The drummer of a generation of hits

Arguably the greatest success story of the 1960s rock music era belonged to a man most people don’t recognize by name.

Certainly not by his given name — Harold Belsky — nor even by his professional name — Hal Blaine.

Hal-BlaineAASince his death last week at age 90, you may have learned his name by reading any of the multiple articles, in print and online, that cataloged his extraordinary accomplishments.  He has been recognized in his industry (and now, increasingly, by the public at large) as an unparalleled titan among that breed of musician that worked diligently behind the scenes, in the proverbial shadows.  In the recording studios of Los Angeles, he played the drums in thousands of recording sessions between roughly 1960 and 1980, anonymously providing the backbeat for the hits of many hundreds of popular singers.

Name a hit single from the Sixties, and it’s very likely he was working the drum kit on the recording.  The Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda”?  Yep.  Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life”?  Sure.  Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe”?  Check.  Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender”?  You bet.  The Mamas and The Papas’ “California Dreamin'”?  Uh-huh.  The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”?  One of his best.

It’s truly unbelievable, the pervasiveness of Blaine’s work during that period.  His skillful drum work can be heard (and, sometimes, barely heard, when called for) on records by a broad cross section of American musical artists, from The Fifth Dimension to The Byrds, from The Partridge Family to Elvis Presley, from The Grassroots to Neil Diamond, from Barbra Streisand to Jan and Dean.

It’s estimated that Blaine played on more than 6,000 songs, 150 of which became Top Ten hits on the Billboard charts, and 40 of which reached Number One.

Here’s an especially remarkable fact:  Blaine’s drums were featured on six consecutive Record of the Year Grammy winners — “A Taste of Honey” by Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass (1966), “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra (1967), “Up, Up and Away” by The Fifth Dimension (1968), “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel (1969), “Aquarius (Let the Sunshine In)” by The Fifth Dimension (1970) and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel (1971).

How did this happen?  How could one drummer end up manning the skins on so many hit records?  To comprehend this, you have to understand how the record-making process worked during that era:

An artist’s manager and/or record label rep would learn of a song, usually as a demo tape submitted by a songwriter, and wanted their artist to record it and release it.  (This often had to happen quickly, before someone else beat them to it.)  Studio time would be booked, and a producer would be hired to oversee the recording session.

The producer was usually the guy holding all the cards.  It was up to him to decide the arrangement, the tempo and, most important, the musicians to use in order to get the best recording in the most efficient use of time.  This usually meant hiring guitarists, bass players, keyboard players and drummers who were known for their ability to intuitively 0420_wrecking-crew-HalBlaine_LateSixtiesknow exactly what was called for in a given song or recording.

In Los Angeles studios between roughly 1962 and 1972, that meant the producer wanted Hal Blaine on the drums.  There was, quite simply, no question about it.  Whether you wanted a snappy 4/4-time backbeat, a syncopated jazz touch, or just some subtle brush work, there was no one easier to work with, no one better qualified.

How did Blaine feel about this?  Last year, as he was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys for his extraordinary body of work, he said, “I felt at the time as If I had fallen into a vat of chocolate.  It was a wonderful, wonderful thing to be asked to play drums for so many different singers and bands.  I was truly living my dream.”

Blaine was, by all accounts, the unofficial ringleader of an unofficial group of LA-based studio musicians who came to be known as The Wrecking Crew.  Several dozen top-notch players could justly claim informal membership in this confederation, but the core group consisted of Blaine (drums), Carol Kaye (bass), Larry Knechtel (keyboards, bass), Tommy Tedesco (guitar), Glen Campbell (guitar), Steve Douglas (sax), Earl Palmer (drums), Mike Rubini (keyboards), Joe Osborn (bass), Louie Shelton (guitar), Jim Gordon (drums), Leon Russell (keyboards), Billy Strange (guitar) and Jack Nitzsche (arranger/conductor).

