John Bonham; Mitch Mitchell; Ginger Baker…the list of “greatest drummers” rarely deviates from the usual names, generally those who began their careers in the sixties and seventies, playing in bands who made an imprint not only in the mainstream but also on their contemporaries. Impressing other drummers is, even more than guitarists, a mark of success. Drummers drum. They know what they’re talking about. There is one man, however, who hardly ever makes the grade. Forgotten perhaps but more likely unknown. Yet, he features on more hit songs and plays on more popular cultural milestones than any other. He is Hal Blaine and you are only one week late to wish him a happy 90th birthday.
Born in Holyoake, Massachusetts in 1929, moving to Hartford in Connecticut when he was seven years old. It was at this young age that he developed a passion for drums, using anything he could get his hands on to tap along to songs on the radio. Joining a school band he eventually got his first kit when he was 13 and took advantage of his father’s job at the Hartford Theatre, soaking up visiting musical acts, from big bands to up-and-coming jazz artists. Obsessively learning the drum patterns he observed, it was only a year later he attended the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in town. The event became world-famous as one of the worst disasters in American history, the enormous tent housing thousands of attendees burning to the ground in only seven minutes. That Hal didn’t become one of those who perished saved a place for him in musical history.
Relocating to California, Hal joined the joined army during the War years and, post-discharge, joined a jazz trio, touring the wilds of North of America and Alaska as combined drummer, singer and MC. After a year, he sent himself to the Roy C. Knapp School of Percussion in Chicago, a surprisingly intensive period of study where Hal was required to learn the vast array of percussion instruments, as well as sight-reading, composition and an understanding of harmonies and orchestral work. His thorough understanding of his chosen weapons and his never-dwindling passion for music led to a succession of live gigs, having to turn down the advances of Count Basie and playing as back-up to future Mr Nancy Sinatra, Tommy Sands. When worked dried up with Tommy, he was never short of work but eventually became friends with a session musician in Hollywood, Earl Palmer, himself a legendary drumming side-man (Fats Domino – check; Little Richard – check; Ray Charles – check; Tom Waits – check…) He recommended session work to Hal and a legend was born.
One of his earliest projects was as drummer on Elvis Presley’s movie, Blue Hawaii, where he insisted that multiple mics were set-up in order to create a “full” drum sound. Over time, the primitive, standard 4-5 drum set was expanded to nearer 12, allowing for infinitely more texture. No more were percussionists to be a distant tap, Hal’s sound was as recognisable as guitar riffs and keyboard runs.
Of a like mind was Phil Spector, getting every speck of detail from the notes which were played, with his Wall of Sound. Like his pistol-shot crack of the snare at the start of The Ronette’s Be My Baby, his induction into the fearsome ‘Wrecking Crew‘, the most celebrated backing musicians of all-time, saw an avalanche of contributions to popular music that has rarely been matched.
A not-so brief pause to look at some of the tracks Hal played on, from lounge and pop and rock classics:
- Dean Martin’s Everybody Loves Somebody
- Frank Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night, as well as Something Stupid and These Boots Were Made for Walking with Nancy.
- Beach Boys “Wouldn’t it be Nice”. Another track starting with bullet from Hal. He also appeared on many other Beach Boys tracks, including Good Vibrations, God Only Knows and California Girls
- The Byrd’s Mr Tambourine Man
- Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, The Boxer and Mrs Robinson
- Sonny & Cher’s I Got You, Babe
- Mama’s & Papa’s Hazy Shade of Winter and California Dreamin’
- Roy Orbison’s It’s Over
- The Batman theme. THE BATMAN THEME!
This barely touches the edges. We’ve not even mentioned his work with The Carpenters, John Denver, Leonard Cohen, Diana Ross, Neil Diamond…in all, he has played on forty number one singles, one hundred and fifty top ten hits and upwards of 35,000 recordings. From his first Grammy for Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass‘ Taste of Honey in 1966 to 1971’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, he won 6 consecutive Record of the Year gongs. In an age of pro-tools, click tracks and samples, will we ever see and hear his likes again?