Have you seen The Wrecking Crew yet? It’s a documentary about some of the most prolific studio musicians of all time: people like Tommy Tedesco (guitar), Carol Kaye (bass), Hal Blaine (drums), Plas Johnson (sax), Glen Campbell (guitar), Leon Russell (keyboards) and dozens of others. They were the de facto “sound of the ’60s,” as they played, uncredited, on thousands of records. The group were not called “The Wrecking Crew” at the time; rather, historians came up with the name later on to describe the changing of the guard from the old studio musicians of the 1930s and ’40s to this new batch of upstarts that came along in the late ’50s and stirred everything up.
These guys could and would play anything, including rock ‘n’ roll, and that provided them an opening with the young producers. So apparently, it’s not the Association you hear performing on “Windy,” nor the Byrds on “Mr. Tambourine Band,” nor the Monkees on most of their early stuff (we all knew that already). It’s various members of the Wrecking Crew. Nobody agrees on who was a member of this skilled group or whether they were really a group or a brand at all. They were simply the top-notch union musicians of the day, and they answered the phone when it rang.
A couple of the most fascinating parts of the program are when it takes an in-depth look at the work required of the Crew by some of the most peculiar and demanding personalities of the era: Brian Wilson and Phil Spector. Wilson taped nearly a hundred hours to get “Good Vibrations” just the way he heard it in his head. For members of the Crew, sessions with the Beach Boy were just an item slated on their schedule, several days a week for seven months, taking up long hours, often after midnight. The musicians interviewed spoke glowingly of Brian: how musically knowledgeable and innovative he was, how dedicated he was to teaching them their parts, what a stickler he was for detail. They all called Wilson a “genius”—but if it weren’t for the competence and professionalism of the Crew, we’re led to believe that those sessions might still be going on today.
We learn that Spector achieved his “Wall of Sound” by crowding musicians into the tight confines of L.A.’s Gold Star studio, already known for its full, saturated sound. Phil took the character of the room and amped it up. To enrich the sound, he employed redundant players—four pianists, six guitarists, two bass players, etc.—allowed (or encouraged) “leakage” between instruments and expanded the room’s echo chamber. He also made the guys rehearse for hours on end, making them so exhausted they would have a “relaxed” feel to their playing. Again, all the musicians interviewed looked on Spector with awe (and a little bit of fear and resentment) and called him a “genius.”
It seems that the word “genius” has come to mean the guy who is a complex perfectionist and who makes everybody work ten times harder than they normally would in order to realize a concept he can’t explain. That got us thinking about the first studio genius, Silas Leachman, whose only victim was himself and perhaps his wife. He sat at his piano at home by the train tracks on the outskirts of Chicago for hours on end recording the latest hits onto wax cylinders, which he then sold to the local phonograph dealer and were then marketed across the country. It was noteworthy that a regular guy figured out how to make his own records—successfully too—but the bigger deal was all the skill Leachman packed into his routine: he was the singer, the multi-instrumentalist musician, record announcer, session engineer, and mechanic (for when the phonographs needed repair). His work was marveled at in the Chicago Daily Tribune on April 8, 1895 (reprinted in Scientific American on April 27, 1895):
In the four years he has been in the business he has made nearly 250,000 records. So great is the demand for them that he cannot fill his orders. It is such exceedingly hard work that he cannot sing more than four hours a day. He gets 35 cents for every cylinder he prepares. He has a repertoire of 420 pieces, and his work is put on the market under a score of names. He has a remarkable memory, and after once hearing a song can not only repeat the words and music correctly, but he can imitate excellently the voice and expression of the singer.
See the full article here.
Leachman was also a technical experimenter, and as far as we know, the first person to multi-track on commercial recordings. Yes, multi-tracking on phonograph cylinders: Leachman could layer his voice over several takes to create the impression, for example, of a quartet singing, or two people arguing simultaneously, or other dramatic effects. We have experience with one of these, and it caused some problems for us non-geniuses.
Not long after we started Archeophone, a friend invited us to San Antonio to transfer some of his early wax cylinders. In our modest kit at the time was but one cylinder stylus—good but, as we learned, not sufficient for all purposes. One of the records we transferred was Leachman’s 1892 record of “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow Wow,” a great, entertaining cylinder, very clean but with a big problem: about two-thirds of the way in, there’s an audio “hole.” The signal went faint, then silent altogether for about seven seconds, before coming back raspy and then full throated. We figured that, although it showed no obvious distress, the record was damaged by heat or some other trauma that obliterated the signal in that part—or maybe Leachman screwed up the engineering on this one. And it wasn’t our place to do any experiments. Here’s the audio we got:
A year or so later we returned to Chuck’s, this time with extra styli, and asked whether we might try to do the Leachman record again. Now, with a jewel that fit the grooves more properly, lo and behold, we have one of the genius’s multi-track experiments. The lost portion comes out with full clarity, revealing a dramatic scene of some complexity. Silas sang the song on one take, then went back and did another take or two, layering in the sound of a door being banged on and the child’s “mother” yelling for her son. Listen:
The corrected version is on the second edition of our compilation The 1890s, Vol. 2: “Wear Yer Bran’ New Gown,” which appeared in 2006. We keep learning. And one of the things we’ve learned is just how much innovation was going on at the beginning of the industry.