Despite a decades-long career, Hal Blaine, who passed away this week, was never as recognizable as Elvis or Sinatra. Still, he was peerless, essential to the last half century of American music.
It seems likely that the drummer Hal Blaine—who died on Monday, at age ninety, of natural causes, at his home, in Palm Desert, California—has done more to quicken my heartbeat than any other American musician. By his own estimation, he played on more than six thousand songs as a member of the Wrecking Crew, a Los Angeles-based cabal of studio professionals who began as the producer Phil Spector’s house band but ended up appearing on hundreds of Top Forty hits. The odd, nervous titters in the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” that eager on-the-four snare at the start of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” the drums on Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender,” the theme from “Batman,” Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” Sam Cooke’s “Another Saturday Night,” The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” The Monkees’ “Mary, Mary,” and Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were”—it’s all Blaine. Brian Wilson recently called him “the greatest drummer ever.” He is so unquestionably essential to the last half century of American popular music—to the national condition—that it almost feels as though his face should be on currency.
My favorite Blaine beat isn’t really a beat at all but an intrusion, almost a pox: those enormous, echoing whomps right in the middle of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” Blaine was going for what he later called a “cannonball-like” sound, something to bruise the song, which he felt was too sweet, too much like a lullaby. The producer Roy Halee had an idea—set up some of Blaine’s drums in an empty elevator shaft. “I could hear when the music got to the ‘Lie-la-lie’ part, where I hit the drums as hard as I could,” Blaine later told Robert Hilburn, Paul Simon’s biographer. Blaine’s drums sound, to me, like a million doors slamming shut in my face. Every time I hear the song, I think again about how a definitive “no” can sometimes be a gift: gather yourself and go do something different. “I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains,” Simon sang. Lie-la-lie. Whomp.
Like the best and most storied session bands, the Wrecking Crew never messed up the track; they were the gang to call when you required dexterousness, ease. It’s easy to be dismissive of studio musicians and accompanists in a “Those who can’t, teach” way—to presume that there’s not much creativity inherent to the work and that they exist merely to elevate and support the star. Blaine’s acumen was not in showiness but in capability. “I was never a soloist, I was an accompanist. That was my forte. I never had Buddy Rich chops,” he told Modern Drummer, in 2005. Yet his versatility—an almost uncanny ability to instantly adapt to nearly any style—is, in the end, what made him so peerless. He always knew what a song needed, and he always knew how to play it.
When I was first starting out as a music journalist, I remember absorbing a bit of advice—cribbed, I believe, from the Rolling Stone writer Jancee Dunn’s memoir, “But Enough About Me”—about the often unnerving process of interviewing rock bands, especially when all four or five or six members are glaring at you, each trying to one-up the other in a cool display of total indifference. “Pay attention only to the drummer,” Dunn writes. Nobody talks to the drummer! The drummer is often wearing shorts when nobody else is wearing shorts. The drummer spends a lot of time in a soundproof, windowless basement. Nobody can even see the drummer at the back of the stage, manically swinging away a few feet behind everybody else, sweating and dutifully keeping time. The other members of the band will be so thoroughly bewildered and perturbed by your interest in the drummer that they’ll start talking over each other, trying to recapture your attention. (I’ll only say that the strategy is worth trying.)
Despite a decades-long career, Blaine was never as recognizable as Elvis or Sinatra. Session musicians often feel like ghosts in that way—present, but invisible. Still, it is impossible to imagine those songs working in the same way without him. And Blaine was hardly suffering for it; by all accounts, the dude lived well. In interviews, Blaine always appeared tan, and he often wore enormous, expensive-looking sunglasses—little things that suggest a person may have recently spent time on a yacht. “I literally had Hollywood by the old balls,” he told Rolling Stone, in 2017. Blaine had an estate and a Rolls-Royce. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 2000. Last year, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. He frequently compared his success to “falling into a vat of chocolate.” He especially enjoyed telling a story about Bruce Gary, of the Knack, who was once disappointed, Blaine said, to find out that “a dozen of his favorite drummers were me.”