It’s a sunny spring day in 2016 and Ronnie Spector is seated at a New York hotel bar. As she looks back on her career, she pinpoints the session she did with the Wrecking Crew for “Be My Baby.” The first time she heard Hal Blaine play the song’s opening rhythm — thump, thump-thump, clap! — she had an out-of-body experience. “It was like I’d gone to heaven,” she said. “It all fit. It all was like a puzzle and once my voice was put on, the puzzle was complete. That’s when I knew this record just might be a hit.” She rapped her hand on the table to Blaine’s beat and started singing loudly, “The night we met … ” as if she were right back there with him.
When I relayed this story to Blaine a few months later — during an interview about Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special, a program that featured Blaine on drums — he felt similarly transported. “Exactly, exactly!” he said excitedly. “She’s a sweet lady.”
But as he was quick to point out, Blaine’s iconic contribution to “Be My Baby” was far from a standalone achievement. For decades, the drummer, who died this week at the age of 90, was a music producer’s secret weapon. He was the driving force behind the Beach Boys’ revolutionary Pet Sounds, the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night.” He also drummed for Roy Orbison, the Mamas and the Papas, Barbra Streisand, Simon & Garfunkel and countless others. Most impressive, he played on every Record of the Year Grammy winner between 1966 and 1971, as well as 150 Top 10 singles and 40 Number Ones.
“As far as I’m concerned I was the luckiest guy in the world,” he told Rolling Stone. “In the past, doing what I was doing was like falling into a vat of chocolate. It really was. Everything I touched seemed to turn to gold. All the Beach Boys, all the Byrds, all the rock & roll.”
Since Blaine was a larger-than-life character who was anything but shy about his accomplishments (“I keep dropping names, and it sounds ridiculous, but that was the story of my life,” he said during our chat), we’re publishing the full interview. Ostensibly, the conversation was about his time with Elvis Presley, but it soon turned into an unwieldy and often hilarious chat about Blaine’s entire storied career.
What was your background before you were doing rock records?
Jazz was really my thing. I came off of the Count Basie band.
Was transitioning into making rock records easy?
I always said, “R&R — rock & roll — really stands for reliability and responsibility.” A lot of the musicians I worked with hated rock & roll. They’d come into the studio and they’d look at the music and say, “Same old crap, day after day.” I would quietly say to them. “Look, you like your new home? You like your new set of gold clubs? You like your new car? Just remember when you walked in here two minutes ago and said what you said, it went to all the producers in the booth. They’re gonna come to me later and say, ‘I don’t want that guy on my date.'” Everybody’s attitude changed. A million guys said, “Thank goodness for Hal. He really straightened our butts out.”
Do you feel like you were still respected in jazz circles after you started doing rock?
Buddy Rich hired me to do his daughter Cathy’s album. Buddy’s a tough guy. Some of the guys who were in his band said, “How come you didn’t play on your kid’s album?” Buddy said — his words, my hand to God — “I wanted the best.” What a compliment to get from Buddy Rich. He really was the king of all the drummers.
Did you feel like a rock pioneer?
I used to get calls from drummers and they’d say, “Hal, what is it you’re doing on the records that’s so magical?” I’d say, “Man, it’s just a backbeat in two and four. If you happen to be doing it in 3/4 [time], you do the backbeat on two or three. If you’re in six, you do it somewhere in the middle on four or five. That’s all it is.” All those guys, they just refused to play rock & roll … until they got behind me picking up checks. Then everything changed overnight.
How did you come to work with Elvis Presley?
Elvis was a fan of mine. I’ve been working with him since the day he got out of the service. Many years ago, in the Fifties, I started working with a young rock & roller, Tommy Sands, and his manager was Colonel Tom Parker. Tommy Sands eventually married Nancy Sinatra, and that put me into the Sinatra clan and that whole Rat Pack type thing.
Anyway, I received a call from Paramount Pictures about a secret musical thing that was coming up. They didn’t say what it was or anything about it. I said, “You always pay me well so I’ll do whatever.” Then they said, “You should blame your salary; we can’t use you on this project. We didn’t realize that you were an actor.” I said, “Well, I remember doing a few little things on the side with acting.” They said, “We can’t use an actor, we need a drummer.” I said, “Believe me, I am a drummer. I don’t know what this is, but just ask around.”
Then I got a call from Col. Tom who said, “What’s this about you not wanting to work with Elvis?” I said, “I didn’t turn anything down.” He said, “No, no, no. You’re on it.” So that’s how I got the call to start working with Elvis. I think the first record we did was “Return to Sender.” Major, major hit. Before we did “Can’t Help Falling in Love” with Elvis, as a recording, because somehow that film was called Girls, Girls, Girls. That was our first work with him, and it wasn’t released until after Blue Hawaii. Eventually when the NBC special came up, I was right there with the great director and producer Steve Binder. I became really good friends with all the guys that were part of the so-called Memphis Mafia.
What was it like seeing the Memphis Mafia interact with Elvis?
Once in a while, he’d say something like, “I’m a little bit thirsty.” And God, 15 guys would run at him with Coke bottles in those days to see who could knock down the other guy. Elvis was studying karate, jiu-jitsu, whatever it is, and whenever a star does something like that, all the other people started doing the same thing. Everybody started studying jiu-jitsu and judo. It was hysterical to see Elvis come into the room, and one guy would leap out at him like, “Aaarr,” like he’s going to kill him, and Elvis would go into his stance of a karate master. It was really disturbing. The demagoguery was unbelievable. It was like the 15 guys in the studio were bowing to him.
