The drummer, who passed away on March 11 at the age of ninety, helped pave the way for every great studio musician who came out of Los Angeles during the 1960s and ’70s, the undisputed golden era of pop music recording. By some measures, his overwhelming influence extends to this very day, as every new generation of musician has to contend with the age-old reality of having to prioritize “playing for the song,” a concept that he simultaneously embraced and busted open by playing not only with supreme tastefulness, but ceaseless creativity.

In 2000, Hal Blaine and his early mentor, Earl Palmer, were both inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “At the beginning of my career,” Blaine recalled, “Earl was getting so busy that he started passing sessions my way. He was responsible for opening the doors of rock ’n’ roll for me.”

It wasn’t long before Blaine himself would become one of the top studio drummers in the world, eventually playing on 150 top-10 singles. Forty of those became number ones, and eight of those won Grammys for Record of the Year. The list of artists he played with is a who’s who of the music scene of the ’60s and ’70s: Frank Sinatra, Tommy Sands, Elvis Presley, Jan and Dean, Nancy Sinatra, Simon and Garfunkel, Connie Francis, Sam Cooke, Dean Martin, Roy Orbison, Johnny Rivers, John Lennon, Sonny and Cher, Neil Diamond, Glen Campbell, John Denver, Tommy Roe, Andy Williams, Captain and Tennille, the 5th Dimension, the Everly Brothers, Gary Puckett, Barbra Streisand, and on, and on, and on.

All the top producers would call on Blaine to track or overdub on records for popular groups, many of whom already had drummers, such as Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Byrds, the Monkees, the Beach Boys, the Carpenters, the Grass Roots, the Partridge Family, Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, the Mamas and the Papas, and America. Much of Blaine’s work as a session player was with legendary producer Phil Spector as 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,” Blaine said. “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 on February 5, 1929, 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 aspirin musicians could only dream of. In fact, beyond the enormous number of records he was involved in, Blaine even crossed over into Hollywood itself, appearing in films while working for Disney at Paramount studios.

Ultimately, though, for Hal it was all about the music. By his own estimation, he recorded more than 35,000 tracks. “At any moment we could listen to the radio and know within a few minutes that we would hear a Hal Blaine fill,” says Denny Tedesco, director of the film The Wrecking Crew, and the son of Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco. “He treated every session as if he was trying to make a hit. It didn’t matter if it was Frank Sinatra or John Doe.” “If you were a songwriter,” adds Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, “you’d want Hal Blaine on your track. Love you, Hal.”

Watts’ heartfelt sign-off reminds us just how much everyone who knew Hal Blaine loved and respected him. For this special tribute, we asked some of his closest friends and colleagues to say a few words about the legend.

Jim Keltner

“Hal was a generous soul. His kindness and his encouraging words to me when I was starting out made a huge difference in my confidence. I tried to copy Hal during my early years, but it never sounded or felt like him. I finally realized I had my own thing to try and work on. Now, all these years later, when I listen to any of the many records he’s on, I realize I’ve never really stopped trying to emulate his playing. He was so versatile. And he had the greatest instincts. The other thing I loved about him was how he interacted with his fellow musicians, and with people in general. That was a very valuable lesson I learned from Hal, and every bit as important as the music.”

Kenny Aronoff

“We all know that Hal Blaine did things that no other drummer had ever done before him or ever will do again. When Hal was recording seven days a week, and sometimes all night long, there were no drum machines, Pro Tools, drum sequencers, or any other technology to edit or fix unwanted drum fills or parts. You had to be able to play in time, groove, be creative, get along with everyone, be a team player, read music, and take direction from all the different kinds of producers and artists. Hal served the song, the producer, the artist, the bands, and most important the music, and he could play so many different styles of music. He was making records at the perfect time, when records sold, and when rock ’n’ roll and pop records exploded all over the world. The bottom line is, he got the job done. Hal was a role model for me, and I am so grateful I had the opportunity to hang out with him and talk to him numerous times.”

John “JR” Robinson

“The world has lost a true legend. As a little boy I was being influenced by him and didn’t even know it. His groove became instilled in my inner soul as I grew into playing drums. I cannot thank him enough for the impression he injected into me. Hal also posed the question to us up-and-comers: “Why isn’t the drummer in the band playing drums on the record?” Finally it sunk in that there were certain situations where you need a hit man. Hal was that hit man. Thank you, Hal, for all you have done and all the people you have touched. Your musicality and groove will live on forever. Love you.”

