LMU grad Denny Tedesco tells the story of L.A. session musicians who anonymously made music history — including his late father
By Michael Aushenker
If you’re of Generation X or older, the opening music from “The Twilight Zone,” “Green Acres,” “Bonanza,” “Batman” and “M.A.S.H.” has been permanently ingrained into your brain’s limbic system.
But who were the musicians who played on those classic theme songs?
One of them was the late guitarist Tommy Tedesco, part of a crack group of jazz-trained musicians who (almost anonymously) played on these TV themes as well as on seminal albums by Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, The Monkees, Harry Nilsson and myriad other pop acts from the 1950s through the 1970s.
They’ve been retroactively dubbed “The Wrecking Crew” — also the title of a documentary opening on Friday in theaters nationwide, including The Nuart.
Filmmaker Denny Tedesco, Tommy’s oldest son, has worked on “Wrecking Crew” since the mid-1990s, and the film premiered at South by Southwest in 2008.
“I saw this film play around the world: Israel, Barcelona, England. People know the music, they don’t know the story,” Tedesco said of his movie, which had been screened intermittently before Magnolia Pictures picked it up for distribution.
Whether it was “California Dreamin’” or “California Girls,” the Wrecking Crew had a significant role in aggrandizing the West Coast Sound.
“The record companies didn’t want people to know they were on the album. It wasn’t a conspiracy even though some of [the musicians] thought it was,” Tedesco said.
Of course, when these hired guns — musical snipers with a pinpoint precision mastery of their instruments — assisted the Mamas and the Papas or the Beach Boys, their mindset was merely to give it their all for an album track.
“They’re not recording hits; they’re recording songs. They don’t become hits for a year. They don’t know until later,” Tedesco explained.
Both Denny and brother Damon Tedesco, a recording engineer, attended Loyola Marymount University. Denny was a film major in 1983. Damon, who graduated in 1991, recorded their father and his musician friends while they recorded music for an album at the Westchester campus, and some footage from that session is in the film.
“Dad had a stroke. We kind of shelved that [album],” Denny Tedesco said. However, the take-away, he notes, was that “my father was 62 and he still had all these chops. He was better than he ever was, but he couldn’t do anything with it.”
In 1996, years of smoking had caught up with Tommy Tedesco, who had cancer and only a year left to live. Tedesco used this crossroads in his father’s life as an impetus to make his documentary, a process that spanned 18 years and included the efforts of directors of photography Rodney Taylor and Trish Govoni.
The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, The Monkees’ Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, Cher, Dick Clark, Herb Alpert, Lou Adler and Nancy Sinatra are among the celebrity talking heads in Tedesco’s film. Some 76 musicians, producers and engineers were interviewed on just about every format: 8 and 16mm film, Beta and ¾-inch tape.
With wife Susie, Tedesco assumed more than $500,000 in production costs. After the labels and publishers got their share for rights to use songs in his documentary, Tedesco abided by union rules to pay the musicians, too. He used Kickstarter to raise the money toward remunerating the musicians or their surviving family members, and that for him was a personal highlight.
The figures vary on the number of members comprising the Wrecking Crew. However, central figures included Tedesco and fellow guitarists Al Casey and a pre-fame Glen Campbell (himself the subject of last year’s Academy Award-nominated documentary “I’ll Be Me”), keyboardists Leon Russell and Don Randi, sax player Plas Johnson, drummers Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, and bassist Carol Kaye.
Also in dispute: the slug “Wrecking Crew.” Members such as Kaye remember being shorthanded as “the Clique.”
What is not in dispute is the immense talent pool these people formed. Being part of that clique, Campbell said he felt like he was playing with Michael Jordan. But “everyone in the room was Michael Jordan,” Tedesco said.
Demanding producers such as Phil Spector expected a certain level of musicianship to form his signature “wall of sound.”
“You’re doing it from the beginning. If you blow it, you’re blowing it for the group. If you couldn’t keep up, you keep blowing it,” Tedesco said.
He added that Kaye, the Crew’s lone female member, was treated like one of the boys. “If anything, they didn’t treat her like a woman at all. When she’s playing bass, she’s there for being a bass player. In a man’s world, she kept up.”
Tedesco started his career as a set decorator on feature films such as “Eating Raoul” (starring Mary Woronov) and made his movie in spasms of productivity over the years while doing his day work making commercials. He produced the Academy Awards opening with Billy Crystal in 2000 and also worked on the 2001 music video for Elton John’s, “I Want Love,” which starred Robert Downey Jr.
Tedesco went into “overdrive” working on the film in the two years before it opened in Austin and then not much else happened as Tedesco tried to drum up interest in his pet project.
Now that his film opens in 75 theaters nationwide, “It’s like a sweet vindication,” he said, “because I’ve preached this for so long.”
After its week-long run in theaters, “Wrecking Crew” heads to DVD on June 16th, followed by Netflix.
And like Stacy Peralta, who went on to script a feature film version of his acclaimed skateboarding documentary “Dogtown & Z-Boys,” Tedesco is shopping around a narrative version of “Wrecking Crew,” which he sees as a television series.
“It’s not just about music; it’s about making a living,” he said.
As much as he has expanded his movie to include the Wrecking Crew at large, Tedesco’s movie, at its heart, is a not-so-overt tribute to his father, whom he misses greatly.
At age 5, Tedesco watched composer Vic Mizzy conducting his father for his “Green Acres” theme. When Tedesco was older, he’d spend a day off from school accompanying his father on scoring sessions for “CHiPs” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.” Younger brother Damon was in the room while dad worked on the score for the 1990 Francis Ford Coppola feature, “The Godfather Part III.”
If Tedesco has learned anything about his father while making “The Wrecking Crew,” it’s this: “He was a giver. He did this for us. He was raising our family. He’s known to help others. Those stories were worth everything.”
Several screenings of “The Wrecking Crew” happen this weekend at The Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. Tickets are $11, or $9 for seniors and children. Call (310) 281-8223 or visit wreckingcrewfilm.com.
Denny Tedesco will sit for Q+A sessions at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2:30 and 5 p.m. Sunday.