Hal Blaine: “May he rest forever on 2 and 4.”
That quote is from his family’s Facebook posting, announcing Hal Blaine’s passing at age 90.
He played on 40 #1 singles, 150 top 10s, some 6000+ tracks in all. (You’ll see stats that say north of 30,000 but don’t believe the hype. All these guys were union and kept their timecards. When Hal says more than 6000, he knew what he was talking about.)
Hal was the drummer on six straight Grammy Record of the Year winners, 1966 through 1971:
- “A Taste of Honey”, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
- “Strangers In The Night”, Frank Sinatra
- “Up, Up, and Away”, The Fifth Dimension
- “Mrs. Robinson”, Simon & Garfunkel
- “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In”, The Fifth Dimension
- “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, Simon & Garfunkel
Plus if it was a studio recording by The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, Sonny & Cher, Carpenters, The Association, The Fifth Dimension, or The Partridge Family, the odds are that it was probably Hal.
You don’t need me to cue up Hal’s biggest hits like the ones listed above, or “Be My Baby”, “Good Vibrations” (Hal seen below working on it with Brian Wilson)…
…so I’m going to take you to the first song that made me say, “WHO’S PLAYING THOSE DRUMS?!?!” The song was a deceptively complicated pop trifle called “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe, and it spent four weeks at #1, starting on March 15, 1969 (50 years ago almost to the day as I write this).
I say deceptively complicated because even though it’s basically two verses and the chorus three times (it actually starts with the chorus, which I’m a sucker for.) There’s not even a bridge, but it manages to go through 11 key changes in less than three minutes! And while there are other instruments, I always heard it as a duet between the drums and the strings.
You already know it was Hal Blaine on strings, and the string arranger was another member of the extended family known at the time as The Usuals, Jimmie Haskell. I was delighted to find this, as both Hal and Jimmie were well known to me from so many other albums in the family collection by then. (I was reading album credits before I was reading books.)
This really is an astonishing track. Bubblegum pop on one level, exceptionally baroque on another, and a drums-strings pas de deux the likes of which we’ve yet to hear again. I used to listen to this on repeat for hours, singing at the top of my lungs – including the drum breaks and strings stings (c’mon, you know you sing instrumental parts too!) spinning around and around the room until I was DIZZY.
Check Hal’s snare kicking it off like a gunshot.
I have a couple of other gems of Hal’s that are a little off the beaten path.
I hope that y’all are enough in the know by now to not be pissing on The Partridge Family, who was making absolutely first-rate pop composed by some of the best writers of the day, with pros like Hal Blaine laying down the tracks.
(Plus, c’mon, David Cassidy would have been a singing star without the show, and Shirley Jones WAS a star, an Oscar-winner no less, with one of the great voices that humankind has ever been blessed with.)
“I Can Hear Your Heartbeat” uses Hal’s right foot on the bass pedal as the titular heartbeat, until the whole kit comes swinging in after the first verse. One of the keys to appreciating Hal (or any drummer, really) is to listen to when he starts and stops, and the gaps in between what his hands are doing. This one is a real gem.
(And yes, there’s performance footage of the Partridges of course, but none of the clips SOUND good enough to hear all that Hal is up to.)
Now having sung Hal’s praises, I’ll note again that it’s possible to overstate the case (which Hal encouraged, and participated in more than once). There were plenty of other drummers on the Hollywood studio scene, including Earl Palmer (very likely on more records than Hal in fact), plus a number of times that Hal was one of a couple of drummers on a single track.
This was a Phil Spector trick. Multiple drums, multiple bassists (often one electric and one acoustic), and an army of guitars all playing at once were the key to the Wall of Sound, NOT multitracking. Sure, Phil used that too now and again, but rarely to add depth. More often for polishing, because there’s no substitute for the vibrations in the air when all those players are playing simultaneously. THAT’s the Wall of Sound, and Hal and his friends are the exact musicians Phil used.
