Hal Blaine, rock's most recorded drummer, lands in Hall of Fame
Kevin O'Hare / Newhouse News Service (Startribune.com)
If you've ever heard Elvis Presley's ''Can't Help Falling in Love,'' Frank Sinatra's ''Strangers in the Night," the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" or Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," you've heard Hal Blaine. And that's just the beginning. He performed on 350 Top 10 records, more than 40 of which went to No. 1.
The drummer known as "the world's most recorded musician" received some long-overdue recognition when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Monday in ceremonies at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor also were inducted.
Blaine was honored in a new category, "Side-Men," introduced this year. Also named were fellow studio stalwarts King Curtis, James Jamerson, Earl Palmer and Scotty Moore.
"It's awfully nice," Blaine said of the honor, "but it's a shame it took so long."
It is not surprising that Blaine, 70, is a walking rock 'n' roll history book. During a recent phone interview from his home in a retirement community in Canyon Country, Calif., he spoke with typical humor and fond memories about one of the most amazing careers in the history of pop music.
Blaine -- born Harold Simon Belsky in Holyoke, Mass., the son of Jewish immigrants -- started playing with drumsticks when he was very young and got his first full drum set for his 13th birthday. The family eventually moved to California. Blaine enlisted in the Army, served in Korea and after being discharged began playing in "funny hat" bands that mixed music and comedy.
As detailed in his autobiography, "HalBlaine and the Wrecking Crew," he'd play one end of the United States to the other, a routine that kept him on the road for most of the next decade. In the late 1950s, he landed a job with Tommy Sands, a break that helped kick his career into overdrive. Sands was engaged to Sinatra's daughter, Nancy, and Blaine began a lifelong friendship with the Sinatra family.
He also started getting steady gigs as a session drummer, scoring his first Top 10 hit with Jan and Dean's "Baby Talk" in 1959 and his first No. 1 with Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love" in 1961. He worked on Presley's movie "Blue Hawaii" and can be seen in the film.
In the early 1960s, Blaine started playing sessions with Phil Spector, the producer whose trademark "Wall of Sound" techniques produced a stream of hits with groups such as the Ronettes and the Crystals. Blaine was a huge part of that wall of sound, teaming with more than a dozen musicians who called themselves the Wrecking Crew.
"Phil became my mentor and we had nothing but hits going," Blaine said of their heyday. "We were booked months and months in advance."
In addition, Blaine accompanied Frank Sinatra on several mid-'60s hits, including "That's Life," "Softly as I Leave You," and his duet with daughter Nancy on "Something Stupid."
Rockin' with Lennon
Through his connection with Spector, Blaine was enlisted to play on John Lennon's 1975 album, "Rock 'n' Roll." The disc, a paean to Lennon's love of '50s rock, was recorded during the ex-Beatle's nearly yearlong "Lost Weekend" when he was separated from Yoko Ono and partying it up in Los Angeles.
"John Lennon was great fun but he was really drinking a lot then. But he stopped during the sessions because Phil made him. John was used to people bowing down to him, but with Phil, you do it his way. The sessions were great, though, and I got to do double drumming with Jim Keltner, which I really enjoyed."
Another highlight of Blaine's career was working with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, an experience he called "pure magic."
"They were very open to new ideas and would let you try anything. On 'Mrs. Robinson,' they let me put a conga part in that I was hearing in my head. When we were doing 'Bridge Over Troubled Water,' for some reason I kept picturing a chain gang when he [Garfunkel] was singing," Blaine recalled. "I had a set of chains in my car and they let me whip them on two and four during the recording."
Blaine still teaches at drum clinics, plays occasional club dates and even released a comedy album recently called "Buh-Doom! Classic Gags and Grooves From the World's Greatest Drummer."
While he has had a momentous career, Blaine has had some personal difficulties, including the death of one wife and a painful divorce from another.
Still, he takes comfort in his memories. He noted that he recently took a drive in California and switched his car radio to an oldies station.
"At one point they played six records in a row that I had played on," Blaine recalled. "Someone once said that if you leave something behind in this world, you've done something right. Well I know that those records will be here a long, long time after I'm gone. I've left a lot of music to the world and that makes me feel good."