Growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the ‘60s, Denny Tedesco didn’t think his dad was different from anybody else’s father in the neighborhood. He’d walk through the door each evening after work, kiss his wife and greet the kids. Then he’d ask the same question: “Any calls?”
Instead of working in an office, however, Tommy Tedesco filled his days reeling off twangy riffs that became the musical signatures of TV shows such as “Bonanza” and “Batman” along with colorful leads and fills on hits for Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, the Monkees and countless others.
Tommy Tedesco was a ringleader of “the Wrecking Crew,” esteemed Los Angeles studio musicians whose stories provide the heart of Denny’s documentary film of the same name. After gestating for more than a decade, “The Wrecking Crew!” finally sees the light of day in a significant way with a national theatrical run opening March 13.
FOR THE RECORD
March 9, 2:45 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said that guitarist Tommy Tedesco’s well-known parts included the atmospheric acoustic guitar intro for the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’.” Tedesco did not play in that recording session. Also, musician Don Randi was misidentified as a horn player. He plays keyboard.
“I mainly worked in the studio with the Wrecking Crew to achieve what I wanted,” Beach Boys creative leader Brian Wilson told author Ken Sharp for his new book, “Sound Explosion! Inside L.A.'s Studio Factory with the Wrecking Crew,” which is being published as a companion to Tedesco’s film. “They inspired me to reach higher ground and really helped make my music come alive in the studio.”
Most people who have seen the film have reacted enthusiastically. But the other reaction that Tedesco has heard repeatedly through the years has been more ominous: “You’ll never get this music cleared,” a reference to the necessary legal clearances and licensing fees for the use of hit recordings in films.
The blessing and the curse of his dad’s life story — and those of in-demand players that included drummers Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine, bassists Joe Osborn and Carol Kaye, horn player Steve Douglas, keyboardist Don Randi, pianist Leon Russell and Tedesco’s fellow guitarists Glen Campbell and Al Casey — is that their contributions are so numerous, the standard licensing fees alone would far outstrip the total budget for most documentaries.
Finally, Tedesco worked out financial terms for the snippets of more than 100 songs heard in the film without pushing the budget into the realm of a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster. But it’s a source of great pride that he didn’t go hat in hand to the rights holders asking them to donate the use of the songs such as the Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun,” Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and so many others.
“I didn’t want people to give me these tracks for free,” Tedesco, 53, said over lunch at a Valley Village restaurant that’s been one of his favorite hangouts since childhood. “This is how my dad and all those people earned their living. I want the musicians to get paid.” Going back and forth among the various parties who own the rights to the recordings excerpted in the film, Tedesco finally struck a balance between payments that were fair but wouldn’t break the bank.
Denny started the project while his father was alive as essentially an ambitious home movie — a love letter to his dad, once described by Guitar Player magazine as “in all probability the most recorded guitarist in history.” (Interview footage that didn’t make the final cut of the film, original studio logs and other ephemera are included in an exhibition about the Wrecking Crew story running through March 19 at L.A. Sonos Studio gallery.)
Of Tommy Tedesco, fellow guitarist Jimmy Bruno told Guitar Player in 2010: “First of all, every one of the stories that you hear about Tommy’s sight-reading abilities, no matter how difficult they are to believe, are true. He could [sight]-read anything, and his ability was so absolutely amazing that he could be talking to you while he was doing it. I’d be like, ‘Tommy, how can you do that? Don’t you count?’ And he’d go, ‘Count? If I had to count I’d still be moving boxes in the UPS warehouse!’”
At first, Denny asked interviewees to refer to “Tommy” rather than “your father” when he turned his camera on to record those anecdotes. It wasn’t long into the process, however, when he realized the one thing he could bring to the project was his role as an insider.
The numerous roadblocks he ran into trying to bring the film to fruition also haunted him, triggering memories of “having quit every musical instrument I ever tried. I didn’t want this to be another example of something that Denny gave up on.”
In the intervening years, he’s watched other music documentaries surface to great acclaim: “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” about the Detroit label’s group of studio pros known as the Funk Brothers; “Searching for Sugar Man,” the Oscar-winning 2012 documentary about long-forgotten Detroit singer and songwriter Sixto Rodriguez; and last year’s Academy Award-winning “20 Feet From Stardom,” about pop and rock stars’ frequently unsung backup singers.
But he’s grateful he gathered the interviews when he did. His father died of lung cancer in 1997, at age 67, and many of the other members of that elite club also have since died.
Perhaps surprisingly, Denny Tedesco wasn’t regularly exposed to his dad’s celebrated facility on guitar and mandolin as a kid.
“He was playing music all day long,” Tedesco said. “The last thing he wanted to do was come home and play guitar some more.”
But in the 1970s, as studio work slowly began to migrate to younger players, Tommy Tedesco delved into his love for jazz and began playing more shows in L.A.-area jazz clubs, also recording a string of solo albums. Then he would bring his instruments out at home to practice.
And even after suffering a stroke in 1992 that essentially ended his career, every time he’d walk through the door of their home in Northridge, whoever was within earshot would hear the elder Tedesco say the same thing: “Any calls?”
“At that point, he was joking,” Denny said. “But he was such a good businessman, and that’s one of the reasons why. We had three phones in the house, in the days before cellphones and answering machines. So anyone calling him would never get a busy signal.”
In the “Studio Log” column he wrote for Guitar Player starting in the late 1970s, he told a reader who asked how much notice he would get for the jobs he’d play, Tedesco answered “Any time from 10 minutes to two months.”
“He also had an answering service,” Denny said, “and whenever he was doing a session, at every break he’d call the service and see who was calling. He always advised other players, ‘Never turn down work. As soon as you do, they start calling somebody else.’”