Hal Blaine may have been one of the most prolific session drummers of all time -- but above all else, he considered himself an “accompanist.” When recording Simon and Garfunkel’s signature song, “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” he had a different plan: drop the sticks altogether.
“For some reason, I pictured a troubled guy in chains,” he told L.A. Record in 2009. Instead of approximating this on the kit, he walked out to his car, pulled out tire chains and kneeled on the studio floor. (“Drag on one, smack on two, drag on three, smack on four,” he remembered telling himself.)
This ironclad devotion to serving the song flies in the face of technical drumming -- but cemented Blaine in popular music forever. The legendary session man and Wrecking Crew drummer passed away on Monday, (March 11). He was 90.
Blaine started out as a teenage jazz drummer in the school of Gene Krupa before indulging his love of rock ‘n roll -- and becoming a seasoned pro by his twenties. And reading his résumé is like scanning 20th century music in miniature. Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke all made hits with his feel for the groove and tremendous thwack on the snare.
When a producer would doubt a band’s drummer could cut it, Blaine was a phone call away. When Terry Melcher wasn’t sure a still-green Byrds could nail their own version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” he brought in Blaine in lieu of their drummer, Michael Clark. On Beach Boys classics like “California Girls,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Good Vibrations,” the drummer isn’t original member Dennis Wilson, but Blaine.
This drew a variety of reactions from the drum legends. By Blaine’s telling, Clark was “the only guy who was a little pissed”; meanwhile, Wilson was elated. “He was thrilled that I was making Beach Boy records while he was out surfing or riding his motorcycle,” chuckled Blaine.
He wasn’t just steady or dependable; he was able to spin slip-ups into gold. His most iconic beat, for the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” was the result of a happy accident; when he hit the snare on the 4 rather than the 2 and the 4, producer Phil Spector stopped him cold -- that’s the one. That th-th-thump became the heartbeat of the 1960s.
In the 1980s, Blaine’s work dried up -- as gated sounds and proto-digital machines superseded flesh-and-blood players. He eventually stepped away from the kit and became a security guard in Arizona. Later, he lost his Hollywood Hills home and a wall of 175 gold records in a divorce settlement. Still, he penned a memoir, 1990’s Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew -- and remained a legend to pop, rock and soul fans who tuned into his singular swing.
Blaine claimed to have recorded 4,000 tracks -- and 39 of those shot to the top of the Hot 100. In honor of the late Blaine’s legacy in the studio and the Billboard charts, here’s a crash course on each No. 1 hit he played on.
The Crystals, “He’s a Rebel” (1962)
This ode to a Marlon Brando type makes hay of other 1962 bad-boy anthems such as “Johnny Angel”; instead of riding on frilly harp plucks, this Crystals classic sounds tough, driving and streetwise. Blaine gives this Wild One-flavored hit the horsepower it needs.
Shelley Fabares, “Johnny Angel” (1962)
“He’s got something that I can’t resist/ But he doesn’t even know that I exiiiiist!” Not exactly love poetry worthy of Neruda, but this fluffy single -- written by Lyn Duddy and Laurie Loman and recorded by Elvis Presley co-star Fabares -- vaulted to No. 1.
Jan and Dean, “Surf City” (1963)
Hard to imagine now, but the Beach Boys once had surfing competitors that threatened to wipe them out on the charts; Brian Wilson wrote this No. 1 hit for fellow Angelenos Jan and Dean. Today, “Surf City” sounds like an off-brand imitation of America’s Band -- but dig Blaine’s choppy backbeat, and for a moment, you believe.
Dean Martin, “Everybody Loves Somebody” (1964)
The Rat Pack star’s signature ballad was less a show-stopper than an act of aggression; when he found his son, Dean Paul Martin, worshipped the Beatles, he snapped back: “I’m gonna knock your pallies off the charts.” He did knock “A Hard Day’s Night” down a notch: still, it’s anyone’s guess who remembers “Everybody Loves Somebody” over the Fabs classic.
The Beach Boys, “I Get Around” (1964)
Sometime around 1964, Brian Wilson quit writing hot-rod rockers and aspired to “pocket symphonies”: the more complex “I Get Around” is the first gasp of a full-fledged composer. Blaine plays less like a garden-variety beatkeeper than part of a greater pop machine.
Lorne Greene, “Ringo” (1964)
Not a reference to Richard Starkey, but an outlaw gunfighter, delivered in deadpan spoken-word by actor Greene. A period piece to be sure, but a proto-William Shatner moment for anyone’s morbid interest. Blaine gamely follows along with his train beat.
Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction” (1965)
A woke pacifist anthem that encapsulated Vietnam, the Selma to Montgomery marches and the Kennedy assassination, “Eve of Destruction” took an assist from Blaine to capture the 1960s in full swing.
