hal Blaine to me is like the Dean Martin of session musicians. I couldn’t find it more appropriate that he was the drummer on Sinatra tunes—he’s practically a walking version of a Sinatra tune.
The funny thing is because he grew up in that—they all did—there were always comics before these acts. There were always comedians.
Can you elaborate on some of that stuff? The pre-Crew days? Because a lot of those cats seemed to come from that stage show-not-quite-Catskills touring night club thing.
They all had comics who would always do a warm-up. I remember seeing Three Dog Night and Jonathan Winters opened. I remember my father was onstage with Bobby Darin and he was a gambler—always listening to the game with his little earphone, and his headphone came out and he heard the Dodger game going on. Lenny Bruce was there. Buddy Hackett. Hal was friends with Lenny Bruce.
I want to know if Hal Blaine has any drinking stories with Lenny Bruce.
That’s a good question. I don’t know. If Hal wasn’t going to be a musician he would have wanted to be a comic. There’s a guy who’s— what, 86 last week? And oh my God, you could be anywhere and something will make him tell a joke. We’d be in a deli and all of a sudden there’s a deli joke. All of a sudden there’s a red car and a red car joke. He knows more jokes. They just come to him. It’s extraordinary.
When you started working on this, obviously you had the inside line through your dad. But I’m guessing you would have interacted with some of these folks throughout your life. Were they showing up? Dropping by?
Not at all. Mom would always talk about how Dad had separate lives. He had his work life with musicians. He had his golf buddies and gambling friends and then he had his Italian friends from Niagara Falls, New York. There were different groups and work-wise, no one ever came home. People assume they must have had jam sessions but I didn’t see my father play an instrument. I was born in ‘51 and I don’t think I saw him play an instrument for real until maybe ‘76.
In the film, Earl Palmer says they were being paid to practice so nobody was even practicing, right? Later on in your life though, as this thing happens between fathers and sons, did he start telling you about this stuff? Or was the film a way to get to know him and get to know this world?
Remember that footage of him doing the seminar?
The classical guitar thing, telling jokes about working in the aircraft factory—that kind of thing, right?
Exactly. All that was done at Musician’s Institute in 1981, I think. We did that in college. My buddy wanted to do a 30 minute doc on people in the arts that weren’t directors or whatever. Well-respected choreographers, D.P.s, etc. We figured we’d do it on my dad. Well, the thing sucked. It really was amateurish.Basically a school project. But what we got out of it was that footage, which was phenomenal. It doesn’t look great but it’s not about that. What he’s saying is so tremendous. The other thing that came out of that was Zappa. I went to Zappa in ‘81 to show him that piece on The Gong Show and said, ‘Can you talk about this?’ I thought Frank would say something funny. I obviously didn’t know Frank Zappa. My father knew Frank Zappa. He gave me this really off comment—very serious. My father didn’t take that seriously at all. He did that as a joke but it worked out perfectly for this film. It sucked thirty years ago but now it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got an ending.’ He handed it to me.
There’s a famous anecdote about your dad showing up to a Zappa session with some joke props or something.
He dressed up as a Boy Scout because he knew Frank was a funky dresser as well. They got there and they realized, ‘Oh shit—the music is hard.’ Yeah, humor was part of their life. If they didn’t enjoy their work, can you imagine what that would have been like?
That goes back to what I was saying about the firefighters. You spend all this time in close quarters. You’re doing something that’s all encompassing and you’re doing it all of your life. You barely have time for your personal life. What’s really fascinating to me as a musician myself who grew up with all this stuff—me and my buddy would swap tapes of those outtakes from those Brian Wilson sessions that you’re playing at the beginning, just to hear people talking. This is kind of an insane Rosetta Stone of what pop music was and can be. It’s almost like philosophically, the idea of the Wrecking Crew goes against this romantic idea of what a band should be—the myth of four scruffy kids with a dream who do it all themselves. I don’t feel like that’s actually that incompatible with the way that this unit worked. I was thinking the whole time—and I have for a long time—about how you read about Hollywood studio systems in the 40s when you’d have people like William Faulkner ghost writing scripts. To me, these guys function the same way. Is this the opposite of the lawless, wild rock ‘n’ roll myth or is it actually the same thing?
That’s a very deep question and I think it’s a little of both. My dad, Hal, Earl—most of them are very serious jazz guys. They want to be jazz guys. My dad didn’t give a shit about any of that music. In terms of when he’s talking bad about the Marketts …
That was one of my favorite quotes—talking about pretending to be an idiot.
