SKF NOTE: This Hal Blaine interview is another of my backgrounder interviews for my History of Rock Drumming feature series for Modern Drummer in the early 1980s. This interview is published here for the first time. All of these interviews can easily be accessed here by clicking the Backgrounder Interviews link.
This telephone interview requires a bit of clarification. My best guess is, the last three paragraphs of this transcript are separate bits of information I wanted to keep as source material. It’s information likely said within small talk between Hal and I during the interview. So, if the last paragraphs of this transcript seem disjointed — they probably are.
Also, in his last answer in this interview, Hal says he played drums on The Supremes’s Baby Love. I don’t know if he meant he did so as part of the backup band on the T.A.M.I. show, or as part of the studio session resulting in The Supremes’s Baby Love hit single.
Hopefully readers can clarify. Thank you.
Scott K Fish: What were the Phil Spector recording sessions like?
Hal Blaine: Well, it was all magic, first of all. We were all new people in the studios — the early ’60s. We were, I guess, the stars to be. There was so much spirit, and so much vitality. The adrenalin was unbelievable. Phillip just had that mystique, that magic. It was always a closed session, and anyone that passed by, Phillip grabbed them and sat them down in the booth. Every producer in the world use to hang out at those sessions just to touch Phillip, just to try and hear something just that, hopefully something would rub off on them.
They were wonderful. They were agony and they were ecstasy. We worked for many hours at a clip — without breaks, generally — and we made the biggest records in the world. Really, from the nucleus of the Phil Spector records came The Beach Boys, and Jan & Dean, and Johnny Rivers, and everybody that happened, really happened after that. Sonny & Cher — all of them. It all happened because Phil Spector had his Wall of Sound. That was the new sound. That was the new drum thing that happened. It was just one of those things. It was magic.
SKF: Was that when you first started using that big drumset?
HB: Oh no. That came later. I was still just playing a four-piece Ludwig set. And Phil use to let me go nuts on the fades.
SKF: So you weren’t working with strict charts?
HB: In a way were were, because we all had rhythm charts. And Jack Nitzsche use to write those rhythm charts for everybody. He worked with Phillip on it.
But Phillip would also come out and hum a part that he wanted, or tell guys what to play. Phillip was a guitarist. And that was another thing: Phil was the first guy to use, like, four rhythm guitars at the same time. Two basses. It was still only one set of drums in those days. We had ten guys, like Frank Capp, shaking shakers and making noisemakers, jingle bells — anything.
The famous castanets. You know, everybody laid claim to the castanets. The castanets started with Phil Spector. The castanets started, plain and simple, when I pulled them out one day and I laid them down and I said, “Frank, beat the shit out of these.” And I gave him two more castanets to play on them.
And everybody said, “You’re nuts. You can’t do that.” And Phillip said, “What is that? What is that? Leave it! Leave it!” It really became a very integral part of the Phil Spector thing. Fucking castanets on a rock ‘n roll record!
Then you would take a break and nobody was to every touch a mike. If he saw you touching a mike he would scream at you.
And it was always a Friday night, always the end of the week. Sort of the last session of the week. And it was lunacy, and it was jokes, and it was fun, and, as I say, it was agony and ecstasy.
SKF: Would he just keep the tape rolling?
HB: That tape never stopped. When you walked into the studio at quarter to seven for a 7 o’clock session — the tape was rolling. Phil Spector has everything that was ever said, done, joked about, pissed about — it was all on tape. He has it all.
He said someday he’s going to put out a tape of fades.
SKF: Would the recording artist be in there with you?
Another thing is that Phil had just come off the Teddy Bears, which was his first smash: To Know Him is To Love Him.
SKF: Wasn’t there a time when Phil Spector was using two and three drummers?
HB: Well, that came much later on. Years later.
There was a period when I was on the road, I was gone — whatever it was. I guess Phillip wasn’t really happy with what was happening drum-wise. So he started using two drummers. He was using [Jim] Keltner and I guess they were going through other drummers. He loved Keltner. And I guess Keltner didn’t really find drummers that were…. that worked for him.
Keltner called me and — years later — Jimmy called me and asked me if I would come in and play with him. From then on, whatever we did was usually Jim Keltner and myself. That all started at the end with Dion. And John Lennon.
SKF: You did [The Byrds] Mr. Tamourine Man, but did you also do that whole album?
HB: Not all of them. But a bunch of them. I don’t think they even mentioned me on any of the albums. In those days they didn’t do that.
The shit hit the fan with The Monkees. It was considered a scandal that The Monkees didn’t make their own records. It broke to the world in all the trades and movie magazines that, not only The Monkees didn’t — nobody did!
One of my greatest compliments came from Bruce Gary [who] said that one of his biggest disappointments in life was finding out that a dozen of his favorite drummers were Hal Blaine. That’s really a funny line.
We did everybody’s records. It was plain and simple. We did everybody’s records from pop to rock.
