Denny Tedesco: Advocate

A Band of Two
The Wrecking Crew! Filmmaker Denny Tedesco Pays Tribute to His Late Musician Father, Who Both Strummed Their Generosity Towards the HIV Community
by Dann Dulin

Photo by Isabella Tedesco

Noted musician Tommy Tedesco had a very loyal fan—his son Denny.

An immensely talented and versatile guitarist, Tommy was part of the “Wrecking Crew,” a group of studio musicians that played instrumental backup for some of the most exemplary songs waxed in the sixties. They created sound for such legendary artists as Frank Sinatra, Sonny & Cher, The Monkees, Ella Fitzgerald, The Mamas & The Papas, The Beach Boys, and, yes, even Elvis.

Denny honored his father by making a polished and compelling documentary, The Wrecking Crew! (Glen Campbell and Leon Russell were part of the gang, as was bassist Carol Kay, the only female musician. She composed the famous intro to Sonny & Cher’s “The Beat Goes On.”) The studio musicians, who added so much to the quality of the sound of the finished product, were largely ignored in the credits. “The Wrecking Crew was the focal point of the music. They were the ones with all the spirit and all the know-how,” says Brian Wilson in the film.

Tommy and Denny did not have your average papa and son relationship. They had a unique bond that included giving back. In the early nineties, Denny rode in the second California AIDSRide. Another time, his father raised funds for the Pediatric AIDS Foundation (before it bore Elizabeth Glaser’s name) by performing at The Groundlings Theatre, while Denny produced it. They both donated their time to other charities, as well.

In 1996, several months before Tommy passed, Denny jumped into the making of the film. He assembled some of his dad’s colleagues from back-in-the-day, placed them at a round table with his dad and “let them fly.” For the next ten years, Denny worked on the production. It was an arduous process and obstacles were a daily challenge. In 2006 he began editing dozens of interviews that he had conducted over the decade.

Even after winning festival awards around the country, no company would pick it up for distribution. There were 110 songs in the film and ninety-nine percent of them were hits. To pay the publishers, he showed the film at fundraisers and racked up credit card debt, even refinancing the family home. Its completion is testament to Denny’s devotion and commitment to his father.

If someone pledged a song for $1,000, they could put their dedication on the DVD and their name would appear at the end of the song credits. Classic songs like “Be My Baby” (The Ronettes) and “Good Vibrations” (The Beach Boys) went quickly. Gary Lewis’s “Everybody Loves a Clown” proved more difficult, so Denny called up a clown school, made a pitch, and they made a pledge.

Eventually Magnolia Pictures picked up the film. Now screening around the world, The Wrecking Crew! can also be streamed on Netflix.

Married to Suzie (co-producer of the film) for thirty-one years, Denny has a daughter in college and a son in seventh grade. The male twin of their daughter died at six months. Now, he’s working on a documentary entitled, The Three Tooners –I Draw Silly Pictures for a Living, the story of three animators who worked at Hanna-Barbera in the sixties. George Takei [A&U, December 2013] is executive producer. Liking all types of music, unlike his pop, Denny does not play an instrument, though he took guitar, piano, saxophone and accordion lessons.

Dann Dulin: What’s your biggest regret?
Denny Tedesco: Not playing an instrument. I’m fifty-six years old and frustrated. I heard a radio interview recently saying that playing an instrument is a god-given talent. So I’m glad it wasn’t my fault. Now I can blame god!

When did you first hear about the epidemic?
When I went for a check-up and my doctor started asking about my sex life and whether I was wearing condoms. Back in the early eighties, the only thing we were fearful of was herpes.

Share a story of someone close who died of AIDS-related causes.
All my friends who died were co-workers. The sad part about it was that many kept it a secret. They didn’t want their families to know.

Denny participating in the California AIDS Ride. Photo by K Gallagher Photography

What motivated you to do the California AIDS Ride?
At that time, I had friends who had passed and I wanted to test myself and see if I could pull off the ride. I did it with a few friends. I was their token straight guy. It was so much fun to be around hundreds of people with one goal in mind, finding a cure.

