Hal Blaine

Hal Blaine

by Robyn Flans
Cover Photo by Lowell Norman

To chronicle the career of Hal Blaine is an almost awesome task. The office walls of his Hollywood Hills home are adorned with gold records that span the last two decades of music, such memorabilia as a mounted “thank you” letter from George Harrison and various certificates. His living room wall is reserved for his Grammy Awards which he received six years in a row and the overwhelming feeling was that a list of artists for whom Blaine has not worked would be shorter and easier to compile than a list of those for whom he has played. In looking over his resume, which has not been updated in the past few years, one gets the feeling it is a compilation of ten men’s careers, and certainly not one. But so it is. 

From his beginnings with Tommy Sands and Patti Page, Blaine has offered his talent for the complete spectrum of musical tastes from Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa. He has been the beat from the late 50’s for Elvis Presley, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Darin, into the 60’s of Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys, through that musical era’s revolution with the likes of the Byrds, Mamas and Papas, Simon and Garfunkel, Chad and Jeremy, the Monkees, Paul Revere and the Raiders and the sounds of the 70’s including Seals and Crofts, John Denver, Steely Dan, Wings, George Harrison and John Lennon. He has been the backbone of commercials for endless products and has provided his abilities in countless films and T.V. shows. For any person with a radio, stereo and T.V., it would be impossible to chart the amount of time this drummer is heard on a daily basis.”Sometimes I think it’s inspirational to drummers to think of a guy who has really had great success with his instrument, and then other times I think, to a real young guy, and I was guilty of it when I was young, the feeling is, ‘Man, I’ll never be able to do that,’ so it’s a two way street,” he prefaced the interview. “Interviews are really weird for me because everything is ‘I, I, me, me,’ and it’s very strange.” But Blaine admits that his drumming began as a way to show off at 9 years old, and simply continued. His mother had a kitchen chair with a back rest that looked like drum sticks, which he would take apart to beat on pots and pans.

Born in Massachusetts and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, the son of Russian immigrants, Blaine recalls that his father, a shoemaker, would go to work on a Saturday and deposit him at the State Theatre across the street.

“My dad worked from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and I would just sit and watch the shows all day. Fortunately, I was exposed to all of the vaudeville of that era and even caught the tail end of burlesque. I got to see every name band in the country during that time. I’m talking about 1938 and that entire big band era.”

Influenced by the likes of Gene Krupa, Sonny Greer, Buddy Rich and Baby Dodds, his older sister Marsha bought Blaine his first drum set for his 13th birthday.

“As I got older, my relatives would ask me when I was going to get off my butt and get a regular job. I’d sit in front of the radio for hours, practicing. Then television came along, and to this day, I can sit in front of the T.V. set for half a day, playing with drumsticks and unconsciously practice and watch a show or carry on a conversation. It was just one of those things that stuck with me from the time I was a kid.”

Blaine credits his tenement housing as the aid to his success, since his life was wrapped up in a black situation. All his friends were black musicians and he says, “I really got to learn about what became rock & roll, which was the kind of music we always played. It was really just blues at the time.”

A year after he moved to California with his family at age 14, Blaine was hired for his first professional gig to play at a dance in San Bernardino. It turned out to be a highly embarrassing experience, however, when halfway through the job a union man came in and kicked him out for being underage and a non-member. The service followed, during which Blaine played throughout, and when he was released, he flirted with stand-up comedy and singing. Shortly thereafter, however, he realized his need for some formal training, since he had had none previously, and he enrolled in the Roy Knapp School of Percussion in Chicago, no longer in existence. With the help of his parents and the G.I. Bill, Blaine remained there for three years, then returned to California where he played night clubs with Vido Musso and Matt Dennis.

While working at Harvey’s Wagonwheel in Lake Tahoe with a group called the Extroverts, Blaine found out that, while the band members were supposed to be earning $450 to $500 per week, they were only receiving $150 from the bandleader. The problem turned out to be a landmark in Blaine’s career, however, because of a series of events that followed.

