Thanks to Hal, the glorious backbeat goes on

Musicians and drummers famously have their profound conflicts, it’s true, but one of the most respected and influential session drummers in pop music history died last week with little fanfare or public notice.

Hal Blaine, 90, passed away Monday, March 11 in Palm Desert, California.

I know. Hal who, you say? Well, let me tell you.

Most of us didn’t realize when we listened to those wild, new sounds blaring out of our AM radios in the 1960s that we were frequently listening to a loose group of musicians who later came to be known collectively as The Wrecking Crew. Blaine was one of those talented session musicians who played on at least 40 No. 1 singles, and he is widely recognized as the most recorded stick man in history. One story I saw estimated Blaine played on something like 35,000 recording sessions and 6,000 single records (including 150 top 10 hits) during his lengthy career. I mean, during the mid 1960s he played on six consecutive Song of the Year Grammy award winners. And did I mention film and television soundtracks?

MusicRadar asked Blaine to pick his favorite cuts, and he named 11 songs. I’ll bet you’ve heard every single one of them at least a million times. So here we go: “A Taste Of Honey,” by Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass; “Strangers In The Night,” by Frank Sinatra; “Up, Up And Away,” by the 5th Dimension; “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In,” by the 5th Dimension; “Mrs. Robinson,” by Simon and Garfunkel; “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” by Simon and Garfunkel; “Love Will Keep Us Together,” by The Captain and Tennille; “MacArthur Park,” by Richard Harris; “These Boots Are Made For Walkin,’” by Nancy Sinatra; “Everybody Loves Somebody,” by Dean Martin; and, “A Little Less Conversation,” by Elvis Presley. Those were Blaine’s personal favorites, but there are many, many more.

You see, Blaine came to the attention of the record company machinery in Los Angeles when he worked for legendary producer Phil Spector in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was the go-to drummer in the famous Wall Of Sound Spector created (think of The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby”). And if you’ve heard some of the big hits by these other artists, you’ve heard Blaine hammering down the backbeat — Jan and Dean, The Beach Boys, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, The Byrds, Barry McGuire, Petula Clark, The Mamas and the Papas, Johnny Rivers, The Supremes, The Association, Tommy Roe, Neil Diamond, The Partridge Family, Paul Revere and The Raiders, Cher, John Denver, Barbara Streisand, Sam Cooke, Bobbie Gentry, Glen Campbell (also a member of the Wrecking Crew, don’t you know), Bobby Darin, Steely Dan, The First Edition (with Kenny Rogers), The Monkees, America, Connie Francis and Diana Ross.

While Blaine earned himself a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he was actually a jazz musician, as were many of The Wrecking Crew players who easily brought their jazz chops and sensibilities to the rock world without sounding the least bit pretentious or jazzy. They knew these were rock sessions. In their able and musical hands, rock came of age and became a true art form. Blaine and the Wrecking Crew pushed youngsters like me blasting the Top-40 covers out in the garage to hone and improve our musical skills or simply give up and smash our instruments or resign ourselves to being just another gang of three chord wonders.

It’s kind of crazy now to listen to The Wrecking Crew’s recordings and to realize Blaine et al actually created the rock sound of the 1960s. Really? Just consider for a moment those previous lists of songs and artists. Once you tune in to it, you can’t miss that signature Wrecking Crew sound on many of these recordings. It’s actually quite mind-boggling.

Thanks, Hal, for bringing that rock steady backbeat and those great and unusual fills that influenced a whole generation of wannabe musicians and tickled the ears of pop music fans and radio heads worldwide. You were the timekeeper and beat master of our youth.

Yep, one of the greatest drummers of all time just joined the other greats up there in rock and roll heaven. And I don’t hesitate to say the band is better since he joined.