By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 16, 2019)
I nearly had a Curb Your Enthusiasm moment at the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival. I attended a screening of The Wrecking Crew, a music documentary profiling a group of legendary studio session players. This guy sitting right next to me began talking back to the screen halfway through. The house was packed, so I couldn’t move to another seat. I almost shushed him but thought better of it (you never know how someone is going to react these days). Lights came up, and my chatty neighbor turned out to be… Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine, who was there to do a Q & A after the screening.
I only share that memory now because Hal Blaine passed away this week at the age of 90.
In a scene from a 1995 documentary about Brian Wilson called I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, his daughter Carnie talks about a period of her childhood where she recalls being startled awake every single morning by the iconic “bum-ba-bum-BOOM, bum-ba-bum-BOOM…” drum intro to The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” blasting from her dad’s stereo system. Apparently, Brian was obsessed at the time with trying to suss how producer Phil Spector was able to achieve that distinctive “wall of sound” on his records.
Carnie may or may not have been aware that technically, the man disturbing her rest was Hal Blaine. In a 2015 Guardian article, Blaine confessed that his drum intro was a fluke:
I was like a racehorse straining at the gate. But [Phil Spector] wouldn’t let me play until we started recording, because he wanted it to be fresh. That famous drum intro was an accident. I was supposed to play the snare on the second beat as well as the fourth, but I dropped a stick. Being the faker I was in those days, I left the mistake in and it became: “Bum-ba-bum-BOOM!” And soon everyone wanted that beat. If you listen to me in Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night”, I’m playing the “Be My Baby” beat, just very softly.
Yes, Blaine also played with Sinatra. His services were also requested for the Pet Sounds sessions by the Phil Spector-obsessed Wilson. In fact, from the late 50s through the mid-70s, Blaine did sessions with Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, The Righteous Brothers, Henry Mancini, Ike & Tina Turner, The Monkees, The Association, Nancy Sinatra, The Fifth Dimension, The Byrds, Sonny & Cher, Petula Clark, Mamas and the Papas, The Grass Roots, and countless others. Not to mention myriad TV themes and movie soundtracks.
Blaine was a member of the “Wrecking Crew”, a moniker given to an aggregation of crack L.A. session players who in essence created the “sound” that defined classic Top 40 pop from the late 50s through the 70s. With several notable exceptions (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack) their names remain obscure to the general public, even if the music they helped forge is forever burned into our collective neurons.
Blaine may have been the most recorded drummer in pop music history. Remember that one time at band camp, when I almost told him to shut up? I remember him telling the audience that he was then in the midst of compiling his discography; he said at that time he’d able to annotate “only” about 5,000 sessions (some estimates top the 10,000 mark!).
That’s quite a legacy. Condensing a “top 10” list from such a wondrous catalog is likely a fool’s errand-but that hasn’t stopped me in the past. So here you go, in alphabetical order:
“Any World (That I’m Welcome To)” (Steely Dan) – One of the better songs on Steely Dan’s 1975 album Katy Lied, “Any World” is essentially a musical daydream featuring compelling chord changes and wistful lyrics about quiet resignation and wishful thinking (“If I had my way, I would move to another lifetime/Quit my job, ride the train through the misty nighttime…”) You know – a typical excursion into Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s willfully enigmatic and ever-droll universe (“Any world that I’m welcome to/Is better than the one I come from.”). The famously picky duo only used Blaine for this cut.
“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” (The Fifth Dimension) – James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot’s groundbreaking 1967 musical Hair was such a pop culture phenomenon at the time that it yielded huge hit singles for several artists who were not associated with any of its stage productions; namely Oliver (“Good Morning, Starshine”), Three Dog Night (“Easy to Be Hard”), and this epic two-song medley, which was covered by The Fifth Dimension. Bones Howe produced it, and The Wrecking Crew provided primary backing. The complex instrumental arrangement is by Bill Holman. Released as a single in 1969, it was not only a chart-topper, but picked up two Grammys.
“A Taste of Honey” (Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass) – Man, I heard this song a lot when I was a kid. Whipped Cream and Other Delights was a staple of my parents’ LP collection; I recall having a particular…fascination for the album cover (I’m pretty sure I stared a hole in it). Written by Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow in 1960, the song was covered by quite a few artists (including The Beatles), but Herb Alpert’s #1 1965 instrumental version is pretty definitive. Blaine holds it down tight with that bass drum!
“Be My Baby” (The Ronettes) – Just like Ronnie say. Produced (bigly) by Phil Spector, with Blaine’s unmissable “mistake” kicking things off quite nicely, thank you very much.
“Cecilia” (Simon & Garfunkel) – Featured on the duo’s outstanding 1970 swan song album Bridge Over Troubled Water, this jaunty Caribbean-flavored number was one of several cuts that hinted at Paul Simon’s burgeoning interest and future forays into world music. The song is very percussion-oriented, which makes it a good showcase for Blaine. Simon adds additional percussion on xylophone (although the overall effect gives the number a steel drum vibe very reminiscent of Bobby Bloom’s 1970 hit “Montego Bay”).
“Drummer Man” (Nancy Sinatra) – Blaine famously played on Nancy’s biggest hit “These Boots Were Made for Walkin” (1966), but this lesser-known cut from her 1999 album How Does it Feel? gives Blaine lots of room to stretch and really strut his stuff.
“Galveston” (Glen Campbell) – In a touching memoriam to Glen Campbell that Blaine posted on his Facebook page in 2017, he wrote “Everything that Glen recorded, with the Crew or with other musicians, were all hits. As for personal favorites, Glen always had a special place in his heart for the great song “Galveston”, and I guess we all did.” I will happily second that emotion. Blaine and the Crew are all in fine form on this beautifully crafted Jimmy Webb composition, which says all it needs to say in 2:41. Pop perfection.
“Kicks” (Paul Revere & the Raiders) – This single (which peaked at #4 on the Billboard charts in 1966) was produced by Terry Melcher and written by the Brill Building hit-making team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, “On Broadway”, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”). Solid drumming from Blaine, a memorable guitar riff, and a great growly (almost punky) lead vocal from Mark Lindsay.
“That’s Life” (Frank Sinatra) – When you’ve loved and lost like Frank…well, you know how the song goes: “Ridin’ high in April/Shot down in May…” Released in 1966 as the B-side to “The September of My Years” the song was written by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon and produced by Jimmy Bowen (it went to #1 on the Easy Listening chart). Blaine, Glen Campbell and several other Wrecking Crew “regulars” are featured on the cut. The bluesy Hammond organ flourishes were played by Michael Melvoin. “My, my!”
“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (The Beach Boys) – A great opener for a damn near perfect song cycle (if it weren’t for that loopy throwaway cut “Sloop John B” that has always ruined the otherwise consistently transporting mood of Pet Sounds for me…mumble grumble). Co-written by Brian Wilson, Tony Asher, and Mike Love, it features an expansive production by Wilson and a transcendent vocal arrangement with lovely harmonies. The Wrecking Crew are in full force on this cut, with Blaine holding it steady.