Pop Music 101 – Kent Hartman and Lyle Ritz at Powell’s – 3/13/2012
Over one hundred mostly boomer hipsters showed up at Powell’s to get the inside scoop on the LA-based music they grew up listening to on transistor radios in the 60s. Kent Hartman, a passionate music lover and author of The Wrecking Crew, was more than happy to oblige with dozens of anecdotes that revealed a little known fact: there was a select group of musicians working back then that did a lot of the strumming and drumming on the records of The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, the Mamas & the Papas and many more groups. It was mind-bending to learn that the recording single of “Mr. Tambourine Man” had only one real Byrd on it – Roger McGuinn. Indian Reservation by Paul Revere & the Raiders? Just Mark Lindsay and the studio musicians. It turns out some of the musicians we loved had only a rudimentary mastery of the instruments they were playing. However, even those that could play benefited from the extra oomph of having more musicians added to the mix. Legendary producer Phil Spector turned ordinary pop songs into extraordinary #1 hits by having two, three, and four musicians playing the same instrument at the same time which became well known as his “wall of sound.”
The couple of dozen studio musicians who worked mostly anonymously behind the pop stars were later dubbed the Wrecking Crew and included: Larry Knechtel, Hal Blaine, Don Peake, Michel Rubini, Mike Melvoin, Tommy Tedesco, Lyle Ritz, Nino Tempo, and Carol Kaye. They played on hundreds of popular songs such as Good Vibrations and Sloop John B by The Beach Boys, A Taste of Honey by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, and You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling by the Righteous Brothers, to name but a few. Anonymous does not mean underpaid however. Hartman said, “Drummer Hal Blaine was making so much money by the late sixties that he had an 18-room mansion, a Rolls Royce and a yacht.” A few of the crew broke out and became stars in their own right, such as Glen Campbell and Leon Russell.
An audience member asked why Gold Star Studios, where Spector produced his #1 hits, was so special. Hartman said, “ Musicians were shoehorned into a little studio. Part of what made the Phil Spector “wall of sound” was that they weren’t all isolated like you see them today. Now you see people in separate rooms. Back then, because there were only two or three tracks on a recording console, you couldn’t put everybody on their own track, so you had to record people live, all at once. So you’d have 14 people all playing live in a tiny room. Plus Gold Star had the most renowned echo chamber in the whole city.”
Hartman, who said he has a “zillion more stories to tell,” played a trailer for a documentary by Danny Tedesco, the son of Wrecking Crew member, Tommy Tedesco. It’s aptly called, The Wrecking Crew, and isn’t officially released yet because Tedesco is still paying the publishing rights on the 130 songs included in the film. Hartman suggested we catch it at a local film fest and throw a few dollars its way.
The highlight of the evening came when Hartman introduced Wrecking Crew member Lyle Ritz, who is now in his 80s. Today, you might know Ritz as the world’s premiere jazz ukelele player. If you saw the movie “The Jerk,” you’ve heard Ritz play. It was Ritz and not Steve Martin who played “Tonight You Belong to Me.” And then there’s the 5,000 individual recording sessions that Ritz took part in as a Wrecking Crew member playing bass guitar. Soft-spoken but very funny, Ritz talked about what it was like to work with various musicians including Brian Wilson commenting that he [Wilson] was kind of “out there.” He thought Nancy Sinatra was a “really terrific lady,” and is still friends with her. He said that he was really good friends with the members of the Wrecking Crew because they spent “thousands of hours together.”
Although Wrecking Crew musicians didn’t play outside the studio much, Ritz did perform on the T.A.M.I. Show, a 1964 concert film, backing The Beach Boys and along side the likes of The Rolling Stones and James Brown. (You’ll be happy to know the Stones and Brown bands played their own instruments.) He also played behind the Mamas & the Papas and Johnny Rivers at the 1967 Monterey Jazz Fest. He said, “It was a wonderful time!” Ritz then picked up his uke and smoked out a hot little number that he composed called B-Flat Blues in C that he played in G. It was awesome! CLICK HERE TO LISTEN!
The night wasn’t over yet though. An anonymous baker made dozens of cookies in the shape of Fender guitars for all who attended. The evening ended on a very sweet note, indeed.
St. Martin’s Press, 2012