Remembering Prolific Rock 'N' Roll Drummer Hal Blaine

Mar 15, 2019
Originally published on March 18, 2019 12:32 pm
Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Hal Blaine, who died Monday at age 90, was one of the most prolific drummers in the history of rock 'n' roll. He recorded with such artists as Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison, Aretha Franklin and The Supremes, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, Sonny and Cher and Nancy Sinatra, and The Beach Boys and The Byrds.

The list of the hit singles on which he provided unforgettable drum fills and back-beats is ridiculously long. He added the rock to The Byrds' folk rock recording of "Mr. Tambourine Man," and he added his distinctive touch to Herb Albert's "A Taste Of Honey," the Beach Boys', "Good Vibrations" and Simon and Garfunkel's "A Hazy Shade Of Winter."

In 1963 alone, he played drums on "Then He Kissed Me," "Another Saturday Night" and "Surfin' USA." As a member of the fabled Wrecking Crew session band and on his own, he performed on 40 No. 1 hit records and on many other famous releases.

Terry Gross spoke with Hal Blaine in 2001. They started with this hit from 1963, which has one of rock's most famous opening drum lines.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE MY BABY")

THE RONETTES: (Singing) The night we met, I knew I needed you so. And if I had the chance, I'd never let you go. So won't you say you love me? I'll make you so proud of me. We'll make them turn their heads every place we go.

So won't you please be my, be my baby. Be my little baby, my one and only baby. Say you'll be my darlin', be my, be my baby. Be my baby now, my one and only baby. Whoa, oh, oh, oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Hal Blain, welcome to FRESH AIR.

HAL BLAINE: Thank you very much.

BIANCULLI: Now, is the opening on "Be My Baby," was that drum line your idea?

BLAINE: You know, that's a very difficult question to answer because Jack Nitzsche was a pretty prolific writer, but he wrote very, very thin in those days. You know, this was the beginnings of rock 'n' roll. Somehow, with my experience, I was an awfully good faker, and it could be that the lick went boom (ph), boom-boom (ph), boom, boom-boom with a backbeat. Boom, boom-boom (clapping), boom, boom-boom (clapping).

And at one point while we were rolling, I may have missed the second beat. So we went boom, boom-boom (clapping), boom, boom-boom (clapping), and it stuck. It became a hook and of course, one of the most famous hooks in rock and roll.

That also happened to me - just to get off the beaten track, it also happened to me with the Tijuana Brass when we did "A Taste Of Honey." The song went (singing) duh (ph), duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh. And everybody comes in (singing) duh-dum (ph), ba-duh (ph) duh.

Well, unfortunately nobody was coming in together. It was like a train wreck. So at one point, me and my comedic mind, they went (singing) ba-duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh. And I looked at the band, and I started slugging with my bass drum, boom, boom, boom, boom, diddly (ph), diddly, diddly, diddly.

Everybody came in and, once again, that became a major hook for that song. It happened to me my first record of the year.

GROSS: Why don't we hear that part you're talking about?

(SOUNDBITE OF HERB ALBERT AND THE TIJUANA BRASS'S "A TASTE OF HONEY")

GROSS: Hal Blaine, what are some of the other records that had the most memorable beats that you played?

BLAINE: Well, I remember doing a record with Tommy Roe. The record was called "Dizzy." That was another one where I played as kind of a hook drum sound (singing) boom, dink (ph), go-diggy (ph), diggy (ph), diggy, diggy dink, dink, go-diggy, diggy, diggy, diggy, diggy.

I learned very quickly in the early days of rock 'n' roll that there were certain hooks that people wanted to go with - guitar players or bass players. And I found that I could do that with drums. And it worked beautifully by repeating a particular - every four bars or every eight bars, repeating a particular lick.

One of the great records that I did with Sam Cooke was "Another Saturday Night," it was called. And that was another one with that same drum lick every eight or 16 bars, whatever it was. (Singing) Diggi-dig (ph), dig (ph), dig, dig, dig, dig, dig. And, you know, all these drum licks kind of became the standard for rock 'n' roll.

You know, all the drummers that I've spoken with through the years have told me that they grew up listening to the records that I played on, and that's how they learned. And I grew up listening to Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, and that's how I learned.

GROSS: In fact, I bet you've been to countless restaurants where people have been playing your rhythms on the table.

BLAINE: That has happened, I guess, in the past, you know. Sometimes, I've actually - you know, funny you mentioned that. I've actually turned around to someone and said, do me a favor, and let me play the drums...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BLAINE: ...In a nice way.

GROSS: Right.

BLAINE: Or I would explain to them that they were trying to play their fingers along with whatever the music was playing coming out of the speakers in the restaurant. That actually has happened to me, which is kind of funny that you would hit on that.

GROSS: Now, you did a lot of records with Phil Spector including "Be My Baby."

BLAINE: Yes.

GROSS: What are some of the things he had you do that other session heads didn't? What was different about working with Phil Spector?

BLAINE: Well first of all, every Phil Spector session was a party. Everyone on the session were the first-call people, the A gang. Everyone wanted to work with Phil Spector because they knew that some kind of a hit record - I mean, it was the talk of the town.