This is what he’s lived by. This quote he gives to his students and his friends: ‘There’s music and then there’s the music business. Sometimes they mix but not always.’ He said, ‘I’m playing for smiles. If no one’s smiling, I’m not coming back to work. So I might think it’s the wrong thing to do but it doesn’t matter. He wants me to play it like this.’ You could play a really cool riff on something but it’s maybe too sophisticated for what the leader wants. So he says, ‘You want to do your own album, do your own album. Then you can do whatever you want. But I’m getting paid to do something else.’ Where the rebel part comes in is that these guys want to make a living playing guitar or drums or whatever, right? My editor and I just cut in this bit about the difference between records, TV and film studio work. Studio work in film is intense. That’s a whole different animal. People are telling you, ‘Oh, I do studio work.’ He’s been on three albums, whatever. Put that guy with 100 musicians and John Wayne’s there and they say on [measure] 34 everything goes silent and now it’s your turn to play—you better know where it is. That’s a different animal. Those guys wanted to be those guys sometimes but they weren’t given the opportunity. So my father was happy to get paid playing a C, a D, a G, you know what I mean? It didn’t matter. As long as he got paid, he had fun and he met people and that’s what he did. He just kept going and sometimes, like Earl Palmer says, it’s not beneath you if you’re making a living at it.
All of them exhibit this workmanlike attitude. But their delivery, even if they’re doing all these different sessions, is incredibly intuitive. I’m sure if you talked to them long enough, you get these surface answers about this stuff—but did you get any more profound statements about the work itself?
Usually most of the time, as they always say, it’s 99% boredom, 1% terror. My question then was, ‘Were you ever so impressed or intimidated by an artist …’ ‘No, not at all.’ Maybe with Sinatra, your hair is a little on edge because he’s older. He’s Frank. But don’t forget—my dad is 30 in 1960 and at that point, you’re talking to Brian Wilson who’s 19 or whatever it was. These guys were just kids. They didn’t have the chops or the knowhow to be as good as the guys we’re talking about.
Do you see the Crew as the bridge between those two worlds? They’re seen as troublemakers by the older guard and then they’re going to work with these kids who—whether it’s Roger McGuinn from the Byrds or Brian Wilson, even people like Lee Hazlewood, David Axelrod—these guys were all really young too when they were coming to produce these sessions. Do you think the players were the bridge and that’s how they sophisticated this rock ‘n’ roll feel?
Very much so. ‘MacArthur Park’ is a perfect example. That shit’s hard. They did it in one or two takes and that was it, however long that piece is. I think what happened is that music got more sophisticated. Rock ‘n’ roll got more sophisticated as they left. You’ve got Brian Wilson doing Pet Sounds and then you’ve got the next generation, I think there are better players coming out of a genre.
Then it’s like a trickle-down because then you have the next generation who’s influenced by all these guys who were playing secretly and sophisticatedly on these records—so you have Donald Fagen who’s listening to Don Randi or something.
Like Axelrod … you’re obviously much hipper than most people. You know this stuff. You listen to Axelrod’s stuff and you’re like, ‘Holy shit,’ you know?
Did any of the players talk to you about working with him?
It was hard because there’s so much. There’s only ninety minutes, you know?
I want to know what existed outside of the film. What didn’t make it?
I hope they put out a mass DVD. You’ve seen the outtakes so far? We’ve got 155 minutes of outtakes right now. Go to the website later and you’ll find stories like the Zappa story where Emil Richards talks about working with Zappa, James Burton talks about working with Nesmith. I had so many outtakes. People with Jackie DeShannon, Richard Carpenter, Bill Medley … One of the ones I love the most … and I wish my father was around. Because that’s the other thing. If there’s any bummer here, it’s that Dad died a year later after I started. That was the impetus to get this thing out quick or at least get them recorded and filmed. One of the last interviews I did was only a couple of years ago with Leon Russell. So there’s a whole thing you haven’t seen with Cher talking about how Leon comes in drunk. They were all talking about Leon. Leon was very quiet. The question to my father about everybody was how did you guys—in 1960 when rock ‘n’ roll was still pretty much in its infancy—come up with your licks? He says, ‘Just things worked out that way.’ Like with Ricky Nelson, doing this rock ‘n’ roll stuff. It’s a shuffle and you’re kind of figuring it out. But with Leon Russell, when Leon was stuck on a job and wasn’t sure what to play in a session, Glen would say, ‘Leon, just play the shit you played in Oklahoma. That’s all they know. That’s all they want. They don’t know much.’ They’re creating stuff as they go along. Cher talked about Leon walking out on a Spector date and he was drunk. Leon never said, ‘Boo’ to anyone. He comes in, he’s late, he shuffles over to the piano and everyone’s cracking up. Spector gets on the talkbox and gives him a bunch of grief. He says, ‘Hey Leon, why don’t you have some respect?’ And Leon turns around and says, ‘Fuck you. You have respect.’ At that point, everyone’s gone—just dying. So Leon remembers the next day, my father came to his apartment and wanted him to go on the road and preach. He was going to buy the bus, he was going to take care of all of this because he felt that Leon could preach. That would have been an awesome story to ask my father.
