The Wrecking Crew's Hal Blaine: my 11 greatest recordings of all time
Hal Blaine, one of the most revered and prolific session drummers of all time has died, aged 90. We were lucky enough to speak with him in 2011, when he talked us through the highlights of his storied career.
He's the most-recorded drummer in history, with credits ranging from Frank Sinatra to The Monkees to The Beach Boys to The Byrds to... you get the idea.
Phil Spector's Wall Of Sound? Unthinkable without the authoritative beat of Hal Blaine, one of the famed group of musicians who made up LA's illustrious Wrecking Crew (a term he coined, by the way). But Blaine, characteristic of a sticksman, chalks up his good fortune to "having the right timing at the right place. I just fell into this vat of chocolate."
Schooled in jazz , Blaine differed from his contemporaries during the late '50s and early '60s when it came to playing rock 'n' roll. "A lot of drummers I knew wouldn't touch rock," he says. "They thought it was dirty and disgusting. To me, playing rock 'n' roll was no different than any other form of music. You're just playing a big backbeat, that's all."
Of his days and nights in The Wrecking Crew (many of whom are the subjects of a brilliant documentary film currently making the festival circuit), Blaine recalls them as being "magical times. You’ll never get music like that again, and you won’t get a group of musicians like The Wrecking Crew together again. The business just doesn’t work that way anymore.
“Funny thing is, we had no idea that what we were doing was groundbreaking or revolutionary. Doing a TV show in the morning, a Beach Boys track or a Phil Spector session in the afternoon, then working with Frank Sinatra or Simon & Garfunkel after that – that was normal to us. We were working musicians, playing great music. We got the job done, and we made a hell of a lot of money doing it."
Although Blaine estimates that "roughly 30 to 40 musicians were the first-call players" during those glory years, he maintains that the core group of session aces who comprised The Wrecking Crew consisted of Earl Palmer on drums; Glen Campbell and Tommy Tedesco on guitar; Lyle Ritz, Ray Pohlman, Jimmy Bond and Red Callender on bass; along with keyboardists Don Randi, Leon Russell, Al Delory and Larry Knechtel. "Any combination of those guys, and you had something good happening.”
According to Blaine, The Wrecking Crew were highly learned musicians, with one notable exception: "Glen Campbell didn’t really read music. He could look at charts and get a sense of what was going on, but everything he did was by ear. When you think about it, though, we all had good ears… good feel, timing. We knew what the songs needed. Of course, we had some pretty good songs to play on, too.”
In the case of Hal Blaine, that playlist would number in the thousands. Over 6000, in fact. With such a voluminous catalogue of tunes, picking one's personal best could prove to be a daunting, if not impossible, task. But on the following pages, Hal Blaine does just that, listing what he considers to be his greatest recordings of all time. Trust us, they're all winners - nothing but big-time smash hits. And as you might expect, there's not one missed beat to be found.
Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass - A Taste Of Honey (1965)
“My first Grammy for Record Of The Year. I have seven in all, and six of them were in a row. Not too shabby.
“We cut the track live at Gold Star Studios - me and Tedesco, Herb, the horn players from the TJB. Herb and Jerry Moss were the producers, and Larry Levine was the engineer.
“Even though it was already a well-known song, Herb was doing it his own way. After the intro, though, I noticed that nobody was coming in right. We did about three or four takes and nothing was working. So I just looked everybody in the eyes, as if to say, ‘Follow me,’ and I went ‘boom-boom-boom-boom’ on the bass drum and ‘diddley-diddley-diddley’ on the snare. There it was! Everybody came in beautifully.
“That drum part became the hook of the song. Herb loved it. A Taste Of Honey became a worldwide smash and my first Record Of The Year.”
Listen: Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass - A Taste Of Honey (1965)
Frank Sinatra - Strangers In The Night (1966)
“I had a wonderful history of working with Frank, and later I got to work with his daughter Nancy, as well. The producer was Jimmy Bowen, and the arranger was Nelson Riddle – not a bad pair, those two.
