The temperature was a lighter shade of perfect and the mockingbirds had resurfaced after a winter away. I was sipping a cup of Re:Animator coffee recently purchased on a trip to Philadelphia when a calendar alert popped up and reminded me of an RSVP made weeks ago for an event at the Sonos Space on La Brea Ave (Los Angeles). The theme: A live reimagining of the 1960’s recording techniques of The Wrecking Crew, the iconic team of session musicians behind some of the biggest pop hits of all time. Elvis, Phil Spector, The Beach Boys, and countless others crafted some of their iconic tracks with a team of experienced session musicians who were convinced that their work on these tracks was going to “wreck” the music industry. Pet Sounds wrecking music? Crazy, right? The creators behind the reimagining were a new team of session musicians, Los Angeles’ “The Dream Team”. Speaking with Todd Simon of The Dream Team, he described his cohorts as, “…the go to musicians. Top quality. Versed. We read each other’s minds musically.” Assembled to play on the latest David Sitek produced Kelis album, they’ve also recorded with TV On The Radio, Lauryn Hill, Madlib, Big Daddy Kane, and RZA to boot. The wife and I gathered ourselves in Saturday casuals and strolled out in the sunshine for what turned out to be a truly unique experiential time travel in analog creativity.
After a flyby at Sycamore Kitchen and a bit of perusing at General Quarters, one of my favorite shops on LaBrea, we made our way to the Sonos Space. The event selection and talent curation of the space has been consistently fantastic and a nod of respect goes to the creative programmers at Sonos for providing solid and craft forward events. The walls were lined with photographs of The Wrecking Crew’s sessions. The grainy black and white images surrounded a theater in the round with a gorgeous vintage mixing board at the helm. Todd and analog recording guru Kamal Humphrey put the gear list together and Kamal was on-hand to record the session. “It’s the limitations of minimal tracks that inspires rich musicality. Lack of overdub, you have to play your best and be mindful. This gear has so much life and nothing beats going to tape. There’s actual data out there that shows tape holds million more particles of sound than digital. That’s what’s amazing about analog.”
As the espresso sipping crowd began to settle into their seats, Todd (horns) took to the mic and introduced the other musicians: Eugene Brandon Owens (bass), Patrick Bailey (guitar), and Jake Najor (drums). The latter whom I’ve had the privilege of knowing from San Diego and the Casbah music scene. Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” a #1 hit on 1966’s Billboard music charts, was the pre-selected track to record. Each musician would play their part solo with a strict hold to techniques The Wrecking Crew would have used. No ProTools. No Apple products. Effects laid in live and everything to tape. We were all encouraged to interact with the musicians, but at a comfortable distance.
You could peg the sound engineers and music heads in the room straight away. Four or so guys were intently watching Kamal and jumping in to help solve technical issues with the vintage gear. The guy in the red bandana was my favorite. His mind constantly on the solve.
In place of the iconic Hal Blaine, the original drummer on the track, Jake Najor was first up to begin the recording. To be playing Hal for a day is a real testament to Jake’s talent. Hal played on 50 number one hits, over 150 top ten hits and is widely regarded as one of the most prolific drummers in recorded music history. Each musician’s segment was intro’d with a history of how the original creators would approach the composition. “I am forever faithful to the musicians of the past. Art and culture should be shared, nothing should be a mystery”, Todd stated. “We still keep in touch with the elders. These guys are legends. If someone from The Dream Team isn’t available, we go to the elders next. We bridge the old with the new.”
Next, Eugene Brandon Owens took to both electric and stand up bass. On the original track Carole Kaye handled electric bass with Chuck Berghofer on double bass. Together they crafted one of the most recognizable bass lines/combos in music history. Carole Kaye’s credits include hits with The Righteous Brothers, Ray Charles, Ike & Tina Turner, Simon & Garfunkel, and has played on an estimated 10,000 recordings over a 55-year career.
Eugene explained the nature of how the bass sections came together and overlapped electric and standup to create a really rich and deep sound. These breaks between playing underscored the team’s appreciation and understanding of the work of their predecessors. Digging into the techniques, each musician’s point-of-view led us further into the minds and talents of the behind-the-scenes legends. I’ve heard “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” a hundred times, but this felt like the first time all over again. It’s a feeling most music fans know and chase, like a drug. Always hunting for a moment that resembles the first one that moved us. The first time we felt music deep inside us. That’s the magic of the truly gifted… To bring that out and inspire us over and over.
Taking the place of Al Casey, Tommy Tedesco and Billy Strange on guitar was Patrick Bailey. Billy Strange was not only the guitarist, but the original arranger and conductor of the track. His credits include an all time favorite of mine, “A Little Less Conversation,” for which he teamed with Mac Davis to write and later Elvis to record. It was interesting watching Patrick lay down the guitar. We couldn’t hear the board feed into his monitor, but the song progression was evident in his body, allowing us to listen by way of rhythmic tapping and nodding. His touch on the guitar was masterful, every note handled by a true craftsman.
Throughout the recording, trouble shooting the vintage equipment was a constant. Playback reminded me of the days of picking up 35mm film from development. Did I get it? Did the effect take? What happy accidents produced an unexpected awesome? If this wasn’t a three hour session these guys would have dug in further. Time and attention spans being what they were, it was usually a one or two take affair. Not all of us have the observational stamina to watch a recording session. We’d rather go to opening night at the gallery than the artist’s studio. Better wine and cheese anyway.
In recent years there has been a battle waging in me. One that both embraces and eschews technology. This could be a result of my place on the timeline of history. Caught in the middle of two generations. The last to learn typewriting (pica anyone?), and the first to take computer lab. It’s not like I didn’t grow up without AOL and Instant Messenger as my first social network. It’s not that I haven’t embraced the changes. It’s just that there is a deep appreciation for the tools and craft of our predecessors within me. An old tool has a soul. It’s proven and it’s real. No code. Events such as these remind the world that there was a time when the internet didn’t exist, but creativity flourished. They highlight the passion of a new generation, and the similarities with the former who have been lost into the background of some of the biggest hits of a generation. Todd and The Dream Team are conduits, bridging together the elders before them and guiding the generation behind. In my chat with Todd, he spoke about keeping tabs on the elders and making sure they are healthy, taken care of, and when they are still able, bringing them into the studio to create together. On the flip side Todd also is guiding a new generation of high school musicians who are finding their sound as their bandleader. In fact he called on high school and college student musicians to come out and play horns with him at the event. I truly hope more people continue to gather around experiencing technology of the past. To collectively examine the progress that has been made from one generation to the next. In doing so we celebrate the many creatives who spent their lives working passionately only to be a note on an album liner. A subject for a documentary focused on rediscovery of their talents. A fascinating credit for record collectors to gawk over. Does it matter though? Fame? Being remembered? I’ll remember that day more than I remember anything on the Top-40 today. It’s taken my whole life to be comfortable with the fact that one day I’ll be forgotten. That’s ok. It’s makes the sunshine so much warmer…