An Interview with Hal Blaine
Paving the way for some of the great studio musicians of our time, like Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, Jeff Porcaro, and John JR Robinson, were Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine.
by Billy Amendola
In 2000, both Earl and Hal were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. “At the beginning of my career,” recalls Blaine, “Earl was responsible for opening the doors of rock ‘n’ roll for me. He was getting so busy that he started passing sessions my way.”
It wasn’t long before Hal himself would become one of the top studio-drummers in the world, playing on 150 top-10 singles. Forty of those became number-1 singles, and eight of those won Grammys for Record Of The Year. The list of artists is a who’s who of the music scene of the ’60s and ’70s: Tommy Sands, Elvis Presley, Jan & Dean, Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Simon & Garfunkel, Connie Francis, Sam Cooke, Dean Martin, Roy Orbison, Johnny Rivers, John Lennon, Sonny & Cher, Neil Diamond, Glen Campbell, John Denver, Tommy Roe, Andy Williams, The Captain & Tennille, The Fifth Dimension, The Everly Brothers, Gary Puckett, Barbara Streisand – and we could go on for quite a while longer.
All the top producers would call on Hal to track or overdub on records for popular groups – many of whom already had drummers, such as Gary Lewis & The Playboys, The Byrds, The Monkees, The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, The Grass Roots, The Partridge Family, Herb Albert & The Tijuana Brass, The Mamas & The Papas, and America.
Much of Blaine’s work as a session player was with legendary producer Phil Spector. He was the powerful percussive backbone of The Wrecking Crew, the group most associated with helping Spector create his famous “Wall Of Sound.” “I coined the name The Wrecking Crew,” explains Hal. “All the guys in the suits would say, ‘Oh, no, these kids in their blue jeans and T-shirts are going to wreck the business.’
Hal Blaine was born Harold Simon Belsky in Holyoke, Massachusetts. His family moved to Hartford, Connecticut when he was seven, and when he was fourteen they moved again, this time to California, where Hal would have the kind of experiences most aspiring musicians only dream of. In fact, beyond the enormous number of records he was involved in, Hal even crossed over into Hollywood itself, appearing in films while working for Disney at the Paramount studios.
By his own estimate, Hal has recorded more than 35,000 tracks. Recently he released a two-CD audio-biography called Hooray for Hollywood & Local 47. Listening to the young seventy-five-year-old tell his amazing stories is like hearing your favorite uncle reminisce about “back in the day.” MD recently sat down with the jovial drummer to walk a bit down memory lane.
MD: How did you come up with the famous “on the 4” beat for the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”?
Hal: Well, I keep saying I’m not positive about that. It’s a very strange thing. It was unintentional. It’s possible that I was playing it straight 2 and 4, and at one point, maybe when we started rolling, on the first or second take I may have accidentally missed that second beat, so I played it on four. And I continued to do that. Phil might have said, “Do that again.” Somebody loved it, in any event. It’s just one of those things that sometimes happens. Now, if you listen to Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers In The Night,” you’ll hear that I used that very same beat, just slower. That time it was intentional.
MD: You’ve played on countless sessions. How do you keep track?
Hal: I’ve forgotten so much of it, but I’m putting together a discography that the union has helped me with. They did a whole bunch of research for me, along with several other musicologists, and they came up with just over 4,000 songs. So I thought now’s the time to do the complete discography and leave it for my daughter for posterity.
MD: It must be difficult to remember everything.
Hal: I’m amazed. There’s a guy in Washington, DC who is documenting every contract that was ever done – I call him to check facts and he’ll call me back and say, “No, that record was done in New York with a New York crew,” probably Gary Chester in those days or whoever. This guy is brilliant. He’s got over 40,000 pages of contracts that were [thought to be] lost.
MD: I played the song montage at the beginning of your audio CD for some non-musician friends of mine, and they were amazed – everyone knew every one of those songs. And then when I told them that one person played on all of them?.
Hal: I’ve always called it the golden era of recording. I use that as an opener when I do a clinic.
