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  • PAS Playlist: In the Pocket by Sean J. Kennedy

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Jul 01, 2022

    PAS Playlist Sean Kennedy

    In July 2021, Eric C. Hughes, then the PAS Drum Set Committee chair, challenged the members of the committee to compile a Top-10 Spotify Playlist, focusing on drum set, based on any theme of our choosing. As I thought about the challenge, I decided to choose my favorite drum set performances where the groove and/or pocket is what attracts me to the performance. 

    What is “playing in the pocket”? Well, if I could give a perfect description in prose, there would be no need for music. However, since Mark Powers, the current DSC chair, tasked us with adding descriptions to our lists and the individual tracks, I’ll do my best to describe these tracks in words. For me, “playing in the pocket” simply means the entire ensemble is moving through time with a unified intent, playing with passion, and maintaining exactly correct note placement throughout the performance.

    When the drummer and ensemble are “in the pocket,” you know it. Conversely when they're not, you know that, too. It is similar to answering the question, “What makes a sunrise on the beach in Maui so beautiful?” The only real way to answer that is to actually go to Maui and see the sunrise in person. Like the sunrise, the only way to really experience some great pocket playing is to listen to tracks like the ones listed below. 

    Our original task was limited to ten, so I dutifully followed instructions. I probably could have listed well over a hundred, but these were the tracks that came to me most quickly and are on serious rotation on my phone. These were all chosen for objective and subjective reasons, so I hope that a few act as a jumping-off point for you to start exploring “playing in the pocket,” allowing you to create your own, deeply personal list.

    I can’t prove it but I’m pretty sure that ancient Roman educator Quintilian had these ten drummer’s performances in mind when he said, “The perfection of art is to conceal art.” Enjoy!

    “Fly Me to the Moon” by Frank Sinatra and Count Basie
    Drummer: Sonny Payne; Album: It Might as Well Be Swing
    This performance and arrangement are pure gold, and Sonny Payne navigates the band and Frank through so many emotions with ease. The groove is never sacrificed for dynamics, hits, or nuance. From start to finish this is a real toe-tapper. The thing that impresses me most is how much Sonny is not doing. The ride cymbal doesn't come in until halfway through the recording, and he sneaks it in right before the shout chorus. After the first shout chorus, check out how little he is doing under the flute solo. It’s incredible! 

    “Crickets Sing for Ana Maria” by Walter Wanderley
    Drummers: Dom Um Romao, Paulinho; Album: Talkin’ Verve
    I’m not sure who Ana Maria was, but those crickets sure must have known something! The groove on this track is relentless! The tune is groove defined. If you aren’t tapping your foot during this one, please see a doctor. Each time I play this track I never want it to end. 

    “The Cat” by Jimmy Smith
    Drummer: Grady Tate; Album: The Cat
    Similar to “Crickets Sing…” Grady Tate is just a generator of groove on this tune. He’s steering the ship, and all the cats swing with him.

    “When the Levee Breaks” by Buckwheat Zydeco
    Drummer: Kevin Menard; Album: Lay Your Burden Down
    How much space can one place between notes and still groove? Look no further, because Kevin Menard has the answer on this greasy, NOLA-infused version of “When the Levee Breaks.”

    “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” by Tony Bennett
    Drummer: Clayton Cameron; Album: Tony Bennett MTV Unplugged
    Every drummer out there can name the song or performance that was a personal musical epiphany. This one is mine. I watched the premiere performance of this track on VH1’s Unplugged in 1994 and witnessed firsthand how powerful brushes can be in the right hands. Clayton Cameron proves here why he is The Brush Master.

    “She’s Gone” by Hall & Oates
    Drummer: Bernard Purdie; Album: Abandoned Lunchoenette
    This is a definitive drum set part for ballad playing. How much do I like this track? I transcribed the entire drum set part and make each of my drum set students learn this iconic groove. Bernard Purdie’s performance on this track is an entirely singular interpretation of ballad playing, which only he can bring to a performance. If you’d like my transcription of Mr. Purdie’s groove for you and your students, please reach out!

