I’m both ill and trying to get some work done today, so I don’t have the time to give Hal Blaine anything like the tribute he deserves, but I had to quickly mark his death here. Hal Blaine was one of the few session musicians who become almost as well-known as the musicians he played for, and deservedly so. While there’s some controversy over who played what on some records, we do know that Blaine was the first-call studio drummer in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and that he played on, if not every important record that came out of LA in the sixties, at least half of them.
He wasn’t a flashy player, but he had perfect feel, and he was a musician who could always be trusted to play just the right part. His opening to “Be My Baby”, almost certainly the most well-known bit of drumming from him, is a perfect example. It’s utterly simple, but utterly perfect.
Blaine was also often the contractor on those sessions, which meant that he was the one who was more responsible than anyone else for the conglomeration of msusicians that became known as the Wrecking Crew — a group that, while its membership varied depending on who was available for what date, had the distinctive sound that made pretty much every hit that came out of California in the 1960s. Blaine played on records for the Beach Boys, Glen Campbell, the Association, the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds, Elvis, Sinatra, Roy Orbison, the Monkees… anyone who was making records in LA in the sixties. He even played on stuff that doesn’t sound like typical Wrecking Crew fare, like a couple of the tracks on Forever Changes and the 1974 Roxy cast live album for The Rocky Horror Show. But there was a distinctive sound to almost everything he and the rest of the Wrecking Crew played on. “Return to Sender” by Elvis, “Strangers in the Night” by Sinatra, “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel, “A Taste of Honey” by Herb Alpert, “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys, “Mary Mary” by the Monkees, and “Da Doo Ron Ron” by the Crystals are all vastly different records in terms of their feel, their arrangements, and even their quality. But they all have a similar sonic palette, and they all sound like the Wrecking Crew. And the drums on them all sound like Hal Blaine.
He was a drummer’s drummer, and while I know some drummers who don’t rank him as the absolute best, I know none who wouldn’t put him in the top five or ten drummers of all time. He’ll be missed.