MD: You’ve influenced so many drummers growing up at that time, myself included, before we even knew it was you on all those recordings.
Hal: I got a very nice letter and an autographed copy of Neil Peart’s book, Ghost Rider. He’s a beautiful writer. In his letter he said the same thing you just said. He said he knew every one of those records and that he learned from the records that I played on. The drummer with The Knack, Bruce Gary, was once asked who his favorite drummer was, and he said he was never so disappointed in his life to find out that a dozen of his favorite drummers were me. [laughs] That kind of stuck through the years, many people have used that quote.
MD: When you played on sessions with bands that already had drummers, did any of them show any bitterness against you? How was Dennis Wilson from the Beach Boys?
Hal: Dennis and I became very good friends. I must tell you, first of all, Dennis was not really a drummer. I mean, they had bought him drums because they needed drums in the group. So he learned as they went on. He was thrilled that I was making their records because while I was making Beach Boy records, he was out surfing or riding his motorcycle. During the day when I was making $35 or $40, that night he was making $35,000. He was thrilled because he had all the girls. He was a very nice kid, but he lived in the fast lane. He was always on a 45 degree angle. His arm or his leg was always in a cast. The only drummer that I remember being a little upset was the drummer with The Byrds.
MD: Michael Clark?
Hal: Yeah, he was the only guy who was a little pissed. Eventually Terry Melcher, the producer, let him make the records. Although we had already done “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and they were a big group. I’ve got underground tapes of me making all those Byrds records, with Terry talking to me saying “give me this, give me that.” Maybe Mike didn’t know it, maybe he did, but when I hear some of The Byrds records, I would have never played them the way I hear them. So those have to be the ones that he did play on. Anyway, he’s the only drummer I know of who showed animosity, unless it was someone behind my back and I didn’t know it.
MD: I’m sure some of these guys learned how to make records from you.
Hal: Well, I had a reputation. So when they came in to watch me making records with their group – if they were even there – they were thrilled just to see what I was doing. Jim Keltner called me recently before he went out with Simon & Garfunkel. He said, “Man, you know, I listened to all those records you did, and I learned all those licks. Every time we were rehearsing Paul [Simon] would say, “Hal didn’t quite do it that way, do it that way.” Man, your stuff was so good.” Of course he went out and did a great job.
MD: Do you still do clinics?
Hal: Yes, but my clinics are two hours of talk. I tell them right from the beginning I was never a soloist, I was an accompanist. That was my forte. I never had Buddy Rich chops. Buddy Rich hired me to do his daughter Cathy’s album. They asked him, “How come you didn’t play on your kid’s album?” He said, “I wanted the best.” Well, he was referring to the fact that I had such a backlog of hits.
MD: You knew exactly how to make a record. You knew what the producer wanted.
Hal: Well, if it wasn’t for certain guys out here – I mean it was wonderful that somebody like Earl Palmer took me under his wing, because rock ‘n’ roll was just coming in, and all of a sudden Earl was being flooded. He was known as “the rock ‘n’ roll drummer.” Really, none of us were rock ‘n’ roll drummers. I had been with Count Basie, playing with big bands for years, man, and all of a sudden this so-called rock ‘n’ roll thing happened. Most drummers said “No way, man. I won’t play that stuff.” [laughs]
MD: What made you decide to do it?
Hal: I’ll never forget it. I was working in a jazz trio in Hollywood at the Garden Of Allah hotel. It was one of those places where all the movie stars hung out. This guy came in and said, “Hey kid, I’ve been watching you for a couple of days. You want to make some bucks? I got a singer over here and he’s going to be signed by Capitol Records, but he needs a drummer. Go over there and play a couple of tunes with him, and I’m sure they’ll like you. I’ll give you $75.”
Now, I was making a hundred a week at that time. So I went over to this hotel in Hollywood and I met the kids in this little band – a couple of young hillbilly-type kids, nice kids. That’s when I met Tommy Sands, and he was fantastic. And it turned out that his dad was from Chicago. When I was going to The Roy Knapp School Of Percussion, he happened to be living right near my hotel, and there was an old piano up in a closed-up dance ballroom, and he used to give me my piano lessons there.