The Beach Boys, “Help Me, Rhonda” (1965)
“I would have made a better rhythm,” Brian Wilson admitted about “Help Me Rhonda” when asked what song he’d re-do in 2014. “It wasn’t in the pocket.” Beach Boys heads beg to differ: Blaine’s sly shuffle and anxious fills nail the impudence and insecurity of puppy love.
Sonny and Cher, “I Got You Babe” (1965)
Sonny Bono’s ode to newlywed life has been covered by everyone from UB40 to Mark Kozelek -- and the original remains a karaoke-ready, date-night classic. Blaine’s tick-tocking rhythm marks off the months and years ahead of the married 1960s duo.
The Byrds, “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965)
The line on this one is Bob Dylan saying “Wow, you can dance to that!” -- though it’s impossible to imagine anyone dancing to this. Rather, the Byrds’ hit version of Dylan’s tune is even more of a head-trip than the original. Just listen to the tentative demo from Preflyte Sessions to hear how Blaine captured the dreamy pulse like Michael Clarke couldn’t.
Gary Lewis and the Playboys, “This Diamond Ring” (1965)
This gawky, Beatles-nicking hit by Jerry Lewis’ son hit the charts hard, starting at No. 65 and working its way to the toppermost. Today, this No. 1 hit scans like a charming throwback; Blaine’s dramatic timpani adds necessary heft to a track that flirts with fluff.
The Beach Boys, “Good Vibrations” (1966)
No way Dennis could have followed along with this one: “Good Vibrations” remains the most Byzantine surf hit of all time. It’s best heard not in verses and choruses, but in episodes: Blaine nails every dramatic shift of Brian’s idiosyncratic, neo-classical masterpiece. Not bad as dogs’ inspiration goes.
The Mamas and the Papas, “Monday, Monday” (1966)
Blaine plays slack and tambourine-heavy on this Mamas and the Papas hit -- a ray of sunshine famously played at Monterey Pop Festival. It’s hard to hear this light, breezy classic in light of the fate of John Phillips, who succumbed to a tragic life of drug abuse and illicit relations.
Petula Clark, “My Love” (1966)
Clark famously disliked this tune, calling it “flat” and “ordinary”: she begged Warner Bros.’ Joe Smith not to release it until he simply responded, “Trust me, baby.” Correct assessment: the Wrecking Crew-powered “My Love” was a smash.
Johnny Rivers, “Poor Side of Town” (1966)
A shooby-dooing curio from 1966, the blue-eyed soul singer’s “Poor Side of Town” rides Blaine’s workmanlike rimshots as Rivers croons from the wrong side of the tracks.
Frank Sinatra, “Strangers in the Night” (1966)
“The worst f---ing song I ever heard,” spat Sinatra about “Strangers in the Night.” Ol’ Blue Eyes may have just been embarrassed about its scatting chorus, but he protested too much; like “Poor Side of Town,” it doo-be-dooed to No. 1 and remained on the chart for 15 weeks.
Nancy Sinatra, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” (1966)
No kiss-off song is as threatening, as empowering, as funny as “Boots”; Loretta Lynn, Pegi Young, and even Megadeth gave the Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra classic their own shades of aggression. But Blaine’s clobbering beat on the original is the rightful boot itself.
Frank and Nancy Sinatra, “Somethin’ Stupid” (1967)
This classic duet was originally going to be a duet between Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood; her father relented when Hazlewood told him “If you don’t do it with Nancy, I will.” This love ballad is complicated by the fact that it’s sung between a father and daughter: "Some people call that the Incest Song, which I think is, well, very sweet!", opined Nancy.
The Supremes, “The Happening” (1967)
What exactly is “the happening” that shook Diana Ross to her core and took her out of her world? It hardly matters: “The Happening” was workshopped as a theme for 1967 Jud Kinberg crime flick of the same name -- and far outlasted it as a No. 1 hit.
The Association, “Windy” (1967)
A sunny, lightweight hit recorded at the height of baroque pop, “Windy” isn’t the most urgent or topical song of the Vietnam era -- but still transports listeners to the Summer of Love. And who else but the Wrecking Crew could be its propulsion system?
Simon and Garfunkel, “Mrs. Robinson” (1968)
Blaine’s rollicking rhythm was perfect for “Mrs. Robinson,” the Simon and Garfunkel classic included in the film The Graduate. When Dick Cavett asked Simon why he invoked Joe DiMaggio instead of Mickey Mantle at the end, his response was genius: “It’s about syllables, Dick.”
The 5th Dimension, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” (1969)
Though more of a kitschy curio than any far-out journey, this highlight from the musical Hair benefits greatly from Blaine’s touch; pensive on the verses, bubbly and excitable on the chorus.
Tommy Roe, “Dizzy” (1969)
Roe’s fluffy ode to discombobulation features a suitably vertiginous 11 key changes; Blaine hits the snare like he’s slapping a dreamer awake. America was clearly ready to feel “Dizzy” in 1969.
