by Rick Mattingly (originally published by the Percussive Arts Society)
The average music fan may not know his name, but it’s safe to assume that anyone who has listened to popular music over the past 50 years has heard Hal Blaine play drums. Even though the bulk of his studio work was done in the 1960s and ’70s, many of those recordings have become timeless classics, starting with the six consecutive Grammy Record of the Year songs he played on: “A Taste of Honey” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (1966), “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra (1967), “Up, Up and Away” by the 5th Dimension (1968), “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon & Garfunkel (1969), “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” by the 5th Dimension (1970), and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon & Garfunkel (1971). In all, he played on 40 number-one singles and 150 records that made the Top Ten. In 2000, he was the first studio musician inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
And now, Blaine is in another Hall of Fame. “I’m very excited and honored to be elected to the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame,” Blaine says. “To me, this is like an actor receiving the Academy Award; you can’t get any higher than this.”
“This recognition is long overdue,” said PAS Hall of Fame member Steve Gadd. “Congratulations, Hal!”
Hal Blaine was born Harold Simon Belsky on February 5, 1929 in Holyoke, Mass., the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. When he was seven, the family moved to Hartford, Conn., and about that same time, Hal started playing along to songs on the radio with dowels that he removed from the back of a chair. When he was eleven, he joined a drum and bugle brigade sponsored by the Catholic parish that was across the street from Hal’s Hebrew school. When he turned thirteen, Hal received his first drumset as a gift from his sister, Marcia.
In the meantime, Hal was soaking up all the music he could. His father’s workplace was across the street from the State Theater in Hartford, and every Saturday he would take Hal with him to work and then give him a quarter to spend the day at the theater, where he would see a stage show, a movie, cartoons, and serials. Hal was able to see the big bands of Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Les Brown, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Artie Shaw, and Harry James.
“I had no idea what an impact they all would have on my later years,” Blaine recalled in the book Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew. “I was a 13- and 14-year-old kid during those years, and they were probably the happiest of my teenage life—sitting transfixed, glued all day long every Saturday, watching my favorite bands and taking special note of the drummers. When we got home, I couldn’t wait to get hold of my sticks and run the arrangements I had just heard. I just knew that one day the drummer would get sick or fall off the stage and I’d jump up and save the show.”
When Hal was 14, his family relocated to Los Angeles, Calif., but soon after that, Hal went to live with his sister Belle in San Bernadino. He attended high school there and played in the band, but as soon as he turned 16 Hal dropped out of school and joined the Army. After basic training, he was assigned to the band, and a few months later he was sent to Korea, where PFC Belsky became the drummer in an all-officer band.
After his discharge from the service in 1948, Hal played drums with several groups before settling in with the Stan Moore Trio, where he played drums, emceed, and sang, working primarily in Alaska and the Northwest.
After about a year of that, one of Hal’s buddies talked him into moving to Chicago, where Blaine enrolled in the Roy C. Knapp School of Percussion, taking advantage of the G.I. Bill. “Classes consisted of every kind of musical training—music appreciation, harmony, arranging, sight-singing and reading, drums, all of the percussion instruments, and lots of homework,” he said in Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew.
After a year at the Knapp school, Blaine started getting calls to do casuals—many of which were at strip clubs. One club soon hired him full time. He was attending the Knapp school from 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. and working at the club from 8:00 at night until 4:00 in the morning.
When he completed his studies at the Knapp school, Blaine moved back to San Bernadino and took a job as drummer at the Magic Carpet supper club. After one of the singers he backed, Vicki Young, had some success with a recording, Hal went on the road with her. When that gig ended in 1958, Hal went to Lake Tahoe and soon was playing with various groups there until going on the road, eventually ending up in Las Vegas. There, he joined the Carol Simpson Quartet, a jazz band, who soon started working in Hollywood. That led to an offer to join the backup group of singer Tommy Sands, which took Hal across the country. One gig in particular was memorable.
“I’ll never forget when we worked at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City with the Count Basie Band,” Hal recalled. “Count’s drummer, Sonny Payne, had gotten sick and yours truly got to play the gig. I knew most of the charts, and now there I was, kicking my favorite big band. It was every drummer’s dream in those days. Count Basie even offered me the job of a lifetime. I was flabbergasted. But I explained that Tommy’s job was my job, and I couldn’t think of leaving the group.”
A huge benefit of the Sands gig was that Hal was getting to play on his recordings. “I was getting some great studio experience,” Blaine said. “I was meeting all of the producers at Capitol Records, and I was working in Tommy’s films doing bit parts. We were working at the Sands Hotel where we recorded Sands at the Sands, my first big band show album.”
