BY PHIL HOOD | FROM THE SUMMER 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!
When a group of friends gathered for Hal Blaine’s 90th birthday party at the celebrated Hollywood jazz club The Baked Potato in February, they didn’t know that this was the last time they would see the legendary skinsman, though some surely suspected it. It turned into quite a night as stars—Charlie Watts, Chad Smith, Danny Carey, Danny Seraphine, and more among them—gathered to pay tribute to the legendary studio drummer who played on more recordings than anyone alive, tracks that laid down the playbook of rock and roll drumming.
When Hal died a month later on March 11 of natural causes at his home in Palm Desert, California, the whole musical world took notice. Obituaries appeared in major papers around the world and in all the trade magazines. Ringo Starr and Brian Wilson sang his praises. Facebook came alive as musicians rushed to express their sorrow and discuss their favorite Hal Blaine cuts—no easy task since he played on more than 6,000 songs and dozens of #1 hits.
Don Randi, the pianist who played on hundreds of sessions with Hal, was among the guests at the birthday party. “Hal didn’t want it to be a drummerfest,” he recalls. It wasn’t, but a few got up to play. David Goodstein, who is Dolly Parton’s drummer, played after performing with Dolly at the Grammys earlier that night. He played Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation”—right in front of the guy who invented the memorable pattern. It’s a toss-up as to which performance was more nerve-wracking.
They were able to put Hal on the bandstand to play his seminal opening to “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes. That 1963 recording session brought together Phil Spector, the hottest producer, with Randi, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, and Hal, key components of the group of top studio musicians that would become known as the Wrecking Crew. An important mistake was left in the mix that day. Blaine dropped a stick as they started recording, so he skipped the snare on the 2, hitting it only on the 4 and thus creating a classic beat that lives to this day.
Hits like that put the name of Blaine and his cohorts on the lips of every producer in town. “You’d have to have been under a rock not to know Hal Blaine was the guy on the hit records,” Jim Keltner recalls of the era. From then on, the Wrecking Crew worked nonstop for nearly a decade. Randi recalls working 26 dates in one week. Hal was booked wall to wall and frequently had to find substitutes to help him cover gigs.
The Wrecking Crew owned the charts throughout the ’60s and into the ’70s. The Crew was not exactly a set group, but a fluid assemblage of players who knew each other well and were constantly finding themselves on studio dates together for film, TV, and jingles, as well as pop recordings. Blaine, Randi, Tedesco, Glen Campbell, and a few others formed the original core, but the crew also included guitarists Mike Deasy and James Burton; pianists Larry Knechtel, Leon Russell, and Al De Lory; bassists Carol Kaye, Lyle Ritz, Ray Pohlman, Jimmy Bond, Red Callender, and Joe Osborn; and other drummers, including Earl Palmer and Frank DeVito, the latter of whom was involved in fewer sessions but still played on notable records. They all had the ability to sightread quickly (only Campbell was untutored in this regard) and lay down perfect parts in a situation where time and money were synonymous. The Wrecking Crew played on seven straight records of the year from 1966 to 1973.
Blaine was crucial to the Wrecking Crew, so much so that some producers would cancel a session rather than record without him. His sound made hits for The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, The Carpenters, The Mamas And The Papas, The Byrds, and hundreds of other bands, not to mention artists like Frank Sinatra. His time was perfect and his innovations on cut after cut became touchstones for a generation of drummers. But to those who worked closest with him, it was his friendship, musical generosity, authenticity, sense of humor, and outsize personality that drew them to Hal, and remained most appreciated long after the music stopped. We talked to a small group of his friends, family, peers, and Wrecking Crew collaborators to gather their thoughts about the work of and life of a singular spirit.
DON RANDI, keyboardist
“My favorite cut that Hal played is ‘MacArthur Park’ by Richard Harris. There were all the time changes to play and we did it all in one take. We [the Wrecking Crew] had capacity. We were hired because we could always do it in three hours and the producers who worked with the major labels were under the gun. Many times we could bring in two hits in three hours. Then other times you had all the time in the world. ‘Good Vibrations’ took three months.