    “The Stage” by Avenged Sevenfold
    Drummer: Brooks Wackermann; Album: The Stage
    My son introduced me to this band. I’d never heard of them prior to driving my son and his friend to a concert at Penn State University. Wow! These guys are the real deal. For a newer band on this list, relatively speaking, they’re old souls. They really play; no tricks or gimmicks. This track is a great example of playing some very dense parts, yet nothing is in the way or extraneous. Every tone that Brooks gets out of the kit is necessary and adds to the overall groove. There is also some serious double bass drumming on the track.

    “Honesty” by Billy Joel
    Drummer: Liberty Devitto; Album: 52nd Street
    Anything performed and recorded by “The Song Writer’s Drummer,” Liberty DeVitto, is definitely worth studying by any and all drum set players. The remarkable feature of this recording is the space that Liberty leaves and the placement of his fortissimo crashes that never get in the vocalist’s way. It is a real lesson in orchestrating a perfect drum set part, and text painting. He demonstrates a minimalist approach to groove that, if altered in any way, would diminish the entire ensemble’s performance.

    “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” by Stan Kenton
    Drummer: Jerry Mckenzie; Album: A Merry Christmas!
    If I created a dictionary for drummers and they needed to look up the definition of “swing,” this recording would be at the top of the list! The track is only 1:46 long, but it grooves in the pocket all the way! I heard that, not long after this recording, Jerry McKennzie went into law enforcement in Chicago. Maybe he was the original squad leader of the jazz police?

    “Use Me” by Bill Withers
    Drummer: James Gadson; Album: Still Bill
    James Gadson, what can you say? I think metronomes have asked him for advice! Every beat is placed perfectly. The timbre is consistent all across the drum set. James Gadson is to groove and texture as Michelangelo was to painting ceilings.

    Sean J KennedySean J. Kennedy is the drummer for The Doc Severinsen Tribute Band, featuring Jay Webb, The Gardyn Jazz Orchestra, and has been principal percussionist with the Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale since 2004. He is a multi-faceted musician who is equally accomplished on the stage, in the recording studio, and in the classroom. He has performed at such venues as Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall with world renowned acts like Il Volo, Roger Daltry and The Who, Evanescence, Lindsey Stirling, The Philly POPS! Orchestra, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, The Jacksonville Symphony, The Strauss Symphony of America, The Allentown Band, The Allentown Symphony Orchestra, and The Lancaster Symphony Orchestra. Kennedy is a member of the PAS Drum Set Committee, is the author of numerous drum set, percussion, and improv books, and in 2018 presented a TEDx Talk about the history of the drum set, titled: Happy Accidents: Drumming Up Serendipity. For more information, visit

  • PAS Playlist: Hal Blaine by Eric C. Hughes

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Jun 13, 2022

    Hal Blaine Hughes

    There are two versions of The Great American Songbook: the pop and jazz standards that became musical canon from late-1920s to the late-1950s, and the collection of every song that Hal Blaine ever played on. Hal’s legacy and contributions to American pop music in the days of the Wrecking Crew (and beyond) are nothing short of remarkable. No other drummer had such a string of hits, and we sometimes forget that he also played on hundreds of other songs and albums that never made the Top 40, and he was a touring drummer for The Carpenters and John Denver when he could find the time to get out of the studio. Here you’ll find an extremely short list of some of Hal’s greatest performances with a little history attached.

    “Be My Baby”
    The Ronettes
    This is my favorite song. EVER. Of all the songs ever written, or will be written, “Be My Baby” is truly my number-one. This may be one of the most perfect pop songs ever written and Hal’s performance is a big reason why. From that Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” comes the greatest intro of all time: boom… boom-boom, whack! Between the lyrics, the background vocals, and Ronnie Spector’s voice, I get emotional every time I hear it. Those fills at the end of the song top it all off! Next time you hear this track, turn up the volume during the fade. Hal’s trademark was playing big triplet fills at the end when he knew they had the take. It was his way of saying “We got it.”

    “Hurting Each Other”
    The Carpenters
    Karen’s voice is smoother than a butter sandwich on this track. Here is a great example of how Hal could shape a tune from the beginning to the end with a sparse opening and then cutting loose on the choruses, packing them with fills. Hal claims he was the one who “discovered” Karen as a singer when The Carpenters first came to record in the studio. Being told by the parents that Richard was the talent and Karen was just the drummer, Hal said they should give her a shot at the mic. The rest is history. 