There had been an older version of The Wrecking Crew in the 1940s and 1950s — a more buttoned-down group of studio musicians who liked the nickname “The First-Call Gang.”  They were, indeed, the first ones called when a top performing artist wanted to record a new song or album.  These were typically the “easy listening” singers who offered the more standard, strings-laden torch songs of those days — Vic Damone, Pattie Page, Johnny Mathis, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como.

The studio pros who provided musical backing then were “the blue-blazer-and-necktie, wrecking crewby-the-book, time-clock-punching men who had cut their teeth playing on Big Band records, movie soundtracks and early TV shows,” as writer Kent Hartman put it in “The Wrecking Crew,” his authoritative 2012 book.  “They loathed everything about rock and roll.  To them, this new music was appallingly primitive, and most refused to play it.  In their minds, their careers had been built on decorum and sophistication, not on wearing T-shirts and blue jeans to work while bashing out what they felt were simplistic three-chord rhythm patterns over and over.  ‘That kind of thing is surely going to wreck the business,’ they would say.”

Blaine, known for his easygoing manner and infectious sense of humor, chuckled when he heard this. “They think we’re wrecking the industry?  Well, okay then, we’ll call ourselves The Wrecking Crew!”

They worked tirelessly, sometimes up to eight sessions a day.  They recorded movie and TV theme songs and film soundtracks, and played the music for some TV commercials as well.  Mostly, though, they recorded lots and lots of hit singles, and lesser-known album tracks, for the era’s biggest stars.

In some cases, their involvement was meant to be kept secret.  The Beach Boys, for example, had played their own instruments on their earliest records (1961-1963), which had basic, simple arrangements.  But once Brian Wilson heard what producer Phil Spector was accomplishing with studio musicians on his “Wall of Sound” recording process on tracks like The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” and The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” he wanted Beach Boys tracks to have that same degree of professionalism.  On Wilson’s Hal_Blaine_48f722b0b749dmore sophisticated compositions like “California Girls,” “Good Vibrations,” “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” he brought in Blaine and his compatriots to substitute for his Beach Boys cohorts in the studio, and the listening public was none the wiser.

“Hal Blaine was such a great musician and friend that I can’t put it into words,” Wilson said the other day in a tweet that included an old photo of him and Blaine sitting at the piano. “Hal taught me a lot, and he had so much to do with our success.  He was the greatest drummer ever.”

Blaine had wanted to be a professional drummer since he was a boy.  With every musical act that passed through his Massachusetts home town, young Hal would position himself close to the bandstand so as to watch every movement the drummer made.  These were typically Big Band drummers — Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Dave Tough — and they were his heroes, the coolest “hepcats” around.

In his late teens, Blaine learned drums in Chicago from the great Roy Knapp, who had taught Krupa and others, and in his early ’20s, Blaine played in Chicago strip clubs and with small jazz combos, eventually touring and recording with Count Basie’s outfit, Pattie Page and teen idol Tommy Sands.  Unlike his jazz drummer counterparts, Blaine took a liking to rock and roll, not only because the studio sessions proved lucrative but because he enjoyed it and understood the kind of drumming parts the producers were looking for.

Blaine’s acumen was not in showiness but in capability.  “I was never a soloist, I was an accompanist,” he told Modern Drummer magazine in 2005.  “That was my forte.  I never had Buddy Rich chops.  I never cottoned to the Ginger Baker drum solos.”

He always seemed to know what a song needed, and sometimes he stumbled on to it by happenstance.  One of his signature moments — the attention-grabbing “on the four” solo (bum-ba-bum-BOOM) that launched the 1963 Phil Spector-produced hit “Be My Baby” — halblaine550kjhredcame about when he accidentally missed a beat while the song was being recorded and improvised by only playing the beat on the fourth note.

“And I continued to do that,” Blaine recalled.  “Phil (Spector) might have said, ‘Hey, do that again.’  Somebody loved it, in any event.  It was just one of those things that sometimes happens.”

Another iconic contribution Blaine made was during the recording of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” in 1969.  “I was going for what I later called a ‘cannonball-like’ sound, something to bruise the song, which I felt was too sweet, too much like a lullaby. The producer, Roy Halee, heard it and had an idea.  He set me up with my kit in an empty elevator shaft.  When the music got to the ‘Lie-la-lie’ part, I hit the drums as hard as I could.”  The resulting effect was indeed like a gunshot, a cannonball blast.

