music

Stayin’ Alive: Hal Blaine

Harold Simon Belsky  is 88 years old. Some consider him the world’s greatest drummer. Which I imagine you think is funny because you’ve likely never heard of him. If I told you his professional name was Hal Blaine I’d probably still get a blank stare. What band was he with, you ask? Well…all of them. Hal Blaine is a session musician which is something that probably needs a bit of explanation in this day and age. The session musician or ‘studio musician’ is a highly skilled musician who is hired on a short term basis to provide backing musical accompaniment for a singer or band. They are mostly utilized in the studio for recordings and also will sometimes join a band to play live dates in support  of a touring artist. Confusion may be apparent due to the fact that we have all become accustomed to established, self-contained bands: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. All made up of four+ guys who recorded and toured together. But if you consider singers as wide ranging as Barbara Streisand, Johnny Mathis and Neil Diamond all the way up to Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars and Michael Buble, these artists – for the most part – need musicians to perform on recordings and back them in concert. Now, granted, some artists form their own bands and they stick together for years. But a lot of the time solo singers will go with ‘hired guns’ in the studio: experienced pros who know what they’re doing. I remember once when I was a kid listening to Simon and Garfunkel and I wondered who was playing all the instruments I was hearing. It certainly wasn’t the two of them. Session musicians almost never achieve celebrity but the best of them gain recognition and respect in the musical community.

Perhaps the most recognized and respected and probably the most recorded and the most successful session drummer in rock history is Hal Blaine of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Early on in his career, Hal decided that what he wanted to be was an ‘accompanist’: along with maybe a keyboardist or a bassist, he would ‘back’ singers as opposed to looking for a band to join. His earliest ‘accompanying’ jobs entailed him playing the drums all night in strip clubs. He persevered in small clubs until he joined up with singer Tommy Sands which gained Hal a certain amount of attention in the industry. Then Hal settled in Los Angeles where he could easily secure jobs playing on television and on film soundtracks. Word spread quickly. Here was a meticulous professional who could read music, keep a perfect back beat, contact and hire musicians and – sometimes most importantly – crack a joke to relieve the tension at a session that maybe wasn’t going too well. He soon became known as the ‘first call’ drummer for any and all sessions in Hollywood and the Los Angeles area, where most of the big records of the time were being made. The list of artists he worked with and legendary recordings he played on is truly staggering. It started with the aforementioned Tommy Sands, who was a lightweight singer known more for being Nancy Sinatra’s first husband, and continued with Patti Page. Then he came to the attention of master record producer Phil Spector. At this point, Spector was just starting his own record label and building a roster of stars, all of whom were backed by Hal and the rest of the ‘Wrecking Crew’ – the unofficial name given to the cream of the studio musicians that were starting to be heard backing many different singers on many different hit records. Many critics agree that the pinnacle came with Phil Spector’s recording of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” which went to number 2 in late 1963. The song – with Hal’s distinctive opening drum phrase – was ranked 22nd in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the top 500 songs of all time. Indeed, E Street drummer Max Weinberg has said that if “Be My Baby” was the only song that Hal Blaine ever played drums on his name would still be revered. And famously Brian Wilson was so obsessed with the song and the overall production of it that at one point in the ’70s Brian’s daughter Carnie says that her dad played the song all the time – literally ALL THE TIME. It has been called the greatest pop record ever made. To break down the significance of all the recordings that Hal Blaine played drums on would take more time than I’ve got here but that very fact tells you how prolific and successful he was. The artists he recorded with is a list of the very best – the VERY best – artists of all -time, not just the ’60s: Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, the Beach Boys,  Dean Martin, Johnny Cash, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, America, Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Pat Boone, the Byrds, Captain and Tennille, the Carpenters, Ray Charles, Cher, Leonard Cohen, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Doris Day, John Denver, Neil Diamond, Connie Francis, Jan And Dean, Michael Landon, The Mamas and the Papas, Henry Mancini, the Monkees, Gerry Mulligan, Roy Orbison, Patti Page, The Partridge Family, Louis Prima, Diana Ross, Simon and Garfunkel, Nancy Sinatra, Steely Dan, Barbra Streisand, The Supremes and Andy Williams to name just most of them. He was the first sideman to be inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He is credited with pioneering the modern drum kit. In his heyday, producers demanded he provide the signature tom fills he was becoming noted for. To achieve this sound, Hal built a ‘tom rack’ consisting of eight tom drums. Rolling Stone Magazine has ranked him 5th on their list of the greatest drummers in history. Think about that: only Neil Peart, Ginger Baker, Keith Moon and John Bonham rank ahead of him. But it gets crazier. Hal has played on 40 – FORTY – #1 hit singles, from “Johnny Angel” by Shelley Fabares in 1962 to the Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” in 1975. He’s played on over 150 Top Ten hits and on an estimated 35,000 songs, making him the most prolific and successful drummer in history. Unreal. And here’s one more for you. Hal holds an actual Grammy Award record. He played drums on 6 consecutive winners of the Grammy Award for Record of the Year. For six years in a row, from 1966 to 1970, the song that won the Grammy for being the best song of the year featured drums played by Hal Blaine.

