Hal Blaine, Pop Music’s Go-To Studio Drummer, Is Dead at 90
Hal Blaine in about 1970. He played drums on at least 40 singles that reached No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart
By Richard Sandomir
March 12, 2019
Hal Blaine, the ubiquitous drummer whose work in the 1960s and ’70s with Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, the Ronettes and many others established him as one of the top session musicians of all time, died on Monday at his home in Palm Desert, Calif. He was 90. His son-in-law, Andy Johnson, confirmed the death.
Mr. Blaine, who played on at least 40 singles that reached No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart, was a reliable and adaptable musician, able to offer delicate brushwork on a ballad or a booming beat on records produced by Phil Spector, who was known for his so-called Wall of Sound.
Mr. Blaine brought drama to a song’s transitions, often telegraphing a big moment with a flurry of strokes on a snare drum or tom-tom.
If he had a signature moment on a record, it was on the Ronettes’ 1963 hit, “Be My Baby,” produced by Mr. Spector. The song opened cold, with Mr. Blaine playing — and repeating — the percussive earworm “Bum-ba-bum-BOOM!” But the riff came about accidentally.
“I was supposed to play more of a boom-chicky-boom beat, but my stick got stuck and it came out boom, boom-boom chick,” he told The Wall Street Journal in 2011. “I just made sure to make the same mistake every few bars.”
Three years later, he used the same beat, but in a softer way, on Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night.”
Mr. Blaine was part of a loosely affiliated group of session musicians who in the early 1960s began dominating rock ’n’ roll recording in Los Angeles. Along with guitarists like Glen Campbell and Tony Tedesco, bassists like Carol Kaye and Joe Osborn, and keyboardists like Leon Russell and Don Randi, Mr. Blaine played on thousands of recordings through the mid-1970s.
He famously said he gave the group its name, the Wrecking Crew, although Ms. Kaye has insisted that he did not start using that term until years after the musicians had stopped working together. His skills led producers to use Mr. Blaine as the drummer for various groups’ studio work, replacing their credited drummers. The drummer heard on the Beach Boys’ records was often Mr. Blaine and not the drummer the group’s fans knew, Dennis Wilson, whose brother Brian was the band’s creative force.
“I must tell you, first of all, Dennis was not really a drummer,” Mr. Blaine told Modern Drummer magazine in 2005. “I mean, they had bought him drums because they needed drums in the group. So he learned as they went on.”
Asked if Mr. Wilson was angry that he was replaced in the studio, Mr. Blaine said he was not.
“He was thrilled,” he said, “because while I was making Beach Boy records, he was out surfing or riding his motorcycle. During the day, when I was making $35 or $40, that night he was making $35,000” performing live.
Mr. Blaine’s other studio credits include Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” the 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Ms. Streisand’s “The Way We Were,” the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’s “A Taste of Honey.”
In 2000, Mr. Blaine was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Famewith four other studio musicians, including the drummer Earl Palmer,who had helped introduce him to session work. The Recording Academy gave Mr. Blaine a lifetime achievement Grammy Award last year.
Hal Blaine was born Harold Simon Belsky on Feb. 5, 1929, in Holyoke, Mass., to Meyer Belsky, who worked in a leather factory, and Rose (Silverman) Belsky. When he was 7 the family moved to Hartford, where he was inspired to learn drumming by watching the fife and drum corps of the Roman Catholic school across the street from his Hebrew school.
“One of the priests noticed I was watching, and before long I was playing with these kids,” he told The Hartford Courant in 2000.
On Saturdays, he regularly went to a theater in Hartford to watch big bands, singers and vaudeville acts, and he grew to admire virtuoso drummers like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. When he was 14, he moved with his family to Southern California. He attended high school in San Bernardino while his parents opened a delicatessen in Santa Monica.
After serving as an Army cartographer during the Korean War, Mr. Blaine attended a drum school in Chicago run by Roy C. Knapp, who had been Mr. Krupa’s teacher. He began to play drums in strip clubs, and by the late 1950s he was working with a jazz quartet. He then worked with the teenage idol Tommy Sands and the pop singer Patti Page. He also played briefly with Count Basie’s big band at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, filling in when Mr. Basie’s regular drummer, Sonny Payne, was sick.
