The Monkees, The Wrecking Crew (Studio Musicians) and Leon Russell


Remember the big hoopla about 1966 – 67 that the Monkees didn’t play their own instruments? Boy, I do. And it raged for years. The Rock and Roll snobs were really ugly about it.

The Monkees never pretended that their origins were anything other than a massive casting call at Screen Gems. I was a member of their fan club and lots of articles included the original ad that began “Madness: Wanted four ….”. The years have taken their toll. I used to could quote the whole ad.

They were the brainchild of Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. Their idea was a television show about a loony rock and roll band, with music videos. Marketing began … at the beginning. According to Wikipedia (and if I remember correctly a pre-1968 article in TV guide) the story about the group using studio musicians broke when Mike Nesmith, Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork put their collective foot down to be allowed to play their own instruments. Part of the reason they were hired was that they all actually were musicians, except possibly Jones. He was a professional singer, having played the Artful Dodger in the London stage production of Oliver! and had recorded a solo album.

Fast forward a few years to 2007. While looking through some old issues of American Heritage magazine, I saw a piece on the Wrecking Crew (click here for the article online. Note: as of 3-1-2012 this link has been updated). Up until then, the only Wrecking Crew I was familiar with was the movie with Dean Martin. One of his Matt Helm, pseudo James Bond type things.

The article had pictures of people playing instruments during recording sessions. I think the only one I recognized was Glen Campbell. And even though I’ve always liked Glen Campbell, I’m not really a fan so I just skimmed through it; a couple of years later I was looking through old magazines and sat down to actually read it rather than just looking at the pictures.

(Even though I love to read books and really love magazines, there’s this quirky thing about not reading articles in them. Like a kid, I look at the pictures. I have years worth of Victoria magazines that I’ve never read, just looked at. National Review is an exception. There are very few photos in it and I usually read it cover to cover, often on the day it arrives – except for tax and libertarian pieces.)

Well, lo and behold. The Wrecking Crew was a group of studio musicians in Los Angeles. And yeah, they played the instruments on the Monkee’s first 2 albums.

But they also played for The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Byrds and a whole lot more. They were Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. They played everything from jazz to rock and roll to jingles for television commercials. They were fantastic.

There was an interview posted online with Tommy Tedesco’s son Denny, which has been removed.  Tommy was a studio guitarist. Denny made a documentary titled “The Wrecking Crew”, here is a video interview with him. Wish the whole film was on youtube because it looks fascinating.

Glen Campbell and Leon Russell were the only names I recognized. A more complete list of Leon Russell’s keyboard backups is here at Tulsa TV Memories. (Leon Russell is a Tulsa native.)

The Funk Brothers backed up Motown. here

For those of us who still like the Monkees:

Go here for a review of a Micky Dolenz concert. Nice article. Micky tells of being in the Abbey Road studio with the Beatles.

In this Wikipedia article on Davy Jones, it mentions that he was on Ed Sullivan the same night that the Beatles debuted, February 9, 1964.

Oh, my. Mike Nesmith is 68. Ouch. Here’s his bio on Wikipedia. My husband saw the current photo of Mike and said he looks like a senator.

And here’s the Wiki article on Peter.

Ah, memories.

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7 Comments

Filed under 1960's, Music, Oklahoma, Rock and Roll, Tulsa, YouTube

7 responses to “The Monkees, The Wrecking Crew (Studio Musicians) and Leon Russell

  1. thetulsabuckle

    Cool! Thanks.
    I got the Standing on the Shadows of Motown documentary, really surprising to learn about the 100s of hits they played on, almost uncredited. I’m gonna check out the The Wrecking Crew.

    I’m currently reading The Complete Beatles Chronicles, a day by day sort of thing – and actually just read about the Ed Sullivan Show in 64, and Davy Jones being there. Well I’ll be darned!

    • Thanks for stopping by. Until I did a little research for this post, I’d never heard of the Motown group but now I get it – that’s why the back up music was always so great. They were great musicians.

  2. Michael

    Heard a piece of the Wrecking Crew on NPR. They seemed to back EVERYBODY in the 60s. Made a tidy income doing it too. But by the 1970s the record companies weren’t signing as many folks who needed a crackerjack backing band. Groups like Chicago, The Eagles, and BTO played their own instruments (competently). Plus, advances in recording technology allowed mistakes to be more easily corrected. When all the instruments were recorded simultaneously onto tape, the players had to be dead-on or the recording was ruined. By the early 70s, you could put each instrument on a separate recording track, and if the bassist flubbed his part it would simply be re-recorded. Why hire session-men to get it perfect right out of the gate?

    • Very interesting, Michael.

      Recorded music had a whole sound back then; I didn’t know why it sounds differently now until your explanation.

      It reminds me of what’s going on in many churches. Instead of playing with a live accompanist, those who sings “specials” most often do so with a recorded tape.

      My musical talent and training is very limited, but I can hear the difference. People simply sing better with a live musician than a tape. I’ve asked different people why, and nearly always get the same answer:

      There is a dynamic interaction between live performers. When performing with a tape, you have to conform to it because it’s static and unchanging. Therefore the music becomes a kind of mechanical thing out of necessity or there’s a dissonance.

      When singing with a tape there can be no variation of tempo or holding a note, etc. And if the singer fails to hit all the notes correctly it grates on the ear.

      I’ve noticed that even many of the really famous vocalists have mechanical sounding recordings, kind of a thin one-dimensional sound. And now I know why.

      Remembering the old LP album covers that had photographs of the singer and musicians in the recording studio, I assumed that it was still that way.

      My guess is that people who sing with tapes think it gives a professional sound, but it doesn’t.

      It just sounds flat.

      Taking the human element out of the equation doesn’t improve everything.

      I appreciate you stopping by and your comment!

  3. Former Nieghbor

    One of the guys who played Bass for them was Frank Funaro.

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