The ‘Wrecking Crew’ Exclusive

Nov 3, 2008 7:36 PM, By Jon Leonoudakis



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[Editor’s note: Jon Leonoudakis is one of the producers of the documentary film The Wrecking Crew, featured in the November issue of Mix. He shares this never-before-published 1985 interview with the late Wrecking Crew great, Tommy Tedesco.]

Tommy Tedesco (left) with Jon Leonoudakis

Tommy Tedesco (left) with Jon Leonoudakis

“C’mon back and meet Tom,” said my pal, Denny.

Instant butterflies in my stomach. I was about to meet the pope of guitar players. Many big-name composers, players and musicians nearly genuflected just at the mention of his name. And I, a professed guitar/music geek in his early 20s, was about to get an audience.

Drilling down deep into the musician sub-culture was passion of mine since I saw the names of studio musicians showing up on the liner notes of records in the ’70s. One day I read an article titled “Blindfold Test” in Downbeat, a jazz magazine, where a leading jazz artist is played cuts from another artist, not told who it is, and asked to comment on it. The article featured guitarist John Abercrombie, and the first track played was from one of Tommy Tedesco’s solo albums, “When Do We Start?”, a song entitled, “Denny T’s Mantra.” Abercrombie seemed to dig the track, stating the technique was pretty impressive. I went out and bought the record and was amazed at the music and guitar playing on the album. I’d also seen him on TV on Martin Mull’s classic “Fernwood 2 Nite” and “America 2 Nite” shows as the guitarist “Tommy Marinucci” of the white-hot studio band.

I was ushered into a back room at the Tedesco home in the San Fernando Valley. It was dark with wood paneling. There sat Tommy, the guitar giant, with nothing on but a pair of boxer shorts straining under his impressive 300-pound girth. His visage was intimidating: his olive skin blended seamlessly with his dark hair and Van Dyke beard. His presence was like some sort of Guitar Buddha. I felt a little like The scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz” when the Wizard bellows, “Come forward, scarecrow!” Tedesco didn’t look happy, and he jelly-legged me with just one look.

That was my introduction to Tommy almost 30 years ago. I’d met his son, Denny, at Loyola Marymount Unversity, where we were both in the film school, and Denny suggested we work together to make a documentary about his father’s legendary career as a guitarist. For a lot of people who met Tommy for the first time, the first impression, that he looks kind of mean, was all wrong. He turned out to be a regular guy that loved life, his friends, and was deeply passionate about all things guitar. In many ways, he was like a big kid. Except this big kid was one of the world’s greatest musicians. He wasn’t without his flaws: He liked to gamble, ate too much, was a smoker, and had his share of phobias. He could also be hard on those who crossed the line, like producers who disrespected or tried to take advantage of musicians.

I was lucky enough to work with and know Tommy for about 15 years. The half-hour documentary Denny and I produced in the early 1980s was aired on PBS in Los Angeles in 1986 and featured interviews with Frank Zappa, Steve Lukather of Toto, and composers Bill Conti, Henry Mancini, and Frank DeVol (the latter of whom portrayed “Happy Kyne” on “Fernwood 2 Nite” and “America 2 Nite”). Then, in 1987, Denny and I produced a rarity: a jazz music video for a cut on Tommy’s “Hollywood Gypsy” record entitled, “Impressions of Hollywood Boulevard.” Then, in the mid-90s, Denny learned Tommy had terminal cancer. All the smoking from Tommy’s earlier days had planted the seed, and, even though he’d kicked the habit in 1980, his fate was sealed. Denny wanted to make a film about his father and his extended family and friends, The Wrecking Crew, and that’s how the documentary film got started. 12 years later, it’s making the rounds at film festivals all over the world and getting high praise from audiences and reviewers.

As part of my research for The Wrecking Crew, I came across an audiotaped interview I’d done with Tommy in 1985. I’d been very familiar with many of his stories from previous printed interviews in magazines like Guitar Player. I wanted this interview to uncover some new information, and it’s never been published, until now.

I went to Tommy’s home in Northridge, CA, and found him rehearsing with upright bassist John Leitham (now known as Jennifer Leitham) for an album date for one of Tommy’s solo records. During a break in the action, we had a chance to talk.

Being such a diverse guitarist, does it cause a problem being a musical chameleon and retaining your own stylistic and artistic identity?
No, because my artistic identity is all these things. When I pick up a guitar, I am all these things. I might be playing live, it might be a jazz date, but you’re gonna hear some Spanish influences in there, maybe some fake oriental experiences, all these things I’ve picked up, that’s part of me.

But what about when you’re inside the studio, does that stay the same?
No, when I’m inside the studio, I turn a switch. I am whatever they want me to be. If there’s a part that commands a Greek bouzouki player, I turn myself into that bouzouki player.

But what is it about your style as an artist that you bring to all those different parts?
I feel what I bring in is warmth. I bring warmth on all these parts. If I’m playing pretty Spanish stuff on guitar, I’m bringing the full warmth in. If I’m playing Greek, I’m bringing in the warmth of the Greek player. I’m bringng all these various things besides being able to play. Recently we did this picture, Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (1984), and for one part Johnny Williams did the score, and there was a scene where people are sitting there at a banquet of ants and weird things, and they asked me to play some sitar stuff. Well, I have an electric sitar, and I looked at the movie and tried to get the feeling of an Indian sitar player, playing while people are having a feast. And I did certain things that were kind of authentic from what I’ve heard in Indian music, and then I put in my own thing.

So this was a part that wasn’t written out? They just said, “Tom, run with it”?
Yeah. That’s kind of the one thing I do, because it saves them a lot of effort.

What was the toughest session you’ve ever had?
I would have to say I’ve had many tough dates for different reasons. Like I did a John Williams date years ago on a movie called “Conrack”. It was extremely tough because it featured me all over the place. I was very much alone. All those parts were written out.

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