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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