“We had been through a lot with this particular guy and opening night, I walked off the job. That was the only time in my entire career where I did anything like that. The manager of Harvey’s at the time, was a good friend of my brother’s and he told my brother how happy he was to see that I was with such a great band and making such good money, which is how I found out about the problem. As I was packing my drums that night, though, a fellow by the name of Rocky approached me and it turned out that he was married to Carol Simpson, a jazz pianist, and they were doing a duet or trio thing at Harrahs, which was then a tiny, tiny place. He asked me if I would be interested in joining the band, so I just moved my drums from there over next door and went to work for Rocky and Carol. When we closed a couple of weeks later, we came down to the Garden of Allah on Sunset Blvd., and it was there that I was approached to get into some rock & roll music. At first I said, ‘No, I don’t want to have anything to do with that,’ but finally I was convinced that I should at least meet these people. So I met Tommy Sands and he was a wonderful guy, his manager and his little band from Texas were wonderful, so I joined the group and became his drummer, road manager and good friend.”

One event led to another and the doors began opening wide for Blaine. His first professional recordings were with Sands in 1958, and during the period where he toured with him for three years, he became associated with Patti Page as well. It was through her husband, Charles O’Curran, a choreographer at Paramount Studios, that Blaine hooked up with Elvis Presley. “That’s when history began,” Blaine smiles. “Because of Tommy Sands, Patti Page and Elvis, people began calling me.” Phil Spector, the biggest producer in the industry at that time, began to call Blaine and he began working on records for nearly everyone in the business.

“Phil Spector, God bless him, used to let me just go nuts on records. It was really from Phil and the Crystals and the Ronettes and all those wonderful records we were doing and I would go totally bananas on the endings of those songs. Phil has always said that he was going to take all the fades and put them together and put out some records of that. None of that has ever been duplicated. People have hired the same musicians, the same studio, the same engineer to get the same thing, but it could never be duplicated. To this day, only Phil Spector can get that sound.”

There became a distinctive sound associated with Blaine as well, and it was referred to as “the Hal Blaine sound.”

“You start with a musical instrument,” Blaine began to detail exactly the essence of his sound. “Your voice is a talking instrument, your automobile is an instrument you drive, and every instrument has ranges.” Demonstrating in a high pitched voice, he says, “There are high ranges and,” he changes to a deep voice, “the real low ranges, and you don’t talk real high all the time or real low all the time. You talk mid-range. You don’t drive your car at 100 miles an hour all the time, or at 2 miles an hour all the time. You drive way. So I came along at a time when drummers tuned their drums real high in pitch, real tight. A lot of that was for technique so they could play those high notes and get a lot of bounce to the ounce, as it were. I came along and I tuned drums down to normal, mid-range. It was just something I always did. I liked the sound of my drums and I worked for many, many singers through the years who always liked the sound of my drums. There would be remarks like, ‘Hey, your drums don’t sound all high and tinny. They sound nice.’ When I started in the studios, some of the engineers would say, ‘You’d better tighten those drums up, you’ve got them too loose,’ and the producers would say, ‘Just let him do what he’s doing. Don’t tell him what to do. We’re going for a different sound here.’ I made a lot of enemies my first six months in the studio. A lot of engineers said, ‘What the hell are you doing? You’re going to break our microphones. You’re playing too loud.’ And I’d say that I was doing what the producer had asked me to do. The engineers wanted to keep my mikes down and turn me up when they needed me, and I told them I don’t play like that. If it calls for quietness in a song, then I play quiet, and when it calls for slamming, I slam, and that created a whole new wave, as it were, in the early 60’s.”

He also created the circle of drums that everyone uses today, from the smallest high drum to the biggest drum on the bottom.

“My set of drums always had 12 drums, which no one had ever heard of, and it really was a major change, which makes me very proud. In those days, a drummer only used a small tom and a big tom, and once in a while, two small toms and two big toms, but never over four toms. I wanted a full, bigger spectrum of sound to be able to do more with drums.”

