Hal Blaine, the venerated drummer who played on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations,” the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” as a member of the Wrecking Crew, a group of elite Los Angeles session players, died Monday at age 90. The musician’s family confirmed the news in a statement via Facebook.
“May he rest forever on 2 and 4,” they wrote, referencing the backbeat that defines rock & roll. “The family appreciates your outpouring of support and prayers that have been extended to Hal from around the world, and respectfully request privacy in this time of great mourning. No further details will be released at this time.” A cause of death was not revealed.
Blaine was born Harold Simon Belsky in Holyoke, Massachusetts on February 5th, 1929. In his lifetime, he played on 40 Number One hits and some 150 singles that made it into the Top 10. From 1966 to 1971, he played on six consecutive Record of the Year Grammy winners. In the Sixties, he became a crucial member of the Wrecking Crew, which served as producer Phil Spector’s studio band and helped shape his signature “wall of sound” approach — exemplified on the Ronettes’ 1963 hit “Be My Baby.” “The old timers, the guys that we kind of replaced, used to say these kids are going to wreck the business,” Blaine recalled in an NPR interview. “And I just automatically started calling us ‘The Wrecking Crew.'”
“I may have missed the second beat,” Blaine told NPR of his “Be My Baby” intro. “So we went [sings beat] and it stuck. It became a hook and, of course, one of the most famous hooks in rock & roll.”
“It was like I’d gone to heaven,” Ronnie Spector once told Rolling Stone of the first time she heard Blaine play the iconic, opening beats to “Be My Baby.” “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.” Blaine’s staggered drum phrase was subsequently copied by everyone from the Four Seasons to the Jesus and Mary Chain.
“Myself and guys like Scotty Moore and Hal Blaine — you don’t know how much these guys contributed to recording sessions,” said drummer Earl Palmer told the Los Angeles Times in 2000. “I’m not saying this from ego, because if I had that much ego I’d be rich.”
Blaine became renowned for his smooth touch and ability to work in a variety of styles — from mainstream pop to folk-rock to jazz to R&B. The drummer played on dozens of chart-topping singles in his career, including the Byrds’ version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were.” He was the drummer for the “stand up” portion of Elvis Presley’s fabled ’68 Comeback Special, he was one of the strangers on Frank Sinatra’s recording of “Strangers in the Night,” and he added extra crackle to Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie.” Other artists he worked with include Roy Orbison, the Mamas and the Papas and Paul Revere and the Raiders. He can also be heard playing the drums on the theme to TV’s Batman and on the original cast recording of The Rocky Horror Show.
“I’ve had 263 gold and platinum record awards, made literally a couple of million bucks — it goes on and on — so at the time I was laughing all the way to the bank,” Blaine told the Los Angeles Times in 2000. The paper reports that a divorce subsequently liquidated much of Blaine’s earnings, prompting him to become a security guard in Arizona for a number of years.
The Wrecking Crew’s contributions to music history went largely overlooked in their time, only achieving more recognition years later thanks to biographies and documentaries. “R and R — rock & roll — came to stand for ‘responsibility and reliability,'” Blaine once told Modern Drummer. In 2000, Blaine was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“I’m so sad, I don’t know what to say,” Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson tweeted Monday. In addition to “Good Vibrations,” the drummer peformed on “California Girls,” “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” among others. “Hal Blaine was such a great musician and friend that I can’t put it into words. Hal taught me a lot, and he had so much to do with our success — he was the greatest drummer ever. We also laughed an awful lot. Love, Brian”
“Twenty-five months ago Hal Blaine and I made music for the last time together at the NAMM Convention,” Ronnie Spector wrote on Facebook. “Today I regrettably have to say goodbye to Hal, and thank him for the magic he put on all our Ronettes recordings… and so many others throughout his incredible career. Thank you Hal. Love forever, Ronnie xxx”
Speaking with Rolling Stone, Blaine’s Wrecking Crew cohort, keyboardist Don Randi, said he became fast friends with Blaine after they first met while recording for the Crystals. “He has always been an innovator, he’s always been one of the most easy guys to play with,” Randi said. “Because he came from a jazz background, it enabled him to play anything. The energy that he would put into playing was super. And he knew when not to play. Every tune’s not a drum boogie!”
Randi also spoke about Blaine’s uproarious sense of humor and a particularly daring prank he pulled on Phil Spector during a recording session for the Ronnettes. After an already lengthy period of prep, Randi recalled, “Phil was starting to get ready to do some actual takes. All of a sudden there’s a phone ringing in the studio and we’re all looking around, and Phil stops and says ‘I hear a phone ringing.'” Forty-five minutes went by and the phone kept ringing off-and-on until Spector finally lost it, at which point, Randi recalled, “Hal opens up his drum kit, pulls out a [prop] phone and goes, ‘Phil, it’s for you!'” Randi added, “Of course, we recorded a hit right after.”
“He respected the chart and the artist, and he had these arms and legs that could go anywhere and do anything,” Nancy Sinatra tells Rolling Stone. “Everyone wanted him. He would sleep on the floor of the studio sometimes between recording dates. It didn’t make sense for him to drive home when he had to be in early the next day.”
Throughout his career, Blaine was content working in the background of his more famous counterparts, even if that meant the only recognition he got was from armchair musicologists. He knew his worth. “It’s kind of a shock to the general public when they find out that a lot of [famous artists] didn’t play on their records,” Blaine told the Times in 2000. “But not everybody can be a plumber and go fix a broken pipe. Sometimes you need an expert, and that’s all there is to it. Most of it was economics. We could go in and do an album in six hours. Kids today, sometimes it takes them months to get one song down.”
Blaine is survived by his daughter, Michelle, and seven grandchildren.