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Remembering Hal Blaine (1929–2019)

Mr. Bonzai, co-author of Hal Blaine’s autobiography, shares insight into the legendary session drummer who passed yesterday at the age of 90.

Hal Blaine (born Harold Simon Belsky; February 5, 1929 – March 11, 2019) was a drummer and session musician best-known for his work with the Wrecking Crew, a group of Los Angeles-based musicians who recorded in the 1960s and 1970s. Hal is believed to be the most recorded musician in history and his drumming is featured on thousands of recordings by hundreds of popular artists.

I first met Hal in 1984, when I interviewed him for my monthly Mix magazine column, Lunching with Bonzai. The depth and the scope of his life were far greater than could be told in a few pages. Mix editor David Schwartz and I decided to do a monthly story about Hal and the major artists he had worked with. After a year or so, we decided to turn it into something more—it became my second book and also the second book published by Mix. For the first edition in 1990, we had a big party at Don Randi’s Baked Potato nightclub in LA, which was attended by many of the celebrities in the book, including Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Jan & Dean and many others. It’s fitting that Hal played his last gig at his 90 birthday party, at that very same Baked Potato, on February 5, 2019.

I feel that a fellow drummer can best express Hal’s incredible and indelible legacy. Here is Jim Keltner’s forward to the book, Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew, written by Hal and myself, and edited by David Schwartz:

    “The first time I heard Hal Blaine play was during a session at Sunset Sound in the early sixties. Although I wasn’t supposed to be in the control room, I was magnetized by what I was hearing, and I had to see this incredible drummer. I can hardly describe the effect he had on me. His command behind the drums was so strong and his sound was so good. He was playing a beat I’d heard thousands of times, but was giving it a certain kind of sophisticated funk that I’d never heard before. His approach to studio drumming burned into my memory, and at the same time, he became an awesome mystery to me as an up-and-coming drummer. How was he able to do these incredible things with his drums?

    “In 1965, when I joined Gary Lewis and the Playboys, I was just starting to play rock and roll. I was told that Hal Blaine was the man who played on all of the big rock and roll records, like Gary’s first hit, ‘This Diamond Ring.’ When we cut Gary’s single, ‘Just My Style,’ Leon Russell, who co-wrote and arranged the song, guided me through the entire session. But when we began work on the album, there were a couple of songs that had me stumped for what to play. Hal came down to play tambourine one night, though I really think they brought him in because they weren’t sure if I could handle everything.

    “The first thing that impressed me was that Hal was extremely nice and put me at ease. He didn’t make me feel inferior or insecure, and that meant a lot to me. I also felt that I could ask him anything without feeling like a dodo. From that moment on, I would call Hal on the phone or track him down in the studio to explain things or show me how to play a tough part.

    “Rock and roll was just beginning to grow up when Hal arrived on the scene with all of his big band, jazz and show drumming, and later added a whole new bag of tricks. He had the first monster drum kit with all of the extra tom-toms – not to impress anyone with quantity, but to stretch the range of the instrument with the variety of sounds and tones he heard in his head.

    “Hal was always able to find the groove, do exactly the right thing, but also make the presence of the drummer known and respected. His command and authority were different from the rest, and his personality played a big part in the success of so many of his sessions. When a session was falling apart, he would take command and put it back together again. He had an authoritative presence, and when he hit the drums, you knew that he meant business.

    “As the art and science of recording grew up in the Sixties, and the drums played an increasingly bigger role in the sound of popular music, Hal sat at the center of the action.”