He got together with Howard Oliver, a friend and drum manufacturer in Hollywood to build this large set, where he could sit comfortably and at random, pick any tone he wanted with an octave and a half range. He gave Ludwig the pictures of this set-up, and they built it, calling it the Octaplus and he has remained with Ludwig throughout the years even though he has been approached by most of the major companies. He still uses the blue sparkle set, alternating between 6″ and 5″ metal Ludwig snares, and uses seven toms, consisting of 6″, 8″, 10″, 12″, 13″, 14″, and 16″ sizes. His bass drum is 22″, on which he always uses Ludwig calf heads, but on his toms, he uses Remo Diplomats.

While in concert his drums are double-headed to keep them “wide open,” and to get a quieter sound, but in the studio, they are single-headed to give them a “fall off” sound.

On stage he employs no muffling techniques, however, on his studio set, he uses Rubbermaid bathroom appliques which he has placed on his toms from experimenting to get the sound he desires.

“I have about 165 gold records with Zildjian Cymbals. Every one of them is a Zildjian record. The set of Zildjians I use today, I bought in 1946 and that’s a lot of years that I have been using those same cymbals, except for a few extra ones I’ve acquired through the years.”

He uses a 16″ crash to his left, a 17″ sizzle to his right, a 22″ medium heavy ride, and on occasion, he uses a 9″ choke cymbal (“for old timey type music”). Although for many years he used 14″ hi-hats, he now uses 12″ hi-hats, “not only for the disco sound, but for some of the highs that are prevalent in a lot of the commercials I do. I have various other cymbals I use for different sounds also, because as you know, working in the studios, I might walk in and play The Sting today, and tomorrow I may have to play King Kong and the next day it will be Donna Summer. I must say that every day is something different and something new and it sure keeps it interesting.”

It was from the abundance of recording sessions that Blaine broke into the T.V. and film industries.

Hal Blaine“During the beginning years of rock & roll, and my being in the studio and going through all of this with the engineers and producers, it just happened. Producers are a bunch of people who are very superstitious. If they’ve had a hit, they will only record on the same night of the week the hit was recorded, with the same musicians, the same studio, the same mikes, the same engineers, and that’s just the way it is. If it’s a new producer, he wants the guys who have made the hits and movies are no different. What happened in those early 60’s is that rock & roll had not yet infiltrated the movie business or the commercial business, and they weren’t into rock & roll in any way. In fact, rock & roll was really a dirty word to most people. There were a lot of musicians locally who actually hated rock & roll and said, ‘I will not play that junk.’ It’s true that a lot of the hit records of that era were kind of what we called dumb, in the sense that there were only three changes and they sounded out of tune, some of the vocals and phrasing, but the equipment was different in those days too. They were singing in one microphone and it was in its infancy. But even as it got better, a lot of guys still refused to fool around with rock & roll. At that time, though, I can remember getting calls for Batman and the different things that were happening on television.

“I can still remember the first time going to 20th Century Fox and looking at this antiquated great big old building and it reeked of tradition. You could just hear the stars and the orchestras and the bands and all those great movies. MGM was the same way. You could just see all those great people doing those elaborate dance numbers. It made you feel wonderful just walking in. But unfortunately, those same engineers were sitting there and the same equipment from the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. There was no new equipment and they were still recording on a one or two track and in some places, a four track. I walked into 20th Century Fox and asked the man where my bass drum mike was and he said, ‘What are you talking about kid? Bass drum mike? Are you kidding?’ They had one microphone set up about six, seven feet in front of me, kind of aimed at my head, and that was the setup. I tried to explain this to a couple of people and the producer kept saying, ‘We’re not getting that rock & roll sound, Hal, and that’s why we hired you.’ Finally I explained in a short speech on rock & coll and what we do in the studios, and it really hit the fan. All the 20th people wanted to chop my head off, but in those cases, the producer is still the boss, and he said, ‘You’d better start listening to this kid and the rest of the people we’ve hired to do rock & roll.’ So it, too, started to change and then we began doing movies at virtually every studio.