Until the early 1960s, Mr. Blaine thought of himself as a jazz drummer. But his work in the Los Angeles studios identified him, almost exclusively, as pop music’s go-to session drummer.
Once he established himself in the studios, Mr. Blaine rarely performed live. One exception came in the 1960s, when Nancy Sinatra persuaded him to work with her at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas; she put his name on the marquee and arranged for a nanny for his daughter, Michelle. And in the mid-1970s, John Denver brought him on tour.
“His favorite time was with John,” Mr. Johnson, Mr. Blaine’s son-in-law, said in a telephone interview. “They were like brothers, and he was really torn up when John passed.” Mr. Denver died in 1997 when the single-engine airplane he was piloting crashed into Monterey Bay in California.
Mr. Blaine is survived by his daughter, Michelle Blaine, and seven grandchildren. He was married and divorced five times.
Mr. Blaine was far less busy in studios in the 1980s. By then producers were increasingly relying on drum machines, and more self-contained bands insisted on playing their own instruments. He started giving drum clinics and worked on commercial jingles. He played most recently at a party for his 90th birthday at a Los Angeles nightclub.
Jim Keltner, a drummer who also became known for his session work, recalled the first time he saw Mr. Blaine play, in the 1960s. “I can hardly describe the effect it had on me,” Mr. Keltner wrote in the foreword to “Hal Blaine & the Wrecking Crew” (1990), an autobiography written with David Goggin. “He was playing a beat I’d heard thousands of times but was giving it a certain kind of sophisticated funk that I’d never heard before.”
“How was he able to do these things with his drums?”
The drummer, who died at 90, was the beat behind Phil Spector innovations, Beach Boys experiments and easy listening hits.
By Christopher R. Weingarten
March 12, 2019
Hal Blaine, who died on Monday at 90, was the greatest and most prolific session drummer during the turbulent Sixties crescendo from pop to psychedelia, keeping the nation’s heartbeat through dozens of No. 1 hits during the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. His resume included ambitious art-rock totems, easy listening schmaltz, TV theme songs, incendiary folk-rock, Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” and Steely Dan’s smooth softscapes. His beats backed a hall of fame of mid-20th century icons, including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, Simon and Garfunkel, Sam Cooke, Barbra Streisand, Herb Alpert, John Denver and Leonard Cohen. But his most legendary beat is the primordial thump-thump-thump-crack heartbeat in the first four seconds of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” Here’s just a fraction of what Blaine tapped into musical history.
The Crystals, ‘He’s a Rebel’ (1962)
The first Phil Spector production that Blaine — the drummer for the producer’s Wrecking Crew session band — drove to No. 1. In the final 30 seconds, you can hear Blaine exploding outward from his steady pulse into a frenzy. “Phil Spector, God bless him, used to let me just go nuts on records,” Blaine told Modern Drummer. “I would go totally bananas on the endings of those songs. Phil has always said that he was going to take all the fades and put them together and put out some records of that.”
The Ronettes, ‘Be My Baby’ (1963)
Blaine wagered the creation of one of the most iconic opening drum beats of all time was “unintentional.” “Be My Baby” was possibly intended to have snare beats breaking up the pulse on 2 and 4 instead of just the big wallop at the end. In any event, its influence can be felt in the many songs that used similar beats in its wake: Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” the Boys’ “Brickfield Nights,” the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey,” Poison’s “Cry Tough” and Bat for Lashes’ “What’s a Girl to Do” among them.
Sam Cooke, ‘Another Saturday Night’ (1963)
Blaine would eventually be known for his steady backbeats, but he can be heard playing wild fills all over this soul classic. “That was another one with that same drum lick every eight or 16 bars, whatever it was,” Blaine told NPR. “And all these drum licks kind of became the standard for rock ’n’ roll. You know, all the drummers that I’ve spoken with through the years have told me that they grew up listening to the records that I played on, and that’s how they learned.” Naturally, the Who’s Keith Moon was a fan, as was the Rush drummer Neil Peart. “When I was growing up, I played along to the radio,” Peart said in 2011, “so I played along to Simon and Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, the Association and the Byrds, and I was really playing along to Hal Blaine.”
