You may not know the name, but you know the sound. The sound of Hal Blaine was one of jubilance, energy, drama, power, ferocity, and swagger, ever deployed solely in service of the song. Upon his death yesterday at the age of 90, Brian Wilson deemed him “the greatest drummer ever.” Few could argue with that description, as Blaine was Los Angeles’ first-call drummer during perhaps the greatest period of pop invention in the latter half of the twentieth century. From 1966 to 1971, Blaine played on all six consecutive Grammy Record of the Year winners: Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass’ “A Taste of Honey,” Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” The 5th Dimension’s “Up, Up, and Away,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” The 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” But those six songs barely scratch the surface of the Hal Blaine legacy.
Born Harold Simon Belsky in Massachusetts, the drummer moved with his family to California in 1943 but made his first professional music in Chicago. After a three-year stint in the U.S. Army, he utilized the GI Bill to study there with renowned drum teacher Roy Knapp. He remembered honing his sight-reading skills in the city’s strip clubs, and eventually put those abilities to good use on the session player circuit back home in California where he was often called upon, with his fellow musicians, to create or enhance arrangements on the spot. It was Blaine who created the famous, often-imitated introduction to The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” in 1963, doubtless one of the most recognizable passages in pop history. Phil Spector considered Blaine an indispensable part of his “house band” – the loose-knit group of top tier players who would collectively be known in later years as The Wrecking Crew. Blaine took credit for coining the name as a response to those older musicians who felt that the young men and women embracing rock-and-roll (but well-schooled in jazz, classical, and every genre that might be called for) would “wreck” the industry. Far from it, the group defined the sound of a generation and created music that still endures more than half a century later.
The rock-solid, endlessly inventive anchor of The Wrecking Crew’s rhythm section, Blaine contributed mightily to the sound of Spector’s greatest disciple, Brian Wilson, and played on an approximate 150 top ten records and 40 chart-topping hits from The Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, Sonny and Cher, The Byrds, The Mamas and The Papas, Johnny Rivers, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, The Association, Cher, Carpenters, Captain and Tennille, The Supremes, and Barbra Streisand. It’s been estimated that Blaine played on anywhere from 6,000 to 35,000 songs, but even at the low end of that spectrum, he would be considered one of the most recorded drummers of all time – perhaps the most. While the changing sound of music led to a distinctive tapering-off of the Wrecking Crew’s assignments as the 1970s progressed, Blaine and his cohorts’ influence never waned.
“Hal Blaine Strikes Again” read the rubber stamp that Blaine would deploy on pages and places which he had played. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient will keep striking again and again every time a radio is turned on to the magnificent sounds he created. Bum-ba-bum-BOOM.