By the 1970s, producers began losing some of their authority as rock bands rightly insisted that the group’s members should be the ones to play the guitar, bass, keyboard and drum parts on their records.  There would still be the prominent singers (Streisand, The Carpenters, John Denver) who needed studio musicians to provide the professional instrumental backup on their records, but by the 1980s, demand for studio musicians dwindled.  The advent of electronic drum machines and other techno options made guys like Blaine all but obsolete.

the-wrecking-crew-film-poster-images-movie-one-sheets-bHe continued to appear occasionally at symposiums and workshops, and on TV talk shows, well into his ’80s.  He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 with four other Wrecking Crew partners, and he was prominently featured in the 2008 documentary “The Wrecking Crew,” directed by Denny Tedesco (son of Tommy Tedesco), and in Hartman’s 2012 book.

But I keep coming back to the head-shaking list of songs on which Blaine is listed as drummer.  “Mr. Tambourine Man” (The Byrds).  “These Boots Are Made For Walking” (Nancy Sinatra).  “Half-Breed” (Cher).  “You’re the One” (The Vogues).  “Secret Agent Man” and “Poor Side of Town” (Johnny Rivers).  “Johnny Angel” (Shelley Fabares).  “Another Saturday Night” (Sam Cooke).  “Windy” and “Along Comes Mary” (The Association).  “Wedding Bell Blues” and “One Less Bell to Answer” (The Fifth Dimension).  “River Deep, Mountain High” (Ike and Tina Turner).  “Love Will Keep Us Together” (The Captain and Tennille).  “Let’s Live for Today” (The Grassroots).  “If I Were a Carpenter” (Bobby Darin).  “MacArthur Park” (Richard Harris).  “Ventura Highway” (America).  “Dizzy” (Tommy Roe).  “Annie’s Song” (John Denver).  “This Diamond Ring” (Gary Lewis and The Playboys).  “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” (Glen Campbell).  “Kicks” (Paul Revere and The Raiders).  “The Way We Were” (Barbra Streisand).  “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” (Jan and Dean).  “(They Long to Be) Close to You” and “Top of the World” (The Carpenters).  “Monday Monday” and “I Saw Her Again” (The Mamas and The Papas).  “Everybody Loves Somebody” (Dean Martin).  “Cracklin’ Rosie” and “Song Sung Blue” (Neil Diamond).

Are you kidding me?!

Blaine himself always loved to tell the story about the day he met Bruce Gary, drummer for the late ’70s British pop band The Knack (“My Sharona”).  “He was telling me how much he loved American pop songs of the 1960s, and he had started researching who the different drummers were on the various records.  He told me he was almost disappointed when he discovered that a dozen of his favorite drummers were me!”

 

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I’m just a singer in a rock ‘n roll band

In 1975, immediately following completion of the group’s “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” tour, Peter Gabriel, Genesis’s brilliantly charismatic frontman and singer, announced his retirement from the band.

Most observers felt the group would never survive the loss.  Even the remaining band members were unsure of how to proceed.  They’d written some new songs and laid down some backing tracks, but who would handle the vocals?  They held auditions for Gabriel’s replacement, which lasted nearly two months and involved more than 50 8c5af6c6d18b512cc7048802eed7be1a--phil-collins-rock-bandcandidates.  None seemed promising.  They tried one fellow in the studio, but it didn’t pan out.

With tour dates looming, and studio hours piling up, Genesis was getting desperate.  Finally, drummer Phil Collins surprised his mates when he suggested, “How about I have a go?”  They sighed and said, “Might as well.”  So he takes a shot at singing “Squonk,” a track from their album-in-progress, “A Trick of the Tail.”  The others look at each other in the control room, and their eyebrows say it all:  By George, I think he’s got it!

In his autobiography, “Not Dead Yet,” Collins recalls that day.  “Looking back, it was a defining moment for me.  And yet we were still dazed and confused.  The one guy we thought might manage the vocals has proved a bust, and now the drummer’s had a pop and doesn’t sound bad.  But over the whole album?  Is that wise?