How was he with you?
Elvis came to see me in Las Vegas when I was with Nancy Sinatra at Caesar’s Palace. When you come off a stage with all the bright lights, it’s very, very dark for a few moments. All of a sudden, someone grabbed me from behind and kind of lifted me up like they were doing the Heimlich maneuver, and it was Elvis. It was really exciting.
He said something to the effect of, “We’re going to be opening up here pretty soon, and you’re gonna be with me on drums.” And I said, “Oh, that’s great.” I really couldn’t say that I wouldn’t be with him in front of anybody. I knew that if Elvis wanted to rehearse at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, that was it. I had to rehearse. It was almost impossible for a human being to do that, and at the time, I had lost my wife. She had passed away, and I was left with a baby and child. Nancy was unbelievable though. She just came out of nowhere and made sure there was always a nurse for the baby.
How was it working with Elvis?
Any time I worked with Elvis was another feather in my cap. If I actually wore an Indian headdress, I’d be a chief. I did so many wonderful dates with Elvis.
How did you manage your schedule with Elvis?
I remember one time I got a call from MGM saying Elvis wanted me for a movie, I don’t remember which one. “We start at 1 o’clock in the afternoon and we go for who knows how long.” I said, “Fine, but I have a problem. I cannot do a Friday night. I’m already booked with somebody on Friday.” Then Col. Tom calls me and he says, “What’s going on?” I said, “It’s not a matter of money. I just can’t do it. I would never cancel a date on you, and I cannot cancel a date on these people.” He called me back and said, “You’d be able to get out of there at 4 o’clock on Friday.” So I said OK and inked it in my book.
At quarter to 4 there were two or three little pieces of music left. There must have been four or five drummers there with the percussionists. I didn’t know what to do. So I put on the old thinking cap and started working on a psychological thing. I found a producer, who is a friend and said, “I was told I could leave here at exactly 4 o’clock and I understand Elvis is the star of this thing, but I know you run the whole outfit.” He said, “Damn right I do.” Four, five, six guys I spoke with, I did the same routine and each one said, “You’re damn right I run this outfit.” So I left.
I went up to the session with Jimmy Bowen, and a couple of days later, he calls me. “Hal, what’s this about you walking out on an Elvis Presley date?” I said, “Jimmy, I don’t know who told you that but I must explain. I had permission from Col. Tom. How did you hear this?” he said, “I had dinner with Col. Tom last night, and he said, ‘Who the hell does Hal Blaine think he is walking out on Elvis?'” Jimmy said, “Don’t you ever do that again. If you get a call with Elvis, just cancel me. I’ll understand. Don’t worry about it. From now on, every time you sign that W-4 that they pass around at the end of the date, you write double scale on it because you’re gonna get double scale from me from now on.” I said, “That’s awfully nice.”
How did making double scale change your life?
I literally had Hollywood by the old balls. I had bought quite an estate. I bought a Rolls-Royce. Elvis, to me, was a wonderful client and they were paying me well. I enjoyed his music and I met all his guys. We all had yachts down at the marina.
I imagine that continued success really motivated you.
I remember going through situations with the 5th Dimension, doing The Steve Allen Show. They were an amazing wonderful group of kids that just loved each other and sang so good. I forget how many records we did in a row that were all Number Ones, but it was amazing. They started getting Grammys, Record of the Years and so on, and it was just amazing to me. When these things happen to you, it’s hard to believe that you’ve actually fallen into this vat of chocolate that you’ve heard about most of your life. It’s the reason you’ve studied, the reason you stayed away from drugs, the reason you practiced a lot. It was an amazing time for me.
What’s your favorite award you ever got?
I did a lot of wonderful hits with Dean Martin, and he was the sweetest guy in the world. His [recording] dates were great fun. There were always 50 chairs brought in for secretaries and friends and friends of friends and VIPs. I was driving home one night after a date, and I was switching stations at about 2 or 3 in the morning and all of a sudden I hear Dean’s voice. He was doing an interview, talking about the album they just did. I hear the interviewer say, “So you’ve got a great band behind you, that Wrecking Crew, and the gang.” Dean Martin said, “Let me tell you, I’ve got Hal playing drums and if he plays them drums any louder, we’re gonna give him the Golden Trash Award.” That was the funniest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
So a year goes by. I was playing with Dino, his son. There was a knock at my front door. They usually have to call because there’s a telephone at the gates, but a guy says, “There’s a delivery for Mr. Blaine.” OK, so I buzz them in. The guy comes in and it’s some express company with a big box. “Thank you very much.” I sign my name and open it up and here is what looks like an Oscar. It has a beautiful plaque going around the bottom. “To Hal Blaine. This is the Dean Martin Golden Trash Award.” [Laughs] I couldn’t believe it. That’s one of my treasures.
Did you ever consider your legacy much when you were doing all these sessions?
I remember one time, somebody said to me something about, “Oh, Hal. I hope you never die. We need you to drum.” I said, “You know what? God forbid, if I was to die tomorrow, I could hear everybody saying, ‘Oh, my God. What are we going to do?’ And pretty soon, somebody’s going to say, ‘Well, let’s go. Bring in the new guy.'” Time is money. That’s the bottom line here.