Start a tent revival show with Leon Russell at the front of it?
Yeah. My father wanted to produce Leon as a guitar player. I asked Leon about it. My father said the session didn’t happen because it just didn’t happen but Leon told me why. When they walked in on the session, Leon was fucking around with the guitar and playing Albert King, that type of stuff. My dad was impressed by that shit. According to Leon, my dad and whoever else was with him wanted him to do it on 12-string. He said, ‘I don’t play 12-string so I couldn’t do what they wanted. I’m only good at what I can do.’ I asked my father, ‘What’s the difference between a studio player and a specialist?’ A specialist … say there’s a door there. You don’t know what’s behind the door to that recording studio so you send him B.B. King—what happens if it’s a classical piece or it’s reading? You send in Segovia, what if it’s a blues thing? Or mandolin or something else. Those guys you’d bring in when you want them. You bring in Eric Clapton when you want Eric Clapton. When you don’t know what you want, you have to bring in someone who can do multiple things and come up with something creatively. So my dad said, ‘I gotta pretend to be the best at what I do.’
And then you have your dad doing shit like the Spanish run on that Gary Lewis tune.
Exactly. The other question was what would he want to be remembered by. What solos? Whatever? He said Bonanza and all that stuff, Green Acres, Batman and the Beach Boys, that was all cool and everything. Anyone of the ten guys on guitar at the time could have done that stuff. But when someone’s calling him in the ‘80s and it’s John Wayne at a session telling him to keep the first two weeks in September open because we got this movie coming up and it’s going to be all guitar—that’s when you know you’ve made it because they’re making sure it’s only you. Those other guys can’t do that. There’s only one Tommy and that’s who they’re asking for. That’s when you know you’ve done it.
I work on a lot of records these days and we get this shorthand where people say, ‘Give me an Earl Palmer feel on this. Give me a Hal Blaine. Give me a Tommy Tedesco.’
And it’s still relevant, which is amazing. I read this interview with this young drummer a few years ago. It was a tribute to Hal and he said, ‘I don’t care if you hate everything that Earl or Hal did or don’t even know it, but you can’t tell me you weren’t influenced by them—whoever taught you was taught by someone who was taught by them or listened to this stuff.’
Are you talking about Marc Schulman?
Yeah! How did you know that? Did you look it up? It was so poetic what Marc said.
The ghost at the feast for me on this was Barney Kessel, because Kessel gets listed in that group of old-liners who actually called them the Wrecking Crew. There was a famous quote in the book where he says, ‘Never have so many been paid for so little,’ talking about doing a one-note thing for a whole Spector session. Do you have any Kessel stories?
Barney had a massive stroke when we started this. Barney is the guy on the cusp. The hardest thing was who to interview. I interviewed everybody to the point where my editor said I had to stop interviewing people. I said, ‘Well, that’s why God gave us DVDs.’ But now it’s kind of biting me in the ass because I’m fighting to keep this stuff somewhere. I just want it to be seen. I want people to know a story about, say, Jackie Kelso. His interview is brilliant. Who’s Jackie Kelso? One of the great sax guys. There’s Frank Capp, the percussionist. There’s Gary Coleman. I just felt like everybody needed it. I really wanted to everybody to have their chance to tell this story and what’s biting me in the ass now is like, ‘Well, why wasn’t I in it? Why didn’t you say this? Why didn’t you do this?’ Go make your own movie. You spend nineteen years on something. The easiest thing that happened for me was when we cut thirty minutes … we started cutting in 2006 when I finally got an editor and producer, Claire Scanlon, to help me. She looked at it and said, ‘Why are you guys cutting like this?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘You’re just cutting something that I could cut or that anyone could cut, but you’re not cutting something you have access to. If you tell the story from your point of view, it’s going to open doors.’ And it did. I didn’t want to be part of it. I wanted to be the auteur, the director. But even in the Earl Palmer session I was watching the other day, looking at the outtakes and the raw footage, you hear me say, ‘Hey, Earl, don’t say “your father.” Just say “Tommy.’’’ I laugh now because I was much younger and stupid. Now I’m older and stupid. Once I started cutting it that way, life was easy—now it’s like why isn’t so-and-so in it? Because you can’t put everybody in there.