“We’re caught between a rock and a soft place.  Having explored every other angle, it seems like the drummer is the last-ditch, last-resort-only option.  None of us can take this entirely seriously.  Surely some mistake?  I’m just as conflicted, because I really enjoy playing the drums.  That’s where I live.  Yet there’s no denying the truth:  I can sing the songs.  

“Finally, a compromise:  I might consider this if we can find another drummer I like, Singer-Phil-Collins-performs-in-concert-at-Newcastle-Arena-9-November-1997because I’m not up for double duty.  Don Henley (in The Eagles) did OK for a song or two, and Levon Helm (in The Band) did great for a song or two.  But neither would have been able to sustain contact with an audience throughout a two-hour set, and neither could I.  

“The lead singer singing from behind a drum kit is alienating for an audience.  There’s all these cymbals and stuff getting in the way of any connection between vocalist and crowd.”

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And that, in a nutshell, is why you so rarely see a drummer — or a bass player, for that matter — as the lead vocalist in a rock band.

Most musicians and those with showmanship savvy don’t find this all that surprising, but the average fan might wonder, “You know, I never thought about it before, but it’s true.  Why aren’t there many lead vocalists who also play drums, or bass?”

Since the dawning days of rock, lead singers have been the focal point, the visual center of any band, especially in live performances.

Because the vocals are so crucial, they are often handled by someone whose attention is focused exclusively on the microphone, like Gabriel.  Or Mick Jagger.  Or Roger Daltrey.  Or Janis Joplin.  Or Joe Cocker.  Or Robert Plant.  Or Jon Anderson.  Or David Bowie.  Or Freddie Mercury.  Or Bono.

Alternatively, many bands have employed a lead singer who also plays guitar.  Think of Chuck Berry, or John Lennon, or Jimi Hendrix, or Tom Petty, or Neil Young, or Joan Jett.

And then there are the lead singers who sit at the keyboards, like Jerry Lee Lewis, or Leon Russell, or Elton John, or Stevie Wonder, or Gregg Allman, or Steve Winwood.

What you rarely see is a lead singer who’s in the back, sitting behind a drum kit.  As 2906bd5dc32bca19538f3e923d6253a0--eagles-band-the-eaglesdrummers explain it, there are various good reasons for this.

In a 1989 Drummer magazine interview, Don Henley said,  “I have a bad back today partially from my years playing the drums and singing.  I had to hold my body in such a position that my spine got out of alignment.  Between playing drums and keeping my mouth in front of the microphone, it really twisted my whole body.  One of my shoulders got to be an inch or two higher than the other one.”

My friend Paul Vayda, who’s been playing drums for 50 years, points out, “Drummers think differently than singers or guitarists.  They care more about the rhythm and tempo than melody or lyrics.  The few drummers who also sing are generally just keeping the beat while singing rather than doing anything intricate.”

Then there’s the issue of being the center of attention.  Many drummers want to avoid it.   My son-in-law Mike Reaves, whose many talents include drumming, notes, “As a drummer, I’m not sure I want the attention.  I want to be part of the group, part of the 74135546-612x612music making, but not the focal point.”

Collins, who only occasionally drummed and sang simultaneously, relinquished the role of being Genesis’s drummer, first to Bill Bruford for a year or so and then Chester Thompson from then on.  Collins, meanwhile, had to learn a new set of skills.  “I was insecure as hell about being a frontman, particularly following Pete (Gabriel).  The thing I most had to overcome was my fear of performing with just a microphone stand.  I was used to having a row of cymbals between me and the audience.  It was nerve-wracking.  In particular, what was I supposed to do when there’s no singing?”

Levon+HelmIn addition to Collins and Henley, The Band’s Levon Helm was a prominent drummer who handled some of his group’s lead vocals, most notably on hits like “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek.”

Even if just as a novelty, The Beatles gave Ringo Starr one ringo-starr_010song per album to sing, and he went on to sing and play drums together in concert on such songs as “Boys,” “Honey Don’t” and “Yellow Submarine.”