Hal Blaine in the late 60s

Vinnie Colaiuta

“Hal Blaine has been woven into my musical consciousness since I was a child. That’s the profound thing; he’s been an integral part of the soundtracks of our lives without most of us even realizing it. He was a hero without even trying to be one. Many of us have heroes who stand out in some way—a featured sideman, soloist, or bandleader—yet Hal was a hero just by being in the music. Shaping it ‘behind the scenes,’ so to speak. The Earl Palmers, Al Jacksons, and Hal Blaines deserve all of the recognition they get, and much more, for the contributions they’ve made that I feel are probably the most important. Telling the story. As long as we hear a song from the American popular songbook—the Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, the 5th Dimension, the Carpenters, countless others—there will be Hal. Thank you.”

Steve Gadd

“When I was in college in the ’60s and in the army in the ’70s, Hal Blaine was recording with all the top artists in America. Thank you, Hal, for all you’ve given to music and for influencing me long before I even knew it was you. RIP.”

Ringo Starr

“God bless Hal Blaine. He was the man, an incredible drummer. My story of Hal began with George Harrison, who’d come to L.A. and met him. Hal had invented a kit for Ludwig called the Octa-Plus, and George bought it for me and brought it back to England. We set it up at Abbey Road Studios, and I began to play. When it came time to do a fill, I just stopped. I didn’t hit anything—there was too much there! So after we finished the track I said to George, ‘Well, this is great, but let’s put it back in the box!’ Peace and love.”

Gregg Bissonette

“Hal was a real drumming hero of mine and a great friend. In 2012, I was playing in my hometown of Detroit on the Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band tour, and I was on the phone with Hal before the gig, and he asked where our gig was that night. When I told him Pine Knob, just north of Detroit, he burst out, ‘Pine Knob! Gregg, give me your home address in L.A.’ I got home a month later, and there was a package from Hal. It was a super cool ’70s vintage orange windbreaker jacket that had the Pine Knob amphitheater logo on the back in white, and on the front in white, the name Hal. He had this jacket since he played there in the ’70s with Nancy Sinatra! That was the kind of guy and friend that Hal Blaine was. God bless you, Hal.”

Glen Campbell front

Alvin Taylor

“There may not be a musician alive that hasn’t been influenced by the work of Hal. He set the standard for what good music should sound like. Hal left an indelible mark on me, and one that my heart will always cherish. Having had the privilege of knowing and working with him has made it even more special. He carved and paved a road for many of us to travel. Thank you, Hal, for being my mentor and compass. And even though you’re gone in the flesh, it’s impossible for your spirit to not be with us. Thank you for your love, friendship, amazing stories, and inspiration.”

Chad Smith

“There was only one Hal Blaine, and those of us who were lucky enough to know the guy understood exactly why he was such a successful and in-demand studio cat. He was always the funniest—and nicest—guy in the room, and he had a way of making you feel like a million bucks, whether he was loosening you up with a raunchy joke or telling you a story about a classic recording session. He had a humble swagger that came from having all the chops but not always needing to use them. And he could swing like the balls on a bull elephant.

“Hal had a superhuman way of finding the musical center of a song and adding that something special that took it over the top. Would ‘A Taste of Honey’ have been such a huge hit for Herb Alpert without Hal’s bass drum kick starting the horns? I doubt it. Try to imagine ‘Be My Baby’ without thinking of Hal’s iconic boom-ba-boom-pop. You can’t do it. And the other musicians always loved him because he made everyone else on the session look good and sound their best. He was money in the bank.

“Hal, along with Earl Palmer and other drumming pioneers, made it possible for guys like me to do what I do. Every time I go on a session, I think about how I can best contribute something to the music. I learned that from listening to Hal. Rest in peace, my friend.”

Joe Vitale

“When I was in high school, I watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and, needless to say, it set my life’s plan in motion. As I and so many of my drummer friends have stated, ‘It changed our lives,’ but long before that historic moment, drummers all around the world were listening to this guy from the West Coast named Hal Blaine. He was on every record we loved, every TV soundtrack—you name it, there was Hal! He played with such feel, dynamics, and a pure sense of ‘song,’ knowing when and what to play and just how to make his patterns and fills be an intricate part of the song. I spent many hours playing along to records that he played on and trying my best to match his performance.

