The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Best-Kept Secret

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9780312619749: The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Best-Kept Secret

Winner of the Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction and Los Angeles Times bestseller

"It makes good music sound better."-Janet Maslin in The New York Times

"A fascinating look into the West Coast recording studio scene of the '60s and the inside story of the music you heard on the radio. If you always assumed the musicians you listened to were the same people you saw onstage, you are in for a big surprise!"-Dusty Street, host of Classic Vinyl on Sirius XM Satellite Radio

If you were a fan of popular music in the 1960s and early '70s, you were a fan of the Wrecking Crew-whether you knew it or not.

On hit record after hit record by everyone from the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and the Monkees to the Grass Roots, the 5th Dimension, Sonny & Cher, and Simon & Garfunkel, this collection of West Coast studio musicians from diverse backgrounds established themselves in Los Angeles, California as the driving sound of pop music-sometimes over the objection of actual band members forced to make way for Wrecking Crew members. Industry insider Kent Hartman tells the dramatic, definitive story of the musicians who forged a reputation throughout the business as the secret weapons behind the top recording stars.

Mining invaluable interviews, the author follows the careers of such session masters as drummer Hal Blaine and keyboardist Larry Knechtel, as well as trailblazing bassist Carol Kaye-the only female in the bunch-who went on to play in thousands of recording sessions in this rock history. Readers will discover the Wrecking Crew members who would forge careers in their own right, including Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, and learn of the relationship between the Crew and such legends as Phil Spector and Jimmy Webb. Hartman also takes us inside the studio for the legendary sessions that gave us Pet Sounds, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and the rock classic "Layla," which Wrecking Crew drummer Jim Gordon cowrote with Eric Clapton for Derek and the Dominos. And the author recounts priceless scenes such as Mike Nesmith of the Monkees facing off with studio head Don Kirshner, Grass Roots lead guitarist (and future star of The Office) Creed Bratton getting fired from the group, and Michel Rubini unseating Frank Sinatra's pianist for the session in which the iconic singer improvised the hit-making ending to "Strangers in the Night."

The Wrecking Crew tells the collective, behind-the-scenes stories of the artists who dominated Top 40 radio during the most exciting time in American popular culture.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

KENT HARTMAN is a longtime music industry entrepreneur who has worked with dozens of well-known artists, including Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf, Hall & Oates, Counting Crows, and Lyle Lovett. He has written for American Heritage, The Oregonian, and Portland Tribune. Hartman teaches marketing at Portland State University and for several years produced The Classic Comedy Break, a nationwide radio feature. He lives in Portland.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

California Dreamin’

