Hal Blaine obituary
Acclaimed drummer and member of the session musicians Wrecking Crew who worked on many of pop’s greatest hits
Hal Blaine knew when to keep it simple to make a song sound distinctive on the radio. The stomping sound that punctuated Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made for Walking was his.
As a key member of the loose affiliation of Hollywood session musicians who became known in the 1960s as the Wrecking Crew, the drummer Hal Blaine played on more hits than he could possibly have remembered. His beat propelled the Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin’, the Byrds’ Mr Tambourine Man, the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations, the Crystals’ Then He Kissed Me, Richard Harris’s MacArthur Park, Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction and Sonny and Cher’s I Got You, Babe. The Grammy award-winning singles to which he contributed his skills included Frank Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night, Herb Alpert’s A Taste of Honey, the 5th Dimension’s Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In and Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. Blaine, who has died aged 90, was a musician of expert technique and considerable imagination, but he knew when to keep it simple in order to make a song distinctive when played on the radio. The stomping sound that punctuated Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made for Walking was his. So was the riveting introduction to the Ronettes’ Be My Baby, a brusque bom bom-bom BANG! bom bom-bom BANG! that came thundering out of a million transistors in 1963.His driving beat and epic tom-tom fills formed the foundation of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, erected around the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love and others. As Spector made a roomful of musicians go through 40 or 50 takes of a two-minute song until, as someone once said, they were exhausted enough to play what he wanted rather than what they wanted, Blaine was one who never flagged. His work on those records attracted the interest of Brian Wilson, who worshipped Spector, and Blaine became an important collaborator on the Beach Boy’s innovative productions, notably the album Pet Sounds. He carried a box of exotic percussion devices around with him, but was happy to use soft-drink bottles from the studio vending machine to create exactly the sound Wilson had in his head for the song Caroline, No. Unlike many highly trained session musicians, the members of the Wrecking Crew were not musical snobs. Some of them had come up through jazz, but most had a background in various forms of pop music, including country music and rock’n’roll. Blaine was the archetype of that open-mindedness. As he drove around Hollywood from one session to another at Gold Star, Sunset Sound, RCA and Western, he kept drum kits permanently set up to his specification in several of the studios. He was born Harold Simon Belsky in Holyoke, Massachusetts, one of four children of Russian Jewish immigrants, Rose and Meyer, a tailor who went on to run a liquor store. After the family moved in 1943 to southern California, he took drum lessons with Roy Knapp, who had taught Gene Krupa. Hal was playing in a trio at the Garden of Allah apartment hotel in Hollywood when he was invited to play on his first session, and always credited his fellow and always credited his fellow drummer Earl Palmer with giving him a leg up. Palmer had arrived from New Orleans, where he was schooled in jazz but had learned to play rock’n’roll, giving him a special status in studios where the raw sound of the new music was in demand. Palmer soon had more sessions than he could handle, and began passing some of them on to Blaine. Session musicians made good money in the 60s as long as they could turn up on time, could add a little magic to a song and did not make trouble. The new generation of which Blaine was a part included the guitarists Bill Pitman, Glen Campbell, Billy Strange and Tommy Tedesco (whose son Denny made an award-winning documentary about them in 2008), the pianists Don Randi, Leon Russell and Larry Knechtel, and the bassists Ray Pohlman, Carol Kaye and Joe Osborn. Blaine gave the Wrecking Crew their name, a reference to the older musicians – the ones he called “the blue-blazer guys” – who feared that the new generation would usurp their opportunities and destroy their comfortable living. Often called on by producers to replace a group’s drummer in the studio in order to give a record a more solid beat, he said that the only one who had resented the substitution was the Byrds’ Michael Clarke. Others, including the Monkees’ Micky Dolenz and the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson, were happy to go on TV or out on tour and imitate what he had played on their records.
Be My Baby to Bridge Over Troubled Water: Hal Blaine's greatest performances There was nothing pretentious about Blaine, a gregarious man who mentored younger drummers and loved to tell stories about his experiences. When Elvis Presley was released from the army in 1960, Blaine began to play on his film soundtracks, including Blue Hawaii and Girls Girls Girls. “He paid top dollar and he was the nicest guy in the world,” he said.
In 2000 he and Palmer were both inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “Hal never had good jazz chops [technique],” Palmer wrote in his autobiography, “but that don’t make him not a hell of a drummer for what he did.” “If Hal Blaine had played drums only on Be My Baby,” the E Street Band’s Max Weinberg declared in his book on rock’n’roll drumming, “his name would still be uttered with reverence and respect for the power of his big beat”.
Blaine eventually took on the lucrative additional role of studio contractor, relied on by producers to hire the right musicians for each individual session. The Wrecking Crew’s motto was TTMAR: “Take the money and run.” But they – and Blaine not least – seldom closed the studio door behind them without having left something of themselves on the recording tape.
Blaine was married five times. His survivors include a daughter, Michelle, and seven grandchildren.
• Hal Blaine (Harold Simon Belsky), drummer, born 5 February 1929; died 11 March 2019