Lee Shapiro never takes it personally when fans refer to the musical quintet known as the Hit Men as another version of the Wrecking Crew.
“It’s not a bad analogy,” Shapiro agrees. “When people say that, I’m flattered because of my admiration for (the Wrecking Crew).”
First, some backstory — the Wrecking Crew was an ever-changing brigade of session musicians who played behind some of the biggest musical acts to ever come out of the ’60s and ’70s. The ‘Crew was, to a certain extent, the “house band” when producer Phil Spector was creating his game-changing “wall of sound” during the early 1960s.
Acts such as Jan & Dean, Sonny & Cher, the Mamas & the Papas, and the 5th Dimension might have never had their hits if not for the Wrecking Crew backing them up. The ‘Crew was sometimes used as “ghost players” on recordings credited to rock groups such as the Byrds and their initial recording of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
And the first two albums by the Monkees? That’s the ‘Crew behind them.
The ‘Crew can even be heard on the Beach Boys’ masterpiece “Pet Sounds,” Despite how good theywere as musicians.
So it would be accurate to describe the band of pop musicians and singers known as the Hit Men as a “cover band.”
That’s because the five members perform songs popularized by a Who’s Who of stars who each left indelible musical fingerprints across a broad catalogue of contemporary songs that span mostly the 1960s and ’70s. Now, with the newest member of the band also being the youngest, some sounds of the ’80s are creeping into their set lists, too.
In a sense, the Hit Men are today’s version of the Wrecking Crew.
There’s a big difference between the two bands that are separated by several decades, but united in their love of music.
The most obvious is that the ‘Crew rarely, if ever, left the studio and went on the road with the huge list of monster stars whose music they created during the era.
The Hit Men, though, are road warriors, even though some of them are well into their 60s. They enjoy performing the music they recorded and played decades ago with their former celebrity employers, especially when they see the reaction on the audience’s faces.
They’ll get to see it at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 15, when the Hit Men perform at Cape May Convention Hall as part of the city’s summer concert series.
Shapiro, who plays piano, leads the Hit Men. His past musical associations run from Frankie Valli (Shapiro was one of Valli’s Four Seasons during the 1970s) to Barry Manilow, with whom his long association includes some time spent in Atlantic City as he and Manilow tried to take a show from the Boardwalk to Broadway.
Shapiro was co-producer of “Barry Manilow presents Copacabana,” which spent the better part of a year at Caesars Atlantic City as they tried to turn the production into a musical worthy of a Broadway stage.
The show never made it to New York, but — if it was any consolation to Manilow — it did do well on London’s West End.
In addition to Valli and Manilow, you can hear Shapiro’s work behind Paul Schaffer, the former orchestra leader and comedy foil on David Letterman’s former late night talk show.
The Hit Men also consist of guitarist Jimmy Ryan, who is Carly Simon’s former music director and who has played behind Elton John, Paul McCartney, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens and others.
Bass player Jeff Ganz has been with Cheap Trick, Blood, Sweat & Tears and Lou Reed, while Russ Velazquez has sung and played guitar behind Sting, the Ramones, LL Cool J, Luther Vandross, Chicago and Paula Abdul.
The newest member of the Hit Men is singing drummer Steve Murphy, whose discography includes performances with Elton John, the Alan Parsons Project, Felix Cavaliere, Dave Mason and the Turtles. Former members of the Hit Men include former Four Season Gerry Polci, who left the group two years ago. Bass player Larry Gates died late last year.
Finding people to fill the roles once occupied by Polci and Gates wasn’t easy, Shapiro admits.
“Honestly, people of that caliber you don’t replace,” he explains. “(Polci) had been in the Four Seasons with me and other projects, so we got someone who’d played with Alan Parsons, Sting and the Turtles. You go in different directions.”
The addition of Murphy, and his youth — well, youth compared to some of the other guys — allows the Hit Men to grow their existing audience and attract new fans who enjoy classic ’70s rock.
“We can do that because we were there (in the ’70s) playing it,” Shapiro explains. “And we can do the ’60s stuff and now even some of the ’80s stuff, thanks to our newest member (Murphy).
Shapiro says Gates knew his health was failing and he wouldn’t be able to continue with the band. He was the one who recommended Ganz to take his spot in the lineup.
“The people we (picked as replacements) were guys we’d known and worked with for 30 years or more,” Shapiro says. “The integrity of the Hit Men is that we only do music by the artists that we’ve worked with and recorded with so (the sound) remains intact.”