Sunday, 5 May 2013

If you love Sixties US pop music, you’re a fan of drummer Hal Blaine – whether you’ve heard of him or not

No, honestly - Hal Blaine was so brilliant, so versatile and so ubiquitous, I guarantee that you know and love dozens of the records he played on. Elvis, the Beach Boys, Mamas and Papas, The Byrds, Frank Sinatra, Simon & Garfunkel, Sam Cooke, anything produced by Phil Spector, Johnny Rivers, Roy Orbison, Johnny Rivers, some Love tracks, Richard Harris (okay – that’s stretching it!)… well, you get the idea. He was everywhere!

Blaine played on 50 Number One hits, over 150 Top ten records, and on around 35,000 pieces of recorded music. You’d expect anyone that thinly spread to have a formula, but proof of this hard-working man’s genius is that on so many of his records the drum part is individual, highly memorable and utterly key to the song’s success – but it’s only when you’re told Blaine’s playing on all of them that you become aware of the magnitude of his contribution: that, surely, is the definition of a perfect session-player. For instance, here’s one of the most iconic drum openings ever recorded:

Those four repeated opening notes drove Brian Wilson beyond the point of madness, to the extent that he co-opted Blane to perform on most of the Beach Boys’ classic tracks. Drum-wise, this is probably my favourite (as with his Spector recordings, the drums sound IMMENSE :

I’ve been vaguely aware of Hal Blaine as a top-flight drummer for many years, but it was only when I recorded a version of Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man” and did a bit of reading that I realised just how many of favourite songs the man played on. Here’s a fairly random selection:

I mean – wow!

There aren’t many session men who can claim to have had a song written about them. In fact, Hal Blaine’s the only one I’m aware of – here he let’s rip on his famous tom-toms on Nancy Sinatra’s “Drummer Man”:

If you want to learn more about Hal Blaine, there's a two-part video tribute to him available here and here.


  1. While Hal Blaine was "the" drummer of the 1960's & 70's LA music scene, Mickey Jones was the drummer on Secret Agent Man. He also played drums for Trini Lopez, Bob Dylan and Kenny Rogers & the First Edition, before becoming an actor in the late 1970's.

    1. Thanks for putting me right - I must be reading the wrong books!

  2. The thing about session musicians is that they are employed to get it right first time and are not invited back if they don't. I played a few sessions. It's challenging to play music that you hate and do it perfectly. I can't imagine that Hal Blaine liked all his sessions equally but it doesn't show.

    Sessioneers have great stories although you never know which ones are true. The song School"s Out by Alice Cooper, which has a very well known riff at the beginning. After days of unsuccessful and expensive fumbling in London by the band's guitarist, the producer decided that an outsider was needed. So hot shot US guitarist Rick Derringer was flown in on Concorde, nailed it first take and was out of the studio in time to catch the return flight, no doubt with a huge cheque in his pocket but no credit on the record.

    In case any one is interested, I was rarely invited back.

    1. I watched a programme about the making of Steely Dan's "Aja" album recently, on which they seem to have used every sessionman in the business, continually swapping out one bunch for another if a track wasn't working - here's the list: Donald Fagen – synthesizer, keyboards, vocals, background vocals, whistle
      Walter Becker – bass, guitar
      Chuck Rainey – bass
      Timothy B. Schmit – background vocals
      Paul Griffin – keyboards, electric piano, vocals, background vocals
      Don Grolnick – keyboards, clavinet
      Michael Omartian – piano, keyboards
      Joe Sample – keyboards, electric piano, clavinet
      Victor Feldman – percussion, piano, keyboards, electric piano, vibraphone
      Larry Carlton – guitar
      Denny Dias – guitar
      Jay Graydon – guitar
      Steve Khan – guitar
      Dean Parks – guitar
      Lee Ritenour – guitar
      Pete Christlieb – flute, tenor saxophone
      Chuck Findley – horn, brass
      Jim Horn – flute, saxophone
      Richard "Slyde" Hyde – trombone
      Plas Johnson – flute, saxophone
      Jackie Kelso – flute, horn, saxophone
      Lou McCreary – brass
      Bill Perkins – flute, horn, saxophone
      Tom Scott – conductor, flute, tenor saxophone, lyricon
      Wayne Shorter – flute, tenor saxophone
      Bernard Purdie – drums ("Home at Last", "Deacon Blues")
      Steve Gadd – drums ("Aja")
      Ed Greene – drums ("I Got the News")
      Paul Humphrey – drums ("Black Cow")
      Jim Keltner – percussion, drums ("Josie")
      Rick Marotta – drums ("Peg")
      Gary Coleman – percussion
      Venetta Fields – background vocals
      Clydie King – background vocals
      Rebecca Louis – background vocals
      Sherlie Matthews – background vocals
      Michael McDonald – background vocals

      The professional muso community must have adored Steely Dan!

      Which of your many musical talents got you invited to sessions, Ex-KCS? I'm guessing singing? You intrigue me!

  3. There's a poignant moment in the Aja programme where Rick Marotta explains that after playing his socks off on a track, the next day The Dan has not just decided to get a new drummer in but a completely different band, all of them session hot shots.

    To answer your session question, one occasion worth mentioning is when I played guitars and did background vocals for a rather flirtatious female singer with several reasonably selling new age world music CDs in her catalogue. I won't name her. Not that famous. Very much against her wishes, they wanted the next one to be a cross over to a more saleable, less niche product. I was approached through a friend who knew Keith the producer, to toughen up the sound with guitar overlays, mostly solos which I can do more or less ad lib if the key is anything other than F major, as they thought that was what was needed. I did three nights from 8pm until 3am and we all agreed it worked. OK, midnight singing three part harmonies of 'Ooom Shanti Shanti' was not totally Bo Diddley is A Gunslinger but it was fun with four of us standing round the mike. These were meant to be demos but they were good enough to use as the basis of the final tracks.

    About two months later I asked the singer what was going to happen next. Cue Soap. She had not realised that Keith the producer was quite so possessive when she had slept with the trendy barn studio owner after session one. Jilted Keith had responded by confiscating the master. After that, it all got decidedly non-New Age Oom Shanti and she moved to the US to get away. As far as I know, I am still locked in a vault somewhere in the North East of England. She has re-recorded several of the lost songs and when I went on her website I was flattered to hear one of my opening solos on acoustic guitar reproduced more or less note for note but rather better, no doubt by a proper session guy.

  4. Can I have your autograph? No, seriously, I am genuinely impressed. Fascinating story.

    Could you please send me the address of the singer's website so I can check out the sort of songs you were playing guitar and singing on, even if I can't hear you actually playing on them?

    And there's a group whose music I feature occasionally on this blog who are in dire need of some decent lead guitar parts - what are your rates?