Twin Cities Film Fest Event Features the Jewish Musicians Behind Rock ‘n Roll’s Biggest Hits

For years Don Randi and Hal Blaine played alongside the biggest names in music—from Frank Sinatra to Beach Boys and Simon & Garfunkel. More remarkably, almost no one in the general public knew their names.

Randi and Blaine, who were born into Jewish families, were among the Los Angeles-based studio musicians who accompanied these acts during the 60s, and into the 70s and 80s. The two are featured in a 2008 documentary about the musicians that will be shown tonight, Thursday, September 24th at the Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival’s Line-Up Reveal Party. It’s called “The Wrecking Crew,” a term Blaine affectionately coined to describe the collective of musicians.

TC Jewfolk talked with Randi and Blaine, both of whom live in California, about their backgrounds and careers. Here are their stories.

Don Randi — From Borscht to Hollywood

Randi was born in 1937 in New York City as Don Schwartz and grew up in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. The region was affectionately known as the Borscht Belt because Jews owned many of the hotels there. It was there he developed his passion for music. Randi’s father, Max Schwartz, owned a restaurant, called the Actor’s Inn, in which he booked Yiddish performers to play at hotels in the area. Max Schwartz kept a piano in the back of his restaurant on which Randi played. Randi also said he had great music teachers at his public high school.

Among The Wrecking Crew’s most famous songs are: “Good Vibrations,” “California Girls,” and “I Get Around,” by the Beach Boys; “Mrs. Robinson,” and “The Boxer” by Simon & Garfunkel; and “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & the Papas.

Randi and his mother moved to California in 1954, two years after his father’s death. He studied at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music while taking classes at Los Angeles City College and the University of Southern California.

He connected early in his career with saxophonist Steve Douglas, with whom he played for much of his career. The two formed a band and played at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs and other events. Douglas introduced Randi to Phil Spector, the famous Motown producer who developed the production formula known as the “Wall of Sound.” The formula featured large numbers of instruments performing the same parts in unison and recording the sound in an echo chamber.

The Wrecking Crew was a diverse group, featuring musicians of multiple races and ethnicities. Many had backgrounds in jazz or classical music. They played for TV, film scores and multiple genres of American popular music, often working long days for multiple recording sessions. Randi said he could go from playing for Phil Spector in the morning to Elvis Presley in the afternoon. The next day, he could be with the Everly Brothers or the Beach Boys. “It was that way from 1961 almost until 1980,” Randi said.

Randi’s first hit record was, “He’s a Rebel,” the 1962 song produced by Spector and performed by the Crystals. His favorite record, he said, was Linda Ronstadt’s “Sound of a Different Drum,” on which he played the harpsichord solo. He credited The Wrecking Crew’s success to the durability of its musicians. “Most of the time it wasn’t written parts,” he said. “It was just chord sheets. Most of the arrangements were very loose. The songwriter knew what he wanted and the producer knew what he wanted,” he added, “but many of the times, someone would make a mistake and the producer would say, ‘let’s go in that direction’.”

The pace was intense, with Randi recalling a week in which he participated in 26 recording sessions. “We were making hit record after hit record,” Randi said, “but we didn’t take time to count how many hits.”

Among The Wrecking Crew’s most famous songs are: “Good Vibrations,” “California Girls,” and “I Get Around,” by the Beach Boys; “Mrs. Robinson,” and “The Boxer” by Simon & Garfunkel; and “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & the Papas.

Randi opened his own jazz club, called The Baked Potato, in 1970. He’s still working at age 78, and recently came out with a biography, entitled “You’ve Heard These Hands.”

“The older musicians didn’t like rock ‘n roll until they started seeing the checks,” he said. “It was like falling into a vat of chocolate.”

Randi has never been a religious man and said the musicians in The Wrecking Crew observed their Judaism mostly in private. He did say they shared in one Jewish cultural tradition, however: Lunch at various Los Angeles delis.

“I can tell you every deli in Los Angeles,” Randi said. “We knew where the best ones were.”

Hal Blaine — “It just never stopped”

Blaine was one of the more well known musicians in The Wrecking Crew. He was also the one who coined the name — a jab at the older musicians who wouldn’t play rock ‘n’ roll. Those musicians, according to Blaine, thought the younger ones would wreck the business. “It wasn’t until they started seeing the checks,” he said. “It was like falling into a vat of chocolate.”

Blaine, the son of Eastern European immigrants, was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and moved to Hartford, Connecticut, at age 7. He grew up listening to big band music at the State Theater in Hartford, across the street from where his dad worked. When he was 13, his sister bought him his first set of drums. He was hooked.

Blaine moved to California when he was 14 and studied percussion in Chicago after returning home from military service in Korea. There he met the father of future teenage rock idol Tommy Sands. Blaine went on to play in Sands’ band in the late 50s.

From there, Blaine went on to play on dozens of number one hits. “I just got so very lucky with hit records,” he said. “Producers were coming from all over the world to hire The Wrecking Crew. … It just never stopped.”

There was no line drawn between the musicians of different ethnicities, he said. Most of the studio musicians stayed out of trouble. “Our vice was coffee and cigarettes in those days,” he said. For Blaine, rock ‘n’ roll stood for reliability and responsibility. He hired a valet who took his drums from studio to studio, allowing him to simply walk in and play. Competition was high among the studio musicians, he said, with others waiting in line for their opportunities. “I always kept my head on straight and made quite a name for myself and that was it,” he said. “I was very fortunate.”

Blaine has since retired and is now 86 and lives in Palm Springs. He, Randi and Denny Tedesco, who father, Tommy, was a guitarist in The Wrecking Crew, still see each other.

Blaine’s saying during his career was: If you smile, you still around a while. If you pout, you’re out. Today it’s: All’s well that ends well.

“I’ve had a happy life, a good life (and) met a lot of people,” he said. “I have no complaints.”

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If you go: What: Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival Line-Up Reveal Party. When: 6 p.m. Thursday, September 24th. Where: Bedlam Lowertown, 213 Fourth St. St. Paul. Cost: The event is a pay-what-you-can, general admission event. A donation of $10 is requested.