What do the Beatles, The Brady Bunch, Bob Hope, Bob Dylan, Bugs Bunny, Michael Jackson, M*A*S*H*, the Monkees, Don Ho, Elvis, The Dating Game, the Rolling Stones and The Flintstones all have in common?
Ollie Mitchell on trumpet.
Maybe you’ve never heard of Ollie Mitchell, but you’ve certainly heard him play. Ollie was a core member of a tightly knit group of Los Angeles studio musicians in the 1960s and 1970s who played on thousands of Top 40 hits, television shows, cartoons, commercial jingles and film scores. Known to industry insiders as the Wrecking Crew, the musicians were well paid but largely uncredited.
That was fine by Ollie. He’s been on the periphery of fame his whole life, and he’s never had much use for it.
“I was just doing it for the bread,” he says. “I was like a carpenter going to work, dig? I was a studio sausage grinding out the hits.”
Ollie may have been a studio sausage, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t bringing a high level of artistry to his recording sessions. Think of the theme song for Hawaii 5-0, the power and precision of its trumpet line. That’s Ollie. He didn’t just hit the right notes on cue, he played with style, intelligence and verve. That’s the reason he was in such high demand. He helped make the hits hits.
Now 83 years old and living on the Big Island in a breezy remodeled tract home on a parched North Kohala hillside, Ollie has a mind as sharp and clear as the high G above high C that he can still squeeze out of his trumpet. Yet when it comes to illuminating detail or even simple specifics—What do you remember about playing with Led Zeppelin? Which Beach Boys albums are you on?—Ollie can be confoundingly fuzzy.
When I ask about recording with English rock band Led Zeppelin, Ollie laughs and says: “We started at midnight and went till 8 in the morning. I have no idea what we did in between.”
Then he adds, “Those were the guys from San Francisco, right?”
Ollie’s wife, Nancy Mitchell, a tech-savvy grandma who has been heating a tray of sliced poppy seed cake as Ollie talks, corrects the record.
“That was the Grateful Dead,” she calls from the kitchen.
Uh, you played with the Dead, Ollie?
“Oh, were those the guys from San Francisco?” he says. “Yeah, I played with them.”
The neural-synaptic hazards of the era account for some of Ollie’s autobiographical blind spots. As the saying goes, if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there—and Ollie was definitely there. But that only partially explains the haze. More to blame was the sheer volume of recording sessions Ollie did. He averaged three hundred to four hundred sessions a year over two decades. Much of that time he spent in a sound booth, playing along to the previously recorded tracks of whoever the featured pop star happened to be. The pop stars didn’t necessarily stick around while the studio musicians did their thing, and sometimes they weren’t even on the same continent—which is how Ollie ended up on the Beatles’ Revolver album without actually meeting the Beatles. At least not as a group, anyway. He did play with George Harrison and Ringo Starr at the 1971 Madison Square Garden benefit, Concert for Bangladesh.