Henry Mancini, “Theme From Romeo & Juliet” (1969)
The composer of the Pink Panther theme also covered Nino Rota's goopy instrumental theme to the 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet. Clearly, it worked. However temporarily, it’s hard to believe this bested both prime Beatles and Stones.
The 5th Dimension, “Wedding Bell Blues” (1969)
A songwriter’s songwriter type who gained critical rather than commercial hosannas, Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues” mostly made waves through a hit version by the 5th Dimension. Blaine gives this cold-feet classic its legs with his signature, slack-wristed shuffle.
Simon and Garfunkel, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970)
It’s a testament to Blaine’s ingenuity that he let Simon and Garfunkel’s delicate show-stopper be; he doesn’t touch the kit once. This isn’t to say he sits “Bridge Over Troubled Water” out: when it hit its triumphant climax, he got on his knees and slashed the studio floor with tire chains. What a finish.
The Carpenters, “Close to You” (1970)
Or, the one that goes “Why do birds suddenly appear?” Blaine illustrates this eternal Carpenters question by avoiding the snare entirely -- and dropping out for entire sections. We’re all still waiting for the beat to drop on this No. 1 hit.
Neil Diamond, “Cracklin’ Rosie” (1970)
This No. 1 hit about sparkling wine didn’t lodge in the public consciousness like other Diamond hits -- “Sweet Caroline,” for example -- but has bubbly appeal in its own right. Blaine plays as effervescently as the “store-bought woman” of Diamond’s desiring.
The Partridge Family, “I Think I Love You” (1971)
The Wrecking Crew often lent its talents to singles by TV bands -- the Partridge Family among them. Cast members David Cassidy and Shirley Jones lead the L.A. vets for this bubblegum ode to dawning love.
The Raiders, “Indian Reservation” (1971)
The costumed garage-rock hitmakers who yowled “Kicks” in 1966 attempted a rebrand in the ‘70s, punting “Paul Revere” out of their name in favor of the more serious “the Raiders.” Their ensuing single about the Trail of Tears comes off as insincere in 2019, but Blaine gave it a dramatic heft nonetheless.
Neil Diamond, “Song Sung Blue” (1972)
Diamond always had a high-falutin’ air to his art, whether crowing “Top that!” to Bob Dylan after his Last Waltz set or claiming to have based “Song Sung Blue” off of a Mozart concerto. Sorry, Neil: it’s a fairly standard country tune with a clip-clopping beat from the Wrecking Crew.
Cher, “Half Breed” (1973)
Did this No. 1 single from the vantage point of a mixed-race Native American age particularly well? Ask Cher: she spent a series of 2014 tweets both angrily defending and frantically apologizing for “Half Breed.” Blaine plays ably on this No. 1, but like “Indian Reservation,” perhaps this sort of caricature is best left in the past.
John Denver, “Annie’s Song” (1974)
A light-as-air ode to his wife, Annie Martell, that he wrote while vacationing at a ski lift, “Annie’s Song” is a lovely marital ballad that rightfully became his signature tune. Blaine mostly fades to the background: it’s all about the symphonic flair.
Barbra Streisand, “The Way We Were” (1974)
The title song from the 1973 romantic drama The Way We Were has its own lush, intoxicating qualities -- and the film is rightfully considered a classic today. Blaine, a consummate professional, didn’t miss a beat on this evocative No. 1.
The Carpenters, “Top of the World” (1974)
Blaine was often tapped in the ‘70s for ornamental, country-pop playing, and he stepped up to the plate for this Carpenters smash. The appeal was there: A cover version by Lynn Anderson had reached No. 74 in August 1973, prompting Karen and Richard to realize they had underrated the tune and finally release it as a single. It hit No. 1 in December.
John Denver, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” (1975)
If Denver’s early singles had latent hayseed charm, his 1974 album Back Home Again pushed it right to the front. He laid all the way in on the No. 1 hit “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” laying down prairie poetry to Blaine’s knee-slapping rhythm.
Captain & Tennille, “Love Will Keep Us Together” (1975)
Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield’s ode to resilience was more than a hit for Captain & Tenille: it was the best-selling single of 1975. It’s a happy reminder not only of Blaine, but co-leader Daryl Dragon, who left us in 2019.
John Denver, “I’m Sorry/Calypso” (1975)
The woebegone opposite of “Annie’s Song” and his final No. 1 single before his 1997 death in a plane crash, “I’m Sorry” carries a complicated vibe from a talented hitmaker. Blaine’s supportive, all-toms backing cools the burn of Denver’s marital troubles -- he and Annie divorced in 1982.
Diana Ross, “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” (1976)
The 1975 film Mahogany, about a black woman who becomes a fashion designer, is solely evoked today for this elegant Ross ballad. It was also Blaine’s final No. 1 hit, and it’s almost as though he knew it -- it seems to feature each of his loose, heavily swinging tricks.
Whether playing rock, soul or introspective ballads, Blaine’s mission was a simple one: accompany the song. He removed his ego behind the kit -- and gave pop a bounty we’ll never forget.