“Years went by, and Hal continued to be an unforgettable icon. It wasn’t until the Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp in 2013 that I finally got to meet and hang with one of my all-time heroes. He was everything I imagined: so personable, funny, and willing to talk drums and give his thoughts and advice. May God bless you, Hal Blaine. You will always be in our hearts and on our speakers forever!”

Paul Leim

“Let’s see, where do I start with a career, credits, and legend like Hal Blaine? America, the Carpenters, the Beach Boys, Elvis, John Denver, Jan and Dean, Johnny Rivers, Mason Williams, Simon and Garfunkel, Sonny and Cher, the 5th Dimension, Glen Campbell, the Monkees, TV and movies…. Like Elvis, Hal is the quintessential measure by which all his peers are viewed. He was instrumental in teaching an entire generation of us how to play drums on records. I learned early on from Hal that you could play in not just a band, but in every band, at the same time. You could play all kinds of music on everyone’s records in the studio, if you were prepared in performance and styles, and if you were great enough.

“I believe that among my early mentors, Hal was the first that molded my studio career. He played to make a great record for someone, not for himself. To make the artist of the day sound like a star. For fifty years, whenever I’m exhausted or playing on a bad song that needs help, and I just can’t think of anything fresh for that track, I think, ‘What would Hal do?’ Every time, something pops into my head, be it a groove from a Ronettes hit, or a Beach Boys beat, or a Carpenters fill, and I’m inspired to refocus and think of something. Hal, you will be in my thoughts, and have my deepest respect and thanks, forever.”

Steve Lukather

“How does one write merely a few words about a true legend whose work graced more hit records than I can count? A hero to anyone who ever had a session career, and even more of a hero to the artists he worked with. His sound made hit records. He made hit records, in all styles. He made everyone sound great. When I was nineteen he called me for a session, and when I heard, ‘Hi Steve, this is Hal Blaine,’ I dropped the phone and had to recover fast! He was so kind to me. I will cherish that memory and cherish the countless hit records that changed all of our lives. God bless you, Hal. You are a legend and will always be the king of all session players. I guess God needed to get a track fast!”

Micky Dolenz

Needless to say, Hal Blaine was a percussive force to be reckoned with. There are so many of us who owe so much to him and his rhythmic sensibilities. In the early days of the Monkees experience, I clearly remember sitting cross-legged next to his kit trying to soak up as much as I could from the master. RIP, Hal.”

Brian Wilson and Hal

Denny Seiwell

“Hal was an inspiration to many who didn’t even know it. His creativity for the records he made infl uenced generations of drummers. The only thing bigger than his iconic parts was his sense of humor. Hal always left you with a belly full of laughs and a huge smile on your face.”

Dom Famularo

“As a young, excited drummer in the 1960s, I had ten top songs that inspired me, and I loved the drummers on these recordings. There were creative musical grooves and ideas on each recording. I did the research and learned that nine of the ten drummers were Hal Blaine! I got the chance to tell him that story in a YouTube interview for the Sessions Panel. He laughed so hard. Hal was truly one of a kind. He inspired, taught, and played the soundtrack of my formative musical years. I’m a better person and musician for hearing his playing and knowing him personally. Long live Hal!”

James Gadson

“It was so wonderful knowing Hal Blaine. Before I even got to meet him, he was a lifesaver to me. I remember being in session with the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band, and my drums were not cutting it. Hal heard about it and left his drums for me to play that night in the studio. The track was ‘Gigging Down 103rd.’ You can hear his famous tom-tom sound in that song! I really admired Hal. RIP, my dear brother.”

Rick Marotta

“If you ever listened to music, you heard him play. If you ever spent time in a recording studio, he influenced you. If you ever got to meet him, you liked and respected him. Hal Blaine was a pioneer in the studio scene. He was playing on hit records when the music was changing and rock ’n’ roll was in diapers. He nurtured it and raised it to what it grew up to be. All of us who work in the business have a lot to thank him for. I didn’t get to spend that much time with him, but the times that we hung out were filled with stories and humor. We all miss you, Hal. Thanks for opening the door.”

Russ Kunkel

“When you wake to find that a profound inspiration in your life has passed, your mind scatters in a thousand different directions. Like searching through an old photo book to find one particular picture that you know is there somewhere, you try to remember all the times you spoke or saw or thought of the person that you will never see again. We all will come and go. What we hope to leave behind is the gift. Hal Blaine left so many gifts behind that for all of us, it’s like Christmas every day. Hal, you touched us all so deeply. Your talent, your humor, your friendship, and your inspiration will forever live on. Thank you. Sent with love and respect.”

