Blowhard, Esq. writes:
After STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN, which shined a light on the Detroit backing band who played on dozens of Motown hits, there’s been a spate of documentaries honoring the previously-anonymous studio musicians who were essential contributors to scores of classic R&B, soul, and rock records. Recently I watched three: MUSCLE SHOALS, 20 FEET FROM STARDOM (recent winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary), and THE WRECKING CREW. I recommend all three to any pop music fans.
MUSCLE SHOALS tells the story of Fame studios owner/producer Rick Hall and the Swampers, the house band who played on such records as “I’ll Take You There,” “When A Man Loves A Woman,” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” “Mustang Sally,” “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You,” “Natural Woman,” “Think,” “Chain of Fools,” “Tell Mama,” and dozens more. While I enjoyed the documentary, it sometimes relied too much on mystical explanations instead of trying to tell the story of why this city of 8,000 people became the epicenter of so many beloved and influential records.
Hall talks about his early life growing up on a farm with a dirt floor and no indoor plumbing and then, boom, he’s got his own studio and he’s producing an Arthur Alexander side that catches the attention of the early Rolling Stones. Hey, whoa! Can we back up a minute? Why’d he get into music in the first place? Where did he get the money to buy the studio and custom-made equipment? We find out an hour into the doc that Sun Records founder Sam Phillips was Hall’s mentor but not how he met Phillips, why Phillips paid any attention to him at all, or why Hall didn’t follow Phillips to Nashville. While Hall’s drive is explained as the result of a series of personal tragedies (we learn about the death of his brother, father, and first wife), we get little to no idea where Hall’s creativity came from. We’re just supposed to believe he sprang fully formed from the Tennessee River, I guess.
Likewise, we learn little about the Swampers’ early lives or the music scene that produced them. Jimmy Johnson, pictured below on the right wearing his business casual best, not only played guitar on the records I mentioned above, the mofo engineered the songs on “Sticky Fingers” and produced “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird.” Astonishing, right? The dude is a walking history of 60s and 70s Southern rock. I would’ve liked to know more about the scene and milieu that produced him with maybe a little less talk about ancient Indian water spirits.
But I’m being nitpicky. That omission aside, the film does a bang-up job of telling the story of the studio, musicians, and albums recorded in the tiny Alabama town. The documentary has fun with the fact that these dudes, arguably some of the funkiest musicians who ever lived, couldn’t be whiter and dorkier. Motown, which had the sweeter, more commercial sound, was largely black musicians while the rawer Muscle Shoals records were recorded by an all-white band. Funny paradox, no?
20 FEET FROM STARDOM doesn’t focus on a particular label or period but on the unheralded job of the R&B and rock backup singer. The movie profiles a number of singers including:
- Darlene Love (“He’s a Rebel” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” both for Phil Spector)
- Merry Clayton (“Gimme Shelter”, “Sweet Home Alabama”, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstadt, Carole King)
- Lisa Fischer (Luther Vandross, Sting, Roberta Flack, since 1989 on every Rolling Stones tour, even Nine Inch Nails)
- Claudia Lennear (Ike and Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones)
The dramatic arc for each is the same, though their third acts differ. The girls all establish very successful careers as background singers for top acts, they attempt solo careers that flop or only have minor success, then have to deal with the aftermath. Some return to doing backup, some leave the business altogether. Given that such legends as Mick Jagger, Sting, and Bruce Springsteen all acknowledge them as A-plus talents, how to account for their failure to become stars in their own right? Bad timing? Lackluster solo material? Or, as Springsteen ventures, a dearth of the necessary narcissism and ego needed to be a headliner? It’s interesting to watch Fischer, perhaps the most well-adjusted of the bunch, acknowledge that she isn’t equipped for megastardom (or interested in marriage or kids) while Lennear openly regrets leaving music to teach Spanish at a community college.
Both MS and 20 FEET are standard docs featuring archive photos, vintage performance footage, and talking head commentary. 20 FEET leans more heavily on contemporary studio performances while MS has a lot of moody Deep South b-roll (train tracks, BBQ shacks, cotton fields). The performers and their stories take center stage.
