Hal Blaine: From Spector to Sinatra, He Just Plain Got It Right

The story circulated for years in the music business that when perfectionist Phil Spector was producing his Wall of Sound recordings, he would routinely criticize all his musicians except one.

Hal Blaine. His drummer.

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Hal Blaine in tribute posted on YouTube.

Point of the story, apocryphal or not, being that Spector knew Hal Blaine didn’t get things wrong. He didn’t make mistakes.

That sentiment has been widely echoed since Blaine’s family confirmed that he died Monday, age 90, at his home in Palm Desert, Calif.

With all the high-profile drummers of the last nine decades, from Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich up through Earl Palmer, Benny Benjamin, Panama Francis and on to Charlie Watts, Ginger Baker, Keith Moon and Ringo Starr, Hal Blaine may well have inspired the most reverence.

By broad estimate he played on maybe 35,000 recordings, including 6,000 singles, 40 of which went to №1. He didn’t make all of them great. He made thousands of them better.

Considering who he played behind — take a deep breath here and start with Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Simon and Garfunkel, Glen Campbell, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Dean Martin and Barbra Streisand in addition to all the Spector artists — that’s not a bad life’s work.

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Besides, he did make some of them great — most famously “Be My Baby,” the 1963 Ronettes classic that starts with maybe the most famous crashing drumbeat in rock ’n’ roll history.

Blaine’s intro lasts maybe 10 seconds. We’re talking quality here, not quantity, which was one of the reasons Blaine became a great drummer. He knew how to give a song what it needs and then stop. Drummers from Ringo to Watts and Max Weinberg have appreciated that approach and reaped its rewards.

Fun fact about Blaine and “Be My Baby”: He later said those intro notes were, well, a mistake. He didn’t hit the exact beat Spector first wanted, and instead of correcting himself he decided to just repeat it and that’s how it ended up on the record.

To be fair, others who hung around Spector say he was reasonably considerate to musicians in general. It was singers, maybe except the ones with whom he was sleeping, that he considered replaceable. In any case, Spector clearly respected Blaine’s work, which drives Spector productions from the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “He’s a Rebel” to the strange and wonderful “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” credited to Bobb B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans.

Working with Spector also helped weave Blaine into a large rotating group of studio musicians who became known as The Wrecking Crew. Campbell was a guitarist, Leon Russell a percussionist. Earl Palmer sometimes also played drums, with Joe Osborn on bass, Tommy Tedesco and Carol Kaye on guitar.

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After Spector moved on, the Wrecking Crew was recruited by one of Spector’s most awe-struck fans, Brian Wilson, to turn Brian’s musical visions into Beach Boys recordings. “Help Me Rhonda,” “Good Vibrations” and the Pet Sounds album, among others,were played on record by Blaine and the Wrecking Crew.

From there, Blaine went on to Jimmy Webb, recording “MacArthur Park” with Richard Harris and “Up Up and Away” behind the Fifth Dimension.

He hooked up with Simon and Garfunkel, by which time he was so respected that some of his musical suggestions were incorporated by Simon, a man whose perfectionism rivaled that of Spector.

A critical part of the percussion behind the third verse and closing chorus of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” comes from Blaine pounding a tire chain on a concrete floor. The sharp crack between “Lie-li-lie” choruses on “The Boxer” is Blaine playing a snare drum at the bottom of an elevator shaft.

In formulating and selling ideas like that, it probably helped that by the late 1960s, Hal Blaine had been around several blocks.

For all the famous Jewish entrepreneurs who helped make the 1940s and 1950s a glorious Wild West of music — Syd Nathan, Hy Weiss, George Goldner, Morris Levy, etc. — Blaine was a Jewish kid who didn’t want to sell music. He wanted to make it.

He was born Harold Belsky, son of Morris Belsky, who worked in a Holyoke, Mass., shoe factory back when New England had factories. Harold started playing music around age 7 because it intrigued him.

After the Belskys moved to Hartford, he frequented joints like the State Theater, where Krupa and Rich became his gods. He was in the crowd at the tragic 1944 Hartford circus fire, drawn by the drummers in the circus band.

Soon after that, Morris Belsky moved the family to California, where he opened a deli. Harold, now better known as Hal, took drumming lessons and started playing jazz in small local clubs. Like D.J. Fontana, Elvis’s first regular drummer, Hal took a steady gig in strip joints, which he said helped teach him the art of making the music move in synch with the artist.

Like most musicians who came out of the big band era, he loved jazz. Unlike many of those other musicians, he had no problem following popular taste to pop and then rock ’n’ roll.

It’s one of the mild ironies of early rock ’n’ roll that hundreds of records sound great because the sidemen were big band veterans who considered rock ’n’ roll nothing more than empty calories.

Blaine argued that at the very least, those gigs kept food on the table. For himself, he said, he liked the new music, and a late-in-life interview he gave to the website Musicradar provides a good clue why.

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While Blaine’s musical reputation rests in the rock ’n’ roll camp, underscored by his 2000 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he told Joe Bosso of Musicradar that his 10 favorites among his own recordings were almost all what would more likely be called pop: Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” Dean Martin’s “Everybody Loves Somebody,” Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” Herb Alpert’s “A Taste of Honey.”

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Before he established his studio career, Blaine had toured with Patti Page and teen idol Tommy Sands. He backed Streisand on “The Way We Were.” The first №1 single on which he played was “Johnny Angel” by Shelley Fabares.

It’s true that he played drums, marvelously, on Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.” He also played on the Carpenters’s “Close To You” and “Annie’s Song” by John Denver.

His most popular tune with Elvis was “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”

Sidemen didn’t and don’t make as much money as the stars. Blaine also never liked going out on the road, which can pay better, and after sidemen went out of fashion when disco, rap and electronic enhancements muscled in, Blaine took work like Coke commercials.

Let’s guess he had to. He had the expensive habit of being married and divorced five times.

But he said in an interview a couple of years ago that he was not unhappy with how it all turned out. Lots of kids went to those State Theater shows dreaming they’d someday play music themselves, and Harold Belsky was one of the handful who did.

In the Wrecking Crew he was known as a joker, a guy who kept things loose during the long days of waiting around, playing and then waiting around some more.

In that process, over a lot of years, he got good enough so he could play the same beat on “Strangers in the Night” that he played on “Be My Baby,” and it worked all over again.

Phil Spector was right. Behind a drum kit, Hal Blaine did not make mistakes.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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