I’d be willing to give you some free lessons.
—HORACE HATCHETT

 
Large chicken snakes and twelve-year-old boys are never a good mix. But then, neither are a father’s fury and a well-worn leather strap. Unfortunately, these two unpleasant circumstances found themselves on a collision course one very hot Arkansas summer afternoon in 1949.
While desperately trying to avoid yet another stultifying day of picking cotton boles for his father—when he had instead been promised that he could go to a movie—young Glen Campbell hatched a plan to hide under the front porch of his family’s dilapidated Arkansas country shack.
“Glen Travis Campbell, where are you?” he heard his father bellow.
Filled with thoughts about the terrible beating he would receive if caught, Glen stayed as quiet as a mouse after he deftly slid through broken latticework on the side of the porch. As he silently lay on his belly watching his father’s scuffed boots come within inches of his face, he wriggled even farther into the dank, welcoming darkness, ending up in a corner area littered with old cans, empty bottles, and at least one discarded shoe. Thinking that he’d finally made it to a safe haven where no one could find him, he let out a small sigh of relief.
Soon, however, Glen sensed that maybe he wasn’t quite so alone after all. As he turned to his left, the faint shafts of sunlight filtering through the porch’s warped wooden floorboards caught the image of what he thought at first to be a coil of rope, until the coil suddenly moved. Staring him in the face was a chicken snake, its tongue flicking in and out. The same kind of snake he’d seen devour dozens of rats, mice, and other barnyard critters over the years. Maybe the kind of snake that eats little boys, too, he thought. Trying to scramble as fast as he could to the outside world, Glen raised his head again and again, each time smashing it into the floorboards above. The sounds cracked out into the hot summer air.
Hearing all the racket and fearing that a wild animal was under the porch, his mother came running out the front door. His sisters screamed in hysteria. Glen’s father squinted underneath the house, wondering what was going on.
As Campbell fought the fight of his life to extricate himself from the imaginary clutches of a startled snake that was, in all likelihood, heading in the opposite direction just as quickly, his head appeared turtle-like from underneath the porch. While his eyes slowly adjusted to the bright sunlight, he noticed that his father curiously appeared to be standing on only one foot. Even in all the chaos, Glen wondered why that would be. The answer came quickly, as his father’s other boot-encased foot came down firmly on Glen’s neck, pinning him in place.
“Boy, what were you doing under the house?”
Deciding that his punishment would be less severe if he told the truth, Glen managed to sputter, through tears and a mouthful of dirt, “I was hiding from doing my chores.”
With that, his enraged father yanked Glen out of the dirt, bent him over, and pulled out a length of leather used to attach horses to a wagon. He then proceeded to administer a vicious whipping that seemed to go on forever. Even Glen’s mother and sisters had to turn away.
At that moment, with each snap of the strap, Glen Campbell became more determined to break away someday, to become his own man. There had to be a better life than being whipped like a mad animal. There just had to be.
*   *   *
As five-year-old Carol Smith sat alone in her father’s vintage Ford Model A sedan outside the Elks Club in Everett, Washington, she suddenly felt the hair on her tiny arms stand straight up.
Through the open windows of the aging, long-out-of-production car, Smith could clearly hear the sounds of her father’s Dixieland band playing inside the large building. Even for a child quite accustomed to listening to plenty of music around the house—courtesy of two professional musician parents—this particular instance somehow rose to another level. This time it moved her. Just listen to that music, she thought, the sheer power of it all. The experience proved to be a defining moment, creating a feeling deep within the little girl that she would never forget.
At its peak, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks in Everett boasted more than five thousand card-carrying members, a full one-sixth of the approximately thirty thousand people then living in this mid-sized mill town just north of Seattle. And for the better part of the twentieth century, the Spanish mission–style club located at 2731 Rucker Avenue in the downtown area was the place to be. There, at the indisputable hub of civic life, members experienced a sense of belonging, fellowship, and, especially, entertainment.
Big-name stars of the day like Sammy Davis Jr., Sophie Tucker, and George Gobel routinely played shows at the lodge. Local dances, too, were very popular, sometimes stretching into the early-morning hours. And virtually any area musical ensemble worth watching graced the Elks Club’s stage at one time or another, including the group Carol Smith’s dad played in.
Clyde Smith never did make a lot of money. He had spent the better part of his professional career playing trombone in a World War I military band, various Dixieland bands, and assorted theater orchestras. His wife, Dot, a ragtime and classical pianist, had worked during the Twenties providing piano accompaniment in silent movie houses. Even with two incomes, however, money had always been tight. Betting your livelihood on the instability of being a live musician often meant going without; that was the unfortunate part of the bargain. Decent-paying gigs could be few and far between. Squeaking by became a way of life. And then, during the heart of the Great Depression, along came their only child, Carol, in 1935.
As 1941 drew to a close, Clyde and Dot finally decided they had endured enough of the seemingly endless overcast skies and low pay of the Puget Sound region. At over forty years of age, Clyde Smith was too old to fight, but there had to be some good jobs in the Southern California shipyards with the nation at war, now that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
They pointed their car due south with their six-year-old daughter and what few possessions they had and headed down U.S. Highway 99 for sunny climes and hoped-for opportunities. Maybe Los Angeles could even use another good musician or two. Any way they looked at it, a little change would be good for the Smith family.
But for Carol Smith, a shy little girl with a pronounced stutter and a blossoming love for all things music, the twelve-hundred-mile trip would prove to be the move of a lifetime.
*   *   *
At first, no one smelled the smoke.
It was a typically hot and sticky July afternoon in Hartford, Connecticut, the kind of oppressively muggy weather some of the locals liked to call the devil’s dew. Barely a month before, Allied forces had finally landed on the beaches of Normandy, giving rise to hope that World War II might actually end one day soon.
A seemingly endless stream of happy, sweltering townspeople excitedly walked along leafy Kensington Street toward the northern edge of the city, many with great anticipation clearly evident on their faces. For the circus—yes, the circus!—had just come to town and the first performance of the seventy-third annual Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey spectacular was about to begin at precisely 3:00 P.M. With wartime rationing still in full effect and live entertainment options in short supply, the yearly visit by “The Greatest Show on Earth” was simply not to be missed.