“There’s a great story about the Disney Studios and the very first time I ever got a call to go over there. There were a bunch of musicians in those days, Tommy Tedesco, Lyle Ritz, Carol Kaye, Al Delory, Steve Douglas and just a whole bunch of musicians. Glen Campbell was playing guitar and Leon Russell was playing piano and I kind of named us the Wrecking Crew because we were the rock & roll guys. We would walk into these studios with all these other guys in their sports jackets, blazers and neck ties, who sat very stiffly, and we would come in literally making a mess of their studios. They were used to these quiet musicians with their violins who sat perfectly still and quiet, never smoked cigarettes on the set, and so forth, and we came in with Levis, T-shirts and everybody making $100,000 per year. Don’t misunderstand, we worked very, very hard, but tradition was thrown out the window and people just couldn’t understand that. We looked like a bunch of guys who couldn’t possibly read music or know what the hell we were doing and we had to be out of tune if we played rock & roll. I’ll never forget, we were called to Disney, and once again, you walk on that lot and you just feel Mickey Mouse and all those wonderful characters Disney invented. Here we were working for Bob Bruner, a well manicured, well dressed gentleman, who had written some great music. Our call was for about noon, and we came in as they were dismissing a huge 60 or 70 piece orchestra that had been playing all this movie music, and here we came. We were coming in to do one little rock & roll scene for a film and we were to play a whole bunch of rock & roll keystone cop kind of music and everything was written up beautifully for us and all these musicians looked at us with snickers as they went to lunch. We were about an 8, 9 or 10 piece orchestra, our little rock & roll wrecking crew, and Bob said, ‘We’ll turn on the clicks and we’ll play the music a lot slower so you can get used to it before we record it.’ Obviously we do a lot of music to clicks. Well, the clicks didn’t come on slow, they came on in the tempo they were supposed to be, which was very fast, and it was over 100 bars of music and real heavy reading. Well, we played it perfectly from beginning to end and when we finished, Mr. Bruner stood there with his mouth open, along with everyone else in the place, and they just couldn’t believe they had just heard all this music played perfectly the first run through by a bunch of creeps. Bruner said, ‘My goodness, I wish we had had the mikes on and had recorded that. It’s just amazing. How did you do it?’ You must remember we used to do three, four, five, and sometimes six sessions a day, and Tommy Tedesco said, ‘We practice a lot during the day.’ Well, everyone just hit the floor in hysterics. It was the funniest thing we’d ever heard.”

That has become Blaine’s standard reply when asked if he practices. “I walk in cold. My stock line is Tedesco’s line, ‘I practice a lot during the day.’ I still read and such, and keep up with whatever I can, but as far as physical practice, I don’t think I really need that. My practice is in the studio.” To Blaine, a great session is one in which he is allowed to create. “They may say back off here or give me a little more here, but basically it is one in which you do your own thing. To me, that is a fantastic session. On the opposite end of the spectrum is where you walk into a session and they say to you, ‘I want you to play what you played on your last hit. I want the intro to be like the Beatles, I want to have Donna Summer in the bridge, I want to wind it up with what Elvis did on “I’m All Shook Up,” and when we get to the instrumental, I want it to sound like Melissa Manchester.’ That’s the old joke of something being put together by a committee. It just doesn’t fit, and I think if people made original records, they’d have a much better chance of having a hit too. Most of the hits I have played on were those positive sessions where I was allowed to create my part. The biggest name producers in the world, and I have certainly not worked for all of them, in most cases will let you do the thing they hired you for. They know your capabilities and what you’ve done in the past.

