Arts Appreciation: Hal Blaine — The Beat Goes On
By Jason M. Rubin
Hal Blaine contributed so much to such a large number of rock and pop’s greatest hits, that his music will continue to be heard and appreciated for as long as there are radios.
He appeared on albums by the First Edition and the Fifth Dimension. By Frank and Dean, as well as Jan and Dean. His drumming propelled “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds and “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel. His sessions for the Beach Boys ranged from “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” to “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations.” He was the drummer on “Mary, Mary” by the Monkees and “Monday, Monday” by the Mamas and the Papas; on Bobby Darin’s “If I Were a Carpenter” and the Carpenters’ “Close to You.”
This word game using artists and song titles is only possible when you are talking about a musician with an estimated 35,000 sessions and 6,000 singles to his credit. A man whose drumming was the foundation of Phil Spector’s legendary “Wall of Sound” and was featured on 150 top 10 hits in the U.S., including 40 number ones. He was the anchor of the Wrecking Crew, the famed L.A.-based session players who, with Motown’s Funk Brothers, were responsible for much of the popular music made in the ’60s.
His name was Harold Simon Belsky, an always-joking Jewish guy from Holyoke, Massachusetts. But the music industry, and music fans in the know, knew him and loved him as Hal Blaine: he died on March 11, just a little over a month after his 90th birthday, and his kind will not be seen again.
Like much of the Wrecking Crew (an umbrella name he coined for a large roster of first-call studio cats), Blaine was a jazz guy who made the smart artistic and financial decision not to turn up his nose at pop music. Instead, he gave the still-young genre a polish and power it hadn’t had before. Despite the supposed furor following the revelation that the Monkees didn’t play on their first two albums, it was actually common practice to bring in hired guns to make sure catchy ditties were given the instrumental precision needed to roar out of portable radios and race up the charts. And so Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys had time to surf while Blaine played drums in the studio. Aside from Roger McGuinn, he of the jingle-jangle electric 12-string, the rest of the Byrds flew the coop during sessions for “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Look, everyone knew that little kid from the Partridge Family wasn’t really playing the drums, right? Of course, it was Hal Blaine.
Perhaps his most famous (and imitated) drum beat is the one that opens “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes, which was recorded and released in 1963. Brian Wilson has declared the song the greatest pop record of all time and promptly hired Blaine for his Beach Boys sessions. And yet, busy as the Wrecking Crew were in the ’60s and early ’70s, demand for high-priced talent ebbed in the later ’70s and ’80s as groups became more self-sufficient and recording practices evolved.
In 1995, Blaine returned to his religious roots, drumming klezmer-style on the album Songs of Our Fathers by David Grisman and Andy Statman. In 2000, he was included as one of the inaugural class of sidemen inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 2018. The 2008 documentary, The Wrecking Crew, is highly recommended.
In summation, Hal Blaine contributed so much to such a large number of rock and pop’s greatest hits that his music will continue to be heard and appreciated for as long as there are radios. Though Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” is one of the few hits from that era that Blaine didn’t play on (he did, however, play on “I Got You Babe”), Hal Blaine’s beat absolutely goes on and on and on.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for 33 years, the last 18 of which has been as senior writer at Libretto, a Boston-based strategic communications agency. An award-winning copywriter, he holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, maintains a blog called Dove Nested Towers, and for four years served as communications director and board member of AIGA Boston, the local chapter of the national association for graphic arts. His first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012.