I was just curious about Barney because there was that moment where I felt like it was almost like a culture divide. Like Barney played with Charlie Parker but he also played with Ricky Nelson.
Barney was one of the few guys of the old guard who actually made that transition. That’s why we show him in the pictures. If you look at the songs … there are 110 songs.When I turned in all the songs and I turned in the money to the union, I said, ‘Here’s the money. $200,000. Here are the songs.’ They looked at the contracts and the top one on the contracts was Hal Blaine. He had 50 of those songs under his belt. So when certain guys are saying, ‘Well, I was part of this.’ Sure you were. I’m not saying you weren’t but some of those guys came a little later too. The whole thing about the Wrecking Crew—the whole name is questionable.
Sure—it’s nebulous. It’s after the fact. It’s like a genre. They come up with the genre after the thing happens.
Exactly. Some people get upset about it and some people get really upset about it.
I want to know who got really upset.
She doesn’t like you? What is her issue?
She said, ‘We didn’t wreck the business.’ She doesn’t understand the irony of it.
Carol seems like a real straight shooter. You can tell she put her head down and worked really hard.
That’s the thing I always say. One of the things that Glen said when he went into the studio in the early ‘60s and realized he only had the one track of whatever and he had to nail it all together … there was no punching-in, none of that. He said, ‘We all had to play. If you couldn’t keep up, you weren’t there the next time. You were gone.’ So for Carol to be a bass player—because a lot of times the drummer and the bass player are the first two to be replaced in a band—Carol’s there because she’s a musician, not because she was someone’s girlfriend, you know? I hate slamming tambourine players or percussion players but it wasn’t just a background thing where you could bring her in or not. She was keeping something going. I have such respect for her and the guys that they looked to her as that. And the shit that she must have endured as a woman.
And as a single mom too, right?
Is there a single photo of her that you saw in the studio where she wasn’t wearing sunglasses?
No—it’s funny.
She’s such a bad ass, man. It’s like the thirtieth photo and she’s still wearing shades! Do you feel like there were deep cultural clashes? You kind of get into it with the Monkees stuff and the Association where these bands show up.
Hal said the only one who was really pissed off at him was the guy from the Byrds.
The drummer?
Yeah—he said he was the only one who was pissed off about it. The Monkees were a totally different thing because there are two sides of the Monkees. You’ve got Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork and then you’ve got Mickey, who knows it’s a TV show. Mickey’s take on the whole thing was that the only controversy was that they made a controversy. He didn’t think it was a big deal because he always thought of it as a TV show. If they had put the names of the musicians on the actual albums when they came out, there’d be nothing to stand on. Because it’s a TV show, my theory—and I think Mickey either brought it up or said something that made my light bulb go off—is that if the Monkees are selling records, that’s going to piss off a lot of real artists because all of a sudden their shelf space is being pushed by this stupid TV show called The Monkees, which was a fake band. It’s no different than now. People get pissed off at the Grammys or whatever. Pop wins over better musicianship sometimes. But that was the only thing that maybe got the rest of the business irked.
You don’t think it’s just some kind of historical revisionism? Like Rolling Stone rock mythology disliked it? Or did you feel that there was an actual controversy?
Peter, I think, was pissed off because he was young. Looking back you can see why. But I don’t think Mickey ever was because Mickey was an actor. He knew he had to learn drums so it’s a different thing. I never got to Mike Nesmith. I could never get an interview.
I think what’s interesting is that the same time they were doing those Monkees tracks, they were also cutting two songs on Love’s Forever Changes—which is lauded as this great auteuristic independent rock masterpiece—and they’re doing Paul Revere tunes and the Byrds records.
This is my question to anyone who would be upset about the Monkees or Milli Vanilli or whatever. Did you like the song yesterday? Why don’t you like it today? It’s the same song. Whether he did it or you did it, who played it or who sang it—if you listen to it and you like it, you like it. It’s the same people, like you said, playing that Monkees song who are playing that Beach Boys song.