Anyway, I fell in love with Tommy, he fell in love with me, and the kids loved me. They never played with a drummer before. We were playing what they called rockabilly. And that was the whole beginning of it. As far as I was concerned, rock ‘n’ roll was strictly rhythm & blues. I had been playing with R&B bands all my life, before I got lucky in the studios. For a while after I first got out of school I was working with mostly R&B bands – along with trios and quartets and big bands.
MD: So who were some of your influences?
Hal: I was a Gene Krupa guy because I was studying with Gene’s teacher, Roy Knapp. I was a Buddy Rich guy, Dave Tough – all the guys in the big bands. I learned from Don Lamond – man, he could drop bombs in the middle of the tune that would just go right through you. He was wonderful! So those things stuck through the years.
MD: When you started playing rock in the studios, what drummers were around?
Hal: There was a guy by the name of Sharkey Hall who was doing some record dates. Nice guy, died some years ago. When I met Earl Palmer, he and I were really the first double drums that ever worked together. We did all the Jan & Dean records in those days. Jan wanted a big sound in the studio. We used to write our parts out absolutely identical.
MD: Was this before the whole Phil Spector sound with doubling?
Hal: Oh, sure. With Phil I was the only drummer. He’d have seven guitars but only one drummer. It wasn’t until we did the John Lennon Rock ‘n’ Roll album many years later – Jim Keltner called me and said, “Would you come in and work double drums with me?” And I said, “Yeah, I’d be happy to do that.” He’s a friend, a very nice guy. I wasn’t crazy about doing double drums with anybody because it really means working your ass off, being absolutely precise. And it never swung to me. That’s why I always hated working with percussionists, unless it was certain guys who were great accompanists. But damn near every time you see a guy with a thousand toys, the poor drummer goes to do something and this guy is hitting timbales or something. It’s very difficult.
MD: Going back to the John Lennon record, you and Jim worked out well, he’s very sensitive to double drumming.
Hal: Yes, he is. It was a lot of fun.
MD: How was it working with John?
Hal: Well, maybe it’s just my ego, but I had some long talks with John and he knew all about those records that I had done. He was definitely into American rock ‘n’ roll. He’d do a song and go, “You know what you did on so and so?.” I had a hunch that maybe he had personally asked for me. He knew that I was Phil’s drummer. Keltner got the call because he was a friend of Lennon’s and worked with him before. I first met Keltner when he was traveling with Gary Lewis & The Playboys. I was doing the album with Gary. I was his dad Jerry’s drummer, and I did movies with him. Snuff Garrett produced all that stuff, and Leon Russell was one of The Wrecking Crew, he was arranging most of it. We had a ball. Well it turned out later that Gary Lewis went on some talk shows and said he played drums on all his records. [laughs] What are you going to do? He didn’t want to be embarrassed I guess.
MD: At the time everybody thought the drummer in the band was the drummer on the record.
Hal: Right. Most people didn’t know back then that I did all the Monkees records. Everyone thought it was Micky Dolenz. Brian Wilson was one of the first guys to say, “Hey, you know, Hal Blaine?.” The other group was The Carpenters. I did most of their records too.
MD: How was Karen as a drummer?
Hal: I’ve always said there’s nothing wrong with female drummers. There are some fine female drummers out there, but to me Karen always looked like a little high school kid sitting behind drums. She rushed a bit, but that’s because she didn’t have that kind of training. It was just her and her brother. When I first met them they were two little chubby kids wearing Western clothing. Joe Osborn, the great bass player, brought them to me and said, “You’ve got to produce these kids, they’re so good.” I said, “Joe, when do we have time?” We were in the middle of a Neil Diamond date. Karen was very nice, but there was just no way. And right after that A&M signed them.
MD: The bass drum on Herb Albert’s “Taste Of Honey” is classic.
