Unsung Heroes

You may not recognize their names, but you’ve heard their music more times than you know. These teams of studio musicians have played on hundreds of hit records over the last 50 years. Do you know any other Unsung Heroes? Let us know in the comments.

The Wrecking Crew

That’s the nickname these musicians from the 1960s gave themselves after the old line studio players, who hated rock, complained that they were “wrecking the business.” The band, which included Hal Blaine (drums), Joe Osborne (bass), Larry Knechtel (keyboards), Glen Campbell (guitar), and Leon Russell (piano), were producer Phil Spector’s “go-to” guys.

The Wrecking Crew played on six consecutive Record of the Year Grammy winners: “A Taste of Honey” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (1966), “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra (1967), “Up, Up and Away” by the Fifth Dimension (1968), “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel (1969), “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” by the Fifth Dimension (1970), and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel (1971).

Selected Hits: “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes • “Surf City” by Jan and Dean • “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers • “I Got You, Babe” by Sonny and Cher • “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds • “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas • “This Diamond Ring” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys • “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys • “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees • “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike and Tina Turner

Muscle Shoals Rythm Section

Jimmy Johnson (guitar), Roger Hawkins (drums), David Hood (bass), Barry Beckett (keyboards), and Donny Short (lead guitar) are known as the “Swampers” by the music legends who’ve come down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record with them since 1967. The musicians were given the nickname “Swampers” during a recording session with Mick Jagger because of the swampy land in Muscle Shoals. They were referenced by name in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” The Muscle Shoals Sound Studios was founded in 1969 in an old casket warehouse. Their first client was Cher.

Selected Hits: “Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett • “Old Time Rock ’n’ Roll” by Bob Seger • “Respect” by Aretha Franklin • “High Time We Went” by Joe Cocker • “Tonight’s the Night” by Rod Stewart • “Kodachrome” by Paul Simon • “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge • “Sweet Soul Music” by Arthur Conley • “The Harder They Come” by Jimmy Cliff • “Chain of Fools” by Aretha Franklin • “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones • “Land of a Thousand Dances” by Wilson Pickett • “Lay Down Sally” by Eric Clapton

The A Team

Immortalized by John Sebastian in his song “Nashville Cats,” these superpickers—including Bob Moore (bass), Buddy Harman (drums), Grady Martin, Hank Garland, Chet Atkins, Harold Bradley (guitar), Hargus “Pig” Robbins (keyboards), Floyd Kramer (piano), Pete Drake (steel guitar), and Charlie McCoy (harmonica)—have played on hundreds of country hits over the past half-century.

Selected Hits: “Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison • “Stand by Your Man” by Tammy Wynette • “Just Like a Woman” by Bob Dylan • “Crazy” by Patsy Cline • “King of the Road” by Roger Miller • “El Paso” by Marty Robbins • “Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean • “I’m Sorry” by Brenda Lee

The Memphis Sound

In 1958 the Royal Spades were a band of white kids from Memphis who loved black music. When sax player Packy Axton’s mother opened a studio called Satellite Records (later Stax-Volt) to record local talent, they changed their name to the Mar-Keys and became the house band. Local black musicians soon joined, led by keyboard player Booker T. Jones, drummer Al Jackson Jr., and sax man Andrew Love. In 1962 guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn split off from the Mar-Keys to join Jones and Jackson as Booker T. and the MGs (“Memphis Group”), and Love and trumpeter Wayne Jackson still play as the Memphis Horns. But together this assembly of black and white musicians wrote the book on what came to be called classic Southern soul.

Selected Hits: “Try a Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding • “Soul Man” by Sam and Dave • “Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett • “Knock on Wood” by Eddie Floyd • “Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding • “Son of a Preacher Man” by Dusty Springfield • “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley • “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green • “Shaft” by Isaac Hayes • “I’ll Take You There” by the Staples Singers • “Born Under a Bad Sign” by Albert King • “Cry Like a Baby” by the Box Tops • “Mercury Falling” by Sting • “Storm Front” by Billy Joel

The Funk Brothers

They worked in a basement called the “Snake Pit” and churned out legendary Motown hits hour after hour from 1958 to 1973. The band included Benny Benjamin (drums), James Jamerson (bass), Joe Messina, Larry Veeder (guitar), Earl Van Dyke, Joe Hunter (piano), Hank Crosby (saxophone), Paul Riser (trombone), and Herbie Williams (trumpet). They claim to have played on more hit records than the Beatles, Elvis, and Frank Sinatra combined. Recording sessions began at 10 a.m. and were over at 1 p.m. The musicians were on call seven days a week. Originally, each band member was paid $10 per song. It usually took about an hour to record each song, but sometimes less.

Selected Hits: “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas • “Stop! In the Name of Love” by the Supremes • “My Girl” by the Temptations • “I Can’t Help Myself” by the Four Tops • “Ain’t That Peculiar” by Marvin Gaye • “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops • “Do You Love Me” by the Contours • “Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles • “My Guy” by Mary Wells • “Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes • “Cloud Nine” by the Temptations • “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five • “Going to a Go-Go” by the Miracles • “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye

Random Session Notes:
• Drummer Hal Blaine of the Wrecking Crew played a set of tire chains in Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
• Billy Joel played piano on the Shangri-Las’ teenage angst classic “Leader of the Pack.” He was 16.

Listen to the selection here:

Originally published in Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges into Music”. Translated from original text in English. Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader books are currently printed in English only.