Drummer Hal Blaine Talks About Making Music Over The Years
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. The new documentary "The Wrecking Crew" tells the story of what may be the most successful group of studio and session musicians in music history. This anonymous collection of players can be heard on many hits of the 1960s and '70s. Songs by such artists as The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Frank Sinatra, Lesley Gore, the Mamas And The Papas, The Monkees and Nat King Cole. The musicians were used by music producer Phil Spector to create his Wall of Sound.
Our next guest, drummer Hal Blaine, is featured in the documentary and is credited for coming up with the group's nickname, The Wrecking Crew. In March, 2000, Hal Blaine was one of the first five sidemen inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He's featured on thousands of records and over 40 number one hits. Terry interviewed him in 2001. They started with one of his hits from 1963. That year alone, Hal Blaine played on "Then He Kissed Me," "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Another Saturday Night," "Surf City," "Surfer Girl," "Surfin' USA" and this record, which has one of rock 'n' roll's most famous opening drum lines.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE MY BABY")
THE RONETTES: (Singing) The night we met I knew I needed you so. And if I had the chance, I'd never let you go. So won't you say you love me? I'll make you so proud of me. We'll make them turn their heads every place we go. So won't you please be my little baby, say you'll be my darling. Be my baby now, whoa oh, oh, oh. I'll make you happy...
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Hal Blaine, welcome to FRESH AIR.
HAL BLAINE: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Now, is the opening on "Be My Baby" - was that drum line your idea?
BLAINE: You know, this was the beginnings of rock 'n' roll. Somehow, with my experience, I keep thinking that I was an awfully good faker. And it could be that the lick went (imitating "Be My Baby" opening drum beat) with a backbeat (imitating "Be My Baby" backbeat). And at one point, while we were rolling, I may have missed the second beat. So we went (imitating "Be My Baby" opening drumbeat) and it stuck. It became a hook and, of course, one of the most famous hooks in rock 'n' roll.
That also happened to me - just to get off the beaten track - it also happened to me with the Tijuana Brass when we did "A Taste Of Honey." The song (humming "A Taste A Honey" hook) and everybody comes in (imitating "A Taste Of Honey" hook) - well, unfortunately, nobody was coming in together. It was like a train wreck. So at one point, me in my comedic mind, they went (humming "A Taste Of Honey" hook). And I looked at the band, and I started slugging with my bass drum (imitating bass drumbeat). Everybody came in. And once again, that became a major hook for that song. It happened to be my first record of the year.
GROSS: Why don't we hear that part you're talking about?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A TASTE OF HONEY")
GROSS: Hal Blaine, what are some of the other records that had the most memorable beats that you played?
BLAINE: Well, I remember doing a record with Sam Cooke - "Another Saturday Night" it was called. And that was another one with that same drum lick every eight or 16 bars, whatever it was (imitating drumbeat). And all these drum licks kind of became the standard for rock 'n' roll. You know, all the drummers that I've spoken with through the years have told me that they grew up listening to the records that I played on, and that's how they learned. And I grew up listening to Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, and that's how I learned.
GROSS: In fact, I've bet you've been to countless restaurants where people have been playing your rhythms on the table.
BLAINE: That has happened, I guess, in the past, you know? Sometimes I've actually - you know, it's funny you mention that. I've actually turned around to someone and said, do me a favor and let me play the drums.
BLAINE: In a nice way.
GROSS: Right, right.
BLAINE: Where I would explain to them that they were trying to play their fingers along with whatever the music was playing coming out of the speakers in the restaurant. That actually has happened to me, which is kind of funny that you would hit on that.
GROSS: Now, you did a lot of records with Phil Spector, including "Be My Baby."
GROSS: What are some of the things he had you do that other session heads didn't? What was different about working with Phil Spector?
BLAINE: Well, first of all, every Phil Spector session was a party. Everyone on the session - all the guys and girls were the first call people. Everyone wanted to work with Phil Spector because they knew that some kind of a hit record - I mean, it was the talk of the town. Phil Spector was the guy that everyone wanted to see how he worked. He had a big sign on the door that said closed session, and yet anyone who stuck their head in - he'd grab them, and he'd shove them in the studio, and he'd say, Hal, give them a tambourine or a shaker or some claves, some noisemakers. Let him play something.
GROSS: Did Spector hum for you or clap for you the kind of things that he wanted, the sound that he wanted?