The sad part of the story comes when you consider that Hal and his associates were being paid meagerly to make records for stars who would go on the road performing and make fortunes. To make matters worse for Hal, he was taken to the cleaners in a divorce settlement and at one time had to take a job as a security guard. For the last 15-20 years, Hal has been making the rounds of conventions, holding seminars and offering his story for print and media interviews. As I said, Hal is now 88 years old. He deserves recognition now. His accomplishments are singularly unique. He is a true legend.

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Golf

Straight Down the Middle

If you’re anything like me – and I hope for the sake of your spouse you’re not – then you want a playlist for everything. Christmas is an obvious one. Then there’s Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween and Summer. Then there’s also Elvis Week, Rainy Days, Cowboy Music or Music for Working Out. And, at the more advanced level, Music for the Vacation Drive Between South Carolina and Florida, Music for Warm, Breezy, Sunny Afternoons, Sinatra from ’66-’69 and Italian Music for When You’re Making Pasta.

The toughest one for me has always been Music to Golf By. What makes it so difficult is it’s hard to find songs that specifically deal with golf in their lyrics but there are a few. Golfing season – playing and watching – really kicks in at our house with the coming of spring and the Masters Tournament the first weekend of every April which brings us to the pinnacle, the “Stairway to Heaven”, of this ‘non-genre’: “Augusta” by Dave Loggins. A cousin of Kenny, Dave Loggins wrote and recorded the music you hear during the Masters broadcast on CBS every spring. The lyrics you don’t hear on TV speak of the glory of Augusta National Golf Club – where the tournament is played every spring – and make reference to dogwoods, pine trees, Augusta National founder Bobby Jones and golfing legends Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. It’s a pleasant trip around the course and through the history of the tournament. Another golf song is “Straight Down the Middle” by Bing Crosby, the king of the golfing singers. These lyrics depict the glory of a day on the links, spraying your ball left and right and lying about your round afterwards in the locker room. Another one that comes to mind is “Double Bogey Blues” by Micky Jones which was featured in maybe the best golf movie ever, “Tin Cup”. Albums with golf depicted with cover art include low-handicapper Perry Como’s “Como Swings” album and (the back cover at least) “Swing Along With Me” by Frank Sinatra. “Augusta” may be the ultimate golf song but the album all golfers who also enjoy fine singing need to own is “Gary Player Sings”. Yes, the South African golfing legend and fitness icon released this rare gem in 1970. He tackles standard fare such as “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Kum Ba Ya” along with more contemporary classics like “Gentle on My Mind” and “Happy Heart”. To own it on vinyl and have it framed and hanging on your wall would be the ultimate. The next best thing, though, is to download the album for free which you can do at Player’s site.