Close to eight thousand circus goers, including a large number of children on summer vacation, descended upon the bustling bluff-top lot, passing by assorted animal cages, portable dressing rooms, and rail cars as they made their way toward the ticket booth and, most important, the fabled big top beyond. Stilt walkers, lion tamers, and bearded ladies, too, meandered about the grass-covered Barbour Street grounds, patiently waiting for their time in the spotlight.
Entering the arena one by one, the lengthy line of buzzing patrons slowly climbed up row after steep row of temporary wooden bleachers in order to find their seats, all strategically arrayed around the interior perimeter of the massive oval portable tent.
From every walk of life they came, sitting elbow-to-elbow, filling the arena to beyond fire code capacity. A little dark-haired Italian girl of about ten sat in the front row, methodically licking her ice-cream cone. An elderly gent in red suspenders and a black bowler hat, rhythmically tamping the tobacco in his meerschaum pipe, said to no one in particular, “I hear this is their best show yet.”
Some had great views; others sat in the so-called peanut gallery near the top. But no one cared—it was the circus and that was all that mattered.
While the twenty-man Ringling Bros. band launched into its first notes of fanfare, a procession of colorfully attired clowns, packed improbably into miniature cars, began to slowly wend its way inside the cavernous canvas-covered structure, closely followed by a variety of elephants, giraffes, acrobats, and, of course, the ringmaster himself. An army of snack vendors, too, in red-and-white-striped jackets, began to fan out, offering peanuts, popcorn, and cotton candy to anyone within earshot. The big show had begun.
Unfortunately, as transfixed as they were by the sights and sounds of the world’s biggest three-ring circus—particularly by the Flying Wallendas, who were in mid-act on the high wire—only a scattered few in the rapt audience initially noticed a small flicker of flames and puff of smoke beginning to rise from an area over by the back service-entry flap.
Bandleader Merle Evans, always keenly observant, was among the first who did notice. Raising his baton, he instinctively instructed his musicians to quickly switch into playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” the traditional song to alert circus personnel to possible danger. Hearing the cue, the acts suddenly stopped performing and swiftly leaped into action, some rushing to throw water at the small fire, others trying to calm a growing number of concerned and bewildered audience members.
A fifteen-year-old boy named Harold Belsky noticed the flames, too. He had arrived just in time for the start of the show and had positioned himself, as always, immediately adjacent to the bandstand in order to closely watch every movement the drummer made. As a fledgling percussionist, Hal (as his family called him) hoped to learn as much as possible from every musical act that passed through town, the circus included.
With Belsky coming from a poor background in the Hartford ghetto, watching the pros play in person—major Big Band stick men like Gene Krupa, Dave Tough, and Buddy Rich—had become one of the only affordable methods of instruction he could manage. Even more than that, they were his heroes, the coolest of the cool, the original hepcats. Hal loved to dream of taking their places onstage, sitting behind a big, gleaming kit with his name stenciled on the front, driving the band with every hit of his snare and every thump of his bass drum. And he sure wasn’t going anywhere on this day because of a little bit of smoke. Forget that. The circus had good musicians and he wanted to see them. This was his education. Besides, from where he sat, the fire looked relatively minor anyway. Like many others, he assumed it would be extinguished within a matter of minutes, and he paid it little further heed. Hal Belsky, the young drummer-to-be, put his feet up, settled back, and patiently waited for the show to resume.
*   *   *
Growing up poor during the late Forties in tiny Billstown, Arkansas, presented far more challenges, of course, for a youngster like Glen Campbell than just the occasional run-in with a wayward snake. Food was scarce and money even scarcer. Large families of twelve like the Campbells were the norm—free labor to help cultivate what few crops they had. For the children, eking out a meager life on a dirt farm meant a whole lot of family chores and very little emphasis on schooling. Most folks in Pike County were lucky to have had an eighth-grade education. Fewer still graduated from high school. When it came down to eating versus reading, the stomach usually had the stronger vote.
As for when he did get to school, Glen showed little natural interest in sitting behind a wooden desk. Always energetic and outgoing, he much preferred to spend his nonworking time, when he had any, roughhousing with friends, sneaking into the Saturday afternoon picture show, and playing music. Especially playing music.
From the time almost anyone could remember, Glen showed a preternatural aptitude for anything to do with a musical instrument. By the age of ten he’d ably learned to pluck notes and strum chords—all by ear, no less—on a cheap five-dollar acoustic guitar that his father had purchased for him from the Sears & Roebuck catalog. Hum a song for him once and he’d likely play it right back to you, often with an improvised flourish of his own tacked on for good measure. He also had a lovely tenor voice with perfect pitch and he delighted in singing gospel hymns at church every Sunday. Playing and singing came easily to him and he particularly enjoyed the attention it could bring.
By the age of thirteen, with Glen struggling mightily to keep from failing the seventh grade, an answer to his prayers appeared. His uncle Eugene “Boo” Campbell, an accomplished, if somewhat itinerant, professional guitar player, came to ask the family a question: could Glen go on the road with him, make a little money to send home, and have an adventure?
“I’ve got some club dates lined up between here and Wyoming and I need a second guitar player. The boy would make a good one.”
Glen was ecstatic. Compared to the life he’d experienced to that point, the prospect of becoming a real live guitarist alongside his beloved uncle Boo was nothing short of manna from heaven. Thank you, Jesus! No more beatings. No more endless chores. No more senseless schoolwork. And, especially, no more long nights spent lying on his stomach while pressing his fist into his gut, trying to quell the gnawing pangs of hunger.
And so, with hugs all around and a wave to his family, Glen Campbell hit the road to begin the journey of a lifetime. It would be a long journey, longer than most people think, but a little bit of luck and a whole lot of hard work would serve to take him further than even he could ever imagine possible.
*   *   *
Unfortunately for Carol Smith and her parents, things did not work out exactly as planned after the big move to Southern California. With shipyard work proving to be sporadic at best, a lack of money remained a major issue around the house, causing continued hardship, frustration, and arguments. Within a few years, her parents could simply take no more. They decided to divorce, leaving Carol alone with her mother and without any income. For a period of time, Clyde Smith contributed some cash here and there, but the once-and-again trombonist gradually drifted out of their lives. He finally skipped the state altogether just after the end of the war, leaving Carol and her mother to fend for themselves. With nowhere else to turn, the two ended up living in a housing project near the waterfront in a town called Wilmington, by the Port of Los ...

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