“People ask me all the time, ‘What’s the hardest part of being a studio musician?’" says drumming legend Hal Blaine. "And I tell them the truth: ‘Finding a parking space.’"
He's got a million of 'em. A mention of his daughter, who recently moved to the Lone Star State, elicits this one-liner: "You can always tell a Texan – but not much."
All that's missing is the "ba-dum-ching!" At 84, Blaine is still sharp as the rim shots he used to lay on hundreds (or is it thousands?) of Top 40 hits in the '60s and '70s. Though officially retired from active performing and recording, he continues to do the occasional clinic. "Well, I can't just do nothing," he explains. "Besides, all drummers are show-offs. It comes naturally to them."
Except when it comes to the recording studio – at least in the case of Blaine, as he'll tell you. Whether it was providing the poignant backbeat and rollicking fills for the epic grandeur of The Ronettes' Be My Baby or the smooth and poetic glide for Frank Sinatra's Strangers In The Night, the veteran sticksman says, "I’m an accompanist. I play the song. Bouncing all over and throwing my sticks in the air and crashing into things – there’s guys who do that who are great, but I’m not one of them. 'Less is more' was always my rule."
During his heyday, at a time when his drumming was perhaps the most consistent sound on transistor radios across the globe, Blaine didn't go out of his way to check out his competition. For one thing, he was booked. "All day, every day, I was making records," he says. Surprisingly, though, one of the most-studied and emulated drummers in history admits that he didn't want to be influenced by what others were doing.
"I really stayed away from the radio during that time," Blaine says. "When I went in to do a session, I wanted to do my thing; I didn’t want some other guy’s style to creep into my playing. Besides, I already had my influences, the people I listened to when I was just starting out. They made their mark."
As you might expect, most of Blaine's picks for five essential drum records pre-date his professional career. “A great drum record is a great song record," he says. "And a great song is a story. You want to be a part of telling that story. It can be kind of silly, like Paradiddle Joe, or it can be something more serious like Buddy Rich on the West Side Story medley. It doesn't matter as long as it tells you what you want to know and if the drummer is doing his job."