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.”
Word of Blaine’s work, with Phil Spector and the Beach Boys in particular, spread to every producer in Hollywood, and more were coming from England, Nashville and New York, seeking the sound of the Wrecking Crew, whose touch seemingly turned records gold. Hitmakers like Bones Howe, Lou Adler and Snuff Garrett were regular customers for that sound, and getting it often involved Blaine’s polite instructions on proper mike placement for the full-on crazy rock effect. “Producers wanted me to come up with things,” he says, “and I learned very early on the word hook. If you listen to so many of those hit records, you’ll hear a hook that I did somewhere, drumwise, and it happened near the beginning, in the middle and in the end. And those were the hooks that made hit records of that era.” (An example of a Hal Blaine hook is the well-known snare-and-tom-tom triplet fills he plays on just about every Phil Spector song.)
In other words, Blaine wasn’t called upon to be a mere drumming machine, but rather a valued contributor — interestingly, valued most by producers we regard as creative geniuses. “On Pet Sounds,” he says, “Brian Wilson gave me carte blanche — ‘Whatever you think, whatever you feel, go ahead’ — and I was playing little plastic orange juice bottles, little clicks and bings and bangs and anything else I could grab. Brian used to come to the Spector sessions, at the Gold Star studios on Santa Monica and Vine — it’s not there anymore — and he loved the stuff we were doing. When I would suggest castanets in the middle of a rock & roll record, everybody would say, ‘This is not a Mexican record.’ But it’s just a time, it’s just rhythm.
“And that’s the way we used to make records — to make them feel good; if they felt good, we had a good record. Jingle bells in the middle of a rock & roll song? Nobody ever heard of that, and the other players were saying, ‘Are you crazy, what’re you talking about?’ And Phil says, ‘No, leave it that way!’
Still, preparedness remained the key to Blaine’s success: “I always had score paper with me, reams of it, and I rarely did a date where I didn’t write the part out; once in a while you’d fake something, but generally I knew all the stops and starts, where I would play a fill, etc.”
The work kept coming for Blaine and the Crew throughout the ’60s, but tapered off toward the mid-’70s. Blaine took it in stride, went on the road with John Denver, and eased himself into a slightly saner schedule of pet projects for the love of playing, such as working with his friend David Grisman on an album of traditional Jewish melodies called Songs of Our Fathers, and its companion volume, coming soon. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, has a permanent exhibit at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, and now the Smithsonian wants to acquire his famous Ludwig blue-sparkle drum set. You can learn more of his jam-packed story in his newly reissued book, Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew (Mixbooks), as well as a recent audiobook, Hooray for Hollywood (and Local 47) (available at www.halblaine.com). Or, best of all, you can spin your radio dial to the nearest classic rock station and savor the next Hal Blaine chart topper, which ought to be coming along any minute now.
Hal, you know what you accomplished is pretty phenomenal, don’t you?
“It’s amazing the way it all went,” he says, “and they were fun times, they really were. We knew we were making history. But trust me when I tell you, I never had that kind of ego. It was my work, and it was what I loved. Basically, I’m an accompanist — but I’m a great accompanist. And that was my feat in life.”