By Rick Mattingly
Legendary studio drummer Hal Blaine died on March 11, 2019. Although the average music fan may not know his name, 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.
Hal Blaine was born Harold Simon Belsky on February 5, 1929 in Holyoke, Mass. 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 wooden dowels. 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.
When Hal was 14, his family relocated to Los Angeles, Calif., but soon after that, Hal went to live with his sister 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 for about a year before moving to Chicago, where Blaine enrolled in the Roy C. Knapp School of Percussion. After a year at the Knapp school, Blaine started getting calls to do casuals. 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 and then went on the road with signer Vicki Young. 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. 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.”
After Sands retired from performing, 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.
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. 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 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.
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.
That gig 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.” Blaine also recorded with 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.
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 did a couple of road trips with them.
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. After Blaine retired from playing he did occasional clinics and made several appearances to support a movie about The Wrecking Crew.
Hal Blaine was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 2012.
Click here to read Hal Blaine’s full PAS Hall of Fame bio and see video clips.