Hal: Yeah, that bass drum was a great hook. But what’s funny is that through the years Herb used to come into the sessions. You know, I did his first few concerts in LA and San Francisco with The Tijuana Brass, but then I couldn’t go out on the road because I was so busy in the studio. So when he started booking tours he hired a fine drummer, Nick Ciroli. Nick passed away way too young. He was a nice guy and a real good drummer. But anyway, all of a sudden I’d see Herb peaking in a window and he’d say, “What did you do to that bass drum?” I’d say, “Herb, it’s just a bass drum with a beater on it, and I got a little rag on the front and a little rag on the back.” In those days, and still today, I use a hide skin on the bass drum. I had a handkerchief taped to the front of the bass drum and on the back. It gave it that nice thud, as opposed to that jazz sound with more ringing. When I had too much ring I’d curse and swear, so I started dampening it, and I liked the way it sounded. And it just stayed there for years. I had six or seven of those those old Ludwig sets.
MD: So it was a Ludwig kit on most of your recordings?
Hal: Most. And then I would do the same with my Rogers kit when I used that. The other thing is that my drum tech, Rick Faucher, who is always experimenting, went into a machine shop and filed off the front of the round beater head so it became flat. Now they make them that way.
We had so many things that we did in those days. I had inventions I was using long before they were out – certain woodblock things – I took a tambourine once and I put a piece of plywood around it, cut a circle, put a clutch in the middle, and put it on my hi-hat. When I was working with small groups, I would play a backbeat and there would be a tambourine sound. All of a sudden someone came out with that. In the days before you had cymbal tilters, we used to take a rat tail file and cut the cymbal, which I still have to this day, so that you could put them on a straight up cymbal holder and they would hang. You could have them on any angle that you wanted. Those are just some of the things we did.
Rick used to take every drum and take every piece of hardware off. He would wrapped every one of the lug springs so there’d be no sympathetic vibrations. That’s why that drum was so flat and beautiful. Rick was a brilliant guy and he certainly helped me when I finally evolved from just the regular four-piece set.
MD: So Rick has been with you all this time?
Hal: This year is forty years. Whenever Ringo would come into town he would tech for him, and I think he teched for Keltner once in a while. He had been a machinist. But on top of that, he had been Wally Heider’s engineer and set-up guy for a long time, on the road. They did every major band all over the US.
MD: You were one of the first guys to have multiple toms.
Hal: The thing about my big set of drums is that I gave it all to Ludwig. I expected them to call it the Hal Blaine super set or something. But they called it the Octoplus, and it was one of their biggest sellers. I didn’t know in those days about getting a design patent. Well, the whole thing evolved and developed during the ’60s when I did the Ed Sullivan show with Nancy Sinatra. I did a solo on the show, which was the first time anyone ever saw that set, so everybody just went crazy. Now, I was a Ludwig drummer, so I sent them all the dimensions. They were single-headed toms. That was something that I learned from using my old timbales: I used to use timbales as tom-toms. I loosened them up and they’d go “boom,” but then they would trail off. I would have the toms on rolling racks so that you could still just play your four-piece set, and then I could roll in four on each side, and you had another octave to play with.
MD: I remember seeing a great picture, in your book, of George Harrison sitting behind that kit.
Hal: George really loved those drums. He wanted to get a set for Ringo. Then Karen Carpenter saw them and absolutely wanted them. They did build her an identical set. I don’t know if she ever used them. They’re supposed to be in a Carpenters museum. I had two sets myself, identical, so that I could go from studio to studio. Producers said, “We want that big set.” Rick was always one setup in front of me and one setup behind me, so I would finish a date and then walk over to the next studio or drive over quickly, jump on the drums, and everything was set just right. I just sat down, opened the music, and played.
MD: How was Phil Spector to work for?
Hal: He’s the greatest. There are some wonderful underground tapes out there of some of the sessions. A friend of mine got a hold of them and said they’re absolutely incredible.
MD: Would he give you ideas, or would he just basically let you do what you want?
Hal: I sort of had carte blanche, whatever I felt. Same way with [producer] Jack Nitzsche, when I worked with him.
