Hal Blaine (1929-2019)

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Hal Blaine
Hal Blaine, a prolific Los Angeles session drummer most closely associated with the Wrecking Crew, a tightly knit group of studio musicians in the 1960s and '70s who added a professional studio sound behind thousands of recordings by pop-rock groups and stars, died on March 11. He was 90.

Hal played on 40 #1 hit singles, 150 top-10 hits and performed on more than 35,000 recorded tracks. He was the drummer on the Grammy's “Record of the Year" for six years straight, from 1966 to 1971. These six songs were Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass's 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 & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Hal was best known for his powerful drumming style and syncopated hooks that helped turn pop-rock songs into smash hits. When I drove down to Palm Desert, Calif., to interview Hal for The Wall Street Journal in the winter of 2011, I remember being struck by his expansive wall of fame featuring awards and photos. Here's the opening paragraph of my piece:

Hal Blaine put his hand on my shoulder. “This is going to break your heart, but much of the music you heard in the '60s and early '70s wasn't recorded by the people you saw on the album covers," he said. “It was done by me and the musicians you see on these walls."

In the 1960s, the Los Angeles record industry found itself in a quandary. As pop-rock's appeal skyrocketed among millions of baby boomers, many groups who captivated young record buyers weren't good enough musicians to deliver what was needed in recording studios. At the dawn of the decade, producers watched studio expenses surge as bands tried over and over to record a master take. Even on takes where there wasn't a mistake, the recordings were lackluster and lacked confidence and punch. 

In 1961, Phil Spector figured out that by using the same group of top-flight musicians on each recording session, he could record hit after hit with singers such as the Righteous Brothers, the Ronettes, the Crystals and many others. This group of studio musicians became known as the Wrecking Crew. As Hal told me that afternoon in Palm Desert, the name originated when an older, buttoned-down Hollywood studio musician saw the younger musicians with long hair and open shirts, and quipped, “These young studio guys are going to wreck the business."

Hal and the Wrecking Crew recorded on nearly all of the Beach Boys songs, starting with Little Deuce Coup, and was on the records of nearly every group you can think of. In a single day, Blaine would record on several pop-rock sessions and drive across town to record behind “adult" pop artists such as Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. In every case, like many of the Wrecking Crew musicians, Hal would be tasked to come up with an addictive beat.

Like many people who knew Hal well, I'm going to miss those flood of emails from him bearing musicians' jokes and gags—some funny and some in questionable taste. What I quickly found after visiting him in 2011 is that when you wrote a piece on a member of the Wrecking Crew, you were part of the family.

Here are 10 of my favorite hits with Hal Blaine playing drums:

Here's the Beach Boys's Little Deuce Coup in 1963...



Here's the Ronettes' Be My Baby in 1963...



Here's Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass's A Taste of Honey in 1965...



Here's the Mamas & the Papas's Go Where You Wanna Go in 1965...



Here's the Beach Boys's God Only Knows (with Hal playing empty plastic orange juice containers)...



Here's Elvis Presley's A Little Less Conversation in 1968...



Here's Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1970...



Here's the 5th Dimension's One Less Bell to Answer in 1970...



Here's the Carpenters' (They Long to Be) Close to You in 1970...



Here's Steely Dan's Any World (That I'm Welcome To) in 1975...



Bonus: Here's Hal in the studio on the Beach Boys' Good Vibrations session...



Do yourself a favor—rent, stream or buy Denny Tedesco's The Wrecking Crew documentary here. Here's the trailer...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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