“From a drummer’s standpoint, here’s what’s funny about this song: The beat I played on Be My Baby, which Phil Spector produced for The Ronettes, is the same beat I played on Strangers In The Night. ‘Boom-boo-boom-BANG! Boom-boo-boom-BANG!’ – exactly the same, only much softer.
“Everybody loved it. It fit the mood of the song perfectly. I didn’t tell Frank that I was using the Be My Baby beat. He never asked, so I didn’t think he had to know. With Frank, if he didn’t mention something, there was no reason you had to bring it up. Another Record Of The Year.
Listen: Frank Sinatra - Strangers In The Night (1966)
The 5th Dimension - Up, Up And Away (1967)
“Jimmy Webb was pretty much a child at the time. He was this crazy kid from Oklahoma who came out to California with all these far-out dreams. He was in love with some girl and wrote a bunch of songs about her. As far as I understand it, one day he was in Palm Springs and saw these balloons that were being launched. So he decided to write about them. Took him 10 minutes.
“Jimmy brought the song in to Johnny Rivers and Marc Gordon, who were producing The 5th Dimension at the time. Bones Howe was workin’ the knobs – we had knobs before faders. We all thought the track was killer. It was one of those songs you heard and you went, ‘Well, there’s nothing to think about. It’s a hit.’
“I played my blue sparkle Ludwig kit on the track, which is the set everybody in Hollywood was buying at the time. It was an easy song to play. I used a stick and a brush because I didn’t want to do anything flashy; I wanted to hear the tune. What’s funny is, Tommy Tedesco did all of these amazing guitar runs, really incredible stuff – and he didn’t get in the way! Everything he played worked like a charm.”
Listen: The 5th Dimension - Up, Up And Away (1967)
The 5th Dimension - Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In (1969)
“Talk about an amazing song. It was already a big Broadway hit from the show Hair by the time we recorded it. We just all played our buns off on it. We didn’t know it would be another Record Of The Year, but once again, Bones Howe came through with all of his magic.
“A lot of drummers ask me, ‘How in the world did you get through that song? It’s such a complex arrangement.’ I didn't think it was, really. It just kind of grooved and flowed, and then at the end we kicked it up and went wild. It was a lot of fun. We always tried to have a good time when we played. When we enjoyed ourselves, we were pretty sure something good was coming from it. And we had a blast playing this cut.”
Listen: The 5th Dimension - Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In (1969)
Simon & Garfunkel - Mrs Robinson (1968)
“The song to the movie that we did, The Graduate. The movie music came out before the single, as I recall. These sessions were produced mainly by Roy Halee, a wonderful music maker, although Paul and Art certainly had a lot of input at the time.
“They started out as folk artists but gradually more instrumentation came into their sound. Electric guitars, drums, electric bass – soon, they were doing more pop songs than folk songs. I didn’t get into the politics of all that. I just played what felt right.
“Working with Paul and Artie was great. Whatever I wanted to try, they loved it. I played on things like The Boxer and so many of their fabulous songs. They let me do anything I wanted. Incredible artists, those two.”
Listen: Simon & Garfunkel - Mrs Robinson (1968)
Simon & Garfunkel - Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)
“I started the song with Paul and Artie in New York, but then we flew back to LA to finish it up. Money was no object to Simon & Garfunkel at that point, so whatever they wanted to do, the label was fine with.
“We had our ‘golden trio’ on this number: me on drums, Larry Knechtal on piano and Joe Osborn on bass. Larry got a Grammy for the song because of that beautiful introduction he played. The song wouldn’t be the same without that piano intro.
“We did the basic track in a few hours. The overdubs took some time. I got off the kit and tried an experiment. The ending of the song made me think of a man on a chain gang – it had that epic kind of feel that needed the right effect. So I got these big snow chains from my car and went back into this cement room in the studio and started banging them on the floor.