“Hal and I used to help out the songwriters. With Leon [Russell], Tommy [Tedesco], if you had songs and needed a demo we’d take studio B at Goldstar and knock them out. Glen [Campbell] sang 80 percent of those demos. He would learn quicker than all of us, all by ear. He heard it, ran through it a couple of times and then would say, ‘Let’s cut it.’”
JIM KELTNER, drummer
Jim Keltner was a member of Gary Lewis and the Playboys when he first met Hal. As he recalls, “The first recording session [for “She’s Just My Style”], Hal was playing tambourine. He was there in case I couldn’t cut it. I’ll never forget that he treated me special that day.
“Hal was so popular that some producers wouldn’t do a session if he wasn’t available, so Hal would be the contractor and he’d bring whatever Wrecking Crew musicians were available. Contracting came naturally to him. He always carried around his briefcase. It’s rare to have a musician who is good at business. Hal had so many things together that you could admire.
“The things I learned from Hal Blaine didn’t have anything to do with music. Just the way he interacted with people is something I watched and benefitted from. He was like my dad, but when you’re young you don’t necessarily want to be like your dad. I wanted to be like Hal.”
DAVID GRISMAN, mandolinist
David Grisman recorded an album with Hal of Jewish folk music in 1995. “Hal was a dear friend and mentor. Knowing him and playing with him was one of the great privileges of my life, especially so on the road as a member of my quintet. He loved all kinds of music and was also one of the most generous human beings I’ve ever met. When my wife Tracy and I last visited Hal, he insisted that we stay at his house, and upon entering our room we found two pair of newly purchased bedroom slippers and lottery tickets! Oh, the stories he would tell, and the jokes. We have lost a giant.”
DAVID BRONSON, drummer
David Bronson spent nearly 40 years on the road and in Las Vegas with acts such as Connie Stevens and the Righteous Brothers, and he’s still active. “It was almost impossible to tell Hal a joke because he knew every punchline. As far as drums go, we all know his contribution. But he was so helpful. When I first met him he let me wear myself out asking him questions. After I got that out of my system I tried not to bug him with drum stuff, but would call him to see how he was doing. One time we were talking and out of nowhere he said, ‘You know, I never touched the drums until I had the song worked out in my head.’ That was the best lesson ever.”
JON ‘BERMUDA’ SCHWARTZ, drummer
Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz has anchored the drum chair for “Weird” Al Yankovic since 1980. He met Hal and began a friendship in 1992. “Hal always played with really good time and good feel. He was not a hard hitter. He used very light sticks, with his concert toms tightened way up. He played lightly and it was cranked up in the mix. He was able to express himself in a way that was not flailing away.
“His songs, like ‘Secret Agent Man’ [Johnny Rivers], just felt good and sounded good. ‘Any World’ [Steely Dan] has wood blocks and rim shots, with a deep pocket. ‘Lizzie and the Rainman’ [Tanya Tucker] has his trademark tom rolls. On ‘Be My Baby’ [The Ronettes], it’s the doubling of the snare and tambourine and the castanets and handclaps that make the track. ‘Along Comes Mary’ [The Association] is the original cowbell song. ‘No Matter What Shape’ [T-Bones] has the big backbeat; and ‘A Taste of Honey’ [Herb Alpert] has that stomping bass intro Hal put in there because these otherwise great musicians couldn’t come in at the same time. It became the hook.
“Everybody wanted to work with Hal. When Buddy Rich was promoting Cathy Rich’s singing career he asked Hal to play on her album. ‘Why are you calling me? You should play on this, Buddy.’ And Buddy said, ‘Because I want the best.’”
ROB SHANAHAN, photographer
“I hooked up with Hal at Beatlefest in Los Angeles. Then later I got the gig to shoot him with the Wrecking Crew snare drum [by DW]. After the photo shoot, he sent me back the sweetest, most amazing letter and asked if I could come out with the film crew and do a little filming. I brought my ’56 Chevy and we drove around listening to The Beach Boys and The Monkees. We got nice footage with a couple mics in the car as we drove around Palm Springs listening to the Wrecking Crew.
“The last thing he said to me was, ‘I want to send you something.’ I gave him my address and then realized after he died that I’ll never know what it was. Whatever it was wasn’t as special as being with Hal.”
