Interview With Hal Blaine

by Derrick Bostrom


Whenevever I'm asked who my favorite drummers are, I'll usually rattle off a list of disappointingly obscure studio musicians. Most of 'em played on pop and disco records; not too many of them were rockers. But the daddy of them all will always be the great Hal Blaine. Skinsman for everyone from the Byrds and the Beach Boys to Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, with every television show you can think of thrown in for good measure, Hal Blaine is by far the king of studio drummers. Affiliated with a loose conglomeration Los Angeles musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, Hal chalked up thousands and thousands of dates during his heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. About twenty years ago, Hal and I used to hang out at the same drum store in Scottsdale. When I buttonholed him for an interview, he was entirely amicable. The following conversation was originally published in Breakfast Without Meat magazine in 1989.

BWM: Well, how did you get into it?

Hal Blaine: I started out playing big bands shows and different things. I was with several different small bands and groups, doing comedy and singing, emceeing, and I got a break with a very big star of the late fifties whose name was Tommy Sands...

BWM: Sure. He married Nancy Sinatra.

Hal Blaine: Yeah. And through Tommy I really started learning rockabilly, country, and rock and roll. When Tommy went into the service I started traveling with Patti Page. I was with Patti for several years, and it was during that time with Patti that her husband, who was a very noted choreographer at Paramount, brought me in on a picture with Elvis when he got out of the service  "Girls Girls Girls".

BWM: Oh yeah, that was your first one with Elvis?

Hal Blaine: I believe so. Either "Girls Girls Girls" or "Blue Hawaii".

BWM: They're pretty much the same. They're both in Hawaii.

Hal Blaine: Oh. right. Anyway, that led to my work with H.B. Barnum, who was a very noted arranger in those days in L.A. Still is. And H.B. got me with guys like Sam Cooke and the Apollos and all kinds of groups around L.A., and that led to Phil Spector and what I started referring to as the Wrecking Crew, known as the Wall of Sound. You know, it was all word of mouth. That led to the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean and on and on and on, and all the surf groups...

BWM: Did you ever receive any abuse or sour grapes from the old guard? Were there any people who'd, like, put down rock and roll...?

Hal Blaine: As a matter of fact, there were several. One of the best stories that I can tell is that when I used to go down to the drum shop to buy equipment  I was very friendly with the owner Bob Yeager  and he started telling me that there was a particular, pretty famous drummer, Frank Sinatra's drummer Irv Kottler, who had really been badmouthing me, about rock and roll and, what's all the big deal about Hal Blaine, he's just a loud drummer and this and that and the other, and I guess for a couple of years that went on. And then as fate would have it we both happened to be on a big Disney movie call one time and Irv was on tambourine and I was on drums...

BWM: Do you remember the movie?

Hal Blaine:...for this movie, yeah ...oh no, might have been "Pete's Dragon"...

BWM: That would have to have been recently. Hal Blaine: Well this was a long time ago.

BWM: Not "Babes in Toyland", which also featured Tommy Sands...

Hal Blaine: No, I was in "Babes in Toyland" as an actor.

BWM: Oh really? What'd you play?

Hal Blaine: I was a villager. Anyway, it was during that period  the early sixties, maybe '63 or '64  that I got to work with lrv. I'm almost positive it was a Disney. Some big movie call. And when we finished the date, lrv Kottler came over to me and shook my hand and told me how completely wrong he was about me and how I really impressed him that day, etc., etc., and that he realized that I was a real drummer and not just a kid making some noise on some drums, y'know, and we became very good friends ever since then. In fact, I got to do a bunch of Sinatra sessions that lrv did not get to do.

BWM: That's another thing I wanted to ask you about. The stuff that you worked with Sinatra on was like big beat kind of crossover type stuff...

Hal Blaine: Yeah, well "Strangers in the Night" was record of the year that year.

BWM: "Tell Her You Love Her", stuff like that. Buncha other ones.

Hal Blaine: Whole bunch of 'em, yeah. "That's Life", "Somethmn' Stupid". But the thing is, see what happened was that after I met Tommy Sands and he became such a big star, he married Nancy, and of course I was very close to the family.