Brian Wilson and Hal

Leland Sklar

“I met Hal in 1967, when the Wrecking Crew played on a record by the band I was in, Group Therapy. We were produced by Mike Post and not allowed to play on our own record. That was up to ‘the professionals.’ Three years later I found myself working with Hal almost daily. He was a gift to a bassist. None quite like him.”

Narada Michael Walden

“Hal Blaine = explosive! His wild, precious energy was the backbone not only for the wall of sound, but everything he touched had his magic. I unfortunately never met him, but those who share with me say his brilliant sense of humor was always evident. I just want to say blessings to Hal Blaine and his family for his love offering on the drums of life, which has changed us all for the better. So much heart and soul in this man. Power to Hal, and back to us!”

Peter Criss

“Unfortunately I never met Hal Blaine. But I’m still finding out, to this day, what an influence he was on my whole life and playing style. Growing up and listening to AM radio and playing in bands, copying all those hits he played on, is mind-blowing. I’ve realized that besides Gene Krupa, Hal Blaine is one of my all-time favorite drummers. I respect him tremendously. Every session he recorded, and every part he created, he played perfectly. His talent inspires me, and I don’t think we’ll ever see the likes of someone like him in our lifetime again. Rest in peace, and thank you for the soundtrack of my life. God bless.”

Liberty DeVitto

“What can you say about a musician who had taught so many and was so humble as to never take the credit for doing so? I was honored beyond words while playing at the 2017 NAMM show with Ronnie Spector, when Hal came up on a second drumset and we both played his classic groove to ‘Be My Baby.’ I will forever be humbled knowing it was the last time he played in a live concert situation. RIP, Hal.”

Doane Perry

“There are a lot of drummers…and then there’s Hal Blaine. He had all the right stuff. The right feel, groove, fills, touch, and what a sound! It didn’t matter what or with whom he was playing; he brought that same energy to everything with style, swagger, musicality, and empathy. Of course, his witty and colorful personality was uniquely reflected in his identifiable playing…dynamic, economical, powerful, and subtle, accompanied by an extrasensory, telepathic musical sensitivity and maturity. I can’t say I knew him well, but I’m honored that I knew him at all, and grateful that I could tell him what his playing meant to me. But in the most important, enduring sense, we all knew him pretty well through the countless iconic recordings he helped create. The exceptionally rich legacy that he left in music is what he deserves to be remembered for…and probably his frightening repository of jokes, too! Thank you, Hal, for paying it forward and being such an excellent teacher, to every one of us.”

Jimmy Webb and Hal

Slim Jim Phantom

“Hal Blaine was a one of a kind, and the last of a kind. He always delivered the right lick with the same perfect timing as when he delivered the punchlines to his never-ending supply of vaudeville jokes. I’m honored to have counted him as a true drummer buddy. RIP, Hal.”

Mark Schulman

“Whether we knew it or not, so many of the records that inspired us, that made us groove, dance, analyze, release, laugh, and cry, from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, had Hal Blaine playing drums. Therefore, so much of the pop and rock that we drummers play to this day is derivative of what Hal created. He was one of the founding fathers who laid down the palette of drumming for the rest of us to learn and expand upon.”

Ernie Durawa

“I first met Hal Blaine at his close friends Pam and Jake Jacobs’ house in L.A. many years back, and we became great friends. Right before he passed, we spoke about the book I’m writing, and he very graciously volunteered to write the forward to it. Needless to say, I was honored. He was to me, as to many others, a great inspiration, and I will miss him very much.”

Carlos Guzman

“There are rare moments in time that you get to meet your heroes. When they become your friend, it’s a true blessing. I came to know Hal on a personal level thanks in large part to my association with Jules Follett and my work with the Sessions Panel presentations and interviews. When we were together I was always captivated by his stories of his incredible career and touched by his true sincerity of appreciation towards the music business, which had honored him in so many ways. We all have come to know his incredible track record of recordings that will live on forever in our hearts. I will just choose to remember my friend Hal, who was one of a kind.”

