By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photos by Michael Ochs Archives (top) and Debra DiPaolo
I’m hanging out by the pool at Hal Blaine’s Palm Springs pad, and he’s regaling me with stories about his life and busy times during the golden age of the L.A. session scene, when he played on over 8,000 songs and ghost-drummed on recordings by an estimated 175 bands. Blaine’s a genial and down-to-earth kinda guy, and between puffs on his ever-present stogie, he’s telling me what it was all about.
What it was all about, in part, was variety: Blaine’s name is attached to an almost bewilderingly diverse array of pop, rock, jazz, big band, television and film recordings circa late-’50s to mid-’70s. The merest sliver of names and projects involved would include the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Phil Spector, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, George Harrison, the Monkees, the Partridge Family, Three’s Company, Batman, The Love Bug, The Nutty Professor, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., John Denver, the Tijuana Brass, the Carpenters, Jan & Dean, Petula Clark, Neil Diamond, Steely Dan, the Muppets, and . . . forget it, man — Hal Blaine was simply everywhere.
How did he get there? Practice, practice — and preparation. Originally from Hartford, Connecticut, Blaine moved to L.A. as a music-obsessed teenager and, while soaking up celebrity vibes during the day as a Malibu beach cabin boy, played R&B-oriented dates with mostly black musicians in the San Bernardino area. Returning from his Army stint in Korea, he used the G.I. Bill to attend music school in Chicago, where he learned arranging, harmony, piano, voice and, crucially, how to sight-read any music put in front of him — a skill that paid off handsomely in his future studio work.
Back in L.A., Blaine began hustling jobs wherever he could get them, and although at age 25 he was already playing with Count Basie’s orchestra, he also scraped by doing sets in strip bars and scuzzy clubs like the Crossbow in the Valley. He could play whatever the musical setting required. “To this day,” he says, “I don’t care what the song is, I hear it and I can hum along, I can do countermelodies to it. Realize that these are not the kinds of things that every drummer can do.”
Blaine’s reputation as a quick study spread throughout the L.A. music and film business, the demand for his skills coinciding fortuitously with the growing popularity of rock & roll in the late ’50s and early ’60s. “When that so-called rock & roll thing started to happen, a lot of [movie studio session players] just refused; they didn’t like the words rock & roll, said ‘I won’t play that crap.’ You know, they were jazz people, and I never put jazz down, except that through the years you learn that jazz doesn’t pay anything.” He recalls the amazement in a music supervisor’s voice when the Wrecking Crew — as Blaine dubbed the top session players — ripped through the cues for a Love Bug session at Disney, having patiently endured a patronizing lecture on the fundamentals of film scoring.
“He says, ‘We’re going to slowly play a click track. Now, a click track is just something that keeps you —’ like we didn’t know. And as soon as we heard eight clicks — boppadoppadoppadoppadang! — we played the whole thing, 10 or 12 bars, something like that. And he says, ‘My god, I wish we’d have taken that! That was perfect. How did you guys do that?’ And Tommy Tedesco, may he rest in peace, one of the most famous lines in Hollywood, he said, ‘Well, sir, we practice a lot during the day.’”
The studio orchestra players, or “blue blazer guys,” as Blaine called them, thought the likes of the Crew were wrecking the biz. “They had no idea that we were graduates of music schools, that we could write or read or arrange. But within a very short time, they all wanted to be our best friends. They knew that we had more or less taken over the business.”
My interest in Blaine dates back to my admiration as a kid for the drumming of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson; I used to tell anybody who’d listen, Man, Dennis Wilson, that guy is the greatest! And he probably did play on the first couple of Beach Boys albums. But I came to find that it was Blaine whacking the tubs on subsequent records, including the masterpiece Pet Sounds. This was a revelation to me, that bands weren’t necessarily self-sufficient, that they had help in the studio, and sometimes onstage. But weren’t the band members’ egos bruised a bit? “Dennis Wilson loved it,” says Blaine. “He was on his boat while I was making records, and, you know, I was earning $35 in the afternoon, he was making $3,500 or $35,000 that night onstage.
“What happened was that a person like myself, or [fellow drummer] Earl Palmer, we were guys who could come in and do an album in four hours, or a double session, six hours — three hours and three hours. The guys that were in the groups, like the Byrds, they could rehearse for months and still not get in the studio and do it right. So I became everybody’s drummer, and the other guys did too, because we could go in and go bing bing bing, and everything was a No. 1, or at least a Top 10.”