February 12th, 2009 | Interviews

zach hill

Listen to K-Earth for 10 minutes and you’ll hear Hal Blaine’s drums on at least half of the playlist. Drummer of the legendary group of session musicians in the ’50s and ’60s dubbed ‘The Wrecking Crew,’ Hal is the most recorded drummer of all time, estimated to have played on nearly 6,000 of the best known songs in modern history with hundreds of artists including Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, the Byrds, the Grass Roots, Sonny & Cher, the Mamas & the Papas, and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. He recorded 40 #1 singles, had 150 songs in the Top Ten, played on eight albums that won Grammys for Record of the Year, and was a key figure in Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound.’ He celebrates his 80th birthday on Feb. 5. This interview by Linda Rapka.

Who’s a better drummer—you or Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen of the Funk Brothers?

There’s no such thing as ‘better.’ I might have been luckier. I probably did many more hit records than he did. I have very close to 6,000 now.
You’ve played drums on more records than anybody—ever.
Probably. Yeah, probably. I guess there’s a thing called YouTube, and I was told you punch up my name and there are lists and lists and lists of albums I did.
How were you able to master so many different styles and genres?
We were all very well-versed—very studied musicians, graduates of music schools and institutions. If you wanna make it to the big time, you’ve got to know what you are doing. We knew what we were doing. We could go in and play any kind of music that was put in front of us, including the big music that was just coming in—rock ’n’ roll.
Did it bother you that you weren’t credited on all these hit records?
No. I was just happy playing my drums. We were very fortunate. We were all nightclub musicians making little money, and all of a sudden we fell into this—I like to call it this ‘vat of chocolate.’ In the beginning, they just never put credits on albums of musicians or background singers. One of the great producers came around, Bones Howe, and insisted that we get credits, and all of a sudden it started happening.
How many tracks would you record in a day?
Anywhere from one to 12 for a complete album.
You’d cut a whole album in a single day?
We often did. In a double session we’d do six in the first and six in the second.
What takes most bands months took you guys one day.
That’s because we had the studio experience. When we were doing Beach Boys, Dennis Wilson was a fine drummer, but he wasn’t really a drummer—he was a piano player. He’d go out there, but I was making the records. I was making 60 bucks that afternoon, and he probably making $50,000 or $60,000 that night.
Did it piss you off that you were making all these other people rich while your own albums couldn’t sell?
It never did because I was hired to make records, and every time I went in to record all I wanted to do was make a hit record for those people, not for myself. I mean sure, if I was on a record with Elvis Presley, of course that was a feather in my cap. And I wound up with more feathers than an Indian chief. I just never became an egomaniac. I didn’t go around saying, ‘Do you want me to use my John Denver sticks?’
Would you have preferred to have made it big in your own band?
Really, no. It’s like with movie stars: they have their hit movie, they work for so many years, they get their Oscar, and then they don’t do it anymore. I was like a good character actor. I worked in everything. I was very fortunate.
The Monkees were condemned for having the Wrecking Crew cut their albums, but all the top artists at the time were doing the same thing. Did they get a bad rap?
With the Monkees, all of a sudden it became a big scandal in Hollywood. But most people knew that they didn’t play on their records. Most people knew that we did the Beach Boys records and the Partridge Family and all those groups. They were all hits, and that’s the reason they were hits. What happened to the Monkees—it’s very silly.
Did it sink in at the time that you were doing something special?
You didn’t realize how much you were doing, when you were working two, three, four sessions a day. I was just happy to be working. We did the Mamas & the Papas overnight and they became the biggest things in the world. We did the Monterey Pop Festival. Everyone was at that show: Johnny Rivers, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, everybody. I brought the Wrecking Crew up and we were the house band for anybody who may have needed a band.
You just went up and played without rehearsing?
When you got the experience—and we had—I would just tell the guys, ‘Fake it like you’ve done for the rest of your life.’ And we did.
A lot of people don’t know that you weren’t just a session guy; you went on the road as well.
I rarely was on the road, but when John Denver went out for a week, that would be it. He never traveled for months and months. Nobody ever knew. If I left town, my secretary never, ever said that Mr. Blaine is out of town on tour, she’d just say I wasn’t available that day. When you’re known as a studio musician, that’s the top of the rung. But when you’re a road musician, you’re just a little bit under that. Nobody ever knew I went on the road.
Were there Hal Blaine groupies?
