Beating Everybody Else Up On The Way There, or A Chat with Hal Blaine, Carmie Tedesco, and filmmaker Denny Tedesco of The Wrecking Crew
by Chris Estey
Last Friday (May 23), before the premiere that night of The Wrecking Crew for Seattle audiences during the Seattle International Film Festival, I was allowed to talk to three amazing people who have lived more music than I’ll ever hear. In town to promote the film made by one of them was Denny Tedesco, the handsome son of much adored session player superstar-slash-Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, as well as Hal Blaine, the demigod drummer for Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Phil Spector’s productions, and so many other legendary recordings ... and Tommy Tedesco’s adorable wife Carmie (who has accepted the honors at award ceremonies for her husband, and was the fiery inspiration behind his incredible Guitar Player columns -- from fighting with him to typing them up herself). All were gracious and very willing to talk.
The Wrecking Crew (a tag from Blaine himself, based on the way they replaced the stiff grinders who dominated the studios that needed musicians to back up artists and bands and make soundtracks and jingles) was made up of at least a couple dozen guys -- and one woman, bass player extraordinaire Carol Kaye -- including 2000 Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Hal, Tommy, beat-pioneer Earl Palmer, and many others. From Elvis Presley to the Muppets, from the thundering roar of “The Lonely Bull” to the melancholy beauty of “Mrs. Robinson,” you have probably loved their work without ever knowing who they are. I felt very fortunate to find out a little bit about them myself personally. (For more after seeing the doc and reading this, don’t hesitate to check out the book Hal Blaine & The Wrecking Crew, by Mr. Blaine himself.)
You didn’t have that many places to play music growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, I imagine, Hal?
Hal: You know I was really too young then, but I did spend a lot of hours in the theaters, watching all the great bands. That was a lot of my inspiration.
There’s a philosophical question I’d like to ask you straight out, based on your career -- do you think you would have continued to play jazz if rock and roll hadn’t come along and given you so much work?
Hal: Who is to know? I really have no idea. I was playing with people like Count Basie and just loving what I was doing. That’s what I studied. Big bands were my meat, especially for drummers, and then it’s just one of those things you make a left turn and suddenly you’re in the rock and roll business.
While you were with Basie, too, you were playing night clubs and strip clubs as well.
Hal: That was all my basic training really, when I got out of school. While I was going to school! I used to go to school from eight in the morning to four in the afternoon, and then strip clubs from eight o’clock at night till four in the morning!
Denny: That was drum school, right?
Hal: Yeah, that’s when I was going to drum school.
Speaking of going to drum school, you’re teaching a class at the Seattle Drum School while you’re in town right?
Hal: I just did that last night! It was great. It was about 10,000.
Hal: How many, though -- it was about 60. Standing ovations, though -- that isn’t bad!
What do you think of the Experience Music Project exhibit based on your work?
Denny: He hasn’t seen that yet.
Hal: Well, we did a film for that. They came down; it’s the British crew that got all the awards for the ‘Titanic.’ Bunch of blokes! Carol Kaye is my neighbor a few houses up, just a whole bunch of musicians that they wanted on tape. We each did like fifteen minutes to a half hour and they used whatever. It was supposed to be a continuous tape, running at the Museum.
I hope the EMP chooses to show Denny’s documentary at some point, because it’s so informative. For example, I had no idea how much ‘Pet Sounds’ was dependent musically on you and Carol Kaye and the others. You must be on thousands of records in my own collection.
Hal: I wouldn’t be surprised. I’m working on a discography now, with a couple of research guys, and we just entered number 5,060. And it’ll probably end up being 6,500 or 7,000 records altogether.
You still have your hands in playing, right?
Hal: More or less. It’s hot down there right now (Palm Springs), it’s been about 111 degrees, and I’d rather be in the pool than in the studio. But it’s a couple of hours from L.A. when I have to run an errand.
Do you think you’ll ever follow up your underground-beloved 1967 solo record, Psychedelic Percussion? The one with 12 tracks, one for each month? (My favorite is for October, “Inner-Space.”)