Sands eventually tired of show business and moved to Hawaii. Blaine played with a number of different acts before landing a gig with Patti Page, with whom he worked for several years. But in between engagements with Page, Blaine would return to Hollywood, where he became friendly with an arranger/composer named H.B. Barnum who started using Hal for a variety of gigs, including studio work. Blaine met and became friendly with studio drummer Earl Palmer, who started recommending Hal for sessions. That led to Hal recording “A Taste of Honey” with Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, which became the first Record of the Year that Blaine played on. But the distinctive one-bar solo bass drum pulse was not originally part of the arrangement. “After the little intro, the band was not coming in together,” Blaine recalls. “So I just did ‘boom-boom-boom-boom diddly-diddly-diddly’ and everyone came in perfectly. Larry Levine, the engineer and co-producer, just loved it, as did Herb and everybody in the band, so it sort of became the hook of the song.”
Blaine was also learning the secrets of success in the music business. “As important as knowing the musicians was getting to know the guys that did the hiring,” he explained in Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew. “They could make you or break you, and often did both. This business is like any other. You must know your trade. You must study all aspects and be ready when your time comes. One of the worst things that can happen in any business is taking a major job when you’re not ready for it, especially in the record business where time is money. Anyone can make a mistake, but when you make the same mistake repeatedly, the contractors remember your name and there go your calls. Learn your instrument, study your reading, and listen to everything you can. Learn every conceivable style of music, because you never know what they’re going to throw at you. And then make up some of your own—the stuff you really feel.”
One day, Blaine was asked to come to a meeting at Paramount, where he was told that they wanted him to be the drummer for a “youth” movie that was going to be made in Hawaii. Then they brought the star in: Elvis Presley. “Working on an Elvis movie like Blue Hawaii was a great learning experience for many of us in Hollywood,” Blaine said. “Rock and roll had been infiltrating the movie scene slowly but surely. After all, rock and roll was already a dominant part of the American radio scene.”
But when Blaine arrived at the studio to begin work on the soundtrack, old-fashioned recording methods were being used, including recording the drums with a single microphone. “We started playing the chart,” Hal recalled, “and before long the producer of the film came out, complaining to the engineer that the music didn’t sound like what he had been hearing on the radio. My drums sounded like they were a mile away. The producer asked me why they sounded so distant, and I explained how in Hollywood we put a mic in front of the bass drum and one on the snare, one on the hi-hat, and one or two overheads. The engineers told me I was nuts and that they didn’t have enough lines or imputs to mike a set of drums that way. Nonetheless, some electrical people were called in, a few jerry-rigged connections were made, and some baffles were put in place. We cut the tracks again, and everyone agreed they were perfect. I became somewhat of a hero there and got called back for many soundtracks.”
Hal was also becoming a first-call drummer for many rock sessions—in particular, those produced by Phil Spector. Blaine’s “boom, ba-boom BOP’ intro to “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes is one of the most recognizable drum beats in popular music history, and Blaine says it was a mistake! “As I recall,” he says today, “we rehearsed it with a regular backbeat on 2 and 4. But then when we did the first take, I dropped my stick and missed the 2. So being the faker than I am, I just played the 4, and one of the things you learn is that when you make a mistake, if you do it every four bars it becomes part of the song.”
Hal became part of a young group of musicians that he nicknamed “the Wrecking Crew” because some of the older studio musicians, who were raised on jazz and showed up to sessions in jackets and ties, complained that these young rock and roll musicians who showed up for sessions in jeans and T-shirts were wrecking the music business.
But in addition to the rock and roll records, those young players were doing sessions for artists and producers who wanted a modern sound on records that were more mainstream. One notable session was for Nancy Sinatra’s hit recording of “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.” And although Blaine had refused numerous offers to tour because he didn’t want to jeopardize his studio work, he said yes to Nancy Sinatra when she asked him to go to Vegas with her. “She made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Hal said. “She left room for me to commute back to the studios to keep my name in the running for good sessions.”
That gig also led Blaine to get a call to record with Nancy’s father, Frank Sinatra, on several occasions, including the 1966 Grammy Record of the Year, “Strangers in the Night.” “If you listen closely,” Blaine says, “I played the same beat on ‘Strangers in the Night’ that I played on ‘Be My Baby,’ just slower and softer.” Blaine also recorded with Frank Sinatra’s good friend Dean Martin, including his biggest hit, “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.”
But rock and roll was what Blaine was best known for, especially the recordings he made with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, including “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Surfin’ USA,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “I Get Around,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Sloop John B,” “Wouldn’t it be Nice,” “Good Vibrations,” and many others.
“Brian didn’t believe in a lot of takes, but he did believe in a lot of sessions,” Blaine said in Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew. “We often did small segments of a song and that was it after just a few takes. He wanted spontaneity but he wanted a perfect take. We had no idea what the finished product would sound like. Sometimes we heard rough vocals in the studio, but the Beach Boys didn’t really want anybody around when they did the finished vocals. Then we started hearing the finished records on the radio and realized what was going on. The combination of Brian’s vision and the painstaking work on the songs created something that took pop music to a new level.