John DeChristopher

“Hal was my friend for thirty years, and for more than fifty years my hero. As a kid I had no idea eight of my ten favorite drummers were Hal Blaine. It’s an old drummer’s joke, but it’s true. I was fortunate to grow up in the golden age of popular music, when Hal’s backbeat dominated the AM radio airwaves. It was literally the soundtrack of my youth. I’m glad I got to tell him that many times. His list of recording credits is unparalleled. “Hal had the uncanny ability of always playing what was right for the song. I attended his ninetieth birthday on February 5, and he played ‘Be My Baby’ and ‘These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,‘ and even at ninety, he sounded great! The party was a wonderful outpouring of love and respect for Hal. He was confident and self-assured without having any ego whatsoever. Hal had been there and done that and had nothing to prove, because he’d already proven it. I’ll miss his voice, his jokes, his funny emails, and his genuine and kind demeanor. Hal, thanks for your friendship, the laughs, the stories, and for making this fan feel so special. And most of all, thanks for giving all of us the gift of your backbeat. Always, your number-one fan!”

John Good

“In my forty-six years at Drum Workshop I can’t really believe I spent forty-plus years never having met Hal Blaine. One day in the hallway at DW, there he was, talking with my partner, Don Lombardi. As I approached them, Hal said, ‘You must be John Good. I’ve heard all about you!’ ‘Good or bad?’ I said. He laughed, ‘All good, John!’ We started a conversation and immediately became friends, talking drums like two old pals. I went to my office later that day, and it dawned on me: We have to make a Hal Blaine Icon limited snare drum—after all, he’s obviously one of the biggest icons in our industry! I had a good friend, Jake Jacobs, take the drum to him a couple months later, and Jake said Hal was genuinely touched, which meant the world to me, knowing that he had a chance to understand how much all of us at DW loved him. I miss him. I only wish I had met the man much earlier. I do feel grateful to have spent time with him, and grateful that his recordings and greatness will live on forever.”

Tommy Tedesco and Hal

Don Lombardi

“I only knew Hal casually back in the day, mostly through our mutual friend Jim Keltner. We did get to become close friends in recent years, partly because of his DW association and me wanting to document his legendary career. Here are some things that stick out in my mind: Once, when Hal was asked during one of our roundtable discussions with Charlie Watts and Jim Keltner on Drum Channel about what he would tell young kids going into the studio, he said, ‘They have to understand that a song is a story, and the first thing I would want to know are the lyrics.’

“I think one of the biggest compliments ever given to a drummer was when we were standing in my office after a taping with Hal and Charlie. Charlie turned to me and asked if he could get a coated white drumhead and a sharpie. Not knowing what he was going to do with it, I of course got it for him and handed it to him, and he immediately turned to Hal and said, ‘Hal, can I have your autograph?’ I kidded Hal about that all the time.”

Denny Tedesco

“Words cannot describe what Hal meant to me and to all his family and friends. When musical legends pass on, we’re reminded of the careers they leave behind. But with Hal he leaves so much more.

“Hal, there are no words to express how much joy you brought to all of us in our lifetime. For those of us that knew you personally, you filled our lives with love, encouragement, and laughter. You had such respect for the art and the artist, and you always spoke about how you were not a soloist but an accompanist. You were there to make the artist and the song shine. My father Tommy would talk about you in the seminars with such praise and love: ‘There is no one like Hal Blaine.’

“Over the last twenty-three years, my father’s friend became my friend as well. You were always there, helping and encouraging me to tell the story of the Wrecking Crew. I will cherish the times we travelled to various cities around the country, seeing the standing ovations as you walked down the theater aisle when the credits finished. I was honored to be in that shadow walking behind you.

“In 2004, you and I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. They asked me to share thirty minutes of the film in the making. I was very nervous about sharing it. I wasn’t worried about the audience, but about what you might think. At that point, you’d only seen ten minutes of footage. After the thirty-minute screening was finished, they announced your name and gave you that standing ovation. Then the moderator started asking you a question. You started to answer, but then you started crying. At first I thought you were putting us on, but I realized you were emotionally touched by what you saw. Behind those oversized sunglasses, there were tears. “There was nothing better than hearing you speak in adoring terms about other drummers and musicians. I know you’re in heaven, looking down and seeing the tears and love that your fellow musicians shed for you. For the rest of the world, you gave us a beat that will live beyond all of our lives. RIP. Love you.”

The quotes for this story were compiled by Modern Drummer editor at large Billy Amendola. “Hal was not only an influence on me as a drummer,” says Billy, “but a close friend, an inspiration, and a mentor. I’ll miss all his jokes and the wonderful conversations we’d have. I love you, Hal, and none of us will ever forget all you’ve done for musicians all over the world. You will live forever in our hearts and in our ears.”