Hal: I doubt it, I really doubt it. It was great album that we did, but it was just drums and percussion, with crazy sounds.
I wonder how many times portions of it has been sampled by modern hip-hop artists.
Hal: There’s no telling. (Fellow jazz-trained drum god) Shelly Manne called me and said, “Man, they’re using our stuff.” They’re using it and even advertising, “Man, we got Shelly Manne and we got Hal Blaine!” I said, “Shelly, what are you going to do? You’re going to have to spend $20,000 to get back a hundred.” But he was going after it.
How did you meet Tommy Tedesco, Carmie?
Carmie: Through my first boyfriend. Due to our ages, his parents had to sign for him to get married!
Denny’s movie talks about the struggles of holding a house together while a musician like Tommy has a phenomenal musical career. It was pretty intense, huh?
Carmie: It was. I thought we’re going to California and he’s just going to apply for a job. That’s what I thought. We had no idea how demanding it was going to be.
Hal: It became so busy for all of us. We had recording sessions in the morning, and then divorce court sessions in the afternoon!
That is a dark and sad moment in the movie, Hal, about your own break-up with your wife, which led to you going from being a millionaire to being a security guard.
Hal: I lost everything. But they couldn’t take my talents away from me, my drums. So thank goodness I was working, and you know, we had a wonderful musicians’ pension plan, that takes care of me today. It’s wonderful.
Whatever happened to Earl Palmer, the other star drummer featured in The Wrecking Crew?
Denny: Earl’s in Palm Springs.
Hal: Earl’s not doing very well. He’s lost part of a lung and he’s on oxygen. They have a hospital bed in his home for him, and the nurses take care of him. But he may outlast all of us, and I hope he does!
Watching the documentary, I was wondering how the decision was made to use you or Earl on a particular project.
Hal: Well, we had different producers that we worked for regularly. Like Earl was with Percy Faith (“Black Magic Woman”) a lot. I was working with a producer by the name of Lou Adler (Sam Cooke, Carole King), who was a very big producer. We worked consistently with Johnny Rivers and the Beach Boys and a lot of those people, it goes on and on forever. It just keeps going; they just had another hit record with Elvis -- he’s been dead, what? Over thirty years?
Lou happened to be managing a young man who started at the same time as me in rock and roll, Tommy Sands, a young man who had married Nancy Sinatra for about ten minutes, like so many Hollywood marriages, and that led me to being Nancy’s drummer for over 33 years. I’d go to Vegas to play with her, and be on the records, and that led to Frank, and all the Rat Pack, because Frank had just left Capitol to start Reprise. And Frank was signing everybody from Vegas. All the Rat Pack, and Jimmy Bowen was the producer, and it was amazing how we did all that stuff. The artists came from all over the world to work with us, the English girl, what’s her name? Petula Clark. Whoever knew that we would get to work with Petula and put out these great, number one records.
I come from a family that could be called ‘Sinatrarian.’ Was it intimidating working for Frank?
Hal: Not at all, he was a great guy. A wonderful guy. Before I first worked for him playing drums -- prior to that we had both married a Barbara. And they were both barbarians as far as I was concerned! I was on the road, at that point I was with John Denver, doing dinner shows, and late shows, and it became a big happy family. We were all great friends. It was nice to be part of that family. It was nice to go play in the Springs, that’s where I got hooked on the desert area. And Frank was just the nicest man in the world; he loved music, but he loved musicians. He always was a great arranger; like Barbra Streisand, she was one of those gals who could say, “let’s not make that a flute solo, let’s make it a trumpet solo.” She was always right on, always perfect.
Frank Sinatra is getting to be well known now as the first popular music artist to think of the album as a work of art in itself; he had been doing this since before the Beatles, but never got the credit for it.
