When you think of the classic incarnation of the Beach Boys, it’s easy to recall Dennis Wilson holding down the drum kit. In fact, the man supplying the beats for many of their enduring mid-1960s recordings was Hal Blaine, the legendary Los Angeles-based session drummer and member of the Wrecking Crew studio group, who died on March 11th at age 90.
Blaine’s resume — some of the most well-known records made by Frank Sinatra, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas and the Fifth Dimension; many Phil Spector productions; even the Partridge Family — could fill a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame exhibit. He also played on enough Beach Boys classics to fill one of their hits packages: “Help Me Rhonda,” “California Girls,” “Good Vibrations,” “I Get Around,” “Darlin’,” and later albums like 15 Big Ones. In this new conversation with RS, founding Beach Boy Al Jardine recalls Blaine’s contributions to the band.
Hal played on so many important historical recordings. He was the glue that held them together — that Sinatra stuff, whew. I can’t remember the first time we used him on Beach Boys records, but Brian might have starting using him after the “Surf City” session. [Ed. Note: Wilson co-wrote the chart-topping 1963 hit for Jan & Dean.] Hal and Earl Palmer played double drums on that, and that impressed Brian a lot.
We worked feverishly on the first few albums, but at one point the Wrecking Crew came in, because we were on the road so much. We would come home and do the vocals, but the Crew would be tracking. Brian wasn’t in the touring band, so he got to play with those guys. I remember coming into the studio one day and hearing one of the songs on [1965’s] Summer Days (and Summer Nights). I remember thinking, “Wow, what a great drum track — amazing!”
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There’s a lot of pressure in the studio. We had three-hour sessions, and we’d try to do three songs in three hours. You had to have your shit together. Hal was the session leader, and he had this calming effect. He had those intense, friendly blue eyes of his. He was very engaging and always interested in what you were doing. He told a lot of funny jokes. He would calm your nerves when you had an idea.
Brian and I would have a great idea, but you had to put it all together and organize it. It was a huge deal. We were chord guys, but when you’re talking to a trumpet player or reed player, you need a translator. Hal produced the guys in the chairs. He made sure all the charts were legible. He’d hand them out like he was the teacher. Hal was the producer of the producers. Brian idolized him.
Hal was like an artist with a paintbrush. His genius is that he would add a particular part of his own. Listen to the cymbals on “California Girls.” We didn’t use cymbals much in those days. But that was a tasty little trademark right in the intro. Brian produced an amazing track for “Sloop John B.” I love the part when it goes to straight 8’s. We called it the “cowboy section,” with the oom-pa-pa, but in drummer language, it was 8s.
Hal would be told what to play, but make it better. That was his special talent. He enhanced all of our Beach Boys recordings. He gave them a breadth and depth that only experience brings. We got lucky.