BLAINE: Not on - not for drums. Phil used to use me like a racehorse. He would have me sitting there while he rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed. He would keep me from rehearsing, and I'd be chomping at the bit. I'd want to play. And finally, he would point to me. He used to be in the booth, and he'd run back and forth. He had a huge window. And he'd run back and forth like he was conducting a symphony. And he'd look at the strings and use certain, you know, symphonic movements or the way a conductor would do.
And he would look at me and he would say, now. And I knew he was saying now, which meant go for it. And I guess I used to go nuts sometimes on those drums because if you listen to some of the fade endings on just about all those records, we used to go into double-times and all kinds of things that were unheard of on records. And everybody would go whacko. And then there was a time when Phil threatened to put out a record or an album of all the fades that we did.
BLAINE: And the fades if - for those who don't know what a fade is, it just means when you hear a record playing and it gets to the end and it gets softer and softer and softer until it's gone. That's called the fade. With Phil, it went on forever. And finally, when everyone had had enough - and I always kind of had that feeling. I knew when it was - I would go into my quarter-note triplets against whatever was being played...
GROSS: Clap a quarter-note triplet for us.
BLAINE: Well, in other words, (clapping drumbeat). It's over. And I go (clapping and imitating drumbeat). So everyone knew here it is. This is it. And Phil would never stop the machine until I played that - those quarter note triplets. So they're on the end of every record.
GROSS: The musicians who you used to play with on rock 'n' roll sessions were known as The Wrecking Crew. Why were they called The Wrecking Crew?
BLAINE: In the late '50s, we started playing rock 'n' roll. A lot of people said it was a dirty word. They didn't want to hear that kind of music. They thought the musicians were just rank amateurs. They had no idea that we were all well-learned and studied musicians with degrees and so forth playing music. And the old-timers, the guys that we kind of replaced, used to say these kids are going to wreck the business. And I just automatically started calling us The Wrecking Crew. And then I became a contractor very early on doing the hiring for the sessions that I was playing on. And I just started - you know, people would call me and they'd say, get your crew together. And I'd say, OK, The Wrecking Crew, here we go. And I'd make calls. Eventually, I had a secretary who made all my calls and so forth. So The Wrecking Crew stuck.
BIANCULLI: Drummer Hal Blaine, member of The Wrecking Crew, speaking with Terry Gross in 2001. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALIFORNIA DREAMIN'")
THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS: (Singing) All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray. I've been for a walk on a winter's day. I've been safe and warm.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD VIBRATIONS")
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) I'm picking up good vibrations.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2001 interview with Hal Blaine. He is the drummer for the Wrecking Crew, the session musicians of the '60s and '70s profiled in the new documentary also called "The Wrecking Crew."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: You were the drummer on a lot of the Beach Boys records.
BLAINE: Just about all.
GROSS: But, I think it was Dennis who was actually...
GROSS: ...The drummer with the band. I imagine at the time, nobody knew that he wasn't the drummer on the records.
BLAINE: A lot of people did not know in the early days that Dennis did not play on those things. Sometimes Dennis would come in and overdub with the tambourine or something.
GROSS: So, did Dennis feel bad that instead of him, it was you on the record?
BLAINE: No, no. I'll tell you - I've told this story before - Dennis loved the fact that while I was in the studio in the afternoon making 35, $40 for the afternoon, Dennis, that night, was making 35 or 40,000 on stage. I mean, they were making a lot of money. And he was thrilled that he could just be on his boat. He didn't have to be in the studio. He didn't have to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
GROSS: Well, let me rephrase the question. Did you feel resentful then that he was making all this money on stage and you were making next-to-nothing in the studio?
BLAINE: Not at all because I knew what it was leading to because my phone started ringing off the hook with - from Phil Spector dates and Beach Boy dates.
BLAINE: All of a sudden, I was getting calls for Elvis Presley and Johnny Rivers, and 5th Dimension came along, and Mamas and the Papas. I mean everybody came out of the woodwork.
GROSS: Is there a Beach Boys track that you particularly like your drumming on that we can play?