“There are a lot of differences in the situations I play. There’s a wonderful feeling working in film, where part of you gets onto the film. Maybe that’s ego, but whatever it is, it is the creativity that makes the juices flow and you feel that sense of accomplishment, which is what life is all about. Now, when you’re working on a movie and you’re looking at a piece of music that is 100 bars long, there’s an intensity and many things must be considered. You have to be quiet and you can’t so much as cough if you have a tickle in your throat. You learn to suppress those things. Somehow you tell your brain you’re not going to cough during this man’s oboe solo while this guy is kissing this woman on the screen. I don’t want to blow this. There are 70 or 100 musicians sitting there and it’s costing $30,000 an hour. There are definitely different intensities. I would say that making records is by far the hardest of situations. Generally, not always, you’re creating. It’s a new piece of music that has never been heard before, a new song, and maybe a new songwriter, and you’re trying real hard to get a hit for this person. It might even be a new producer. There are many, many variables that make it real hard. Plus, there can be an endless amount of takes and yet you’ve got to try to be fresh and make that fortieth take sound like that first take. They may want an explosive fill somewhere, and you’ve got to explode like it’s the first time. It’s kind of tough. Then there are the jingles, where you have one hour and it’s almost over before you’ve started because you’re working with such talented people who know exactly what they’re going to do from point A to point Z. I’ve kind of fallen into the hour a day jingle call where you work a couple of hours a day and you get residuals for a couple of years. You can work one eighth as hard.

“I have finally learned that balance is a very important thing in life. You cannot do what I used to do when I did four sessions every day of my life, six, sometimes seven days a week. You cannot do that without balancing it out with recreation. Recrea tion is very important in this life and as you get older, your values change. When you’re a kid, you’re full of vim and vigor. You want to play every session and you’re having fun and you’re loving it, but as you get older, you start looking around at some of your material things that you wanted in life and start asking, ‘What am I doing?’ I started realizing that if I dropped dead tomorrow, everyone would say, ‘Hal Blaine was great, what a wonderful guy, full of fun, a sweetheart of a guy who made great records, now let’s bring in the new guy so we can get the hell out of here.’ They remember you for about 16 seconds and that’s it. So your values do change. Now I want to get out on my boat (The Drummer Buoy’) and start enjoying some toys. That’s another thing, there were no toys as a child, and I find myself buying them now. People might as well know, I’ve had two marriages. My first marriage ended in a death and I couldn’t be happier right now with my second marriage. I’ve been married almost six years to a wonderful gal who is a nurse and a business woman who is about to get her double masters degree in nursing and medicine. She has also taught me to relax a little bit from the working 24 hours a day syndrome. That’s very important and I think I’m really happy now.”

One such change of pace began when Blaine accepted the position as John Denver’s drummer seven years ago. Having initially come in contact with Denver in 1970 when he was called upon to play on some bank commercials in the Minneapolis/ St. Paul area, Denver remembered him when he recorded his first west coast album, Back Home Again.

“I went in and worked a month and fell in love with the guy. What a beautiful human being! During that month, he talked to me about the possibility of doing a weekend with him once in a while, so I did a couple and we just had a torrid love affair, as it were. I just fell in love with the guy and he fell in love with me and I’ve been with him ever since. I really hadn’t wanted to go on the road originally, though. It’s tough out there and it’s hard going away and leaving all your accounts. We were doing 15 or 20 dates a year, but this is the first year that we’re doing over 130 dates. We’re never gone over 12 or 13 days at a time and then we’re home for 8 or 9 days, but it’s still rough. We’re flying every day, on an airplane every day and it’s up and down and little fears, and it’s not quiet, settled home. But I do it because I absolutely love John Denver. We get to spend quite a bit of time together and I’ve learned some of his philosophies and it rubs off after a while. You start learning to live and start learning to enjoy and you start thinking about some things in the world that you’ve never been involved with and that you never had time for before.”

With Denver, he uses a basic small Ludwig set with each drum painted in an Indian motif by the people who do all of Denver’s graphics and art work, but maintains his standard cymbal set-up.

