Hal Blaine. Who? Hal Blaine. You’ve heard his work a thousand times and more.
Hal Blaine is one of the most talented (and certainly the most prolific) drummers, that has ever picked up a pair of sticks. Prolific, in Hal’s case, means having played on over four thousand records – but such records! In many aspects of life, quantity is often balanced with a diminishing quality, as numbers grow.
Hal Blaine plays on lots of records because he is good; very good. He’s the master of drumming styles, renowned for knowing just what to do. An instinct that allows him to roll up to a studio, tune in to what the artist and the producer are driving at, and somehow turn from a hired sideman into an absolutely essential player in pop history.
He’s played with Elvis, The Mamas and the Papas, Sam Cooke & Frank Sinatra. I was checking out how many US number one hits featured Hal Blaine, and gave up counting when I reached thirty. Imagine having so many number one singles, that you can’t keep count.
Hal played on all of the Phil Spector ‘Wall Of Sound’ recordings, often deciding to go nuts and belt the drums for all he’s worth, on the fade out. Yet, on the Ronettes ‘Be My Baby, he decided to use just the bass drum and snare. Listening to it now, it sounds perfect, and yet who has ever noticed that he’s walloping only the snare/bass combo?
Hal Blaine brought such ingenuity to 1960s recording sessions that he didn’t just limit himself to the standard drum kit. On Pet Sounds, Blaine zoned into Brian Wilson’s heart- aching creativity and figured what was needed was something ‘different’. Throughout the album, Hal can be heard playing an assortment of empty orange juice bottles.
While Dennis Wilson was out playing at being Dennis Wilson, Hal Blaine played on ‘Good Vibrations’. He received a one-off ‘sideman’s fee’ of forty dollars.
Listen to the title track of Bridge Over Troubled Water. Hal doesn’t really get going until the song is at least 3:30 old. If you listen closely, you’ll hear the sound of what appears to be someone chucking snow tyre chains onto a stone floor. That’s Hal Blaine. He decided on the day that the record needed a little extra percussion, so went out to his car and dragged in his tyre chains (it was a cold November in 1969). Contrast this to the subtle yet passionate drum sounds on ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’ from the same album.
Blaine played on all of the Monkees’ hits; there he is on The Byrds’ Mr Tambourine Man; and when John Lennon drifted into his lost weekend, and decided to record an album of rock ‘n’ roll covers, out went the call for Hal Blaine, doubling up with Jim Keltner.
Nobody can play like Hal Blaine. He uses really small, lightweight sticks – perfect, for example, when playing on Carpenters’ records. When he needs a heavier, thumpier sound, he simply turns them round and hits the drums with the ‘handle’ ends.
If you have some time, take a listen to the variety of Hal Blaine’s styles on any number of hit records. He was paid somewhere between thirty and forty dollars as a one-off fee for each of these recordings; yet how lacking the sound would have been without his unique style.
Hal Blaine celebrated his 81st birthday on 5th February 2010.
On Spotify: Twelve of the best featuring Hal Blaine.