Written by Nick Gonzaga
Like his opening hook in the studio recording of The Ronette’s “Be My Baby”, Hal Blaine lived his life in that 2/4 beat; original, polyrhythmic and periodically contradicting the prevailing meter, only to come out on top of everything else. Here's a eulogy to one of the greatest drummer pioneers.
Hal Blaine was the greatest drummer you’ve never heard of. As a member of the world renowned and simultaneously obscure Wrecking Crew, Hal Blaine played the drums on many of the songs that comprise the soundtrack of the entirety of your life. Throughout his illustrious career, Blaine was a highly sought after hired gun and his versatility spanned all genres. From country to jazz, from rock and roll to R&B, he is considered to be the most recorded drummer in music history, playing in more than 35,000 sessions by his estimation, including roughly 6,000 singles resulting in 150 US top 10 hits. Of those top 10’s, 40 would go on to become number ones. His music can be heard as you dine in chain restaurants, pump gas in a convenience store parking lot and stand in line to purchase gum at any airport in the world. His music reaches millions of ears across the globe daily on a near constant basis and you would never even know it. As a studio musician, he held the distinction of being directed by the likes of Brian Wilson, Frank Sinatra, and Cher. He tapped snares for John Denver, Elvis and Barbara Streisand. His contributions include “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” with The 5th Dimension, “California Dreamin’” from the Mama’s & The Papa’s, and the original “Batman” television theme song. Whenever you hear “Ventura Highway” by America on your car stereo, you are listening to Hal Blaine. When your android shuffles to “Close To You” by The Carpenters, that’s Hal Blaine. Every single time you watch that bowling alley dream sequence from “The Big Lebowski” where Julianne Moore is dressed like a Viking, Hal Blaine is playing those drums that you’re tapping your knee to.
Hal Blaine died on March 11th, 2019 at the age of 90. One of the greats as well as one of the most influential and under-appreciated musicians to ever sit at a drum set. Born Harold Simon Belsky on February 5th, 1929 in Holyoke, Massachusetts to Jewish-European parents. Blaine began playing the drums at the tender age of 8 before moving with his family to Los Angeles, California. At 19, he began taking lessons from Roy Knapp, who coincidentally also taught legendary Jazz drummer Gene Krupa. His professional career was jump started when he started playing overnight gigs in seedy Chicago strip joints. During rock and roll’s infancy, Blaine excelled and perfected his sight reading skills as he was commissioned to play more and more sessions in the burgeoning new genre. Studio musicians from the era before were largely conservative and slowly phasing out of the industry. It was Blaine who coined the name “The Wrecking Crew” to describe the emerging young blood as a destructive force that was slowly taking over the studio player profession. Blaine once told “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross in a 2001 interview on NPR “A lot of people said it was a dirty word. They didn't want to hear that kind of music. They thought the musicians were just rank amateurs. They had no idea that we were all well-learned and studied musicians with degrees and so forth playing music.” Together as a unit, the Wrecking Crew recorded countless number one singles throughout the 1960’s and 70’s. The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” has remained firmly secure as the Wrecking Crew’s crown jewel, as well as the album that inspired The Beatles to record “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” as a response to the aforementioned Brian Wilson’s most influential opus. In the 1980’s he fell on hard times. Drum machines slowly began replacing studio hot shots and a costly divorce dealt an unforgiving financial blow to the man who gave the world so much over the decades, forcing him to find work as a security guard in Arizona at one point just to make ends meet. Blaine was eventually inducted into the rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 in recognition of his invaluable contributions to the world of music. Like his opening hook in the studio recording of The Ronette’s “Be My Baby” (as produced by Phil Spector), Hal lived his life in that 2/4 beat; original, polyrhythmic and periodically contradicting the prevailing meter, only to come out on top of everything else. There is no question that his career was a long and fulfilling one, but the world is certainly a poorer place without him. Raise your glasses and give a salute to one of the great drumming pioneers.