The first time Roger McGuinn met Hal Blaine was in January 1965, at the recording session for “Mr. Tambourine Man.” McGuinn had recently formed his new band, the Byrds, but the full group wasn’t ready to record in a professional studio just yet. Instead, Blaine, the veteran drummer who had already tracked everything from the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” to Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii soundtrack, joined Wrecking Crew bandmates Bill Pitman, Leon Russell, Jerry Cole and Larry Knechtel to back McGuinn on what would become the group’s breakthrough Number One hit.
In later years, McGuinn and Blaine would cross paths at assorted recording sessions and Hall of Fame tributes, but it was their first meeting that made the most lasting impression on McGuinn: “The Wrecking Crew was truly a great band,” he says. “They played so well together and they could always follow each other in time, but they didn’t always play a strict beat. They’d go up and down and back and forth, but they were always together.”
A day after Blaine’s death at the age of 90, McGuinn called Rolling Stone to share his memories of the drummer and discuss Blaine’s vast, underappreciated influence on rock & roll.
I really think Hal was as important to rock & roll as Elvis Presley. Everybody knew he was playing drums on these hits, but he invented that beat, that boom boom-boom “Be My Baby” beat that the Beatles used. I used to call it a Beatles beat, but it was really a Phil Spector beat, and Hal came up with it. Spector continued it with all his records, and the Beatles picked it up and it became ubiquitous. It was the rock & roll beat of that particular time.
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The first time I heard “Be My Baby,” I was working in the Brill Building and we were big fans of Phil Spector, so we’d get all his record and analyze them, tear them apart.
I don’t believe “Mr. Tambourine Man” would have been a hit without the Wrecking Crew. The Byrds were not that great a band at that point. Michael Clarke was just learning how to play drums. He learned to play on cardboard boxes. We needed a real drummer. That day in the studio when we recorded “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Hal was great. I was intimidated by those guys. They were all a little older than I was, very slick, like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. They were almost punks, with their collars up. I was just 22, and I remember Hal Blaine saying, “Don’t be so nervous kid, go out and get a couple of beers and then come back.” He tried to loosen me up.
The next day, David Crosby, Gene Clark and I put vocals in the track. When we sat down and heard the song, I said, “Man, I can’t believe we did that.” Hal and the other studio musicians really pulled it together and made a strong track, which I know the Byrds could not have done.
Later, when I was doing solo work for Columbia, I had Hal on some of my stuff. He walked into the studio one day and said, “Last time I played with this guy, he got a Number One.” It didn’t work out that way for my solo stuff, but it was great seeing Hal again. He was extremely professional in the studio. He gave direction well, and was kind of a bandleader, really.
And then I saw him a few years ago in 2007, at a tribute at the Musicians Hall of Fame. I know Hal was really proud to have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, because he was wearing his Hall of Fame induction jacket in Nashville. Hal was a good comedian. He was always cracking jokes in the studio. And that day in Nashville, we were on the bus driving around to different hotels, and he and the guys were all making jokes. He had a real bawdy, lewd sense of humor.
Yesterday, when I was reading Hal’s obituary, I thought, “Wow, what I thought was a Beatles beat was really a Hal Blaine beat.” And that beat continued.