When I started writing this post I remembered a book was published last year on the Los Angeles studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. A little googling revealed that someone had made a doc about the band but it hadn’t been publicly released yet due to the massive bill for music licensing. But hey, lucky me, by coincidence it would be screening near me within a few days. The universe seemed to be telling me something so I headed out to an L.A. Jazz Institute convention to catch the movie.
The Wrecking Crew was a loose collective of about 20 or so studio musicians who played on a slew of early 60s and 70s rock and pop records. In the early days of rock ‘n roll, say before the mid 60s, rock records were produced like jazz records: the songs were arranged by a producer, played by in-house musicians, and sung by a vocalist. This is exactly the arrangement Phil Spector used for his Wall of Sound records and Brian Wilson would use for Summer Days through “Good Vibrations” and the Wrecking Crew was the band Spector and Wilson used to realize their sound.
While the WC consisted of a number of musicians over the years, some of the most important and who are featured in the documentary, are:
- Guitarist Tommy Tedesco (the above Spector and Wilson records, as well as the original “Batman” theme, “Bonanza” theme, “M*A*S*H” theme, “California Dreamin'”, “A Little Less Conversation,” and “MacArthur Park”)
- Guitarist/Bassist Carol Kaye (the above Spector and Wilson records, as well as the guitar on “La Bamba,” and the bass on the “Mission: Impossible” theme, “Mrs. Robinson,” and “Witchita Lineman”)
- Drummer Hal Blaine (the above Spector and Wilson records, “Mrs. Robinson,” “I Got You Babe,” “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” and “Strangers in the Night”)
Those credits just scratch the surface. That’s not the Byrds on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” that’s the Wrecking Crew. David Crosby was pissed when he found he wouldn’t be recording the song but the Wrecking Crew knocked it and another song out in three hours while, in contrast, Roger McGuinn notes it took the actual Byrds 77 takes to get “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
Filmmaker Denny Tedesco, son of guitarist Tommy Tedesco, made the film over the course of twelve years to bring some much deserved recognition to these long neglected musicians. Inspired by the framing device of BROADWAY DANNY ROSE — a bunch of old timers sitting around a table swapping stories — the film begins when with Tedesco, Kaye, and Blaine meeting for the first time in decades. But like MS and 20 FEET, there’s plenty of archival material, as well as interview footage from people like Glen Campbell (himself a member of the Wrecking Crew before he went solo), Cher, Dick Clark, Herb Alpert, and producer Lou Adler. (I could be wrong but I think Adler is the only person who appears in all three of these documentaries. Jagger and Richards both appear in MS and 20 FEET.)
While the movie brings the musicians some glory, it doesn’t shy away from the personal toll being a working musician took on their families. As one of the Swampers points out in MS, being a studio musician allows one some stability and the chance to stick close to home, but the Wrecking Crew was in such demand that they worked nonstop for years. Drummer Earl Palmer notes with a twinge of regret, “Let’s just say I’m a better grandfather than I was a father.”
About my pretentious post title. Watching these movies is like learning about the anonymous sculptors and stone masons who provided so much charm, delight, and mystery to Notre Dame and Chartres, or the monks who illustrated the Book of Kells. If those works are some of the masterpieces of medieval art, aren’t many of the songs listed above among the masterpieces of 20th century American culture? (Even “Free Bird”? Hey man, especially “Free Bird.”) Like 20 FEET points out, how often do these session musicians provide the hook, our favorite part of the song? Don’t tell me I’m the only one who has more fun singing the backup parts when songs come on the radio.
Both MUSCLE SHOALS and 20 FEET FROM STARDOM are currently streaming on Netflix. According to the director, THE WRECKING CREW will be available on DVD by this Christmas.
- The trailer for MUSCLE SHOALS. A short clip featuring Aretha Franklin.
- The trailer for 20 FEET FROM STARDOM. A short clip featuring Merry Clayton.
- The trailer for THE WRECKING CREW. An interview with the director.
- Paleo Retiree on STANDING IN THE SHADOW OF MOTOWN.
- Fabrizio shares some blues favorites.
- Brian Wilson started using the Wrecking Crew on Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!). Sax wrote about the Beach Boys’ early non-WC records here, here, here, here, here, and here.