Singer extraordinaire Karen Carpenter was actually an impressive jazz-style drummer whose skills on the skins were often unknown to KarenCarpenterher fans, who insisted she come out from behind the drums to be the visual focal point.

Other drummers who have done at least some of the lead vocals include Buddy Miles (of Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys), Roger Taylor of Queen and Peter Criss of Kiss.

What about that bass?

For many of the same reasons drummers struggle with singing, bass players are likewise usually too busy concentrating on holding down the rhythm foundation to be able to sing at the same time.  If the bass part is simple, it’s not too difficult to manage lead vocals if the melody is also easy to sing.  But if the bass line is heavily syncopated, or even just emphasizes different parts of the beat than the vocal melody does, the bassist/vocalist must learn to synthesize the two parts almost like a jigsaw puzzle.  Some can’t manage this at all; others can but must work hard to master it for the songs where their voice is required.

“Bassists need to focus on keeping a solid rhythm foundation going that is harmony or counterpoint/syncopation to the melody, so that it makes it much more challenging to simultaneously sing the lead melody,” observes my friend Steve Rolnick, an accomplished bass player since the late ’60s.  “Maybe some backup harmonies or phrases, but not lead vocals.”

And yet, there are a few prominent examples of lead vocalist bass players in the rock Paul-McCartney-6pantheon.  We need look no further than Sir Paul McCartney, one of the finest bass players and overall musicians in the rock era.  He provided lead vocals or harmonies while playing bass on nearly every Beatles song when they performed live, and he continued to handle double duty on bass and lead vocals throughout his lengthy solo career.

It’s interesting to note that McCartney was a guitarist and piano player first, and only became a bassist when pressed into service when The Beatles needed one after the ineffective Stu Sutcliffe left their early lineup.  “Didn’t really want to play bass, but someone had to,” he recalled.  “So I learned as I went, and kept the bass lines pretty article-2699986-158BC372000005DC-578_634x578simple at first so I could also continue singing.”

As the group’s music became more sophisticated and their recordings showed more innovation, McCartney’s bass lines evolved into something more demanding.  “The thing for me that was hard, beginning around the time of ‘Revolver,’ was that some of the bass parts were now independent melodic parts, and it became much more difficult to sing the main melody simultaneously.  It was like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time.  So I had to put special effort into that, which made it very interesting.”

So, like anything else, there’s really no big secret to singing one melody and playing a different melodic part on bass at the same time.  It’s a matter of hard work, practice and concentration, using what is often referred to as “muscle memory” to play the bass part while the mind focuses on singing the lyrics.

sting-performance-ny-advertising-week-2016-billboard-1548This may be why lead-vocal bassists are a little less rare than lead-vocal drummers.  Sting was the lead singer of The Police for 10 years, and he managed to simultaneously play some amazing bass lines on so many great songs, including those with complicated jazz, reggae and/or New Wave rhythms.  Once he went solo, Sting continued to sing and play bass on multiple world tours (although he also played guitar and other unusual stringed instruments on occasion).

Equally impressive was the late great Jack Bruce, who sang lead vocals on 90 percent of Cream’s sometimes complex blues rock repertoire.  Geddy Lee is another singing bass 26-jack-bruce.w529.h352player who successfully navigated the progressive rock material of Rush while handling both responsibilities.  Greg Lake, whose vocals are so pivotal on the early King Crimson albums as well as the complete oeuvre of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, also performed commanding bass lines at the same time.

Bassist Roger Waters shared lead vocals with guitarist David Gilmour on all but the earliest Pink Floyd albums, and somehow still managed to offer strong bass performances as well.  In the early years of The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson played bass while still singing lead or primary harmony vocals when they performed in concert.  Peter Cetera was one of three lead vocalists during Chicago’s first decade in the business, and he offered fine bass work too.  Timothy B. Schmidt was a singing bass player with Poco and The Eagles, sometimes singing lead.  Same with John Lodge of The Moody Blues, Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy and Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead.