From the Vaults: America’s Heartbeat
Mental music quiz time: Who is the connecting thread between the following hit songs? Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys); Be My Baby (The Ronettes); Return to Sender (Elvis); Strangers in the Night (Frank Sinatra); Mr. Tambourine Man (The Byrds); Mary, Mary (The Monkees); and The Way We Were (Barbra Steisand)? The title may have given you a clue as the answer is ‘drummer Hal Blaine’. The list could have been significantly longer as Blaine has been credited with playing on more than six thousand songs in his storied career, but the short list presented is just an attention grabber. Imagine what Be My Baby would have sounded like without the ‘Boom, ba-boom BOP, Boom, ba-boom BOP’ intro Blaine provided. I can’t because it is so iconic, it is literally burned into my brain. The riff has been used by so many other drummers and in so many songs, Blaine should have copyrighted it.
Having spent more than a few FTV segments on drummers, I had bookmarked Amanda Petrusich’s article The Drummer Hal Blaine Provided the Beat for American Music a while ago. It was published in The New Yorker magazine after he died at age 90 on March 11, 2019. Only recently did I find it on the bottom of my cache of reference materials. Born Harold Simon Belsky on February 5, 1929 in Holyoke, Massachusetts, he was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. By age seven, the family was living in Hartford, Connecticut and young Harold was already exploring his drummer chops playing along with songs using dowels (removed from a kitchen chair) for sticks. By age eleven, he joined a drum and bugle corp sponsored by the Catholic parish across the street from his Hebrew school. Hal’s sister Marcia gifted him with his first drum set when he turned thirteen. A pretty typical beginning for a young drummer, but this drummer would go on to play on more than 35,000 recording sessions.
Hal’s father worked across the street from The State Theater in Hartford so every Saturday, he would give his son a quarter to keep him occupied. Hal would spend his time attending stage shows, movies, cartoons, and big band concerts by the likes of Glenn Miller, Woody Herman, and Gene Krupa. Blaine later recalled, “I had no idea what an impact they all would have on my later years. I was a 13- and 14-year old kid during those years, and they were probably the happiest of my teenage life – sitting transfixed, glued all day long every Saturday, watching my favorite bands and taking special note of the drummers. When I got home, I couldn’t wait to get a hold of my sticks and run the arrangements I had just heard. I just knew that one day the drummer would get sick or fall off the stage and I’d jump up and save the show.”
A move to Los Angeles followed when he was fourteen. Hal dropped out of school at sixteen and joined the Army. After basic training, Blaine was assigned to the band and transferred to Korea. There PFC Belsky became the drummer in a band made up of officers. After his 1948 discharge from the Army, Hal spent a year playing in Alaska and the Northwest U.S. with the Stan Moore Trio. A buddy convinced him to move to Chicago where he used his G.I. Bill money to enroll in the Roy C. Knapp School of Percussion. The curriculum kept Hal busy during the day while he spent his nights at various clubs. From 8:00 in the evening to 4:00 in the morning Blaine played what were known as ‘casual’ gigs; dates usually in support of a musician or to provide rhythm for the ‘dancers’ at strip clubs. Graduation took him back to California for another round of gigs including road work that took him across the country and back again. His time with singer Tommy Sands saw Hal fulfill his ‘sick drummer’ dream when he provided Count Basie’s Band with their beat at New York City’s Waldorf Hotel. Blaine was offered the Basie gig full time, but turned it down to stay with Sands. Some may question the move, but recording with Sands would prove to be his big break and serve as his training ground for later studio work.
When Sands retired to Hawaii, Blaine hooked up with Patti Page, a connection leading to a friendship with arranger/composer H.B.Barnum. The studio work he did for Barnum introduced Hal to session drummer Earl Palmer. Palmer began recommending Hal for other studio work. Blaine’s work with Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass on A Taste of Honey produced the first ‘Record of the Year’ he would play on. Can the drummer make a difference in an arrangement? Blaine explained how the one-bar drum solo introduction to A Taste of Honey came about: “After the little intro, the band was not coming in together, so I just did ‘boom-boom-boom-boom diddly-diddly-diddly’ and everyone came in perfectly. [The producer and] Herb loved it, so it sort of became the hook of the song.” It would not be the first or last ‘hook’ Hal Blaine would add to a record. We played a few of Alpert’s hits in high school pep band and my only regret is we never took a crack at A Taste of Honey. Kicking it off with Blaine’s intro would have been a drummers’s dream.
Blaine can also be credited for improving the way music was recorded for movie soundtracks. He was asked by Paramount Studios to be the drummer for a ‘youth’ movie that was going to be filmed in Hawaii. It turned out to be Blue Hawaii featuring Elvis Presley. The first session ended when the engineer came into the studio to complain that the track being recorded sounded nothing like songs he was hearing on the radio. Blaine explained why; they were doing it old school with only one overhead mic on the drums. He convinced them they needed two overhead mics and separate mics on each drum, and the hi-hat. The engineer thought, “I was nuts because they didn’t have inputs to mic the whole set like that, but the next take came out perfect.” Saving the day opened the door for even more soundtrack sessions for Blaine.