“My particular sound for Brian was basically the Phil Spector sound with a few minor changes,” Blaine said. “For Spector the snare sound had to be very high and tight to cut through. The toms were left midrange, and I always played the snare and the floor tom in unison to strengthen the backbeat sound. I rarely used cymbals or played hi-hat eighths. For Brian I modified the snare to a lower sound combined with the floor tom, and he loved it. Afterwards, I would overdub percussion effects. I was invited to experiment, and I don’t ever remember Brian telling me not to play anything I thought might work. He wanted a good backbeat, and beyond that, whatever I wanted to do was okay.
“Brian loved sounds,” Blaine recalled recently. “One time I took three empty, plastic orange juice bottles, and I cut them down to three different sizes so they had three pitches. I taped them together and hit them with a xylophone mallet, and it sounded somewhat like a bongo. I used that sound on ‘Caroline, No’.”
One element that characterized Blaine’s drum sound was the lower tuning he used, which became the standard drum sound on rock recordings. “I came along at a time when drummers tuned their drums real high in pitch—real tight,” Blaine said in an April 1981 Modern Drummer cover story. “A lot of that was for technique so they could get a lot of ‘bounce to the ounce,’ so to speak. I tuned drums down to a normal, mid-range. I worked for many singers who liked the sound of my drums. When I started in the studios, some engineers would say, ‘You better tighten those drums up,” but the producers would say, ‘Don’t tell him what to do. We’re going for a different sound here.’”
Blaine also expanded his kit beyond the standard four- or five-piece drumsets that everyone was using at the time. “My set had 12 drums, which no one had ever heard of,” Blaine told Modern Drummer. “It really was a major change, which makes me very proud. I wanted a full, bigger spectrum of sound to be able to do more with drums.” He worked with Howard Oliver to build a larger set, which was soon marketed by Ludwig as the Octaplus. One of many songs on which that kit was featured was “Cherokee People” by Paul Revere & the Raiders.
Blaine also did quite a bit of recording with Jan and Dean (“Surf City,” “Little Old Lady from Pasadena,”) and even did a couple of road trips with them. When the duo was signed to do a film, Hal was offered a role as the drummer, “Clobber,” whose big scenes involved the manager repeatedly asking him, “Have you got the music?” Hal would reply, “Have I got the music?!” But then he would eventually run off, and when asked where he was going, he would say, “I forgot the music.”
For several years, Blaine and the other L.A. studio musicians worked anonymously, often replacing the musicians in popular bands on their records. But then came what a fan magazine of the day called “The Monkee Scandal.” Blaine and his colleagues had been cutting all the instrumental tracks for the made-for-TV group The Monkees. But then an article appeared that revealed that studio musicians were cutting the records. Soon after, a few bands cut back on the use of studio players, but more and more, the studio musicians’ names started turning up in album credits.
But there was still plenty of work backing solo artists who didn’t have regular bands. One of those was a guitarist/singer who had been one of those session players himself: Glen Campbell. Blaine played on Campbell’s hit “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” written by Jimmy Webb, and also played on Webb tunes “Up, Up and Away,” recorded by the 5th Dimension, and “MacArthur Park,” recorded by Richard Harris. He also played on hit records by the Mamas and the Papas (California Dreamin’,” “Monday, Monday”), Sonny & Cher (“I Got You Babe”), Johnny Rivers (“Seventh Son”), the Association (“Along Comes Mary,” “Never My Love,” “Windy”), the Carpenters (“We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Close to You,” Rainy Days and Mondays”), John Denver (“Annie’s Song,” “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”), Simon and Garfunkel (“I am a Rock,” “Homeward Bound”), Neil Diamond (“Cracklin’ Rosie,” “I Am, I Said,” “Song Sung Blue”), Barbra Streisand (“The Way We Were”), the Captain and Tennille (“Love Will Keep Us Together” [1976 Grammy Record of the Year], “Muskrat Love”), and many more.
As the 1980s progressed, Blaine’s work on records gradually decreased as electronics came in and some producers started using younger studio drummers to get contemporary sounds and feels, just as producers in the 1960s used Hal and his colleagues for a modern sensibility. But Blaine stayed busy doing commercial jingles for many years, until much of that work started disappearing. Today, Blaine is retired from playing but still does occasional clinics and has made several appearances to support a forthcoming movie about The Wrecking Crew.
“When I started out, I was a jazz drummer,” Blaine says. “But I always say that when I came to California, I fell into a vat of chocolate because so many guys refused to play that dirty word: ‘rock and roll.’ I got to record on so many labels and work with so many wonderful musicians.
“From very early on in my strip-club days, I learned that I was a good accompanist,” Blaine says. “When I do clinics for Zildjian or Taye or whoever, I always tell the kids that a song is a story, and if you’re just smashing the hell out of the drums, no one can hear the words of that story.”