HB: Because of superstition. Because we had the hit sound, we were the hit makers. Some people called us The Wrecking Crew. We were the first guys to come into the studios wearing Levis and smoke a pack of cigarettes during the session. And leave dirty ashtrays. Studios were never that way. They were very, very Victorian, if you will. The guys wore sports jackets and blazers and neckties. You cleaned your ashtray when you finished a date. You didn’t talk to anybody. It was very quiet while the producer or the arranger talked.
We came along and we were another breed. Rock ‘n roll had just started. The ’50s. And we were sort of cleaning it up. We were sort of sophisticating it a little bit.
It wasn’t a matter of being out of tune. Guys were in tune. Studios were getting better, more efficient, electronically. More tracks were coming along. You could do more. You were really making stereo records. That whole thing evolved together: the same gang of musicians as the technology got better.
And that’s when my set of drums happened. The big set of drums. That, of course, turned the world around.
SKF: Was it that a lot of the drummers in the ’60s bands couldn’t play well?
HB: Their technique in the studio was not studio technique. They had to hit a fucking mike every time they moved! It’s different in the studio than [it is] onstage. Those guys were great onstage. They had long hair and they could shake their heads and make the bitches scream. Everybody was listening with their eyes. But on the record, they are really listening with their ears.
Some of the downfall of some of those groups was the fact that they decided they wanted to make their own records. After The Wrecking Crew gave them hits — the first two, three, four, five hits, whatever — they start making their own records [and] it was all over.
SKF: Were there specific people who were The Wrecking Crew?
SKF: Did you do all The Monkees records?
HB: I only did all of a few people’s records. Earl Palmer and I did all of Jan & Dean. I did all The Mamas and the Papas records. There were a lot of people — we did their first big hits. The Monkees were no exception. The Monkees were the same thing.
SKF: And that got scandalized?
HB: Well, to clean that up…. I remember we were making records in Studio A. We were making Monkees records with Jeff Barry. And The Monkees were in Studio C making a record of some kind with all the photographers taking pictures of them to show they could make a record. It was a different song they were doing. I don’t know if it was ever released.
Probably the biggest session that ever happened in the world happened also at RCA due to the Monkees, and that was Mike Nesmth‘s project that, at the time, he called World War III. It had a lot of different names. He was call it Pacific Ocean at one time. He was calling it Wichita Train Whistle.
At the en of the year The Monkees found that they had to spend about 50 grand quickly – tax-wise – or give it to Uncle [Sam]. Keep in mind, in those days 50 grand was a lot of fucking money.
We did a session where he probably hired 10 guitar players, 15 trombone players, 15 trumpet players, 15 saxophone players, probably five, six, or seven bass players. I think there was only one set of drums, as I recall. But everything you could think of was tripled. And it was catered. Sterling silver service catered. It was just the biggest thing that ever happened. And we recorded it in RCA. The big studio. Shorty Rogers did the arrangements and it was a killer.
I think it was released. I don’t know if I ever heard it.
I did a lot of [ghost drumming] for The Ventures. I don’t know if they were hits. A lot of times those guys were on the road and their producer found a hit record — BANG! — they’d run in with a group of studio guys and make a record. I was the drummer on The Ventures Teaching Guitar album.
SKF: When I read that you recorded Help Me, Rhonda, I wondered if you did the whole album as well.
HB: Most of those, yes. Some of the lesser sides, no. Those kinds went in, fucked around, and did their thing. I don’t think you ever heard those records. They certainly were not the hits.
SKF: How about the early hits like, Surfin’ Safari?
HB: Absolutely. Surfin’ USA and all those records. I had a bass drum that was a killer. It was with a head on the front. Everybody liked that four-on-the-floor bass drum. And that was another reason why people always alled me: “Be sure to bring that bass drum.”
I had two of them — identical — and they didn’t know that. It was impossible to have it at every date, everyday, four, five, six dates a day. I had the kid that set up my drums. One of my innovations was having a set-up guy. I guess I had the first roadie in the world. I don’t know.
I guess there’s no question that I was the most recorded drummer in the ’60s. I stopped counting at 35,000 singles. Now, that’s logged. Every dong I ever recorded got written down. Somewhere I have all those books.
SKF: Wasn’t Jim Gordon doing some percussion work with you on some stuff?
HB: Every once in a while Jim would come in on percussion, yes. I don’t really remember years though. I did not do the big hits with The Righteous Brothers. Lovin’ Feelin’ was Earl Palmer. Baby Love by The Supremes was me on drums.
I remember when we did the T.A.M.I. Show. Teenage American Music International. Everyone was on that show. Diana Ross & the Supremes, The Stones, everybody. I remember talking with Diana. And I remember Diana saying, “Hal Blaine is playing drums.” And Berry Gordy said, “Then you’re in good hands. Don’t worry about it. Go and sing your ass off.”
I did all of Jimmy Webb‘s stuff. He was my closest friend.
We use to record for Crown Records out here for five dollars a side. We’d work all day Sunday and make a hundred dollars. They use to do sound-alike records and all that kind of stuff. But the records were too good.
The ’60s: Me, Earl [Palmer], Jesse Sailes, Sharkey Hall, Alvin Stoller, Frankie Capp. Alvin and Frankie were kind of know for their legit stuff. Frankie was known as kind of a big band swing drummer. He still is.
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