BLAINE: Well, you know, there are certain songs that'll make you cry. Songs like, "God Only Knows," one of the beautiful songs. "Good Vibrations," of course, was another sort of a trilogy of - Brian put that song together. Sometimes we would do, you know, five minutes on a session and he'd say, thank you. And sometimes we would work for days putting that song together. He just - he used to use little bits and pieces of this, that and the other. I remember that on one of the sessions - and I think it was part of the "Good Vibrations" - Brian wanted something different, a different sound with drums or percussion. We used to drink a lot of orange juice and they came in little small bottles out of a vending machine. And I took three of those bottles, taped them together, cut the tops off to various sizes almost like the tubes on a vibraphone. And there were three different sounds and I used a mallet that would be used on a vibraphone. And I got this knocking sound (imitating knocking sound), three different knocking sounds. And I used it on that section where we were playing (imitating tune of song section). Well, I was playing (imitating knocking sound), different tones.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear that part of "Good Vibrations?" This is Hal Blaine.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD VIBRATIONS")
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) I, I love the colorful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair. I hear the sound of a gentle word on the wind that whips her perfume through the air. I'm picking up good vibrations. She's giving me excitations. I'm picking up good vibrations. She's giving me excitations. Good, good, good, good vibrations. Good, good, good, good vibrations. Close my eyes. She's somehow closer now...
GROSS: That was Hal Blaine on drums and percussion. Now, Hal Blaine, we've been talking about your rock 'n' roll sessions. You also worked with Sinatra. Did you have to get a different kind of beat when you were working with Sinatra? As a jazz singer, Sinatra was more behind the beat. Rock 'n' roll tends to be very on the beat.
BLAINE: One of our secrets to rock 'n' roll was learning to lay back. And we used to - in other words, if you were looking at a scale on a ruler, every time your back beat came on - one, two, three, four - every time we'd hit two and four, it would be just, just a hair behind that actual tune four. That was how I got the great feeling going all the time with Joe Osborn, the great bass player. And Larry Knechtel. You know, we were known as the three killers who used to come in and make these like, "Bridge Over Troubled Water," records like that that were just so incredible - all Grammy winners. You mentioned "Be My Baby," (imitating opening tune of song). When I did the record "Strangers In The Night" with Frank, which was record of the year and his only gold single - believe it or not - that went right to number one, I was playing the same beat quietly. (Imitating tune of "Strangers In The Night).
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT")
FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Strangers in the night exchanging glances, wondering in the night what were the chances we'd be sharing love before the night was through. Something in your eyes...
GROSS: What was a rehearsal like with Sinatra and what was the recording session like?
BLAINE: Well, generally when you got a Sinatra call, it was a six-hour call. Now, the standard is a three-hour session. With Frank Sinatra, we would have a six-hour doubled session call - three hours, an hour break and then three hours of recording. We would go in for the first three hours and rehearse whatever the song or songs were, to make sure that we absolutely had it down pat. The engineers would go through all the lines to make sure that there were no glitches, no squeaks, no white noise, no red noise. They would go through all the chairs that the strings especially were sitting on, make sure that there were no squeaks, make sure that everyone had the lights on their music stands, no music stand rattles - I mean, it goes on and on and on, because when Frank Sinatra walked in to record, he walked in, he walked around the two, three of us, four of us, said hi, how you doing? Let's make a record. And bang - he was in the vocal booth and we were making a record. No fooling around. No mistakes, no nothing. Rarely did he ask to do a second take. Frank always knew what he was doing. He had rehearsed himself. He knew the songs. And Frank was the kind of guy that (laughter) once he walked out of the vocal booth he'd say, thank you all. He was gone with his entourage. That was it.
GROSS: You've been on about 8,000 different songs that have been recorded. Do you actually remember what you were on, or do you have to like, consult a list to figure out if you were on something?
BLAINE: Well, it depends. Obviously I had all those records of the year, the Grammy winner of the year, and I don't have to think about those records. I know those records backwards. When it comes to certain songs, it was just a blur of so many songs and so many sessions. I don't know, it's very difficult to explain, Terry. I just played what I felt and they let me play. You know, once you kind of make a name for yourself, then when producers would come in they would say, oh Hal, just do your thing, you know, don't worry about it - just whatever you feel. They felt that I would always do the right thing.
BIANCULLI: Drummer Hal Blaine speaking to Terry Gross in 2001. He's featured in the new documentary "The Wrecking Crew," which opens today in theaters in New York and LA, and additional cities in coming weeks. The film also is available now through iTunes and video on-demand. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews a new horror film, "It Follows." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.