Hal Blaine played drums on over 35,000 recorded tracks of music in his 25 year career, including 350 top ten records and more than 40 number one hits. As a key member of the Los Angeles, California session musicians nicknamed The Wrecking Crew, Hal’s talents were in high demand during the 1960’s.
“If music in the second half of the 20th century were the Empire State Building, Hal Blaine would be the ground floor.” Art Garfunkel
Born Harold Simon Belsky February 5, 1929 in Hartford, Connecticut, Hal Blaine started pounding sticks to rhythms at an early age. At 13 his sister bought him a used set of drums that included a wood snare, a 28-inch bass drum and a hi-hat pedal with cymbals. In 1944 his family moved to California and in 1946 at the age of 16, he enlisted in the Army. After boot-camp he was sent to Korea. By chance he was discovered by an officer who needed a drummer for his band. Hal Blaine became a personal driver and drummer for Uncle Sam. The band played jazz at officers clubs, parties and special events.
Following Hal’s discharge in 1948, he traveled with various groups including the Novelteers. In 1949 he enrolled in the Roy C. Knapp School of Percussion in Chicago. Hal majored in drums and minored in piano and vibes. School was in session 8am to 4pm. At night he played drums at strip clubs from 8pm to 4am. He graduated in 1951 armed with the ability to read music and with a vast amount of live performing experience. His talents would serve the 22 year old drummer well upon his returned to California.
Hal joined the house band at the Magic Carpet Club in San Bernardino, California. The piano player was Joe Newman and the singer was Vicki Young. Vicki would later be signed by Capitol Records and become Hal Blaine’s first wife. Although their marriage did not last long, Hal got a taste of the recording industry. Throughout the 1950’s he toured with bands including The Texas Raiders and Patti Page. During this time he met Tommy Sands and played on the soundtrack of Tommy’s movie, Love In a Goldfish Bowl. That recording session led to working on the soundtrack sessions for Elvis Presley’s movie, Blue Hawaii. During these early jobs Hal met guitar ace Tommy Tedesco. Tommy and Hal would go on to become two of the most recorded musicians of all time.
By 1960 the music industry was changing. Rock and Roll was here to stay and new music scenes were popping up all over the country. New York City had always been the epicenter of the recording industry but now the west coast was emerging. Los Angeles studios, including Capital Records, Gold Star, Western, United and Sound Recorders became the hot places to record. Young, talented musicians lined up at these studios to find session work. Time is money in the studios and the best musicians, who could get the tracks down in one try, rose to the top.
In 1959, Hal played drums on the Jan and Dean single “Baby Talk,” which reached number 10 on the charts. In 1960 he played on Connie Francis’s “Mama,” which reached number 8 on the charts. In 1961 he played on Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” Hal’s first number one single.
Southern California’s surfing music was growing in popularity in the early 1960’s. Jan and Dean, The Beach Boys, and the Rip Chords all had top 10 hits including “Surf City,” “Surfin’ USA,” “Surfer Girl/Deuce Coupe,” “Dead Man’s Curve,” “Hey Little Cobra,” and “I Get Around.” Hal and members of the Wrecking Crew played the instruments on all of these songs. The producers knew they could get the songs recorded in less time with the studio musicians than with the actual band members.
Hal Blaine became the go to drummer in Los Angeles. He never turned down session work for fear of the next drummer in line taking his place. The grueling schedule he kept included playing up to eight sessions a day, many in different studios, setting up and tearing down his drum kit and hitting the mark every time.
Hal was hired to work with producer Phil Spector for the first time at Gold Star Studios. The techniques Spector used and the talented group of session musicians he picked to play the instruments changed the sound of modern music. During sessions with Phil, the studio floor would be packed with several musicians including Carol Kaye and Ray Pohlman on electric bass; Lyle Ritz and Jimmy Bond on upright bass; Tommy Tedesco, Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts, Glen Campbell and Bill Pitman on guitar; Don Randi, Leon Russell, Larry Knectel on keyboards and Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine on drums. Phil Spector, using the Wrecking Crew, created the Wall of Sound. In 1963 the single “Be My Baby,” by the Ronettes, reached number 2 on the charts.
“The world opened up for us core musicians, with producers coming to Hollywood from all over the world to hire the famed Wrecking Crew, and spread the success into their records.” Hal Blaine
Hal continued to be in demand with producers including Snuff Garrett, Lou Adler, Bones Howe, H.B. Barnum and Joe Saraceno. He recorded hit songs for a number of bands including The Mamas and The Papas, The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, Sonny and Cher, Gary Lewis and The Playboys, The Marketts, Neil Diamond, and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass.
In 1966, Hal recorded “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” for Nancy Sinatra. He would later play live at her Las Vegas show. The marquee outside Caesars Palace read Nancy Sinatra featuring Hal Blaine. Hal also played for Nancy’s father, Frank Sinatra. He first recorded with him in July of 1964 at Western Studios in Los Angeles. The single “Strangers In the Night,” reached number 1 on the charts.
Studio session work started drying up in the early 1970’s. More bands started recording their own instruments. Hal changed along with the times and became a member of John Denver’s band and toured the world.