While he says he went through all sorts of sticks, he finally settled on the Shelly Manne stick, which is an all wood, basic 7A. Presently he gets all custom made sticks with his name on them from the Professional Drum Shop, however, and at the close of each show, he gives his sticks to a handicapped person in the audience as he leaves the stage. “I’ll zoom in on someone during the show and if it’s someone I can see can use his hands, I’ll give him my sticks. It really gives me a nice warm feeling.” Although he was one of the first drummers to use Syndrums, and even had the prototypes that Joe Pollard created and made up in blue sparkle to match Blaine’s custom drums, he does not use them during the Denver gig. “I do use them a lot in the studio, though, and I use them in a lot of jingles, which obviously, they fit perfectly into.”

Hal BlaineHe is constantly working on his own inventions, however, and while he could not disclose that which he is presently designing, he says he anticipates that Ludwig will manufacture it and expects drummers throughout the world to play his invention within another year. Inventive and resourceful, in the early days, Blaine would put a shaker on a drum stick so he could play maracas in the trios in which he played, as well as putting a wood block attachment on his hi-hat so he could play a Moroccan beat to Latin music while playing eighth notes on the hi-hat. He claims to be the first person to take a tambourine and attach it to the hi-hat so there was a tambourine ring on 2 and 4, and he says, “I’m always thinking in the direction of making things easier to do. I don’t think I’m lazy at all, but I think there’s always a better, easier way to do things. I think a lot of young people play very awkwardly today. I see them all the time with these groups on television and that’s what influences kids today. Their cymbals are so far out that they practically have to stand up in order to touch anything. Nothing is within their reach. There are a lot of drummers out there who are really good, but think how great they could be if they were comfortable. When I designed my set, a major consideration was to sit at my drum seat comfortably and carefully and to be able to reach everything within the realm of the two circles that my arms make. You shouldn’t have to strain to reach. Another thing is that you only have the stamina to go so long when you’re uncomfortable. How long can you hang your arm out so far without it getting tired? You can only go so long, one set, maybe two sets and then you’re in trouble. What happens if you have to sit an entire day in a movie studio? Impossible. You couldn’t do it.”

Blaine plays some percussion in the Denver show, but emphatically states, “I’m really only a drummer. There are times I’m called upon to play timpani, bells, or vibes in the studio, and if it’s a simple thing, I’m happy to do it. If it’s anything that calls for any real serious playing, absolutely not. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time, because time is money in the studio.”

He rarely solos, except for a 16 bar solo in a Denver bluegrass tune, for in his opinion, the most important role a drummer can play is to be a good accompanist.

“With the singing and comedy I was doing early on, timing was very important. In my early days as a drummer, I worked for Buddy Hackett and Don Rickles. They would no longer remember me than the man in the moon, but when they were starting out at places like the Saddle and Sirloin in Bakersfield and the Magic Carpet in San Bernardino, I was able to play with them because I was very educated to comedy, having done my own. Through all that comedy and singing, I feel I had a great feel for singers and lyrics, and lyrics do something to me and make me play a certain way. I learned early in life that most importantly, I wanted to be a great accompanist. In my era, everybody wanted to be a Krupa or a Rich, and I am just so thankful that I grew up to find my niche.”

Blaine is extremely sympathetic to the obstacles young drummers must overcome, and in fact, last year he wrote a letter to the Musician’s Union, which was reprinted in their newsletter. The purpose of the letter was to inspire those struggling musicians since Blaine believes firmly, “Every day is a new direction in any business, and if you do your darndest and knock yourself out and play your best, somebody eventually is going to know that and enjoy that and hire you for it. I’ve said for years that there are no losers in this world, only winners who quit too soon. I get letters asking me, ‘How can I do it, I’ve tried for so many years?’ You can’t stop trying as long as there’s a ray of hope. You never know what’s around the next corner.

