Remembering Hal Blaine
The drumming legend leaves the world 35,000+ songs richer
Unless you work within the music industry, you might not recognize Hal Blaine by name—but if you’ve ever sung along to Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” or tapped your foot to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” you certainly know him by the music he created.
Blaine died of natural causes on March 11, 2019, just five weeks after his 90th birthday on February 5. Born in Holyoke, Mass., as Harold Simon Belsky, Blaine moved with his family to Southern California in his early teens and gained a reputation as a session player extraordinaire while working in Los Angeles during the late 1950s. He spent his final birthday celebration happily playing drums surrounded by friends (including members of The Wrecking Crew, a famed group of session musicians from the 1960s and 1970s) at The Baked Potato, a jazz club in Los Angeles’ Studio City neighborhood.
Though Blaine found the bulk of his success as a session drummer for rock ‘n’ roll groups during the 1960s and 1970s, his interest in music was first piqued by jazz, as was the case with many expert drummers of that era. Before his shift into rock ‘n’ roll, Blaine served as a guest drummer for Count Basie’s band, stepping behind the drum set whenever Basie’s regular drummer, Sonny Payne, was unavailable to perform. His early interest in rhythmic experimentation and willingness to tolerate creative accidents led to groundbreaking beats that quickly spread throughout popular music, most notably with the opening beat in The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” Blaine also played on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and hit single “Good Vibrations,” Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were,” Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night” and some 35,000 other tracks. At least 40 of those topped the charts, a likely factor in Blaine’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2000 and his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.
Blaine’s passing has inspired an outpouring of support for his family and friends by members of the music community, many of whom have shared their condolences and favorite memories on social media.
“Hal taught me a lot, and he had so much to do with our success – he was the greatest drummer ever,” The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson tweeted earlier this week.
“I really think Hal was as important to rock & roll as Elvis Presley,” The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn told Rolling Stone in remembrance, adding about the “Be My Baby” opener, “It was the rock & roll beat of that particular time.”
Reflecting on the impact of Blaine’s musical contributions really is mind-boggling. The songs mentioned above barely scratch the surface of the cultural landmarks that carry the special Hal Blaine touch. Though Blaine is now gone, his legacy has become such an intrinsic part of the music language that it can never be forgotten.
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