MIKE DEASY, guitarist
“Hal was a dear friend to Kathie and me, and the most amazing drummer. Beyond all the stats about #1 hits was the incredible level of musical communication enhanced by the level of social communication we all had as friends.
“Hal had various sets of drums tuned for different groups, and he would tune his drums to the keys of the song. I remember sitting directly across from him playing a Martin D-28 with barely enough room to walk between us. Separation was accomplished by [engineer Bones Howe] putting the SM57 mike almost on my strings. I not only could hear Hal, but also watch his hands. I patterned my rhythm parts to his drum patterns, including playing his fills with him. We developed a scratching rhythm where I dampened my strings and used a wah pedal for the rhythmic duo. You can hear that at the opening of the Elvis ’68 special.
“Hal was the guy in the studio who always had a joke to lighten pressure. He even made Barbra Streisand laugh.”
DAVID STANOCH, drummer
“One time I asked Hal if he tuned to specific notes. He said that he explained it all to Karen Carpenter. ‘She was singing everything two or three keys higher than normal,’ he said. ‘She tried my way and found the perfect pitch that became her sound. I tune mid-range, not up high and squeaky, not down low and muddy. What is a song? It is a story. Tell the story naturally, up high for dramatics and down low when the story needs it.’
“Some of my favorite Hal tracks are just great songs, like ‘Good Vibrations’ [The Beach Boys] or ‘Wichita Lineman’ [Glen Campbell] on which the drums blend in transparently as part of the overall fabric. But then some are all about the beat, like ‘Dizzy’ [Tommy Roe]. Others are rich with unique subtle nuances you didn’t hear other drummers playing, like ‘The Boxer’ [Paul Simon] or ‘Close to You’ [The Carpenters]. His groove could be really soulful too, like ‘That’s Life’ [Frank Sinatra]. Sometimes there was a part whose success was pure juju, full of mystery and magic beyond the notes, like ‘Mrs. Robinson’ [Paul Simon]. And, of course, he had his signature sound, like ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ [The Carpenters] or ‘Cherokee People’ [Paul Revere And The Raiders]. What a gift.
“I have to say, too, that his character and personality was a huge part of his appeal as a drummer for hire. He told me a joke that almost killed me—I’ve never laughed harder. I literally could not breathe from laughing, which actually scared the crap out of me!”
FRANK DeVITO, drummer
Frank DeVito got his start playing with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco in 1949 and is still gigging in Los Angeles today, 70 years later. “Earl Palmer introduced me to Liberty Records, where I got some dates with Sam Cooke and others. Then I got to play some at Goldstar where I met Hal. I would listen to him and tell other drummers, ‘You’ve got to hear this guy. He’s not all over the place like other drummers, but he gets this great groove, good recording sound,’ and that was it.”
Hal set DeVito up with many great opportunities. “I got a call from him one day. He said, ‘I know you played with Frank Sinatra. I’m doing this date but I have to leave at one point and I want you to come.’ It was for the ‘Strangers In The Night’ session, so I ended up on ‘Summer Wind.’ I played on ‘Surfin’ USA’ with The Beach Boys. Hal recommended me. Brian Wilson didn’t know me. I’m still getting some money from that.
“I went to the [90th birthday] party at The Baked Potato. It was a great night. As the evening wound down, I gave Hal a hug and a kiss on the cheek. He said, ‘I’ll see you on the other side.’”
JOHN DeCHRISTOPHER, artist relations
The former head of artist relations at Zildjian, John DeChristopher, remembers meeting Hal during a promo tour at Berklee in Boston. “We hit it off instantly. He was so happy someone from Zildjian had come to meet him.
“Hal was never an official endorser. He had cymbals that he got in the 1940s and ’50s and things he bought at [Hollywood drum store] Pro Drum in the heyday. But he was a Zildjian guy from way back. He was wiped out in the ’80s and I got him gear from time to time—the Armand series, things that sounded like what he would like. I also initiated a drumstick that we did for him. It was based on his old Capella or Ludwig sticks. He liked the recognition—it brought him that much closer to the company.
“He certainly slowed down but was still sharp as a tack right to the end. He still had that Hal kind of swagger. I feel over and over again blessed to have been born at the right time to have known Hal and be let into the circle of his friends.”