“I try to tell drummers that no matter what you’re playing, be it in a little club, a recreation center or an Army base, whatever it is, you’re learning something as long as you’re playing. It teaches you to cope, it teaches you music and it teaches you ideas. Every time you play ‘Happy Birthday,’ it’s a good experience. There will come times in your careers when you’re on a movie call and you have to play ‘Happy Birthday.’ You immediately know the song because you’ve done it 100 times in clubs. When you’re called upon to do a scene or a commercial where you have to sound like you’re in a nightclub having fun. If you’ve never been in a nightclub having fun, you really won’t know what it’s like. When they want Mexican music or music from India, you’ve heard records, you’ve seen bands and you’ve played it. I went to school with over 500 drummers, many of whom wouldn’t think of taking a job playing Polish dance music. I’ve been called upon many times in movies to play Polka music where the arranger didn’t take the time to write out a polka because he knew the guys he hired knew that music and could play it better than he could write it. And I’ve worked with Bobby Vee and did Polish hits. Who the heck knows when you’re going to be called upon to do whatever? I’ve worked in Latin bands, and you never know when you’re going to be called upon to play something Latin. You’ve got to know something about it. What I try to tell drummers is to be happy as long as they’re playing music, even if they’re not playing music they love. They’re going to learn something no matter what.”

One young drummer he is particularly impressed with is Simon Phillips from Jeff Beck’s group. “He plays with real simplicity. He plays simple, but eloquently, and yet, when he’s let loose, he’s just fantastic. That’s another thing I’ve tried to tell drummers—one shot in the right place is worth a million 16th notes. I chalk it up to impetuous youth. The average kid sits down to play drums and he wants to play everything he’s ever heard or played in every bar of music, and it doesn’t work that way. You are in the rhythm section. You are a section and you’re supposed to work together just like any other section and you work for the benefit of whomever you are backing. Drummers must learn that they are accompanists until someone puts the spotlight on them and says, ‘Now do your thing—anything you want.’ ”

The music he enjoys playing the most is almost a George Shearing type sound. “I used to love playing that kind of music with just brushes. Just quiet and relaxed, and I think people had more fun dancing to that kind of music and I think I have more fond memories of that kind of music than any other kind of music. Just totally relaxed, almost cocktail lounge, easy listening, middle of the road kind of music. That is one of my favorites, yet I run the full spectrum. My buttons on the radio are set to jazz, classics, today’s rock & roll and the music of the 40’s. I try to listen to a large variety of music.” And because his career has encompassed such a large variety of music and experiences, Blaine found it difficult citing particular highlights since there have been so many.

“The first big highlight was ‘A Taste of Honey’ with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. That was the record of the year that year, 1965, and that little bass drum of mine went right through me every time I heard that song on the radio. That was very exciting.

“When Mr. Sinatra walked into the studio, that was a highlight, even though I had been personal with Frank and had been in his home prior to that, never realizing that someday I would make a gold record with him. Whenever Frank walked into the studio, it exploded. The whole Sinatra thing was a really big kick for me because when I was with Tommy Sands, he met, fell in love with and married Nancy Sinatra, which is when I met the family. Unfortunately, some years later, they did divorce, but later on, I went on to be Nancy’s drummer and did ‘These Boots are Made for Walking’ and all those great records with her. In fact, she was the only other person besides John Denver that I actually went on the road with. Nancy Sr. has always been very close to my heart as well, and I’ve always felt very close to the entire family.

“A couple of movies I have been involved with were Academy Award films and it just blew my mind. ‘Mrs. Robinson’ from The Graduate with Simon & Garfunkel received an Academy Award, and I felt, by gosh, if I never did another movie, I’ve done an Academy Award movie.

“I think the first time I visited Australia in 1959 and got off the airplane and saw signs that said ‘Welcome Hal Blaine,’ that was great excitement. It all just makes me feel like I’ve done something jn my life.

