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The Unassuming Greatness of Hal Blaine

Often relegated to the small print, session musicians helped create the most iconic songs of the last century. Hal Blaine was one of the greatest, and quietest, among them.
Drummer Hal Blaine attending the NAMM Tec Awards at the Anaheim Hilton on January 24th, 2014, in Anaheim, California.

Drummer Hal Blaine attending the NAMM Tec Awards at the Anaheim Hilton on January 24th, 2014, in Anaheim, California.

I became strangely invested in the stories and sounds behind the making of songs sometime in my early twenties, when I spent more nighttime hours indoors, surrounded by CDs and records, ears covered by headphones to drown out the revelry of my peers pouring into and out of the streets below my apartment. The songs themselves were fascinating, sure. But beyond the songs, I found myself wanting to know how the machinery of the songs worked—the way they were made, all the small but exciting tactile details hiding behind the magic curtain.

In those days, the best place for me to indulge this fascination was the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds Sessions. Released in 1997, the four-CD box set was a recording of a recording, tracking all the behind-the-scenes moments of Brian Wilson working on the iconic album. There are unreleased demos and vocals-only tracks, but there is also audio of Wilson in the studio, shouting directions at an entire orchestra of musicians: barking directions at horn players, at the string section, at the guitarists and flautists. Most important: Through it all, the listener can hear Wilson leaning on the drummer for these sessions, Hal Blaine. One gets the sense that Wilson viewed himself as the coach, and understood Blaine as the quarterback: the one musician who could hold together all these wild sounds, all of Wilson's musical ambitions.

Blaine died earlier this month. There were fewer glowing eulogies than he deserved, and the world didn't exactly stop to mourn him. I suppose that was to be expected. Even rock's most notable drummers, for the casual listener, tend to be more infamous than famous: the drummers who lived the real rock n' roll lifestyle and died young, or the ones who made their personalities larger than the music they were playing—Keith Moon and John Bonham and Tommy Lee and countless others.

The best bands are glued together by the work of their drummers, but Blaine didn't particularly belong to any single band. He was beholden, instead, to the simple task of driving good music forward. In the 1950s and '60s, especially, session musicians could make or break a hit. And session musicians were in high demand, as producers like Phil Spector became obsessed with production techniques such as the Wall of Sound, forcing as many musicians as possible into a studio and having each of them contribute a small part to a larger, bombastic sound. As a result, session musicians became highly valued: Each had to play their role well, but they also had to find a way to click with every other session musician in the room. It wasn't like a single band, where they had months to practice. Everyone had to play well, and they had to play smart, and they had to do it intuitively.

Blaine started out in jazz before recognizing that his improvisational skills came in handy during rock sessions. He then anchored a group of session musicians he dubbed "The Wrecking Crew," a troupe of players that played on hit records from Spector, the Beach Boys, the Crystals, Frank Sinatra, Jan & Dean, and others. Like all great musicians, Blaine was great because he knew when not to play. Even if he was the best musician in the world, he knew how to sacrifice his own playing for the greater needs of the recording.

Save the occasional thundering solo or legendary bender, the rock drummer is less in the spotlight than the lead singer or even the guitarist, with those big, howling solos. This was even more the case for Blaine, and it's difficult to find traces of him beyond the small print of liner notes, or in the voice of a producer, yelling directions about percussion in audio unearthed years after the recording is done. When he was alive, I thought a lot about Blaine's legacy and how well the music world would honor it. So much of the American mythos is about identifying someone with the fruit of that person's labor—to be able to point at a worker, and point at the work they've done, and then place value on both worker and work. Even the best session musician (and Blaine was one of the very best) gets into the work understanding that they won't enjoy the fanfare or legacy of the producer or lead singer who goes on to be associated with the work.

But it feels important, here, now, and always, to insist upon the fact that Blaine wasn't just a tool for the whims of popular music; he always had his own style, and even his mistakes were interesting. On one of the biggest hits he played on, The Ronettes' "Be My Baby," Blaine accidentally hit the snare on just the fourth beat, and not the two and the four. The mistake was kept on the track and became a part of the song's fabric in a way that cannot be unheard: greatness, even in error.

There's this story I like about how Blaine used to mark musical scores and locations where he'd played. He got a rubber stamp made that read "HAL BLAINE STRIKES AGAIN," and when sessions ended, he'd stamp the wall in the drum booth, or stamp a sheet of music. In the late '60s, other drummers would walk into studios all over California and see the stamp everywhere. It was a way of telling them that they couldn't sit in the same booth and not give a song everything they had. It was a way of saying that greatness had once been in the room, even if it wasn't announced at the forefront of a track, or listed in capital letters on the cover of a No. 1 single. I have no real use for the performance of humility, but I do love a silent greatness, one that quietly challenges your peers to ask more of themselves.

In the 1980s, recording became more digital, and some of the old-timers were left out in the cold: As computers and other electronics began to make their way into studios, the labels wanted younger session musicians who were more familiar with these new idioms. And when drum machines became more prominent in the studio, Blaine finally became obsolete. For a period, there was no real need for a drummer to guide the sound of a session anymore, not when a machine could be trained to create the same sounds. Blaine was forced to retire from performing. After a divorce in the late '80s, Blaine lost many of his possessions. He had to sell a home in the Hollywood Hills, as well as over 100 gold and platinum records. He worked as a security guard in Arizona for a time, before fading further into obscurity.

Blaine is dead, and I am sad to think that he might be forgotten. I think of all the machines that replaced him, and all the credit he didn't get in his prime, and all the ways he went about his work, expertly but silently. There's a lesson in that, I think, for anyone who wants to be known for their proficiency, more than for the flash generated by their production: The idea that if you keep your head down, you will always find joy in the work when you take to it not with a desire for fame, but merely for the satisfaction of knowing that you've left a small but permanent stamp anywhere you've chosen to stand.


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