Mike Nesmith used this “Wall of Sound” trick to fine effect when he produced one of the best tracks he wrote for The Monkees, “Mary Mary”, so sharp that it appeared in FIVE episodes, yet still manages to be too little known.
“Mary Mary” features FIVE guitarists (Glen Cambell and James Burton both on lead, with Peter Tork among the rhythm players), two bassists (Larry Knechtel and Bob West), and two drummers (Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon, whose name may also be familiar to you from Derek & The Dominoes, George Harrison, Delaney & Bonnnie, et al.), with notable percussive support from Cary Coleman.
This is definitely Hal kicking it off, though, with a snare lick so sweet that Mike looped it three times and added it to the front of the track, making it that much easier to sample, and sampled it was, including on a nifty COVER of this track by Run-D.M.C. (even though they changed Mike’s lyric on the verses, Mike is the only writer credited) that also used Mickey’s vocal singing the words “Mary Mary”.
I should mention that The Monkees’ version of “Mary Mary” was never released as a single in the US, but WAS included as a cardboard cutout single on the back of Honey Combs cereal!!!! Yes, I had it, though, like a fool, I failed to keep up with it.
Anyway, this is GROOVE, kids.
Last but not least, Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” (1968) was so far ahead of its time that it STILL sounds like it’s from the future. Originally recorded early in the year, it was re-recorded for the famed Elvis ‘68 TV special, but scrapped at the last minute. (Hal did in fact appear in the special!) The second version of "A Little Less Conversation” was used to outstanding effect in the 2001 version of Ocean’s Eleven, and a subsequent remix by Junkie XL charted even higher than Elvis’s original, going to #1 in 14 countries including the UK.
And all of ‘em featured Hal’s drums, absolutely swinging.
You’ve surely seen Hal’s name by now in the context of “The Wrecking Crew”, a name that he invented well after the era had finished to describe this loose group of LA studio aces. It was not only NOT used at the time, but explicitly and angrily rejected by many of the folks tagged with that label later (Leon Russell was so furious at the name that he insisted that the chapter of the movie devoted to him be removed, and he’s far from alone in his outrage)…but hey, as long as you keep that in mind, you can still enjoy the documentary of the same name for what it is: a long conversation between some of the folks who made some remarkable music.
You probably know the song “A Little Less Conversation” well enough (although you should check it out if you don’t), but in this little clip from the aforementioned Wrecking Crew movie, you can see 2008 Hal playing along with 1968 Hal for 30 seconds or so.
Watch his right hand in particular. It’s practically floating on air. He’s holding the drumstick so lightly that I bet you could have snuck up behind him and snatched it right out of his hand. Not that 70s rock drummers like Bonzo couldn’t swing plenty, but the death grip on drumsticks as heavy as telephone poles characteristic of later drumming is barely even the same thing as what Hal was doing.
I’m not saying one is better than the other – I hope you know by now that I love light 60s pop every bit as much as heavy 70s rock – but this clip tells you everything you need to know about why drummers in particular revere Hal as one of the greats…even if he pissed them off sometimes, too.
Additional notes: the photo, the quote and some of the stats at the top are courtesy redef, the picture of Hal with Brian Wilson is via forums.stevehoffman.tv, and the single of “Mary Mary” is via 45cat. The rest is from yewchewb, and me obsessively reading the back of albums since 1963.
Here’s a great list of highlights from Hal’s credits. You’re going to be flabbergasted by them. If you have any kind of record collection that dips into the 60s at all, you may have dozens of them.
And while most of Hal’s key work was in the 60s, he did in fact have a terrific 1971, with appearances on two albums each by The Partridge Family (including one of my favorite singles of theirs, “Echo Valley 2-6809″) and Barbra Streisand (Stoney End is one of my favorites by anyone that year), Carpenters (featuring “Rainy Days and Mondays”), and a good-sized handful more.