“I’m 51 and thank goodness it’s still going. I really thought it would be over a long time ago because your professional life span is supposed to be about seven years if you achieve, in quotes, ‘stardom.’ For my first seven years, it must have been about three gold records a year. My first 20 to 25 gold records were during that span, I really didn’t think I would go any further, because, obviously, the door is open and there’s room for so much talent. I just figured at the end of my seven years, I’d take the money and run. We’re talking 22 or 23 years ago. It seems like yesterday,” Blaine paused before concluding. “I’ve had a very fortunate career, and if it all stopped tomorrow, God forbid, I think I could say I’ve fulfilled it.”

 


“Staying in Tune”
Hal Blaine

 

The point of this introductory column is to tell you that you can have a great career in the music business! How many times have you been ready to quit—throw in the towel and forget it, because you were despondent over no work, problems with the folks, your girl or school? Then something happens. A phone call or a job! All of a sudden you’re playing your drums and you’re on top of the world again. That’s the kind of roller coaster we all live on. It’s called life. We have to learn to live with the highs and the lows. The highs from your drums can be your happiest highs. A natural high. I say “natural” without reservation, because with drugs, a false sense of high, will eventually kill your natural high. Happiness is the secret of success for me and almost everyone I know who has really made it big.

What I really want to do through this column is help you get over some of the hurdles. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it and been a part of it. So, hopefully I can advise you, and that’s what I want to do. Most of you don’t realize it, but your own John Denver is just around the corner waiting for you! You just have to be ready for him. When you’re happy, you’re more creative, healthier in every way, and things will come your way. When you walk around mad at the world, the world becomes mad at you. There’s no changing the world unless you do something to make that change. Your smile can do that!

I receive letters from all over the world asking for autographs, photographs, how do I tune this, how do I select that or practice this! I’m honored that people want to use the same snare or buy the same Zildjians that have turned out my gold records. But, it’s not necessary to copy and imitate. We all start by listening to our favorite records, records the radio stations tell you to listen to, or records that your friends tell you to listen to. But that doesn’t mean you have to listen to it! Listen to what makes you happy, and turns on the juices in you!! When you listen to your favorite records and the licks you try to imitate, remember: Chances are that drummer came up with that lick on his own, or is playing a variation of another lick! My point is, learn all of the licks you can, and then come up with licks of your own. That brain of yours is the greatest computer in the world. It’ll perform amazing feats. Study and practice everything and don’t ever kid yourself. Practice does make you better. But, you don’t have to copy. You study, you practice, you feel like you’re ready but you’re playing everybody’s licks but your own! If you let your imagination take over, you’ll come up with licks that’ll get you higher than a kite! And when you’re happy, the world will happen for you.

I might sound like a fanatic telling you to “follow me.” I don’t mean that at all. Don’t follow anybody but yourself. Find your own direction. It’ll come eventually. We all flounder at times; a little lost on this roller coaster, but eventually it’ll come. You’ll be playing your own music, your own ideas, and changing the course of music by inventing new stuff. You are the new musical generation. You are the new musical leaders. Others will learn from you in their own way. And as you will have changed the sounds of the world in your time, they will do the same in their time. That’s really the story of life, isn’t it? I can’t stress enough the importance of practice, but don’t spend your life on only one side of the roller coaster!! Only up or only down can kill you. I’ve seen it happen. You must find a balance in your life. That goes for anyone, a drummer or house painter. Drums might be your bread and butter, but man does not exist on bread and butter alone. There has to be some variety or you will crack up! Don’t fall into the trap of practice 24 hours a day to find greatness. You’ll only find frustration in the end. I try to mix my life with several elements that are very important to me: health, recreation, rest and work. Believe what I say. Too much of any of these can be fatal. Not only “dead” fatal, but “unhappy” fatal. There’s that word again! Happy will show up in everything you do.

When I was doing six dates a day and sleeping three hours a night, I kept telling myself I was happy. I found out I was committing suicide! Thank goodness someone sat me down and explained what that balance was all about. The entire world is run on balance. If we lose it we fall. Think about it! That’s when I learned to cool it. Mix all of the elements and be a happier, healthier person. I think of an old saying among a bunch of us at work: “If you smile—you stay around awhile. If you pout—you’re out!”