Obituary: Tommy Tedesco
Wednesday 03 December 1997
"Session call Number One" is a term used in the record industry to define the consummate versatility and efficiency of a particular instrumentalist. Tommy Tedesco had earned that stellar accolade in Los Angeles, that most competitive of music cities. Over the course of a 35-year career, his guitar work was featured on thousands of recordings from movie and television soundtracks to classic Sixties and Seventies recordings, with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa via Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald and Herb Alpert.
Born in Niagara Falls, the son of an insurance salesman, Tedesco was something of a precocious child and started playing the guitar when he was six. As a teenager, he sneaked into Niagara Falls clubs to perform. He moved to Los Angeles in the early Fifties and, little by little, became one of the most reliable session guitarists, always on call for the arranger Nelson Riddle and the jazz singer Mel Torme.
Tedesco was drafted by the producer Phil Spector, who was perfecting his "Wall of Sound" style at Gold Star studios. The guitarist and his cronies - nicknamed "The Wrecking Crew" - helped fashion "He's a Rebel", "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Then He Kissed Me" by the Crystals as well as "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes and "You've Lost That Loving Feeling", a transatlantic No 1 by the Righteous Brothers.
Tedesco was also a session regular with the Beach Boys, impersonating Chuck Berry's guitar licks for hits like "Surfin' USA" and "Fun Fun Fun" and greatly contributing to their classic album Pet Sounds (1967). His playing was featured on Sixties hits such as "Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire, "MacArthur Park" by Richard Harris, "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" by Cher and "Strangers in the Night" by Frank Sinatra. He took part in recordings by the Monkees, the Association, the Fifth Dimension, the Mamas and the Papas, Laura Nyro, Barbra Streisand, the Partridge Family, Stephen Bishop and Linda Ronstadt.
"My job as a guitar player was to do the best I could. I never knew what was gonna happen," Tedesco said later.
I'm proud to have been involved with
all the people I worked with. Back then, when I heard the records I played on, I would have said: that's terrible. Now when I hear them, I say: that's nice. I look back and now I'm really impressed with the records I played on.
Alongside his many pop recordings, Tedesco's television work included such characteristic themes as the fuzzy "Bonanza" and "Batman" (the Neal Hefti tune covered by everyone from the Who to the Kinks via the Jam), the twangy "Green Acres", "Mash", and "Charlie's Angels", while his evocative guitar work was also used to great effect on the soundtracks of feature films such as Love Story (1970), The Deer Hunter (1978), The Godfather (1972) and Field of Dreams (1989).
Something of a raconteur and a prankster, Tedesco once arrived at a Frank Zappa session (for the Lumpy Gravy album) wearing a Boy Scout uniform. Yet there was a serious side to him, and he found time to teach aspiring guitarists at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood and to write guitar manuals. For 15 years, he also played with his own jazz trio and quintet, releasing several instrumental albums, and penned a regular column for Guitar Player magazine, which tagged him "the most recorded guitarist in history".
Equally at ease with a Fender, a Gibson, a Yamaha or an Ovation, and proficient on the mandolin, balalaika and the lute, Tommy Tedesco was the king of studio musicians.
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