BWM: So you knew Frank Sinatra, Jr. then?

Hal Blaine: Very well. I first met Frankie when he was fourteen. And a heck of a piano player.

BWM: Oh really.

Hal Blaine: Really a super guy and a super intelligent kid. And he's one of the few people that I know of in this business that knows lighting and sound backwards.

BWM: Did you ever work with him as a singer?

Hal Blaine: Yeah, I worked with Frank several times. We were in Vegas together.

BWM: Did you ever work with any non singers like Eddy Albert or William Shatner, who recorded albums to cash in on a hit TV series?

Hal Blaine: I never worked with them but I worked with Lorne Green, and I worked with, uh, what's his name who does "Heaven Can Wait'...he was the other star of "Bonanza".

BWM: Michael Landon?

Hal Blaine: Michael Landon we did albums with. And that other guy that played the brother. Dark haired guy that plays the doctor now.

BWM: Oh, uh, Pernell Roberts.

Hal Blaine: Pernell Roberts. Fine singer.

BWM: What sort of material did he do?

Hal Blaine: Oh, sort of folk type stuff. We were doing a lot of stuff with Ed Ames in those days and they were all sort of similar. Although Ed Ames is an absolutely magnificent singer.

BWM: You said you had an anecdote about Richard Harris.

Hal Blaine: Wonderful guy. The anecdote about Richard was that I got a call from Jimmy Webb. I was Jimmy Webb's drummer for the Fifth Dimension and Johnny Rivers and all those people that he was working with. So Jimmy called me from London  he was now the fair haired boy  and he called and said, look, I've met this actor over here, we're gonna do an album with him and I want you to come over. And I said, okay, great, but make sure I know way ahead of time so that I can block out that time, because in those days I used to be booked at least three or four months in advance, solid. Anyway, in about two weeks time the phone rang one day, and I answered the phone, and it was in the middle of the night, and it was Richard Harris calling. And he introduced himself over the phone and he said, we've got you booked on TWA flight so and so tomorrow. And I said, oh my god, you know I thought I was gonna get a real advance. Anyway, I called my secretary and she got me out of work for ten days, and I jumped on a plane and I went. Anyway, to make a long story short, I sat around in the apartment waiting for Richard. This was about six, seven o'clock in the morning, and finally Richard came out bellowing for the maid and we sat down to a very nice breakfast. And Richard said, Hal, do you know any good musicians like yourself, and I said, well jeez Richard, I do, but I'm sure they're working. I thought we were going straight to the studio. And he said, well, that's the other question. Do you know any good studios over here. So it turned out that we spent ten days there just partying, then we came back to Hollywood and did "MacArthur Park" and all that stuff.

BWM: Did you have any experiences with psychedelia in the sixties?

Hal Blaine: I never did. Never dropped anything, never smoked anything, never shot anything.

BWM: But you knew those who did.

Hal Blaine: Oh, there were a few people around. I mean, the Mamas and the Papas, you know, they lived on hallucinogens. I tell you, I was scared to death of that stuff. I was too solidified in a marriage and a beautiful home and I didn't want to lose anything. And I know, the horror stories, the Jim Gordon stories, that's what happened to people.

BWM: Did you do much live performing?

Hal Blaine: I did Nancy Sinatra in Vegas a number of times, and then the Sinatra family, when we did Frankie and the Muppets. Big show in Vegas.

BWM: Have you done much television?

Hal Blaine: God, I couldn't tell you all the TV shows. A lot of the "Happy Days' we did. "Laverne and Shirley", and "Dynasty". "Hotel"..."WKRP" is showing really big. "Three's Company" was one of my big shows. 'The Brady Bunch", It just goes on and on and on and on. We did "The Partridge Family" In those days. Just so many shows I can't even think of 'em.

BWM: "Hawaii Five O"?