How was the seven-day journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles on bicycle?
It was my biggest personal disappointment in my life. I blew out my knee early in the ride, and instead, helped set up tents for others. I still rode every other day. At the end of the ride when we wheeled into Los Angeles, it was so great to find my wife, mother, father, and other friends waiting for us.

Your father performed to raise funds for various organizations, one of them being Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
Yes, this was the early nineties and he performed his one-man show, Confessions of a Studio Player, at The Groundlings. I’ll always remember on that night a friend of my father, a television composer, was in the audience. He seemed out of place there but what he told my father after the show moved my dad to tears. His child had gone into the hospital for an operation and was given a blood transfusion. He later died of AIDS-related causes.

What is your biggest gripe about the public’s response to the epidemic?
As in all diseases it becomes just part of society’s vernacular and we forget that the actual disease still exists. My fear is that we could be very close to a cure and our government in Washington will not have the hindsight to push forward and knock it out. I hope it becomes a blip in our memory like polio was to our parents. Using our collective will, it’s up to our society to find a cure.

Whom do you deem a hero in the epidemic?
Every person who lives with [HIV]. One of my friends was diagnosed in 1986 and he’s sixty-seven years old now. He lives life to the fullest and is healthier than me.

Describe your relationship with your father.
It was great though we could push each other’s buttons. We were each other’s biggest fans and proud of each other, yet also the most critical. When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer our fights ended. There is so much…I wish I had asked him.

Denny with his parents. Photo by K Gallagher Photography

What one thing stands out the most about what you learned from your father?
My father was always kind to the underdog. If someone was rude to someone in the recording studio and he was there, he could bury that person. There were so many stories I never heard until I made this film. Stories about my father helping young musicians break into the business. Stories of him pretending to mess up to cover someone else’s mistake, because they were the new guy. He put everyone at ease…unless you were an asshole.

Name a memory that sticks in your head about your dad.
I love telling this story: I was about twenty-one and living at home. I was screwing around at home with my shirt off and pretending to pose like a model, with my bulging muscles. I turned to my father and said, “GQ” (referring to the men’s fashion magazine Gentlemen’s Quarterly). Without hesitation my father replied, “AH” —Asshole, and then walked away.

You interviewed many celebrities for your documentary. Who were you impressed with?
Jimmy Webb was an hour of gold. Mickey Dolenz [The Monkees] was another. He couldn’t understand the backlash regarding the Monkees. “We were a TV show. We were make-believe…,” he would proclaim. Cher was brilliant. No bullshit. If she says something, she means it. She always appreciated the musicians around her. Cher loved these guys, since her early days in the business when she was a background singer with the Phil Spector groups.

Share a backstory.
Dick Clark gave a wonderful radio tribute after my dad passed. So I sent a note and videotape thanking him and asking him for an interview. The letter came back with a nice decline, saying he really never met the guys so it would be hard to talk about them. But at the end of the letter, he wrote, “Just saw your trailer, call me, and you can talk me through it.” That’s all I needed.

Any other stories?
My father said Glen Campbell was the best rock/country guitarist that he sat next to in the studios. Couldn’t read a note, but ears like no other. When I interviewed him in 2003, I think he had already started to decline from Alzheimer’s. He loved talking about the studio days. He said that it was the best time of his life.

Nancy Sinatra [A&U, May 2003] was a class act and always supported the musicians. During the making of The Wrecking Crew she would continually ask how I was doing and how I was holding up.

What sparks your humanitarianism?
To be honest, I don’t do enough and so I don’t feel I’m making any impact. The world is tearing everyone in different directions. We all seem to have ADHD. Help begins from one person to another. When I leave this earth, I just hope I impacted someone’s life in a positive way.

This story would not have materialized if it weren’t for Susie Odjakjian!
I’m grateful for her recommendation, her passion, and her lifelong friendship.

Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @DannDulin.