There are great drummers and then there was Hal Blaine. As a member of the famed Wrecking Crew of Los Angeles studio musicians, Blaine provided the backbeat to the soundtrack of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. He played drums on countless hits, backing such artist as the Association, the many Phil Spector Girl Groups, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Carpenters, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Simon & Garfunkel, Sonny & Cher, and the Mamas & the Papas (we could go on all day). With such a pedigree, it’s little surprise that he not only played on a number of cover songs, he played on some of the greatest covers of all time!
Since his death last week at the age of 90, tributes to have been popping up everywhere. We’ll simply add our own, the only way we know how – by going through some of his best covers.
So to Hal Blaine, we count it off one last time: 1-2, a 1-2-3-4…
The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man (Bob Dylan cover)
The Byrd’’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” is a full-on pop symphony. Underneath the “jingle-jangle” layers of guitars, vocals and tambourine, Blaine provides a steady backbeat and a few creative fills to keep the song moving along. Founding member Roger McGuinn praised Blaine’s contributions to the track. “The Byrds were not that great a band at that point,” McGuinn told Rolling Stone. “Michael Clarke (the Byrds’ drummer) 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.”
The Beach Boys – Sloop John B (Traditional Folk cover)
Dennis Wilson may be remembered as the Beach Boys’ drummer. But Hal Blaine played on many of the group’s biggest hits and the Pet Sounds sessions, which included the famed cover of “Sloop John B.” The track was a folk song brought to prominence by the Kingston Trio. In the song’s introduction, Blaine acts like a classical drummer, only playing the occasional downbeat. When they “hoist up the John B sails,” he comes in with a more consistent beat on the snare. Finally as the first mate gets hammered, Blaine starts playing uptempo rock time. He pauses throughout to let the group harmonize, then plays a rapid-fire series of downbeats, taking them home through the final chorus. After Blaine’s death, Brian Wilson tweeted: “He was the greatest drummer ever.”
Frank Sinatra – That’s Life (Marion Montgomery cover)
The first thing you hear on Frank Sinatra’s 1966 cover of “That’s Life” are triplets coming from Hal Blaine’s ride cymbal. “That’s Life,” originally recorded by Marion Montgomery, was a hit for Sinatra at the dawn of the flower power era. Blaine keeps time with similar triplet-style patterns throughout most of the song, adding more downbeats for the chorus. When Sinatra first sings, “I pick myself up and get back in the race,” Blaine bangs the snare drum and crashes the cymbals alongside Sinatra’s exclamations. The second time Frank comes to “pick myself up,” Blaine shifts his triplets from the cymbal to various drums around the kit, so you know Frank really means it. In the final seconds, Blaine plays a series of fills, making you wish Ol’ Blue Eyes gave him a chance to solo.
Medley: Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures) – The 5th Dimension (Hair cover)
On many tracks, Blaine acts like a live-action metronome, providing a backbeat, without being overpowering. On the 5th Dimension’s medley of covers from the rock musical Hair, Blaine is an equal partner alongside the group’s vocalists. He starts out on the hi-hat. When the moon reaches the seventh house, he adds in some bass drum and a downbeat on a low-tuned tom-tom. As the song shifts into the “Age of Aquarius” chorus, Blaine unloads with a gigantic fill and then comes in with a polyrhythmic beat. But he saves the real fireworks for “Let the Sunshine In.” That’s when he shifts into hard-pounding power-funk and combines the pattern with an explosive mix of fills and cymbal crashes. It’s a performance that could have earned him a seat in Parliament (the band anyway).
The Carpenters – We’ve Only Just Begun (Paul Williams cover)
This song started out as a bank commercial jingle. The Carpenters covered it on their 1970 album Close to You. Sure, Karen Carpenter had the voice of an angel, but Blaine’s drumming enabled her to shine above the corniness. He starts off each verse playing light time on the hi-hat. As the song transitions from the verses to the choruses, he throws in some thunderous fills, then shifts to an upbeat, blue-eyed soul groove. It makes you want to air-drum along, whether you like the song or not.