Acclaimed drummer who played on hundreds of hits

Born: February 5, 1929;

Died: March 11, 2019

HAL Blaine, who has died aged 90, was an American drummer and session musician who revelled in the self-styled title of “the most recorded musician of all time”. Although his name was largely unknown among the wider public, there are few descriptions of Blaine’s reach and influence upon popular music which are too hyperbolic – put simply, although his influence may not have been core to the artist’s vision, no other musician has had their fingerprints upon as many definitive, well-loved and long-remembered classics as Blaine.

Blaine was a key member of the Wrecking Crew, the informal name for a loose-knit contingent of Los Angeles-based session musicians of the 1960s and 1970s, who found their skills called upon every time one of the big-name stars passing through the city was undertaking a recording session (in fact, he claimed to have invented the name).

During his career, he was reputed to have played on approximately 6,000 individual songs, among them 150 top ten singles on the American Billboard chart, 40 of which were number ones.

Between the years 1966 and 1971, every Record of the Year winner at the Grammy Awards featured Blaine’s drums, among them Frank Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night and Simon & Garfunkel’s Mrs Robinson and Bridge Over Troubled Water. Just the number one hits he played on included the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations and I Get Around, the Byrds’ Mr Tambourine Man, Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots are Made for Walkin’, the Supremes’ The Happening, the Carpenters’ (They Long to Be) Close to You, Neil Diamond’s Cracklin’ Rosie and Barbra Streisand’s The Way We Were.

One of Blaine’s first session tracks was Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling in Love (1961), and very soon after he was installed as producer Phil Spector’s favourite session player and an integral part of Spector’s distinctive ‘Wall of Sound’; the definitive, thundering introduction to the Ronettes’ Be My Baby (1963) was possibly his greatest claim to fame, amid a career littered with them. It’s also said that his pioneering use of the hi-hat to create a shuffling rhythm was the forerunner of the later disco beat of the 1970s.

Hal Blaine was born Harold Belsky in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1929 to Russian Jewish immigrants, and raised in Hartford, Connecticut and later Los Angeles. He played in church bands and as a musician in the Army upon leaving school, before studying at the Roy C. Knapp School of Percussion in Chicago. More casual gigs followed, including in Chicago strip bars and with Tommy Sands’ big band (as well as a one-night fill-in with Count Basie’s band), before a move back west led to recordings with Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, and eventually for Presley’s film Blue Hawaii.

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Paid a standard wage for his sessions, Blaine was not wealthy when he fell away from session work thanks to the advent of the drum machine in the 1980s, and later took work as a security guard. He died at the age of 90 in Palm Desert, California, leaving behind his daughter Michelle and seven grandchildren.

Leading the eulogies were figures as famous as Ringo Starr and Brian Wilson.

“It was like I’d gone to heaven,” Ronnie Spector once said of first hearing the sound of Be My Baby. “It all fit… that’s when I knew this record just might be a hit.”

Blaine was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018, but remained humble. “As far as I’m concerned, I was the luckiest guy in the world… everything I touched seemed to turn to gold,” he once said. “I keep dropping names, and it sounds ridiculous, but that was the story of my life.”