On February 9, 2019, at the premiere of the Wrecking Crew documentary at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, legendary music producers Herb Alpert, Lou Adler, and Jerry Moss presented Hal Blaine with a commemorative set of his Grammy-winning Records of the Year. Back row, from left: Adler, Moss, Blaine, and Alpert. Front: Wrecking Crew director Denny Tedesco.

On February 9, 2009, at the premiere of the Wrecking Crew documentary at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, legendary music producers Herb Alpert, Lou Adler, and Jerry Moss presented Hal Blaine with a commemorative set of his Grammy-winning Records of the Year. Back row, from left: Adler, Moss, Blaine, and Alpert. Front: Wrecking Crew director Denny Tedesco.


Hal Blaine 1969

by Patrick Berkery

It’s hard to single out one year from Hal Blaine’s heyday as superior to others, though 1969 stands out as a time when Hal seemed to find another gear. His work that year on songs like the 5th Dimension’s “Wedding Bell Blues” and Glen Campbell’s “Galveston” featured the familiar taste and economy he lent to so many hit records of the day. But peruse his output from 1969—which featured sessions with Nancy Sinatra, Apple Records signee Jackie Lomax, the Monkees, and Christian folkie Larry Norman—and you’ll hear dirtier grooves, more adventurous fills that found him putting that Octa-Plus kit to good use, and an overall sense that as popular music was evolving at a rapid clip, Hal wasn’t just keeping pace; he was staying ahead of the curve.

We talked about Hal’s game-changing year with Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken, a friend of the legendary drummer since the early ’80s and an ardent student of his playing since first taking up the drums in the late ’60s.

MD: Do you think Hal’s playing was under the influence of all that was going on in popular music leading up to 1969—psychedelia, the emergence of funk, heavier rock, the continuing sophistication of pop?

Dennis: He had to have been influenced to some degree by the sounds he was hearing. But I don’t think his playing was necessarily reflecting a strong influence of anything in particular. I think he just naturally evolved as a player. He would adapt to things. I’m sure when producers said, “Play like this Motown record,” he would cop [that feel] as best he could. And I could be wrong about this, but I think a big part of his evolution was when he teamed up in earnest with [Wrecking Crew bassist] Joe Osborn. Joe was an extroverted kind of player, yet he was so in the pocket and had such an imaginative approach. I think they fed off each other in a real nice way.

MD: That’s an interesting observation. They had been playing together a few years by 1969, right?

Dennis: I think [1964’s] “Mountain of Love” by Johnny Rivers was the first record they played on together. Come ’67, ’68, ’69, it just seemed like Hal was playing more, rather than just being a session guy. He was really growing as a musician. I think you can hear it.

MD: Is there a particular record you would point to as an example of Hal’s style starting to evolve?

Dennis: The Association’s Insight Out [1967] and Birthday [1968] albums are good examples of when he was coming into that new phase of playing. I was just crazy about his playing on those. There’s a track on Insight Out called “Wantin’ Ain’t Gettin’.” He plays a really soulful, almost hip-hop-y groove. It’s real funky, and different from any track he had played on prior to that—maybe different from anybody, for that matter. And by ’69, that’s probably the apex of his evolution, with [the 5th Dimension’s] “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”

MD: His drumming on those tracks is so colorful and imaginative. Very reflective of the times culturally.

Dennis: I think the 5th Dimension stuff typifies his style and really shows what he was doing at that point; what he was really becoming. Again, he’s playing with Joe Osborn, and he’s just stepping out and coloring the music in a different way. He’s displaying his chops in a way that he never had before. That outro on “Aquarius” is just stunning, the interplay between him and Joe. And what he’s doing is so musical. It was meaningful, musical ear candy. That’s what makes a great musician, and a lasting musician, and a musician who can play on so many different records and so many different styles, and make it all work in such a musical and magical way.

MD: Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy” is another one from 1969 that was a massive hit and had such brilliant playing from Hal. Little nuances like how he opens up the hi-hat to accent the backbeats, those sweet tom rolls…and that groove is so laid-back and in the pocket.

Dennis: “Dizzy” is a great example of Hal’s genius, too. It’s a study in simplicity and utter perfection. It’s such a perfect performance, and it’s so well recorded. It’s so perfect, but it still feels human. Feel is another big part of why we love him so much.

MD: And why we’re still dissecting his work all these decades later.

Dennis: Absolutely.


On March 6, 2000, Hal Blaine was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside fellow drumming great Earl Palmer—the first year “sidemen” were given the honor.