Tommy Tedesco (1930 – 1997): The Most Recorded Guitarist in the 20th Century

Written by Cameron K
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Thomas J. Tedesco was born in Niagara Falls, New York in 1930. He started playing guitar when he was 7 and became a professional musician before he was in his teens.

He joined several groups and toured the country before settling in Los Angeles circa 1957. The versatile musician could sight-read music and was a master of the guitar and other stringed instruments. His repertoire included folk, rock and roll, funk, jazz and bebop, country, classical, and big band rhythm guitar and Tommy Tedesco soon became a much-valued sideman and session musician and usually did the recording work for better-known performing players. Tommy Tedesco used whatever guitar fitted the songs but the ‘slab board’ Telecaster was his go-to favourite.

Some of his early jazz guitar support work appeared in the 50s. His talent as a guitar player was now held in such high regard as he started to appear on jazz and blues albums. He became one of the few session musicians to be credited by name on the sleeve notes. He provided the lead guitar for most of Tommy Garrett's "50 Guitars" albums (1961). Tommy soon started to feature on pop records.

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Tommy Tedesco musicianship featured in many 1950s and 1960s TV themes. Including The Twilight Zone, (1959/62), "Bonanza," (1961), Green Acres (1965), Batman (1966) and many others. In Gunsmoke (1955 to 1975), not only did he feature in the theme tune for the show he also appeared on screen with Tommy Morgan dressed as cowboys in one of the episodes. By the early 60s, Tommy Tedesco had become the go-to session musician and played with most of the country’s top musicians working in the Los Angeles area including B Bumble and the Stingers (1962), Sam Cooke (1962), and Billy Preston (1963). Considered by Guitar Player magazine to be the most recorded guitarist in history, Tommy Tedesco played on thousands of recordings, many of which were top 20 hits. By 1963, he had played on countless surf instrumentals, supported Jack Nitzsche, Jan and Dean, and The Beach Boys in the studio. Scarcely out of the top-selling charts, he became part of a loose collective of leading session musicians in the LA area. More popularly known as The Wrecking Crew, they played on thousands of studio recordings.

Tommy Tedesco became one of a group of session musicians who regularly played together. They were freelancers, known informally as “The Clique” and “The First Call Gang. ” Older musicians fearing the future of popular music with the rise of rock and pop, ironically referred to their younger studio rivals as The Wrecking Crew and the name stuck. LA producers admired the quality of their musicianship and ability to improvise. Dependable, and hard-working, The Wrecking Crew were musically versatile performers who could sight-reading. When they became the de facto house band for Phil Spector, they helped realise his Wall of Sound production style. The Wrecking Crew (sometimes more than 21 musicians) sat in one big room and played in near-perfect sync. The musicians worked long hours and had to be available "on-call" as songs were recorded quickly and with the fewest possible takes. Spector insisted in recording it all in one take.

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Some producers used individual members of the Wrecking Crew as "ghost players" on recordings credited to others such as The Byrds (1965), The Beach Boys (1966) and The Monkees (1966). At the time it was a well-kept secret as the popular perception was recording artists played and sang all their recorded material. However, studio costs were prohibitive and producers could not rely on naive artists to produce masterpieces. Usually, by the time the groups went on tour they had perfected the means to recreate something like the original recorded material.

The Wrecking Crew backed countless hits over the next three decades although their contributions more often than not went uncredited. From time to time Tommy Tedesco recorded under his own name and his solo albums mostly featured jazz guitar instrumental covers of hit tunes. Tommy Tedesco regularly asked to perform on film and TV soundtracks since he performed the opening guitar solo for the Howard Hawks and John Wayne film Rio Lobo (1970 ). His later works included: Mission: Impossible (1966), Hang 'Em High (1968), The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), M*A*S*H (1972), Kojak (1973), Jaws (1975), Starsky & Hutch (1975), Grease (1978) The Deer Hunter (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Indiana Jones And The Temple of Doom (1984), and Field of Dreams (1989) among others.

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He also featured on the soundtracks of two Elvis Presley films. i.e. Girl Happy (1965) and Spinout (1966). Tommy remains one of the very few sidemen credited for his work on animated cartoons for The Ant and the Aardvark cartoons (1968–1971). For many years Tommy Tedesco wrote a regular column "Studio Log," for the Guitar Player magazine. He described a day's work recording a movie, TV show, or album, and the special challenges each job posed and how he solved them. For his eager readership, he detailed the instruments he used, and how much money he made on the job. Tommy Tedesco regularly taught workshops around the country, showing other guitarists how to produce effects like the "underwater" sound heard on "Jaws."

In 1972, after Motown moved to LA, Tommy and some of the Wrecking Crew replaced The Funk Brothers to play support. In 1986, he can be heard on guitar, bells, bongos on Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy. The other list of luminaries he supported is a proverbial who’s who of popular singers of the era, from Frank and Nancy Sinatra (with Lee Hazlewood), the Everly Brothers, the Association, Barbra Streisand, the 5th Dimension, Ella Fitzgerald, and Richard Harris.

Tommy Tedesco had been a heavy smoker all his life and after suffering a stroke in 1992, the most recorded guitarist in the 20th century retired. He passed away from lung cancer in 1997. His son, Denny Tedesco, directed the documentary film The Wrecking Crew (2015), which features interviews with his father and many of his fellow session musicians.

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Cameron K

Cameron K

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