The ‘Wrecking Crew’ Exclusive

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



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So, you breathe life into it.
Yeah! That’s exactly it. I’m gonna have to use that one.

Have film directors have gone out of their way to acknowledge you’ve brought something to the session that was unexpected?
I’ve had that happen a few times with directors, but even actors who were heavily involved. People like Burt Reynolds have acknowledged me and my playing and my name. Clint Eastwood acknowledged my playing and my name. When I did this movie Table for Five (1983), Jon Voigt went out of his way to come out of the booth and talk to me. Recently I felt awful good when I did a picture called Rhinestone (1984); Dolly Parton went out of her way to come through the band and introduce herself to me. She said she’s been hearing about me for years, and felt good to finally meet me. Same thing happened when I did the Linda Ronstadt album (“What’s New”). She came up and introduced herself and said she’d heard my name all these years, and it was a pleasure working with me. So these things happen. They feel good!

What was it like working with Elvis? What kind of a man was he?
I wish I had had more confidence in what I was doing, in relationship to the leaders. I always knew I was a guitar player and I just played. I never paid attention to the leader or the artists. And here was Elvis, I’ll never forget doing things—he loved my work, he commented a few times. But it was just a job to me. I just knew his name was Elvis, and I said, “hey, I’m gonna work with Elvis tonight.”

We did the special (“Elvis’ 68 Comeback Special”), and recently they put it back on TV, and I heard all this nylon string classical type music coming, and I knew that was me, that I’d done on a tune called “Memories” with Elvis. And it cracked me up, and I said, “I’ve heard that tune; that’s me.” I’d forgotten all about it.

[In the early to mid-1980s, Tommy was asked to participate in the renegade symphony orchestra The New American Orchestra, which featured live performances of film scores and shows with special guests like Ray Charles, Stan Getz and Sarah Vaughan. The orchestra was filled with some of Los Angeles’ greatest studio players. I had attended one performance, where Tommy had to play guitar solos on some of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the 1983 Gene Hackman film Under Fire. Up to that point, it was one of the rare live, public performances by Tommy.]

What was it like doing a solo live with a full symphony orchestra like The New American Orchestra behind you?
It was panic time all over again. Now, you’re on a concert stage, having to do a hard solo, and there ain’t no two cracks at it like the studio. You have some of the finest musicians in Hollywood, about a hundred of ’em, behind you, and in the audience are people like Henry Mancini, Lalo Schifrin, all the leaders. Watch out, Charlie, here it comes: Nitty Gritty Time. But, after you play the first couple of measures, the music comes back, the fear has left me.

Does practice ever become unnecessary, or does one get better with age if practice is continued?
Practice is a word I don’t use. I use “play.” If you play, you get better. I’m playing a lot, so I see myself getting better. There’s things I do now that I couldn’t have done three years ago. There are other things I never knew until now. At my age, I’m still progressing, and I see no let down at age 55.

Who do you listen to at home?
I’m a piano freak. I listen to people like Bill Evans and Chick Corea. I love piano harmony. I wish our guitars had that kind of harmony.

What’s your greatest dream?
To be doing exactly what I’m doing now, at a scale of 25% studio work, 25% live playing, 25% doing seminar work with kids, and the other 25%, hanging around and seeing how I did with the other 75%. That was bitch, I liked that one.

What does your 30 years of experience amount to?
First of all, I feel very fortunate. To be involved in music is a gift, God’s gift. Because I react differently—to be playing music for 30 years is unbelieveable. To have made a living, doing what I love to do.

Has anyone found the missing chord yet?
(without skipping a beat) No.

Does Italian food help your playing?
Yes, definitely. You can slide more. The more grease you have on your hands, the more it’ll help.

Tommy had a sharp, streetwise sense of humor, and enjoyed needling his family and friends. Underneath it all was a kind, sensitive man of immeasurable talent who went out of his way to help the younger guitar players and musicians. I recently ran into guitarist Mitch Holder at a Wrecking Crew screening in Los Angeles. And he told me that after the memorial service for Tommy in 1997, he got a call from another of LA’s top studio guitarists, Tim May. Tim asked Mitch, “Man, Tommy’s gone. Who are we going to go to now with our questions and stuff like that?” It was like a big brother or mentor had gone away. But, really, he hasn’t. He remains in the hearts and souls of those he touched. And now, we can appreciate Tommy, his life, and some of the incredible music he played in the 50s and 60s in the documentary film, The Wrecking Crew. It has been an honor and a pleasure to have known Tommy and be a part of his extended family for so many years, and to have a chance to participate in The Wrecking Crew, a significant cultural document that gives these incredible musicians a well-deserved taste of the limelight and public recognition.
Jon Leonoudakis is one of the producers of The Wrecking Crew.

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