Phil Spector was the guy that everyone wanted to see how he worked. He had a big sign on the door that said, closed session. And yet, anyone who stuck their head in, he'd grab them, and he'd shove them in the studio. And he'd say, Hal, give them a tambourine or a shaker or some cloudies (ph), some noisemakers. Let them play something.

GROSS: Did Spector hum for you or clap for you the kind of things that he wanted, the sound that he wanted?

BLAINE: Not for drums. Phil used to use me like a racehorse. He would have me sitting there while he rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed. He would keep me from rehearsing, and I'd be chomping at the bit. I want to play. And finally, he would point to me.

He used to be in the booth, and he'd run back and forth. They had a huge window, and he'd run back and forth like he was conducting a symphony. And he'd look at the strings and use certain, you know, symphonic movements or the way a conductor would do. He knew - certain times he would look at me and he would say, now. And I knew he was saying, now, which meant go for it.

And I (laughter) guess I used to go nuts sometimes on those drums because if you listen to some of the fade endings on just about all those records, we used to go into double times and all kinds of things that were unheard of on records. And everybody would go wacko. It went on forever.

And finally, when everyone had had enough - and I always kind of had that feeling I knew when it was - I would go into my quarter-note triplets against whatever was being played.

GROSS: Clap a quarter-note triplet for us.

BLAINE: Well, in other words a - (singing, clapping) ba-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh, duh, duh-duh, duh, duh, duh-duh, duh, duddly-duh (ph), duh.

It's over and I go duh-duh, duh, dud-n-duh-duh (ph), duh-duh, duh, dud-n-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh (ph), duh, dud-n-duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh, duh, dud-n-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh.

So everyone knew here it is. This is it. And Phil would never stop the machine until I played those quarter-note triplets. So they're on the end of every record.

BIANCULLI: Hal Blaine speaking to Terry Gross in 2001. He died Monday at age 90. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAKIN' IT")

SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) When she goes, she's gone. If she stays, she stays here. The girl does what she wants to do.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2001 interview with longtime session drummer Hal Blaine. He died Monday at age 90.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You were the drummer on a lot of The Beach Boys' records.

BLAINE: Just about all.

GROSS: But I think it was Dennis who was actually...

BLAINE: Yes.

GROSS: ...The drummer with the band. I imagine, at the time, nobody knew that he wasn't the drummer on the records.

BLAINE: A lot of people did not know, in the early days, that Dennis did not play on those things. Sometimes, Dennis would come in and overdub with a tambourine or something. But Dennis was - happened to be a friend of mine. And we each had our yachts very close to each other. We were both motorcyclists. But Brian used to come into the Spector sessions. He wanted to see what so many people wanted to see. Everybody wanted to know what - who was this Phil Spector? What was he doing?

GROSS: So did Dennis feel bad that instead of...

BLAINE: No. No.

GROSS: ...Him, it was you on the records?

BLAINE: I tell you. I've told this story before. Dennis loved the fact that while I was in the studio in the afternoon making $35, $40 for the afternoon, Dennis that night was making 35- or 40,000 on stage. I mean, they were making a lot of money. And he was thrilled that he could just be on his boat. He didn't have to be in the studio. He didn't have to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

GROSS: Well, let me rephrase the question. Did you feel resentful then (laughter) that he was making all this money on stage and you were making next to nothing in the studio?

BLAINE: Not at all because I knew what it was leading to because my phone started ringing off the hook with - from Phil Spector dates and Beach Boys dates.

GROSS: Right.

BLAINE: All of a sudden, I was getting calls for Elvis Presley and Johnny Rivers. And the 5th Dimension came along and the Mamas & the Papas. I mean, everybody came out of the woodwork.

GROSS: Is there a Beach Boys track that you particularly like your drumming on that we can play?

BLAINE: Well, you know, I'd have to think about that a little bit. There are certain songs that make you cry, songs like "God Only Knows" - one of the beautiful songs. "Good Vibrations," of course, was another sort of a trilogy of - Brian put that song together. Sometimes, we would do, you know, five minutes on a session. And he'd say thank you. And sometimes, we would work for days putting that song together. He just used to use little bits and pieces of this, that and the other.

I remember that on one of the sessions - and I think it was part of the "Good Vibrations" - Brian wanted something different, a different sound on it with drums or percussion. We used to drink a lot of orange juice. And they came in little, small bottles out of a vending machine. And I took three of those bottles, taped them together, cut the tops off to various sizes - almost like the tubes on a vibraphone. And there were three different sounds. And I used a mallet that would be used on a vibraphone. And I got this knocking sound - (imitating knocking sound) - three different knocking sounds. And I used it on that section where we were playing ba-da-da (ph), boo-doo-doo (ph), ba-da-da while I was playing (imitating knocking sound) ba-da-da (imitating knocking sound) ba-da-da - different tones.