Can I run some producer’s names by you and see if there was any comment from any of them? You have H.B. Barnum in there.
Oh, they loved H.B. H.B. was all around knowledgeable. He’s gifted. He could play different instruments, he could do the vocal arrangement, he had all that shit together.
He has some amazing records of his own too with the Crew backing him.
Yeah. He and David Axelrod were close. There’s a great story that they told me. Dad was a gambler. He’d gamble on anything. Literally he’d torture people with gambling. So H.B. was talking about how fast he was because he was an athlete. My father, even though he was heavyset, he was quick—or he felt he was quick, so he said, ‘I’ll race you.’ My father said as soon as he saw him pull out his running shoes, he knew he was done. H.B. was brilliant.
Snuff [Garrett] sounded so hilarious when he talked about not giving a shit whether Cher listened to ‘Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves’ again.
It’s one of my favorite lines in the movie. If there was any criticism of Snuff from people, it’s that Snuff was a hustler. Snuff was all business. He didn’t give a shit if you liked it or not. ‘Hey, I got it. I’m moving on. I don’t need to stay on this.’ ‘Well, I think we could do one more take.’ ‘Nope, we got it. Move on.’ He’s not going to pay overtime. He’s strictly about doing it. He and my father were very close. They were gambling buddies. During the lunch break they’d be playing cards. There could be a raindrop and he’d bet on it. Snuff’s the only one who ever came to the house and that was because there was a card game and Snuff had a Rolls and a driver so that seemed really famous to me. When they gave the obituary of my father at the memorial they all talked about his gambling. Emil Richards said, ‘I’m having a baby,’ and my father says, ‘I bet you it’s a girl.’ He says, ‘But I want a girl.’ ‘Oh yeah? I bet you it’s a boy. I don’t give a shit.’ A couple of great stories I heard recently were that Jimmy Haskell—there was a date, I can’t remember who the leader was or the artist or the producer, but they finished fifteen minutes before the hour and they were done and he says, ‘Great, guys we’ve got it. That was great!’ and everyone starts packing up. My dad’s got the guitar and Jimmy jumps up and says, ‘You know, I think we could do one more.’ One of those kiss-ass let’s-do-it-again type things. The producer says, ‘No, we got it. We’re fine. Come on, let’s leave.’ ‘Nah, let’s do one more.’ So Don Randi said, ‘Your father takes out the guitar. They’re all ready to go and just as they’re about to go, he says, “Jimmy?” “Yeah, Tommy?” “Hey, on bar 35 do you want it ‘Da da da duh’ or ‘Da da da da’?” “Just do it the way you did it.’’’ And Don said he kept this going for ten minutes to where they couldn’t do the take anymore.
He ran down the clock like a basketball player.
He ran down the clock and tortured the poor bastard who didn’t even know what happened. Tommy’s just torturing him and he doesn’t even know he’s being tortured.
Jimmy strikes me as a really clean-cut cat from that time. I remember asking him, ‘Where did you go out?’ and he said, ‘I didn’t go out. I didn’t drink.’
In the early days, maybe some of them were drinkers but Dad didn’t do drugs or drink because he didn’t like that feeling. He was a very paranoid person.
The film is kind of about how exhausting their schedules were. They were working constantly, right?
Exactly. Look, if you screwed up, if you came in and you were blasted—
Unless you’re Leon Russell—then you get it once, right?
Yeah, but then Leon goes on to do his own thing. There was a point where, if you came in late for a session with the union and you cost them, you’d have to cover the date.
Do you think that all of them came around to being at peace with their work?