The Byrds, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ (1965)
The producer Terry Melcher wasn’t sold on the instrumental prowess of the Byrds so it was the Wrecking Crew session team that anchored the song most responsible for the advent of “folk rock.”
Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, ‘A Taste of Honey’ (1965)
Blaine’s brushes on the snare are nuanced and dynamic, but the real iconic element of “A Taste of Honey” is his four-on-the-floor bass drum. This was another happy accident. Blaine said the band was coming in “like a train wreck,” so he provided a pulse. It became the most memorable part of the song.
The Beach Boys, ‘Good Vibrations’ (1966)
The Beach Boy Mike Love wrote of his bandmate Brian Wilson: “When we’d go to Brian’s house, he would play (“Be My Baby”) over and over again, comparing it to Einstein’s theory of relativity.” Inspired by Spector’s wall of sound techniques, Wilson created “Good Vibrations,” a single that was epochal for its orchestral ambitions, studio-as-instrument techniques and early embrace of electronic music via the whining Electro-Theremin. Who better to anchor it to pop than one of Spector’s drummers of choice? “My particular sound for Brian,” Blaine wrote in his autobiography, “was basically the Phil Spector sound with a few minor changes. … Afterwards, I would overdub percussion effects. I was invited to experiment, and I don’t ever remember Brian telling me not to play anything.”
Johnny Rivers, ‘The Poor Side of Town’ (1966)
Though this chamber-pop song is mostly forgotten, it still knocked the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” out of the No. 1 spot in late 1966. Blaine’s high-hat work here — opening, striking, then closing for a pssssshp — has been credited by Drum magazine as integral for moving the sizzling sound from jazz to rock. It has since became a bedrock element of dance music.
Simon and Garfunkel, ‘A Hazy Shade of Winter’ (1966)
Blaine plays drums on four of Simon and Garfunkel’s five studio albums, providing the tasteful accompaniment on No. 1 singles “Mrs. Robinson” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” But check out the apocalyptic Top 20 hit “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” first released in 1966 before appearing on the 1968 album “Bookends,” for a missing link between Motown and punk rock.
Nancy Sinatra, ‘Drummer Man’ (1969)
Blaine’s work with Nancy Sinatra would yield bigger hits — most notably “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and the duet with her father “Somethin’ Stupid,” both No. 1 hits. But this papa-was-a-rolling-stone single allowed the consummate sideman to stretch his legs (and arms) with monstrous tom-tom fills. Blaine brought a massive drum kit to accompany Sinatra for her performance on 1971 TV special “Movin’ With Nancy on Stage.” “I did a solo on the show, which was the first time anyone ever saw that set, so everybody just went crazy,” Blaine told Modern Drummer. “I gave it all to Ludwig. I expected them to call it the Hal Blaine super set or something. But they called it the Octoplus, and it was one of their biggest sellers.”
The Monkees, ‘Mary, Mary’ (1967)
Looped to play three times, Blaine’s funky opening beat (and Jim Gordon’s percussion) on this Monkees classic was the first thing you heard on the first volume of Ultimate Breaks and Beats, the record series that served as an essential D.J. and producer tool in the 1980s. Twenty years after it was recorded, Blaine would end up the unwitting participant in hip-hop records like Run-D.M.C.’s “Mary Mary” (1988), De La Soul’s “Change in Speak” (1989) and Big Daddy Kane’s “Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy.”
The 5th Dimension, ‘Medley: Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures)’ (1969)
A song at the crossroads of psychedelia, soul, pop and Broadway, Blaine moves from a deconstructed “Be My Baby,” to locomotive rock to groovy funk.
Tanya Tucker, ‘Lizzie and the Rainman’ (1975)
Proving himself ever versatile, Blaine’s last era of chart success and prolific session work was during the late Seventies and early Eighties explosion of pop-country artists like Shelly West (“Jose Cuervo”), John Denver (“I’m Sorry,” “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”) and era-appropriate works by Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash. On Tanya Tucker’s “Lizzie and the Rainman” — a No. 1 country hit and a Top 40 pop crossover — Tucker says “beat the drum” in the middle of each chorus and Blaine plays a bonkers descending drum fill that pans across the speakers. It sounds like it was pulled from a Rush record instead of something that broke the Adult Contemporary chart.