    “A Little Less Conversation”
    Elvis Presley
    This track and “Strangers in The Night” show the diversity and professionalism that the Wrecking Crew had. In addition to recording the majority of the pop hits during that time they proved they could hang with musical royalty. Starting with Hal’s drum solo intro, he lays down a groove that exemplifies the vibe and feel of the late 1960s (recorded in 1968). Elvis’s voice never sounded better, and the climax is as chaotic as Elvis’s life was at that time. The remix version released in 2002 is fun, but not as fun as the original.

    “Strangers in the Night”
    Frank Sinatra
    Someone had the brilliant idea to record this iconic Sinatra tune with many of the Wrecking Crew regulars along with a miniature orchestra. Was it daughter Nancy who worked with the Crew regularly? Reportedly recorded in a midnight session (and the band dressed up to show respect), this is a piece of American pop music gold. Sinatra hated the song and made no qualms about telling everyone about it even when he later sang it live in concerts. However, the proof is in the pudding. Hal recreates his “Be My Baby” groove for the verses, but the highlight is the two-handed drum fill going into the tutti solo section and in the outro. Oh, and the song was number-one on Billboard, the album became Sinatra’s most successful album ever, and the song won three Grammys; two of them going to Sinatra himself. Not too shabby for a song he hated.

    “The Poor Side of Town”
    Johnny Rivers
    What do you do when the record company says they won’t pay for you to record this song? You pay for it yourself, own the publishing, and have a number-one hit. Recorded with the Crew in 1966, this is a straight-ahead ballad with a classic Hal “cocktail” fill, which he plays every time, minus the big triplets in the bridge and at the end. This sort of restraint shows exactly what was needed to make a number-one hit and how to play for the song.

    “MacArthur Park”
    Richard Harris
    This epic and sprawling song is very reminiscent of a symphonic piece with four different sections, with tempo and feel changes expertly performed by Hal and the Crew augmented with an orchestra. My favorite fill is around 6:38, which happens in sort of a weird place but propels the song into the climax. While the song may seem nonsensical, I strongly encourage you to check out what composer Jimmy Webb has to say about this song and the inspiration behind it.

    Paul Revere & The Raiders
    Hal shines on this track with his snare pounding quarter notes and filling in all the spaces with “Hal-isms.” The song really opens up on the bridge section where he plays a funky little groove with the overdriven bass playing eighth notes. And that scream by Mark Lindsay? Rock and Roll, baby! Oh, and if you’re not a fan of Paul Revere & The Raiders, I don’t know if we can be friends.

    “Ventura Highway”
    One of America’s best-known tunes opens with Hal playing a quasi-bossa nova feel, but quickly moves to the full kit for what seems like a series of two choruses. The pattern repeats itself for the rest of the tune; subtle fills move the track along, and listening to this tune makes you feel like you are driving up PCH 1 to Ventura. It would be easy to play along with the syncopated vocal/guitar rhythms, but Hal keeps it simple because he knew a hit when he heard it.

    “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”
    Darlene Love
    A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector should be required listening every holiday season. Despite the sheer sonic enormity of the track, Darlene Love’s impeccable vocal take is one of the best from this era. This track contains everything you need to know about Hal Blaine, the drummer: his relaxed feel, his double-handed triplet fills between sections, and, of course, the ending when he gets to cut loose. This cut could, and should, be played any time of the year.

    “God Only Knows”
    The Beach Boys
    We cannot discuss Hal Blaine without discussing The Beach Boys. Brian Wilson and Hal had a very close relationship and Hal played on dozens and dozens of Beach Boys hits as well as deeper cuts. So, why this track? While Hal played drums and some percussion on the whole of Pet Sounds, there are no real drums on “God Only Knows.” Hal had previously said he played the bottom of Coke bottles to get the signature “clip-clop” percussion sound on the track; others have said it was orange juice bottles. Whatever the beverage of choice was, this track shows Hal’s ability to work with a producer and a songwriter he admired and believed in to try literally anything, and everything, to make one of the greatest songs ever written. 

    Eric C HughesEric C Hughes is chair advisor for the PAS Drum Set Committee. He lives in Houston, Texas, where he is an active percussion teacher for in-person and online lessons. A full-time musician, Eric drums for Blaggards and The Allen Oldies Band. You can find his schedule at

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