The song seemed to erupt out of the radio — a veritable wave of energy sped along by an incendiary drum beat.
“Da Doo Ron Ron” by the Crystals marked my introduction to the so-called “Wall of Sound,” created by producer and songwriter Phil Spector — and, although I didn’t know it at the time, to the drumming of Hal Blaine.
Blaine, one of my all-time favorite drummers, didn’t make his mark by playing in a band — although he played with bands and for bands on countless recordings made in the 1960s and 1970s.
He became known in recordings circles as a member of the ace group of studio session musicians in Los Angeles who dubbed themselves The Wrecking Crew. They grew to prominence in the early-to-mid 1960s and continued recording on hits well into the 1970s. Blaine died last week at the age of 90 — but it’s not an exaggeration to say his music will indeed live on for as long as individuals listen to American popular music from those two decades.
Even those who say they never heard of Hal Blaine have certainly heard his recordings. By his own conservative estimate, he played on approximately 6,000 recordings — but others believe the number is much higher. He played on 40 number one hits during that time, with 150 top 10 hits to his credit.
At least two of the esteemed Wrecking Crew session players went on to esteemed solo careers: Oklahoma’s own Leon Russell and neighboring Arkansas’ Glen Campbell. Other Wrecking Crew members including guitarist Tommy Tedesco, bassists Joe Osborn and Carol Kaye, and musicians such as Don Randi, Larry Knechtel, Jerry Cole and Bill Pitman.
Most of the Wrecking Crew members — whose lineup changed from time-to-time — chose to spend most of their musical lives in the recording studio, where they played on hit-after-hit.
Blaine famously played the drum beat that introduces the song,”Be My Baby” by the Ronettes — but he also was the drummer on songs by other the the-rising rock bands in the area.
When I listened to “Mr. Tambourine Man” by The Byrds, I had no idea I was hearing the same drummer on the folk-rock Bob Dylan-penned song who had propelled along those spacious Wall of Sound productions produced by Spector.
The Byrds’ recording came about because the band’s producer, Terry Melcher, felt that the group’s drummer, Michael Clarke, wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Indeed, Roger McGuinn, who played his Richenbacker 12-string guitar on the track was the only member of The Byrds to play on “Mr. Tambourine Man.” With Blaine playing drums, other members of The Wrecking Crew playing as well, then-Byrds members David Crosby and Gene Clark then added the vocal tracks.
Blaine wasn’t limited to rock drumming. He played on recordings by The Rat Pack, such as “Strangers in the Night” — which Frank Sinatra took to number one on the charts during an era when The Beatles and The Rolling Stones usually ruled the charts. He also played on the number one hit by another Rat Packer — Dean Martin’s “Everybody Loves Somebody.”
That’s also Hal Blaine you hearing playing on the Elvis Presley songs, “Blue Hawaii” and “I Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
He also played drums or percussion on several Simon and Garfunkel tracks — including “Hazy Shade of Winter,” “Mrs. Robinson” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” — where he hit tire chains against the studio floor at one point to get the effect he sought.
“Annie’s Song” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” by John Denver feature Blaine on the drums. So does “Monday, Monday” by The Mammas and Papas
Blaine and other members of the Wrecking Crew played on numerous tracks by The Monkees — but other bands utilized the studio musicians as well.
Although The Beach Boys played their own musical instruments in concert night-after-night, the group’s chief songwriter and the group’s producer, Brian Wilson, stopped touring with the group in 1964, leaving him more time to write songs and record. With the other members of The Beach Boys on the road, Wilson began working with Blaine and members of The Wrecking Crew in the studio.
Since Spector had been a major influence on Wilson and The Beach Boys because of his spectacular record production, one can imagine how thrilled Wilson must have been to have Blaine — the original drummer on so many of Spector’s recordings — playing drums on The Beach Boys tracks. By working with The Wrecking Crew, Brian Wilson could have a complete instrumental track already recorded and waiting for their vocals by the time The Beach Boys made it home from one of their concert tours.
I first became aware of Blaine because of The Beach Boys connection — especially his resplendent work on Wilson’s masterpiece “Pet Sounds” and the single “Good Vibrations” — where Blaine put his technical abilities to great use.
Studio footage exists of Wilson working with Blaine and other members of The Wrecking Crew trying to get the sound he heard in his head down on tape.
Wilson spent six months recording the song, using four different studios to record the song’s different movements. It’s difficult to imagine all of The Beach Boys staying patient enough to lay down those instrumental tracks with the amount of precision Brian was trying to achieve. Some of them considered him a tough enough taskmaster on the vocals alone. Singer Mike Love has been quoted as asking at one point “Who’s going to hear this? The ears of a dog?”
Blaine has been quoted as saying Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson didn’t mind him laying down the drum tracks in the studio on a number of Beach Boys recordings. That gave The Beach Boys’ popular drummer more time to surf and drive his car — and Blaine noted Dennis Wilson could still make thousands of dollars a night playing drums during the band’s concerts, while Blaine might be getting paid $35 for his work as a studio musician.
Brian Wilson issued a tweet after Blaine passed, saying “Hal Blaine was such a great musician and friend, that I can’t put it into words. He taught me a lot, and he had much to do with our success — he was the greatest drummer ever.”
I always figured Blaine and the other members of The Wrecking Crew were so willing to spend the long days and often sleepless nights working with Brian Wilson on take-after take while recording the album “Pet Sounds” and the single “Good Vibrations” because of their devotion to helping him get down the sounds he heard in his head and to getting the music exactly the way Brian wanted it.
It occurs to me they may have also had another incentive.
As studio musicians, they were paid by the hour.
Contact James Beaty at firstname.lastname@example.org