In 1962, a young pianist named Don Randi was asked to play on a recording session at a Hollywood studio. The song was “He’s a Rebel” by The Crystals, with Darlene Love singing lead, and the producer was Phil Spector.
Randi became a regular on Spector sessions, along with many other musicians who would become known as The Wrecking Crew. That group became the go-to studio band in Los Angeles in the 1960s and '70s, playing on hundreds of hit songs with everyone from The Beach Boys to Frank Sinatra to the Jackson 5 and The Monkees.
Don Randi has written a memoir about his time with The Wrecking Crew. It’s called “You’ve Heard These Hands,” and he recently came into The Frame’s studio to talk with Oscar Garza about those special days.
On moving from jazz to playing pop with The Wrecking Crew:
[Studio work is] how I made my living, and it became my living for many years. The jazz was the ultimate for me, and I got to do many albums with myself as the Don Randi Trio and then as Don Randi and Quest. I have 21 albums over the years. A number of them are still in my garage (laughs)... I enjoyed [The Wrecking Crew] ... the camaraderie ... all the guys that were there. They were a terrific bunch of musicians and they took me right in from the first day on.
What we did for all those different producers, we were basically capable of playing any genre of music. And there weren’t many guys that could do that. And all those guys that were in The Wrecking Crew and before that in [Phil Spector's] Wall of Sound, they were all jazz players. I’d be sitting next to one of the great guitar players like Tommy Tedesco, Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts ... It was always great musicians that were doing that because jazz is what they loved, but they also had to earn a living. And there was so much rock 'n’ roll being recorded in Los Angeles that we were the ones they called on.
Don Randi (at piano) and Quest playing at The Baked Potato in Studio City California (Mid 1970s). Photo from Don Randi collection.
What was it like working with Brian Wilson in the studio?
It was amazing because ... his talent was so brilliant. And many of the times you’d be working with him, he knew where he wanted to go ... If you played something he didn’t like, he’d let you know right away. Or if you played something he really liked, [he'd say], Stay with that, let’s do that. And he had the facility to remember everything. And when we did, for instance, “Good Vibrations,” we ended someplace in another world because it was that incredible. And it took us three months. We were in and out [of the studio] over three months with that song.
On recording “Help Me, Rhonda” with Brian Wilson after an earlier version appeared on the album, "The Beach Boys Today!"'
I sat there right after we went through it and I said, “My God, this is a stone cold hit.” I didn’t know it had been [previously] recorded until I got together with Leon Russell one day. He says, “You know, I think I played piano on the original one.” I didn’t even know there was another [version].
On playing harpsichord on the Stone Poneys’ “Different Drum”
[The sheet music] said, “Baroque style” ... So I just played on a rock 'n’ roll record what Bach would have had to play.
Someone asked me, “Didn’t you know you were making those hit records?” I said, “If I knew that, I would be a multimillionaire” ... We didn’t really know, we were supporting our families.