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A life behind drums: Hal Blaine, the most recorded studio percussionist in history

Is it possible to be the most recorded drummer in music’s history and still be an unknown name to many? Apparently, it is. The name Hal Blaine might not be as popular as John Bonham or Ringo Starr, but his contribution to music remains unparalleled. A session musician, Blaine spent the entirety of his career within the four walls of the studio, exploring new sounds and styles as well as people: “When I started out, I was a jazz drummer… But I always say that when I came to California, I fell into a vat of chocolate because so many guys refused to play that dirty word: ‘rock and roll.’ I got to record on so many labels and work with so many wonderful musicians.”

Blaine indulged himself in music’s pleasures from the tender age of seven when his family moved from Massachusetts to Hartford in Connecticut. As a play routine, to keep his muscles twitching, he jammed along with radio songs making use of dowels that he removed from the back of a chair in place of genuine drumsticks. His keen interest soon fetched him his first drum set, gifted by his sister on his thirteenth birthday.

A keen listener, Blaine’s wonderland was the State Theatre in Hartford, which was just across the street from his father’s workplace. Every Saturday, Blaine would accompany his father to work and spend the day at the theatre watching movies, cartoons and stage shows with the quarter that his father gave him. It was here that he was introduced to the big bands of Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Les Brown, Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Artie Shaw, Harry James and many more.

In his book Hal Blaine and The Wrecking Crew, Blaine recalled, “I had no idea what an impact they all would have on my later years… I was a 13- and 14-year-old kid during those years, and they were probably the happiest of my teenage life—sitting transfixed, glued all day long every Saturday, watching my favorite bands and taking special note of the drummers. When we got home, I couldn’t wait to get hold of my sticks and run the arrangements I had just heard. I just knew that one day the drummer would get sick or fall off the stage and I’d jump up and save the show.”

His school band days in San Bernadino was cut short when he dropped out of high school to join the army. After being discharged from duty in 1948, he spent a year playing with a myriad of musicians before he decided to join Roy C. Knapp School of Percussion in Chicago. “Classes consisted of every kind of musical training—music appreciation, harmony, arranging, sight-singing and reading, drums, all of the percussion instruments, and lots of homework,” said Blaine in his book. While learning there, he got a few offers to play at strip clubs, which he gladly took being an eager performer, even though it meant that he had to overwork himself massively.

After finishing music school, Blaine pursued a full-time career in music which led him to Las Vegas and then Hollywood through the jazz band Carol Simpson Quartet. Recalling a particularly triumphant moment Blaine said, “I’ll never forget when we worked at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City with the Count Basie Band. Count’s drummer, Sonny Payne, had gotten sick and yours truly got to play the gig. I knew most of the charts, and now there I was, kicking my favourite big band. It was every drummer’s dream in those days. Count Basie even offered me the job of a lifetime. I was flabbergasted. But I explained that Tommy’s job was my job, and I couldn’t think of leaving the group.”

The Sands gig was a boon to Blaine in many ways, as it not only offered him studio experience, but also introduced him to producers of valuable record labels such as Capitol. These experiences helped Blaine polish his drumming skills and get a better understanding of the industry. In his book, Blaine explains how naivety can work against one’s dreams and aspirations by saying “As important as knowing the musicians was getting to know the guys that did the hiring… They could make you or break you, and often did both. This business is like any other. You must know your trade. You must study all aspects and be ready when your time comes.”  

Blaine’s “boom, ba-boom BOP’ rhythm, which was used in the intro of ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes, is unarguably one of the most popular beats in pop history. Fun fact: Blaine invented the beat by mistake, while playing a 2/4 beat. “It’s a very strange thing. It was unintentional. It’s possible that I was playing it straight 2 and 4, and at one point, maybe when we started rolling, on the first or second take I may have accidentally missed that second beat, so I played it on four. And I continued to do that. Phil might have said, “Do that again.” Somebody loved it, in any event. It’s just one of those things that sometimes happens. Now, if you listen to Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers In The Night,’ you’ll hear that I used that very same beat, just slower. That time it was intentional” said Blaine during an interview.

Apart from this unique Blaine-beat, there were two other signature things that made Hale Blaine a standout. The first was his method of tuning the drums in a lower pitch which later became patent in rock music. “I came along at a time when drummers tuned their drums real high in pitch—real tight. I tuned drums down to a normal, mid-range. I worked for many singers who liked the sound of my drums. When I started in the studios, some engineers would say, ‘You better tighten those drums up,’ but the producers would say, ‘Don’t tell him what to do. We’re going for a different sound here’” said Blaine in his 1981 Modern Drummer interview. Second, he used a kit of 12 drums instead of the usual 4-5, to expand the range of sounds: “It really was a major change, which makes me very proud. I wanted a full, bigger spectrum of sound to be able to do more with drums.”

Blaine was a part of the young musicians’ group, which he informally named the Wrecking Crew, as older musicians with their refined taste of jazz and formal attires used to consider them an abomination — wrecking the music business and scoffing at their casual jeans and t-shirt get up.

Being a session musician exposed Blaine to a range of musicians and working experience with them. Among his notable collaborations, are the ones with Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Brian Wilson, Simon and Garfunkel and Phil Spector. Needless to say, each of these encounters are separate episodes, that demand a detailed re-telling.

Being the most in-demand session player, Blaine made a rubber stamp with the words ‘Hal Blaine Strikes Again’ carved on it. He used it to mark the music scores and places where he worked. “I always stamp my charts. And there’s a reason why I started that; it wasn’t all ego” explained Blaine once. Mike Botts, the drummer of the Bread, commented on this matter by saying “Every studio I went to in the late sixties, there was a rubber stamp imprint on the wall of the drum booth that said, ‘Hal Blaine strikes again.’ Hal was getting so many studio dates he actually had a rubber stamp made. He was everywhere!”

Surreal as it may sound, it is true. In fact, by Blaine’s own estimate he has worked at least 35,000 sessions and 6000 singles. To give more concrete examples, he made it to the 150 top-10 singles of US, 40 of which ranked number one and 8 of which won the Grammy’s Record of the Year award. He produced the major chunk of his work during the 1960s and 70s. Drumming in high speed during these two decades, he considerably slowed himself down during the 80s, when computerised, electronic music took over studio sessions.

Retiring gracefully, Blaine spent the rest of his life away from the limelight but immersed in music.