MD: How was it working with Elvis?
Hal: Elvis of course was the king. He was paying us top dollar, and he was the nicest guy in the world – trictly a gentleman. Elvis had his thing, what we used to call cowboy music. He was a country music guy, though he was a gospel singer in the beginning, which was really his first love.
MD: How old were you when you were working with him?
Hal: Well, he had just gotten out of the army. I had to be about thirty, thirty-one maybe.
What happened was, I was going out once in a while with a big orchestra with Patty Paige, who was a major star in those days. Patty’s husband, Charles O’Kearn, was a popular choreographer at Paramount, and he called me one day. He said, “I’m going to have a special project coming up that I’d like to have you play drums on.”
I wasn’t heavily into the studios yet, though I had worked with Sam Cooke and with The Diamonds, trying to make a name for myself. I had actually been working at Paramount as an actor, doing bits. At the time I was working in a movie with Sal Mineo and Yul Brenner.
So, I get this call for the music stage and the contractor, Mr. Coggins, said, “We can’t use actors and he’s an actor.” And they said, “No, he’s really a drummer and we want to use him on this project.” Nobody knew anything – it was a very secretive thing. Well, it turned out Coggins finally said okay, and we all met at this big room at Paramount, and in walked Elvis Presley with his crewcut. Just got out of the army.
Also unbeknownst to me was that [Elvis’s manager] Colonel Parker was a very close friend of Tommy Sands’ mother. And Colonel Tom, as we called him, also managed Tommy Sands. And that’s how I was sort of on the inside.
Elvis did not like strangers around him. He always wanted to be around people that he knew. So as soon as he got out of the service we started doing his movies. Talking about great drummers, DJ Fontana always came out, and Buddy Harmon was always there. Buddy and I go back to the ’40s; we were both in Roy Knapp’s school together in Chicago. [See the April ’04 issue of MD for a feature with Buddy.]
MD: You paved the way for “the rise of the studio drummer.” We spoke of Jim Keltner; did you know Jeff Porcaro?
Hal: I got Jeff one of his first jobs out here. I was working for John Denver at the time, and Jerry Weintraub was John’s manager. Jerry’s wife, Jane Morgan, who was a fine singer, called me and said, “We’re having a big party and we want to invite you. Do you happen to know somebody that would have a little rock ‘n’ roll band for the young kids? We want to put them in a tent somewhere where they can play their rock music.” Now, this was a party to end all parties, thrown at a big Beverly Hills mansion. There were maybe fifteen violins on the balcony, playing as the guests arrived. There was a barbecue tent with all these big guys in white hats. There was a polka band in another tent, there was a big band playing jazz and swing music in another. They had five, six, maybe seven tents. This is Jerry Weintraub just throwing a party. [laughs] He’s one of the biggest producers in Hollywood – hell of a nice guy. I used to call him the big cigar, because he always had one. I actually asked him, “Why would you invite me to this party?” He said, “I want the top person of every field in the business, and you’re the top drummer, so go have fun!” So anyway, I called Joe Porcaro and I told him that I was trying to put the band together for this party. Jeff and the kids had a little group, so we used them. That was probably their first job in California.
MD: Jeff had to be young then. Was this was before Sonny & Cher?
Hal: Oh, I’m sure. Sonny was a gopher for Phil Spector early on. Not far from where I live in Palm Desert , as you drive down the main Highway 10, there’s a stretch for about three miles that’s called “The Sonny Bono Memorial Highway.” Back in the day Phil and I used to give him a tambourine or something to play so we could put him on the payroll. [laughs] Of course, later he became a big star, then a mayor, and then a congressman.
MD: How about Jim Gordon?
