There are two versions of The Great American Songbook: the pop and jazz standards that became musical canon from late-1920s to the late-1950s, and the collection of every song that Hal Blaine ever played on. Hal’s legacy and contributions to American pop music in the days of the Wrecking Crew (and beyond) are nothing short of remarkable. No other drummer had such a string of hits, and we sometimes forget that he also played on hundreds of other songs and albums that never made the Top 40, and he was a touring drummer for The Carpenters and John Denver when he could find the time to get out of the studio. Here you’ll find an extremely short list of some of Hal’s greatest performances with a little history attached.
“Be My Baby”
This is my favorite song. EVER. Of all the songs ever written, or will be written, “Be My Baby” is truly my number-one. This may be one of the most perfect pop songs ever written and Hal’s performance is a big reason why. From that Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” comes the greatest intro of all time: boom… boom-boom, whack! Between the lyrics, the background vocals, and Ronnie Spector’s voice, I get emotional every time I hear it. Those fills at the end of the song top it all off! Next time you hear this track, turn up the volume during the fade. Hal’s trademark was playing big triplet fills at the end when he knew they had the take. It was his way of saying “We got it.”
“Hurting Each Other”
Karen’s voice is smoother than a butter sandwich on this track. Here is a great example of how Hal could shape a tune from the beginning to the end with a sparse opening and then cutting loose on the choruses, packing them with fills. Hal claims he was the one who “discovered” Karen as a singer when The Carpenters first came to record in the studio. Being told by the parents that Richard was the talent and Karen was just the drummer, Hal said they should give her a shot at the mic. The rest is history.
“A Little Less Conversation”
This track and “Strangers in The Night” show the diversity and professionalism that the Wrecking Crew had. In addition to recording the majority of the pop hits during that time they proved they could hang with musical royalty. Starting with Hal’s drum solo intro, he lays down a groove that exemplifies the vibe and feel of the late 1960s (recorded in 1968). Elvis’s voice never sounded better, and the climax is as chaotic as Elvis’s life was at that time. The remix version released in 2002 is fun, but not as fun as the original.
“Strangers in the Night”
Someone had the brilliant idea to record this iconic Sinatra tune with many of the Wrecking Crew regulars along with a miniature orchestra. Was it daughter Nancy who worked with the Crew regularly? Reportedly recorded in a midnight session (and the band dressed up to show respect), this is a piece of American pop music gold. Sinatra hated the song and made no qualms about telling everyone about it even when he later sang it live in concerts. However, the proof is in the pudding. Hal recreates his “Be My Baby” groove for the verses, but the highlight is the two-handed drum fill going into the tutti solo section and in the outro. Oh, and the song was number-one on Billboard, the album became Sinatra’s most successful album ever, and the song won three Grammys; two of them going to Sinatra himself. Not too shabby for a song he hated.
“The Poor Side of Town”
What do you do when the record company says they won’t pay for you to record this song? You pay for it yourself, own the publishing, and have a number-one hit. Recorded with the Crew in 1966, this is a straight-ahead ballad with a classic Hal “cocktail” fill, which he plays every time, minus the big triplets in the bridge and at the end. This sort of restraint shows exactly what was needed to make a number-one hit and how to play for the song.
This epic and sprawling song is very reminiscent of a symphonic piece with four different sections, with tempo and feel changes expertly performed by Hal and the Crew augmented with an orchestra. My favorite fill is around 6:38, which happens in sort of a weird place but propels the song into the climax. While the song may seem nonsensical, I strongly encourage you to check out what composer Jimmy Webb has to say about this song and the inspiration behind it.
Paul Revere & The Raiders
Hal shines on this track with his snare pounding quarter notes and filling in all the spaces with “Hal-isms.” The song really opens up on the bridge section where he plays a funky little groove with the overdriven bass playing eighth notes. And that scream by Mark Lindsay? Rock and Roll, baby! Oh, and if you’re not a fan of Paul Revere & The Raiders, I don’t know if we can be friends.
One of America’s best-known tunes opens with Hal playing a quasi-bossa nova feel, but quickly moves to the full kit for what seems like a series of two choruses. The pattern repeats itself for the rest of the tune; subtle fills move the track along, and listening to this tune makes you feel like you are driving up PCH 1 to Ventura. It would be easy to play along with the syncopated vocal/guitar rhythms, but Hal keeps it simple because he knew a hit when he heard it.
“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”
A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector should be required listening every holiday season. Despite the sheer sonic enormity of the track, Darlene Love’s impeccable vocal take is one of the best from this era. This track contains everything you need to know about Hal Blaine, the drummer: his relaxed feel, his double-handed triplet fills between sections, and, of course, the ending when he gets to cut loose. This cut could, and should, be played any time of the year.
“God Only Knows”
The Beach Boys
We cannot discuss Hal Blaine without discussing The Beach Boys. Brian Wilson and Hal had a very close relationship and Hal played on dozens and dozens of Beach Boys hits as well as deeper cuts. So, why this track? While Hal played drums and some percussion on the whole of Pet Sounds, there are no real drums on “God Only Knows.” Hal had previously said he played the bottom of Coke bottles to get the signature “clip-clop” percussion sound on the track; others have said it was orange juice bottles. Whatever the beverage of choice was, this track shows Hal’s ability to work with a producer and a songwriter he admired and believed in to try literally anything, and everything, to make one of the greatest songs ever written.
Eric C Hughes is chair advisor for the PAS Drum Set Committee. He lives in Houston, Texas, where he is an active percussion teacher for in-person and online lessons. A full-time musician, Eric drums for Blaggards and The Allen Oldies Band. You can find his schedule at echdrumlessons.com.