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Let’s face it: normal people that play golf regularly don’t ever think in terms of ‘music to golf by’. Mainly because golf etiquette dictates that you can’t be playing music on the golf course. However, there’s a little local par 3 course I like to go to on spring mornings and what I’ll do is put a playlist together (which I call “Straight Down the Middle”) and put it on my device which I’ll shove in my back pocket and play as I go ’round. The course is usually sparsely populated on a weekday morning so it doesn’t bother anybody. When I go by myself for a leisurely morning round, I’m going for a relaxing, old school vibe so I’m going for the type of music that Ward Cleaver may have listened to on the course. My playlist starts at the beginning, with the aforementioned Bing Crosby. Crosby is perhaps the original golfing celebrity. He loved the game and was good – a two handicap – when he decided to start his own tournament in 1937. Bing put up the $10,000 prize money himself and invited his Hollywood friends to come and play with the pros and created the ‘pro-am’ format – celebrities paired with pros to compete in a tournament within the tournament. Crosby also encouraged his celeb friends to host their own tournaments, bringing in their television and movie sponsors to underwrite the events. Sounds like Bing played at least a small part in creating the original concept of today’s PGA Tour. The party time event Bing started in 1937 – originally called the Bing Crosby Clambake – eventually became the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, one of the most popular events on tour. Crosby’s influence also led to many other celebrity-hosted PGA Tour events. My playlist will continue with Jackie Gleason and some music from his wonderful mood music albums of the ’50s. The television legend took to golf late in life. He learned the game in his early 40s but quickly fell in love with it. In 1972, he started Jackie Gleason’s Inverrary Classic at the Inverrary Country Club in Lauderhill, Florida. It is still being contested today as the Honda Classic, a big part of the Florida Swing on the PGA Tour. I’ll continue with a little Andy Williams. Andy was an avid golfer who was a good ambassador for the PGA Tour. Williams is credited with playing a key role in boosting golf’s popularity in southern California and around the nation when, in 1968, he became the host of the San Diego Open Invitational. The event had taken place in many different locations until Andy came on board and the event settled at Torrey Pines where it soon became one of the most popular events on tour. Andy was the host of the event – now called The Farmers Insurance Open – for 21 years; only Bing Crosby’s and Bob Hope’s affiliations with their events lasted longer. To maintain the same mid-century vibe while trying to crack 50 on my par 3 course, I’ll continue with some Sammy Davis, Jr. Today, The Travelers Championship is held every June in Connecticut but from 1973 to 1988 it was known as the Sammy Davis, Jr. Greater Hartford Open. Even if Dean Martin never had any connection to golf, you could benefit a lot by listening to him while on the golf course. His relaxed and smooth style is conducive to swinging easy and maintaining a cool demeanor. As it happens, Dean was a huge golf fan and one of the better celebrity golfers of his day. He was a single-digit handicapper who was well known back in the day for foregoing almost everything to play golf. Phoning in performances in his films with Jerry Lewis, begging off a night of carousing with Frank and the boys and never rehearsing for his popular “Dean Martin Show” all so he could basically live on the links. Also, from 1972 to 1975 he hosted the Dean Martin Tuscon Open in Arizona, a PGA Tour event until it’s demise in 2007. Frank Sinatra liked to be good at everything but reports indicate he was a 24 handicap golfer who was good off the tee but just liked to hack it around and have fun. He did host a PGA-sanctioned golf tournament once in 1963 called the Frank Sinatra Invitational. And I’ll play some Perry Como, too. Perry’s smooth, easy style – like Martin’s – certainly can help you swing the club free from any rigidity and your putting stroke could certainly be helped if you are using a Perry Como Putter that was made by MacGregor in the early ’60’s.

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If you throw in some more contemporary recordings by Huey Lewis and the News and Darius Rucker/Hootie and the Blowfish – Huey and Darius are both noted celebrity golfers – you can easily build yourself a nice golfing playlist. The songs themselves may not deal with birdies and bogeys but knowing that the singers loved to tee it up as well as tapping in to the mellow, relaxing and rhythmic nature of their music, can go along way to helping you get the most out of your round by yourself on a warm spring morning at your local par 3.

 

 

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