Hal picked up more and more work as a first-call drummer for rock sessions because he was the best. Working with the mercurial Phil Spector would become a big part of Blaine’s studio history. The aforementioned ‘Boom, ba-boom BOP’ intro to Be My Baby (produced by Spector) was actually a mistake: “As I recall,” he said later, “we rehearsed it with a regular backbeat on the 2 and 4. But then when we did the first take, I dropped my stick and missed the 2. So being the faker that I am, I just played the 4, and one of the things you learn is that when you make a mistake, if you do it every four bars it becomes part of the song.” Working with Spector found Hal recording with a regular core of musicians that became known as ‘The Wrecking Crew.” Blaine takes credit for the nickname: “Some of the older studio musicians, who were raised on jazz and showed up to sessions in jackets and ties, complained that these young rock and roll musicians who showed up for sessions in jeans and T-shirts were wrecking the music business.” Work with The Wrecking Crew was so abundant that Blaine refused many offers to tour so he wouldn’t jeopardize his studio work. He made an exception for Nancy Sinatra.
Blaine recalled why he agreed to go to Las Vegas with her: “She made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. She left room for me to commute back to the studios to keep my name in the running for good sessions.” The These Boots are Made for Walkin’ sessions led directly to Hal working with ‘Old Blue Eyes’ himself, Frank Sinatra: “If you listen closely, I played the same beat on Strangers in the Night that I played on Be My Baby, just slower and softer.” Blaine was never flashy and it was that ‘heartbeat steadiness’ and adaptability that kept him working. Blaine told Modern Drummer magazine, “ I was never a soloist, I was an accompanist. That was my forte. I never had Buddy Rich chops. Blaine joked that drummer Bruce Gary (of the Michigan band The Knack) once said that he was disappointed to find out that, “A dozen of his favorite drummers were [Blaine].” As for me, after copping drum licks from the top forty stuff we played in my various bands over the years, I was actually thrilled to learn that I was lifting parts from the fabled Hal Blaine. And yes, I have used the ‘Boom, ba-boom BOP’ on more than one occasion.
Working for a perfectionist like Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys may have been even more difficult than working with Spector, but Hal said Wilson let him experiment. Blaine recalled, “Brian loved sounds. One time I took three empty, plastic orange juice bottles, and I cut them down to three different sizes so they had three pitches. I taped them together and hit them with a xylophone mallet, and it sounded somewhat like a bongo. I used that sound on Caroline, No.”
Name your favorite Beach Boys sound and you are probably remembering Hal Blaine’s work.
The other innovation he brought to recording drum sounds had to do with tuning: “I came along at a time when drummers tuned their drums real high in pitch – real tight. A lot of that was for technique so they could get a lot of ‘bounce to the ounce’ so to speak.” Hal worked for a lot of singers who liked his tuned down drum sound so it carried over into his studio work.
He continued, “My set had 12 drums (not the regular four or five), which no one had ever heard of. It really was a major change, which makes me proud. I wanted a full, bigger spectrum of sound to be able to do more with drums.” Paul Revere & the Raiders hit Cherokee People is perhaps the best illustration of how he worked his multiple toms into a song’s arrangement.
Studio musicians were rarely credited for their work on the record jackets. When word leaked the Monkees (or the Pre-Fab Four as some called them to distinguish them from a ‘real’ band) were singing over tracks recorded by The Wrecking Crew, some bands backed off using studio musicians. This turning point in record labeling became known as ‘The Monkees’ Scandal’. Some labels began giving credit where credit was due by listing the studio players who appeared on the records. For a comprehensive list of Blaine’s recordings, there is an actual web site out there in cyberspace listing them alphabetically. Be forewarned, it takes a long time to get through the list because you will find yourself humming a lot of your favorite songs before you can move along.
Another example of Blaine’s approach to session work can be found in Simon and Garfunkel’s song The Boxer. Blaine decided that the ‘lie-la-lie’ section needed a little more punch to the drum accents. He and producer Roy Halee set his drums up in an empty elevator shaft and when the time came, he used what he called “a cannonball-like sound; I hit the drums as hard as I could,” adding a distinctive texture to what started out sounding more like a sweet lullaby.” When I hear The Boxer now and it gets to the ‘I am leaving, but the fighter still remains, lie-la-lie BOOM’ I get a mental image of Blaine wailing away in an elevator shaft to produce those whomping drum sounds
In the 1980s, things began to change in the music industry on both the creative and consumer ends. Recording technology advanced to the point where more artists were choosing to use artificial drum sounds or loops in the studio. In some cases, the practice migrated to live performances. With a decrease in studio work (fall out from electronic drums and looping), Blaine found himself doing more commercial jingles. When that type of work also began to disappear, he retired from playing. He would occasionally do clinics and some promotional work for a movie about The Wrecking Crew. Blaine didn’t say much about record sales tanking due to other advances in technology other than the obvious: recording albums hardly pays when music is downloaded or traded with no compensation to the artists. Having a zillion downloads of a single on the internet does not have the same financial wallop it did when those numbers represented the sale of real, physical records or CDs. Blaine lost most of his wealth in a messy divorce and at one point worked as a security guard in Arizona during his semi-retirement.
Hal Blaine’s career became kind of a Classic Rock footnote, but he did not sound bitter about any of his life: “When I started out, I was a jazz drummer, but I always say that when I came to California, I fell into a vat of chocolate because so many guys refused to play that dirty word: ‘rock and roll’. I got to record on so many labels and work with so many wonderful musicians.”
When he was still doing clinics for Zildjian (cymbals) or Taye or whoever, Blaine said, “ I always told the kids that a song is a story, and if you’re just smashing the hell out of the drums, no one can hear the words of that story.” When he passed away in 2019 in Palm Desert, California, his family released a statement that simply said, “May he rest forever on 2 and 4.” A drummer to the end, right up to his epitaph. It is a given that Rock and Roll Heaven got a little louder when Hal got there.
Top Piece Video: You can’t see Hal Blaine on this clip, but you can hear his classic beat on this 1963 hit for the Ronettes