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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Hal Blaine--An appreciation

Nancy Sinatra's "Drummer Man" featuring Hal Blaine

“I see two old friends with lots of love in their hearts for each other.”

So wrote Nancy Sinatra as part of a post on her website following the death Monday of drummer Hal Blaine.

Her comment accompanied a wonderful photo of the pair taken at a 2012 memorial tribute for Billy Strange at The Baked Potato club in Los Angeles—and a video for Sinatra’s 1969 single “Drummer Man,” which Strange had produced, and which Blaine was also credited on the label as “Drummer.”

Blaine, who had known Sinatra since 1959, had played drums on her records for over 30 years, “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” among them. He played on six straight Grammy Record of the Year award-winners from 1966 to 1971 (in order, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass’s “A Taste of Honey,” Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” The 5th Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” The 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Other hits bearing Blaine’s rhythms include Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender,” The Byrds’ “Mr Tambourine Man,” the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” and the theme song to Batman.

He tallied over 35,000 sessions and 6,000 singles (including 150 Top 10 hits and 40 No. 1s), and is among the most recorded studio drummers ever.

“Hal Blaine was a legendary session drummer whose contributions as a member of the Wrecking Crew helped propel countless hits to the top of the Billboard charts in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” said Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow in a statement. The prolific Wrecking Crew was the fabled group of L.A.-based session musicians who played on thousands of studio recordings and hundreds of Top 40 hits from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, John Lennon, The Byrds, The Monkees, and all the artists associated at the time with producer Phil Spector—for whom they created his signature “Wall of Sound.”

Indeed, it was Blaine’s opening drum pattern that launched Spector’s famous production for The Ronette’s classic “Be My Baby.” “Today I regrettably have to say goodbye to Hal,” said the vocal trio’s lead singer Ronnie Spector Monday on Facebook, acknowledging “the magic he put on all our Ronettes recordings and so many others throughout his incredible career.”

None other than Ringo Starr hailed Blaine (on Twitter) as “an incredible musician,” while Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who performed at Blaine's 90th birthday party at The Baked Potato last month, said in a statement, “He gave us all so much. Feeling very blessed to have celebrated his life with him.”

The Monkees’ Micky Dolenz tweeted that Blaine had played drums “on the soundtrack of our lives for many of us,” while the Beach Boys Brian Wilson tweeted, “Hal taught me a lot, and he had so much to do with our success—he was the greatest drummer ever.” Jimmy Webb likewise tweeted his pride that Blaine drummed on his first session in Hollywood when he was 16, “and told me to stick with it. Then when I won my 1st Grammy, he threw his arms around me and said, ‘I told you you would make it!’”

Major ‘60s hitmaker Tommy Roe says that Blaine was in fact “Mr. Wrecking Crew.”

“He was the drummer on all of my recordings in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and some of my biggest hits,” Roe continues. “He played on ‘Dizzy,’ ‘Jam Up and Jelly Tight,’ ‘Heather Honey’ and ‘Stagger Lee.’ He was always the leader on my sessions, and probably the leader on most of the sessions utilizing the talent of that fabulous group of musicians. He had the ability to relax all the talent in the recording session and make it fun."

Like many, Roe also notes that Blaine ”had a wonderful sense of humor. On some of my sessions I would bring along my guitarist, Richard Laws, who traveled with me on my concert tours and played guitar on some of my recording sessions. After Hal met Richard, every time he would see us together he would say to me, ‘I see you are still obeying the ‘laws,’ and the way he said it, we would all just crack up.”

Another great ‘60s hitmaker, Lou Christie, worked with Blaine and offered equal praise.

“I think he was the ultimate musician in America from our generation,” says Christie. “He was the Beach Boys, and all of Spector’s people from Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans to Darlene Love to the Righteous Brothers, and he was on four of my records: ‘If My Car Could Only Talk,’ ‘Song of Lita,’ ‘Watch Your Heart After Dark’ and ‘Wild Life’s in Season.’ They were produced by [Spector Wall of Sound arranger/conductor] Jack Nitzsche, who loved the stuff me and Twyla [co-writer Twyla Herbert] wrote, which had a classical bent that came from another cloud. He said Hal was the best drummer we were ever going to find—or else Phil and Brian wouldn’t have worked with him.”

One of a legion of drummers deep in Blaine’s debt, Pete Thomas, like Blaine a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee (with Elvis Costello & The Attractions), recalls Jerry Lee Lewis’s self-titled 1979 album, which Blaine played on.

“One extra-good track was called ‘Rocking Little Angel,’ and Hal took an interesting approach to it which I always loved--and stole mercilessly ever since!” says Thomas. “I met him at a party a couple of years ago and told him all about it—and he had absolutely no memory of it whatsoever. He did so many sessions he just forgot all about some of them. He was very nice, though, and went out to his car to get me one of his special drum [tuning] keys. It came in a handy leather pouch that I found yesterday, and then had a little think about him.”

Thomas plays The Baked Potato regularly as part of the wacky country trio Jack S**t. The venue is owned by Wrecking Crew keyboardist Don Randi, who knew Blaine almost as long as Nancy Sinatra.

“It was the best damn party we’ve ever had at the club—a family thing,” says Randi of Blaine’s 90th. “All these wonderful drummers were there—Charlie Watts, Denny Siewell [Wings], Jim Keltner, Danny Carey [Tool], Chad Smith [Red Hot Chili Peppers]—and the topper was Brian Wilson singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him over the phone. It was the best send-off he ever could have had, and he was the last one to leave.”

But energy, notes Randi, was one of Blaine’s strengths as a musician.

“His energy level was always high,” says Randi. “He could do three or four dates in a day--and he listened to everybody. I called him ‘Elephant Ears’: He tuned his drums to the sound of the song, which a lot of drummers didn’t do.”

Randi notes that Blaine was originally a jazz drummer “and came from that background, and knew how to [musically] ad-lib—and he was also one of the best music readers: He could read fly s**t if he had to!”

Blaine’s sense of dynamics also stood out, says Randi, and “he was so ahead of his time in terms of sampling and electronics.” Concluded Roe: “He was absolutely one of a kind, and most certainly one of the best drummers ever.”

“You made the world a better place,” Nancy Sinatra wrote of her friend on her site.



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