GROSS: Why don't we hear that part of "Good Vibrations?" This is Hal Blaine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD VIBRATIONS")

THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) I love the colorful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair. I hear the sound of a gentle word on the wind that lifts her perfume through the air. I'm picking up good vibrations. She's giving me the excitations. I'm picking up good vibrations. She's giving me the excitations. I'm picking up good vibrations. She's giving me the excitations. I'm picking up good vibrations. She's giving me the excitations. Close my eyes. She's somehow closer now.

GROSS: That was Hal Blaine on drums and percussion. Now, Hal Blaine, we've been talking about your rock 'n' roll sessions. You also worked with Sinatra. Did you have to get a different kind of beat when you were working with Sinatra? As a jazz singer, Sinatra was more behind the beat. Rock 'n' roll tends to be very on the beat.

BLAINE: Well, one of our secrets to rock 'n' roll was learning to lay back. And we used to - in other words, if you were looking at a scale on a ruler, every time your backbeat came on - one, two, three, four - every time we'd hit two and four, it would be just a hair behind that actual two and four. That was how I got the great feeling going all the time with Joe Osborn, the great bass player, and Larry Knechtel.

You know, we were known as the three killers who used to come in and make these - like "Bridge Over Troubled Water" - records like that that were just so incredible - all Grammy winners. You mentioned "Be My Baby" - boom, boom, boom, bang - boom, boom, boom, bang. When I did the record "Strangers In The Night" with Frank, which was record of the year and his only gold single, believe it or not - that went right to No. 1. I was playing the same beat quietly. (Singing) Strangers in the night, boom ba-ba-ba-ba boom, ba-ba-ba-ba-ba boom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Strangers in the night exchanging glances, wondering in the night, what were the chances we'd be sharing love before the night was through? Something in your eyes...

GROSS: What was a rehearsal like with Sinatra? And what was a recording session like?

BLAINE: Well, generally, when you got a Sinatra call, it was a six-hour call. Now, the standard is a three-hour session. With Frank Sinatra, we would have a six-hour double session call - three hours, an hour break and then three hours of recording. Now, the reason for that was that Frank - not Frank, but in this case, Jimmy Bowen, who was producing - we would go in for the first three hours and rehearse whatever the song or songs were to make sure that we absolutely had it down pat.

The engineers would go through all the lines to make sure that there were no glitches, no squeaks, no white noise, no red noise. They would go through all the chairs that the strings, specially, were sitting on, make sure that there were no squeaks, make sure that everyone had the lights on their music stands. No music stand rattles.

I mean, it goes on and on and on because, when Frank Sinatra walked in to record, he walked in. He walked around with two, three of us, four of us, said hi. How you doing? Let's make a record. And bang. He was in the vocal booth. And we were making a record - no fooling around, no mistakes, no nothing. Rarely did he ask to do a second take. Frank always knew what he was doing. He had rehearsed himself. He knew the songs. And it was unbelievable.

GROSS: Say somebody else required a second take because they made a mistake. Would he get annoyed?

BLAINE: You know, we were not - we never said anything because, by the time we were working with Frank, they could do a lot of things electronically. If a guy had a glitch, you know, in the string section, they could somehow key him out, overdub them and fix it up. Frank was the kind of guy that, once he walked out of the vocal booth, he'd say, thank you all. He was gone with his entourage. That was it. Only once - I think it was only once that Frank Sinatra - I heard him say, Jimmy, I really would like to do one more take please, if you don't mind. And, of course, we would do one more take. And, you know, instead of a full three hours, he would work for 15 minutes, and then it was over with.

GROSS: You've been on about 8,000 different songs that have been recorded. Do you actually remember what you were on? Or do you have to consult a list to figure out if you were on something or not?

BLAINE: Well, it depends. Obviously, I had all those records of the year, the Grammy winner of the year. And I don't have to think about those records. I know those records backwards. When it comes to certain songs, there are certain songs out there that I didn't even realize - I mean, when I was working with people like Dusty Springfield, I couldn't even tell you the song or songs. It was just a blur of so many songs and so many sessions. I just - I don't know. It's very difficult to explain, Terry. I just played what I felt. And they let me play. You know, once you kind of make a name for yourself - then when producers would come in, they would say, oh, Hal, just do your thing. You know, don't worry about it - just whatever you feel. They felt that I would always do the right thing.

BIANCULLI: Drummer Hal Blaine speaking with Terry Gross in 2001. He died Monday at age 90. After a break, we'll visit with TV host and cookbook author Lidia Bastianich, whose memoir is now out in paperback. And film critic Justin Chang reviews the new Chinese drama "Ash Is Purest White." I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER SATURDAY NIGHT")

SAM COOKE: (Singing) Another Saturday night, and I ain't got nobody. I got some money 'cause I just got paid. Now how I wish I had someone to talk to. I'm in an awful way.

Dig this.

(Singing) I got in town a month ago. I seen a lot of girls since then. If I could meet 'em, I get 'em. But as yet I haven't met 'em. That's why I'm in the shape I'm in. Here, another Saturday night that I ain't got nobody. I got some money 'cause I just got paid. Now, how I wish I had someone to talk to. I'm in an awful way. Now...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.