Hal: Of course Jim turned out to be a very sad case. [Gordon was convicted for the murder of his mother.] He was a young guy who I started hiring when I was contracting a lot. He was a fine player, really good reader. I hired him a lot. I have some great pictures of him and I somewhere around the studios in Hollywood. I started writing him letters five or six years ago, and he wrote back. He had the tiniest writing you ever saw. He was at the Atascadero State Prison For The Mentally Insane. I wrote him that I was going to be up near him and I’d like to see him. I got a letter back and he said you’re going to have to get permission from the prison people. So I wrote a letter to the prison people, they sent me these applications, and I sent it to them. It took some weeks, and then I got a letter saying I’d been approved to visit between Monday and Wednesday. I wrote back to Jim and told him I expect to be up there in about a week, so hopefully I’d see him the following Tuesday. I got a letter right back saying, “No, don’t come.” So then I wrote him back again, asking, “What’s the problem?” He said, “You’re liable to hurt your reputation.” So I wrote him back again and said, “Jim, don’t worry about my reputation. I would like to see you.” Unfortunately it never panned out.
MD: What drums are you playing now?
Hal: I’ve been playing Taye drums lately and doing clinics for them. I recently did the Hollywood Drum Show and the San Diego Drum Show in Vista, California. They’re talking to me about going to Cuba, which I would love, just for the fun of it. And they’re talking to me about doing Honolulu because they’ve got a big dealer over there. I just played an opening for a big hotel in California. They’re talking to me about the summer NAMM show in July in Nashville. And it looks like I’m booked for the Georgia State University in November.
MD: Do you do any more record dates?
Hal: Well, I’m retired, so I haven’t taken a lot lately. Also, I moved about two and half hours away from LA. I do have a date coming up with some people coming in from Portland, Oregon, so I’ll go up there for a couple days. I also recently got called to do some music for the new Spiderman movie in LA.
MD: Thinking back, out of all the tracks you’ve done, which would you say are the most memorable?
Hal: Well one of the great stories was about “MacArthur Park,” the Richard Harris record that Jimmy Webb wrote. We went to England for ten days to do it, but then we came back here and did it. There seemed to be so much talk about that record, it was like a nine-minute record, a triple BMI publishing. And disc jockeys who said they would never play it – it turned out it became one of their favorites because they could go to the bathroom. [laughs]
I love any of the Fifth Dimension records. “A Taste Of Honey.” “Be My Baby.” “Strangers In The Night” with Sinatra. I saw the movie Lost In Translation, and at the end of it there was the song. Barbara Streisand’s “The Way We Were” – just a simple ballad, but one of my favorite songs in the world. “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain and Tennille – that was a great record. I had no idea it would be a record of the year when we cut it.
MD: One last question: For anybody wanting to do studio work, what’s on your “must do” list?
Hal: If you want to make an occupation of being a drummer – as opposed to just being on the stage shaking your head and getting chicks – if you want to get into movies, TV, records, studios, you’ve got to know what you are doing right from the start. You don’t walk in and learn it. You’ve got to know how to read music, and you’ve got to listen to everything. People are either musically inclined or they’re not. When they are musically inclined it’s because they started young, and they listen to everything. I have a grandson who plays bass now, and he listens to everything. He wants to be in this business.
I tell drummers this analogy: If you remember the first time you drove a car, you were scared. Within a matter of weeks, you’re turning on the radio, waving at friends – you’re not even thinking. It’s no different with drums. Reading shouldn’t frighten you. It’s the easiest thing in the world. It’ just mathematics. Once you learn to read drum music, as soon as you see a certain pattern written, you know exactly what it is. Sure, the first time you may want to go “1e&a 2″.” But by the third of fourth time you’ll know it perfectly. And when you learn those patterns, they become second-nature.
Another thing is, you must have a teacher that will break the bad habits you start. Because you probably started at home, and you probably picked up some bad habits, so you’ll need a teacher to tell you what’s good and what’s bad for you. And within a very short time, if you are serious about it, soon you’ll be playing those patterns you see in Modern Drummer all the time.
That’s all there is to it. You’ve got to be the master of your instrument, you’ve got to be dedicated, and you’ve got to do a lot of practicing, especially in the beginning. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. It will always be with you.
For more on Hal, surf over to his Web site at, www.halblaine.com.