Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

One of my favorite films from the Seattle International Film Festival so far has been The Wrecking Crew a documentary about the legendary studio musicians from Los Angeles who recorded thousands and thousands of songs, mostly during the 1960s. The film was directed by Denny Tedesco, whose late father Tommy, who along with drummer Hal Blaine, remain two of the most recorded musicians in history.

I was fortunate enough to sit down for an interview with Denny Tedesco, Carmie Tedesco (Denny’s mother and Tommy’s widow, who is also interviewed in the film) and Hal Blaine just a few hours before their film premiered at SIFF. The Wrecking Crew is still seeking distribution but hopefully it will appear in theaters very soon.

One of the things I really liked about this film was that it was held together by a round table discussion with your father, Hal, Carol (Kaye) and Plas Johnson. Your father died in 1997 and this footage was shot in 1996. Did it take you 12 years to get this film made?

Denny Tedesco: I started in 1995. My father was diagnosed so it was truly a do-or-die situation and I really had to get this working. I put together this idea and took it to Dad and said this is what I want to do and he said great. I wanted to pick four or five key players: Hal obviously, Carol on bass, Plas on saxophone and (drummer) Earl Palmer was also supposed to be there but unfortunately he got sick so he unfortunately wasn’t there. We started recording history. I was influenced by the movie Broadway Danny Rose. Do you remember that movie?

Oh yes. I’m a huge Woody Allen fan.

Denny: There’s a scene where all of the writers are sitting around talking about Broadway Danny Rose in a coffee shop. It’s this conversation about who he was. Everyone would kibbutz and that’s what I wanted that roundtable to be like because they all had this sense of humor and when they’re by themselves, it’s wicked. I wanted be like a voyeur to this conversation, just like in Broadway Danny Rose.

You really let the musicians speak for themselves in this film and tell their own stories.

Denny: I was never going to put myself into this documentary but after a few years I kept interviewing people. We had a 30 minute cut and another filmmaker said we had a History Channel documentary, that’s it. That was a slam on the movie.

Hal Blaine: It was a wake-up call.

Denny: It said you better find something inside and it was a road I didn’t want to go down for awhile. I didn’t want to do this just with my dad or with the Wrecking Crew as an outsider. Anyone can do that. I needed my father as my storyteller. At a certain point I felt that you can’t have him without the Wrecking Crew and you couldn’t have the Wrecking Crew without him. They were an extended family. Hal probably saw more of my father in my first ten years than I did. It can happen in any family. You don’t have to be a musician. If someone goes to work 8 to 10 hours a day, you see your kids for 2 hours a day when you get home, that’s it.

There was a great line in the film from one of the players who said he was a better grandfather than a father.

Denny: That was Plas Johnson. It was a really meaningful quote and you don’t have to be a musician to understand it.

There was another line about how you would never say no to working until you were too busy to say yes.

Denny: That was from Bones Howe. It is a great line. My father always told me that if a job is fun, or can give you connections, money or experience, you should do it.

Hal: You can’t buy those experiences. I never turned down work if I could do it. That was part of the work ethic that I learned from my immigrant parents. We all learned that from our parents. Hard work is essential.

When we came along in Levi’s and t-shirts, they thought we were a bunch of kids. They had no idea we all had degrees. We were very well learned. We could read music.

Two producers that hang over this film are Brian Wilson and Phil Spector, both of whom are like Gods to me. Wilson was interviewed in the film but not Spector. Did you try to interview him?

Denny: Yeah. There was always something going on with Phil. I was getting closer. The week before “the incident” I was talking to Hal’s daughter Michelle somewhere between 2000 and 2003 and she said just give me the 14 minute cut you made and she was going to walk it in to him and make him watch it. It’s unfortunate because he was close to them. But it’s not over. He could still do an interview for the DVD. He might have been a pain in the neck to work with sometimes…

Hal: Oh, he was a pain in the other end.

There’s an interview with Earl Palmer in the film who said that he got along fine with Spector because you and him were the only drummers of that caliber available and his relationship with you was already strained.

Hal: If they couldn’t get Earl, who might have been their favorite, they called me. They knew we could get the job done. I always said R & R didn’t stand for rock and roll but reliability and responsibility. That was why we lasted so long. Well, that and talent.