“On the 2 and 4 count, I’d slam them down, and on the 1 and 3 I’d drag them across the floor. ‘Sliiiide-BANG!-sliiiide-BANG!’ I was kneeling the entire time I did this. Luckily, they got a pillow for me so I didn’t kill my knees.”
Listen: Simon & Garfunkel - Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)
Captain & Tennille - Love Will Keep Us Together (1975)
“To me, this is one heck of a song. It’s the kind of song some people put down, calling it ‘fluff’ and other things. That’s just ridiculous. It was big, people loved it, it sold millions of copies… and it was another Record Of The Year. Make fun of it all you want – the facts speak for themselves.
“I got a call to work with Daryl Dragon, who was the Captain. I’d played with him before on Beach Boys sessions, but I didn’t know who Toni Tennille was. She was marvelous, though. Very sweet girl with a beautiful voice. What a talent!
“Once I listened to the track, I knew what to do. You go in, hear what the song needs, and give it that punch. If you try to outdo a song like this, you’re just going to ruin it.”
Listen: Captain & Tennille - Love Will Keep Us Together (1975)
Richard Harris - MacArthur Park (1968)
“It’s a work of art, but what’s amazing is that it even happened. Richard Harris got me on a plane to England, but instead of doing any recording, I wound up having a 10-day party with Richard and his actor friends, all of them big names, wonderful people and world-class drinkers. We finally had to fly back to LA to get with The Wrecking Crew and record the song.
“Jimmy Webb wrote the number and produced it. We went into Sound Recorders - myself, Joe Osborn, Larry Knechtel – and got crackin’ on it. What was especially thrilling for me was that I got to conduct the strings when we did the overdubs.
“Everybody used to laugh about this song... the cake staying out in the rain. But this was Jimmy Webb’s poetic genius. I thought it was a masterpiece when we were doing it. I really did. And here’s the really mind-blowing part: the basic track was cut in one take!”
Listen: Richard Harris - MacArthur Park (1968)
Nancy Sinatra - These Boots Are Made For Walkin' (1966)
“I love this lady, and her whole family, of course. I love her mother, and I loved Frank. The entire Rat Pack – what a great group of people.
“The recording was pretty simple. Billy Strange, who’s a fantastic guitarist and did a lot of work for Elvis, did the arrangement. I know a lot of people think Carol Kaye did the walking bass line that was the hook of the song, but it was actually played by Chuck Berghofer, one of the greatest upright bass players in the world.
“We rehearsed it a few times, and when I heard that bass part I knew exactly when to come in. A hook like that drives the whole tune.”
Listen: Nancy Sinatra - These Boots Are Made For Walkin' (1966)
Dean Martin - Everybody Loves Somebody (1964)
“It was a straight 8th beat with a nice feel. A lot of people think I’m doing a swing kind of thing on this song, but it’s just a nice straight 8th beat, very relaxed. That’s the way you had to play for Dean. You couldn’t play hard, and you couldn’t get in the way of his delivery.
“I’m not a flashy drummer. I never wanted to be a Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich. I wanted to be a great accompanist, and that was my role on this song. A song is a story, and if you interrupt the story with your playing, you’re not doing anybody any good at all. Dean loved my playing here. I helped him tell the story.”
Listen: Dean Martin - Everybody Loves Somebody (1964)
Elvis Presley - A Little Less Conversation (1968)
“Working with Elvis was always a wonderful experience. It was a thrill and quite a feather in my cap. Everybody was envious of me. Elvis was a terrific guy.
“A straight-8 with a firm backbeat. The track was pure rock ‘n’ roll. A lot of fun to play. There was me and Tommy Tedesco and a lot of the guys from The Tonight Show band. We had a great time. Bones Howe was on the faders, and he knew just what to do.
“Elvis never said anything about what we’d recorded, but that’s how you knew you did something right. He only spoke up if he didn’t like something. I can’t imagine what he’d think about the song becoming a smash again several years ago [remixed by Junkie XL]. He’d probably be tickled pink. How many songs can you say that about? Not many.”