The Wrecking Crew and My Personal Literacy Gap

photo-originalFrom Steve Ethridge 

One of my favorite assignments in graduate school was the literacy portfolio assigned by Dr. Bell when I took her Practicum class back in 1996. We were to compile a portfolio that contained a number of documents that represented our journey to literacy throughout our lives, accompanied by reflective essays about the particular significance of each one. As a much older, returning student, I had logged more than a few practical literacies among the many that one might attain as a younger student and citizen, so my portfolio included documents from the “real world,” like articles from welding manuals, topographical maps from wildland firefighting, paycheck stubs, and so forth. Yet one particular sample from my youth stood out for me, probably because I thought it somewhat unique: I made the case that as an early-teen, I had established a literacy for rock and roll bands by reading the liner notes that came with record albums.

My portfolio document was a photocopy (we photocopied everything back then) of some liner notes that were included in the album Ray Charles: A Man and His Soul. These notes were extremely informative, containing an elaborate definition of the concept of soul, a lengthy and touching explanation of why Ray had it, a brief nod to his backup singers and producers, and, of course, constant testimonials to his genius. This example certainly points to the liner note resource as an indisputable wellspring of literacy . . . until, that is, not so much. Recent documentaries about the music business, such as Twenty Feet from Stardom, Muscle Shoals, and the most recent and arguably revealing of all, The Wrecking Crew, have shown my investment in this literacy sponsor to be, politely put, a misapprehension.

The Wrecking Crew is the story of the studio musicians (self-named The Wrecking Crew) who by and large were the sound of recorded music from the late fifties to the mid-sixties. It becomes clear early in the film that a collection of twenty to thirty of the same musicians were providing the instrumentation for a large percentage of the records appearing on the radio . . . and receiving no credit for it. Of course, this makes some sense for solo artists such as Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole. However, when the format shifted to rock and roll combos, one would have expected this formula to disappear.

If I had really thought about it back in 1966, it might have occurred to me that bands like the Beach Boys themselves could not have possibly played all those instruments; but would I have come to the conclusion that they played virtually none? And of course the TV show The Monkees notwithstanding, what about The Association, an ostensibly serious band that took credit for all their hits? According to the film, they never plucked a single note on the albums. A skinny kid seeking knowledge about rock and roll bands through liner notes was on a literacy snipe hunt.

Producer/engineer Bones Howe delivers his own apologia in the film—“I wanted to put their names [The Wrecking Crew] on the back of the album when it was finished and they [The Association] wouldn’t let me because they said ‘we don’t want those kids out there that buy our records to know that we didn’t play on the record’”—but perhaps icon Dick Clark sums it up best regarding the entire industry when he states “Maybe one of the reasons they left the names off was the same people played on so many people’s records it would have been embarrassment if anybody ever listed [them].”

So the industry’s temporary avoidance of embarrassment finds me wrestling with my literacy-gap confusion these many years later? But maybe it is all for the best. If I can make amends now, I will likely better accept the notion that there are probably countless “allowed literacies” maneuvering around out there that we all must find ways of transcending. I guess I’m just a little blue that it took fifty years for The Wrecking Crew to come along and pick up my slack.

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