I don’t think they ever disliked it. I can only speak for my father. I interviewed all of them and maybe I have my opinions to myself about how some of them took life. My father always felt that his time came. He was very successful in records in the 60s. 70s, he did a lot of TV and film and in the 80s he was just doing a lot of film. He was one of the biggest guys in the world. When things started slowing down … There was a thing Dad used to say when he’d come home all our lives. He’d come in and say, ‘Any calls?’ It was almost like saying, ‘Hello, give me a kiss.’ That was our work ethic at home. It was just common. He would check on ten-minute breaks. They’d have hotlines to their answering service at the studios. So later in the late 80s when he’s not working that much, he’d say, ‘Any calls?’ You know there are no calls. Now he’s only getting calls for the special ones, like The Godfather III or Schindler’s List, something where they need Tommy Tedesco—like the movie Revenge that Jack Nitzsche did. It’s beautiful. In the movie it’s all Spanish guitar. He and Jack playing over the credits. He didn’t need credit. The last thing in the movie is my father playing his own shit. That’s probably why I made the movie because when he did have the stroke at 62 … at 52 he was a better player than he ever was but at 62, he was doing his jazz thing but he was like, ‘That’s hard.’ He didn’t want to struggle to be an artist. He didn’t want to do that shit. Invite him over, do the gig, he’d make jokes, play and have fun. It was my brother and I who really wanted him to do stuff. So just before the stroke hit, we did a recording where I was trying to do an Italian jazz combo band. The idea was let’s get all of these Italian guys together and we’ll do three songs. It was him, Frank Marroco, the great accordion player, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Bobby Zimmitti on percussion and John Leyton on bass. He was the non-Italian. They did three songs and it was amazing. After that, he and John did a solo jazz album, just quickly ran through a set of jazz stuff. One take, boom, and walk away. About a year later he had a stroke. That stuff went on the shelf and we just released it a couple months ago. What bothered me as a son was that he had his creativity cut short at 62. Now he was fine with it. Other guys weren’t fine with it. That’s one of the things I was just talking to my editor about. We were talking about Gary Coleman who was fabulous. He went on to do many Steely Dan albums as a percussionist. He became a therapist. It seems that all arts people become therapists after awhile. He said, ‘You don’t get called for a lot of stuff and all of a sudden you get called to do a movie. I realized I struggled with it. It’s not something I would have struggled with a couple years before. I couldn’t do it anymore. I called the answering service on the way home and said, “Take me out of the books. I’m done.” You’re an athlete and you can either do it or not.’
You make this point in the film: there’s never going to be that much work again. They got it. They got all the work and they got the work when it was needed. You can get called on sessions now but I doubt there’s anywhere near the output that there was when all these cats were working.
Absolutely. Times change. They were needed at the beginning more. There are always going to be people needed to play instruments but like you said, it was something that was like a gravy train for a certain group. Not everybody. My father—looking at some old footage—said to the students at M.I., ‘There are five of us at this level. There were five guys you’d hire at the time in the 70s or 80s or whenever it was. You might be the greatest guitar player or artist in the world but how are you going to get in on that chair? How are you going to take it away from Tommy Tedesco or Larry Carlton? If you were a football player, you’d go and try to beat each other up. The problem here is you can’t do that because people don’t like changes. They’re scared. Who’s the new guy? What if he screws up? We have one hundred musicians here. You’re going to go with Tommy Tedesco because you know he’s not going to freeze on that solo or that reading part. You can’t just assume the guy can read when there’s that much budget involved.’
This is a conduit to a place and time that will probably never happen again.
The other thing I tell people, especially because we have an older audience … They’ll say, ‘Aw, they don’t make music like they used to. There’s no good music.’ I say, ‘There is.’ I’m 53. Let’s say in 68 I was seven years old. Go back fifty years from that. We’re talking about 1917. There are no recordings from 1917 that we’re listening to. There’s nothing. There might be some stuff but we’re not listening to it. I didn’t even hear stuff from the big bands—the early stuff that my parents were listening to—and that was only thirty years old. So now, you’ve got fifty years plus and all the material that came. When we were kids we only had three stations. You were buying maybe the Top 40 albums. Now to be heard, you’ve got thousands of stations and the Internet—everybody can do an album, everyone can try. There is another McCartney, there is another Brian Wilson, there is another Jimmy Webb. They’re all out there. It’s just hard to find them or give it a chance to be heard.
I’m really excited for that stuff and I just wanted to get anything we could into the article. Gambling stories, I’ll take all day everyday.
There’s the famous gambling story with Lee Ritenour. He was a cocky young kid coming into the studios. He was a brilliant guitar player but this shows you can’t be too cocky. Lee had this really beautiful fill that he did during the rehearsal and he looked at my father with confidence, kind of cocky. He said, ‘That’s awesome, Lee. That’s really awesome. I bet you a dollar you don’t make it on the next time when we’re recording and everyone’s listening.’ And he just blew it. He could torture you with bets. There was another story he told about Manny Klein who comes in with this watch and he keeps talking about this watch—how this guy offered $25 and it’s really amazing, on and on about this watch. So my father says, ‘Hey, Manny, I like that watch. I’ll give you $50 for it.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Yeah, yeah.’ He gives him $50, he takes the watch, he puts it on the ground, he smashes it with his foot and says, ‘Enough about the fucking watch.’ Those were like those Italian characters. They were hilarious.’