Hal: I don’t remember about that particular sound -- but whatever Jimmy Bowen did with Frank, like with (music director) Ernie Freeman, he was one of the great arrangers, and was rather unknown, and it’s a shame
Freeman came from the Cleveland R&B scene, and ended up working with Martin Denny at Liberty. Jimmy and Phil went from “Strangers In The Night” for Frank to getting him to do a little C&W.
Hal: Yes, and he was a fabulous arranger. You know, in that way I think that Nancy influenced Frank a little bit. In the time that we did “Something Stupid” -- the song, of course; I’ve got some outtakes of “Something Stupid” that are really funny. Nancy was “Nancy With The Laughing Face” and Frank loved her. And I’m sure that she introduced Lee Hazlewood to Frank; but Frank didn’t sing those kind of songs, like “This Town.”
I love that scene in The Wrecking Crew where Lee can’t get the New York City session guy to improvise, and he goes to Los Angeles to work with you guys instead.
Denny: Al Casey, yeah.
And that’s why the Wrecking Crew put the ‘blue blazer’ guys who couldn’t pretty much swing out of business.
Hal: Phil Spector, keeping you there till one o’clock in the morning. “Here we go, take 29!” He was an innovator. I wouldn’t say he was a genius. He just had things that he wanted to do, like Brian Wilson did. Brian used to come to all of Spector’s sessions and watch and learn. That’s why he hired us. Because we were Spector’s band, really.
Was it ever just too much for you to deal with Phil Spector?
Hal: No, it really never was. Maybe once or twice somebody would walk out, their hands are bleeding, they’re covered with band-aids, “Let me get out of here, I don’t need this.”
There were some -- the expert jazz player in The Wrecking Crew...
Denny: Howard Roberts. I think a lot of that was boredom. The drummers would have to sit there while he’d try out the guitars, and that would take awhile, and then by the time he got to Hal he would go crazy.
Hal: Which I did.
Denny: And he would beat everybody else up on the way there.
Hal: The thing that Phil used to do, that pretty much peeved the guitar players, is that Phil would start this thing, “Would you please put your finger on the ‘A’ string, put this finger over here …” And I would be like, “What is going on here?” Because Phil knew a little bit about guitar, a little bit about piano. He knew a little bit about music. There’s that joke, you play three, maybe four chords in pop, rock and roll, and you get thousands of people screaming at you. But if you play jazz, you play thousands of chords, and you have maybe three or four people clapping for you! That’s the way it is.
I was at Easy Street Records today, and my friend the musician Shane Tutmarc, who comes from a big family of musicians, was really excited that I would be talking with you, and he wanted to know where Hal got that incredible drum beat for Spector’s “Be My Baby,” which has influenced so many people.
Hal: That lick, I don’t know exactly, I don’t think it was written, I don’t remember it being written by Jack Nitzsche. He was a young man who was very learned in stretching out sophisticated-sounding music. If you listen to his records, you can hear this in the string parts. It’s being a great faker. Sometimes you make a mistake, as we’ve always said, if you have had enough experience, and you make a mistake, do it again every four bars. Do it every eight bars. It becomes part of the arrangement. Just so you don’t have to stop and say, “Hey, let’s try that again, I missed it.” You never say that. You don’t want that to happen. So if you go, “Boom. Boom, boom. BANG! Boom, boom, boom, BANG!” Maybe I missed it. Maybe I went, “Boom, BANG! Boom, boom, BANG!” In the first take, for some reason I missed it. So I came down on the fourth beat. Did it every time. Same thing had happened with “Taste of Honey” by Herb Alpert. My very first Grammy Record of the Year. And every time the band would come in after the little abogoto beginning, it was a train wreck. (Makes sound of music crashing everywhere at once.)
Did you ever think that happy accidents like that would ever end up so beloved and ubiquitous?
Hal: In the case of “A Taste of Honey” -- I’m a comedian, basically, so it‘s all about timing. When we finished that intro, I looked at Earl, and started counting off, and out of nowhere that became the hook. Herb loved it and everybody loved it, God bless them, and that was the beginning of A&M Records.