There were a few, yeah. I would go on the road sometimes and they would try to tear my clothes off. That was kind of big time.
Did you prefer the studio to being on the road?
I preferred staying at home. I had a beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills and all the toys. Unfortunately I lost them all in a divorce. I had 175 gold and platinum records on my walls, and they all had to be sold when I went through that divorce. I really lost everything.
How did you cope with that?
You just cope with it. That’s the way it was. You pick up the pieces and you start all over again. I could have… many times you’re thinking, ‘I could blow my brains out.’ But that’s not me. I wanted to play music, and I did play music.
Were you ever tempted by the vices of the ’60s?
Never. I never got into the booze, never got into the drugs. Tried marijuana a couple of times—it was terrible.
What was it like working with Phil Spector? Did he ever bring a gun to a session?
The detectives were out here for three hours questioning me. But it was kind of common knowledge that he usually was armed. He was not a drunk at all. There were no drugs involved in those sessions. I never, ever saw a gun. He was fine with us.
Can you compare working with Brian Wilson to Arthur Lee?
I don’t even remember. But I know I did that. I was involved with all those groups. Not only the Beach Boys, but America, Sonny & Cher… I just can’t think of all of them. They’re all listed on that YouTube thing.
Was anyone really nasty to work with?
Never ever. They were happy that I was there to help them make a hit record. Once in a while you’d get a producer who didn’t know what he was doing who’d say, ‘At the beginning of this song I want you to sound like the Beatles, and in the middle of the song try to do what you did on Simon & Garfunkel.’ I’d tell these guys, ‘I’ll be happy to do what you tell me to do, but why don’t you let us make hit records?’
Is it true you played snow chains on ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’?
When Paul played me ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ for some reason I pictured a troubled guy in chains—in a chain gang. So I told them, ‘If you’ll allow me, I’d like to try something that might sound silly.’ They said, ‘Do what you wanna do, man.’ So I went out to my car and got my set of chains and they found a room at the studio at Columbia, an old microphone storage room, and I got a couple of pillows to set my knees on and I sat there for several hours smacking these chains to the floor. Drag on one, smack on two, drag on three, smack on four.
Of the few records you didn’t play on, what song in the rock ‘n’ roll songbook had a drumbeat where you were like, ‘Man, I wish I’d done that!’?
I don’t get inspired really much. I don’t listen to a lot of other drummers. In those days I wasn’t listening at all because I wanted my stuff to be fresh. I purposely never listened to the radio or other hit records because I didn’t want to copy what somebody else was doing.
Is there anyone in the Wrecking Crew you didn’t get along with?
Well, today of course I’m very upset with that goddamn Carol Kaye. She’s just so full of garbage. I saw her at the musicians union and I screamed expletives at the top of my lungs—‘Don’t you come near me, you son of a bitch!’ I laid it on her something terrible. She ran away. I haven’t seen her or talked to her since, and I wouldn’t anyway. She should have been tried for treason.
Did you go to Earl Palmer’s funeral?
Well, let me explain something. Earl had several families. And they all came out of the woodwork when he died because they thought he’d left millions. He had no money when he passed away. The problem is that because we were sort of the cream of the crop of musicians in Hollywood, as far as anyone was concerned we were making millions of dollars. But we weren’t. Nobody was making millions of dollars! We were working day to day, week to week, month to month, like everybody else, paying our mortgage. He was just going to have a quiet burial, which was what Earl wanted. He didn’t want a party, he didn’t want a memorial. I told my daughter the same thing. There will be no parties for me. When it’s over, it’s over. We were lucky enough to do it all, see it all, play it all, have it all, and now when we’re gone, forget it. We’re making room for the next people.
I hear that you still will play with pretty much anyone who asks for $100 an hour. Would you play my party and just go nuts on the drums for an hour?
Well, like if a guy wants me to play in a night club—I don’t want to go working in those smelly old joints. I don’t like that stuff anymore. I’m not a kid anymore. I like the peace and quiet. Once in a while if something special happens, like my buddy Don Randi has something down at the Baked Potato in Hollywood, I’m happy to do that. But I’ve been pounding those drums for well over sixty years now, and enough is enough.
Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of?
I’m supposed to get a doctorate from Berklee in Boston. I’ll be Dr. Hal Blaine, which is kinda far out. And a big scholarship—the companies I endorse, each year they’ll be donating drums and cymbals to people who get the scholarships. It’s an honor.
Will there ever be another Wrecking Crew?
Who knows? Cycles go around and you never know what’s gonna be next.