Hal Blaine: No, I never did as far as I know. Wasn't that the Ventures' record or something? 'Cause I did do a lot of Ventures records. We used to do Ventures, you know, when they were on the road. But we were doing everybody's records then. You know, the first gold record ever handed to me was "Mr. Tambourine Man" by the Byrds. There must have been fifteen or twenty groups. As a matter of fact, the drummer that was with the Knack some years ago, and I don't remember his name right now...when I met him, his line to me was one of the great all time lines. He said, "One of my biggest disappointments in life was finding out that a dozen of my favorite drummers were Hal Blaine."

BWM: I was just the opposite...

Hal Blaine: Well, he meant it in a nice way,

BWM: I was glad that it wasn't those kids playing so good.

Hal Blaine: You gotta understand also that teenage kids just don't have the experience and the studio technique. I mean, in those days it wasn't electronic like it is today, where you can hit a drum and, you know, the engineer does it all. In those days, everything was live and you had to have decent sounds, and through the years you get to weed out what's bad and what's good. And a lot of people ask me, didn't the drummers of the groups hate it? Actually they didn't, because as I've said in the past, when I was making thirty five dollars for a session with the Beach Boys, that night Denny would be making thirty five thousand somewhere. And that gave him time to surf, ride his motorcycle, and play with his boats during the day.

BWM: Plus he doesn't have to unload his drums off the van.

Hal Blaine: Well more or less, sure. Once in a while Dennis did do some work, I always had to send him over a set of drums. Anyway, as far as the Beatles, people always say to me, how come we hear all these records that sound like you? First of all, Phil Spector produced a lot of that stuff. Secondly, when I worked with George Harrison, he was one of the first guys to see my monster drums and absolutely insisted that I have a set made, they were custom drums. He wanted a set made for Ringo and they were sent to him in England. But far as I'm concerned, Ringo played the drums on those records, period. I mean, that was his thing. I had done some tracks for Ringo on his own stuff, and of course I was working for John Lennon before he left for New York. I did that "Rock and Roll" album, Jim Keltner and I.

BWM: And Phil Spector. Hal Blaine: I'll tell ya, I had a very nice rapport with John Lennon. When I net him the opening night, I was in there early, just tuning and adjusting, and it turned out that he was a big fan of mine, obviously from all those years of listening to American records. And it was maybe a week later that my son and I were going into a drugstore, and John and his son were there. We had a nice afternoon chat, the four of us, which was really nice. But on the sessions, unfortunately, they were trying to keep the bottle away from him. He had, I don't know what you call that size, If it was two gallons size or what it was, sitting right next to him, a big giant bottle of vodka. It was a huge bottle.

BWM: I guess you got to see both sides of these people.

Hal Blaine: The thing about Spector of course, they call him the Howard Hughes of rock and roll. I never saw Phil Spector crazy in my life. 

BWM: You never saw him shoot a tape console?

Hal Blaine: No, I never saw that. He was a black belt in karate, and at one point I know when we started at A&M he was real upset with the air conditioning, and he dropped the fly kick onto the little thing on the wall and knocked it off the wall.

BWM: Well that's understandable.

Hal Blaine: But the thing is we got kicked out of A&M because of that. Then we had to go over to the Record Plant, and everything was fine. And then all of the sudden I hear that Phil had problems with the Record Plant and we're going back to A&M. So I dunno...

BWM: It must have been the toilets this time.

Hal Blaine: I have no idea. You know, you hear all these stories, but some of that stuff I never witnessed, and with Phil, everything was sort of comedy. He had a federal marshal with him at all times who was his bodyguard, fellow by the name of George. Really nice guy. And George used to come in and put up all these little signs, things that said Phil Spector is alive and well in L.A., or may rock and roll live forever. He'd put up funny pictures of monkeys, all kinds of things. They always had jokes. He always had gifts for everybody in the band.

BWM: Sounds like quite a career.

Hal Blaine: Well it was a wonderful career. On the career side it was triple A. On the personal side it was triple F.

BWM: At least it wasn't triple Z like some people.

Hal Blaine: Well those people did what they did. I don't know, I still think that it's because people get too much when they're too young. Oh my god, I have walked Into studios and I wish I could tell you their names, but I can't obviously  and I've seen mountains of cocaine sitting there. And these people are, before you know it they're never to be heard of again. I was very fortunate that I really always kept my head on straight.