Denny: Glen Campbell has a line that got cut from the film but he said the Chicago Bulls had a good team built around Michael Jordan. This was all Michael Jordans. Everyone knew what they were doing – they were at the top of their game.

Hal: right time, right place.

Carmie Tedesco: There was so much you couldn’t put in (the movie).

Denny: That’s what makes the DVD so special.

One of the things I really liked about the film was that it found a balance between the wonk-ish details of making music and telling a story that was accessible to a wider audience.

Denny: Thank you. I found audiences appreciate it at different levels. When we screened it at a film festival in Nashville last month, the audience was like 50% musicians and 50% not. I didn’t think about this but there was another audience. My mother became a character in the movie. I was only going to use her as a conduit to tell the story but from a lot of e-mails I got back, audiences appreciated what she said. She was a musician’s wife. “Barbara the Barbarian” notwithstanding [Blaine’s ex-wife who took him to the cleaners when they divorced, as detailed in the film]; audiences appreciated what the families had to go through. It has nothing to do with music. You could be a plumber. There’s a balance. Who’s going to take the kids to school? Who is going to pick them up? We all go through this.

Hal: I used to tell the guys to never say you were going on the road or sick.

Carmie: …or going on vacation. Tommy never said we were going away. We always said he was busy.

Denny: This is how sick that mentality was. When father had a stroke in 1992, I saw him in the hospital. He had a gig the following week. My mother said not to tell anyone. He wasn’t working that much at that point. At the last minute we were still not saying anything. He couldn’t talk or move. It took him a few months to recover.

Hal: When I had my accident, it was a motorcycle accident. It was on a Friday. Friday night I was operated on and had a date Monday morning. I went in with crutches. They took me in a wheelchair. Nobody knew. When it was over with, they brought me out in the wheelchair, holding the crutches. Everybody looked and couldn’t believe we had just done this session. The doctor made a special cast for me. If they knew Hal Blaine had an accident nobody would call me.

Carmie: Even if the accident was over a year ago.

Hal: The other part of that mentality is this: I was talking to Bones (Howe) one day and he said that he hoped I wouldn’t die. And you know what would happen if I died? In this business everyone would say “Oh my God, Hal died. We have
a date. What are we going to do without Hal? OK, bring in a new guy. Time is money. Let’s go.”

What kind of reaction have you gotten from the record industry for this film?

Denny: It took me 12 years to make this film but my biggest fear was that there are 120 songs in the film (and needed to get clearance to use all of them). Someone suggested I cut it down to 20 but that wasn’t the point. These guys went from Sinatra to the Chipmunks to the Mamas and Papas. They worked all kinds of sounds, you can’t get it down to 20 songs. There’s a quality there but there’s also quantity and I needed to convey how prolific these guys were.

I heard one of the stupidest ideas: a producer suggested I we use remixes or sound-alike’s. I said “are you kidding me? That’s a Milli Vanilli on top of a Milli Vanilli! You can’t do that!” Finally, the record companies started to appreciate what we were doing. The American Federation of Musicians wanted this story out there and they started to understand that. They could have easily taken me to the cleaners but they haven’t and they won’t. They know it is good for the industry and have been very supportive. That was the big fear for distributors but everyone came through. Plus, no one wanted to be the guy who killed it, either.

What were some of the memorable artists to work with for you, Hal?

Every date was a party. The guys were just happy to be working. They were always smiling but there was nothing like a Dean Martin date. They always got chairs out for the secretaries and their friends and friends and friends and it was just one big party. Dean comes out and does his numbers and he was just the nicest and funniest guy. So when we got a call for a Dean Martin record, we knew it was going to be a great party. Sinatra was the same way. There was a certain electricity with those guys.

Sometimes producers would get wind of a song title and grab 5 guys and make a record with that title. Spector was famous for that. He would be at the radio station at 4am with a session that we recorded for him the previous night.

Carmie: Do you remember when we recorded “Strangers in the Night” then went to Hawaii and heard it on the radio not more than two days after it was recorded?

Hal: Another person we had great fun with was Don Ho. Did you know he was an Air Force pilot in World War II? He said he was going to run for President one time. He said if he became President of the United States he was going to move the White House to Hawaii and rename it the “Ho House”. It was for real. It wasn’t a joke.

{It was at this point that we had to end the interview but given the option, I would have happily talked with them as long as they were willing – even after my tape recorder stopped.}