Hal Blaine & The Wrecking Crew
Hal’s story is captured succinctly in this small but very personable and informative 135 page book. Hal spends just the right amount of time on his entry into the big time, providing tasty tidbits about the fabulous group of Los Angeles musicians known as “The Wrecking Crew” and then drawing on his fondest memories along the way.
Hal Blaine was born on February 5th, 1929 in Holyoke, Massachusetts Harold Smith Belsky to Eastern Europe immigrant parents. Due to his father’s poor health the family headed west to California. Hal was anything but a student and struggled with public school. Drumming was his driving force, and had been since he first fashioned homemade drum sticks out of car seat rods, long before he hit his teens in Massachusetts.
Sunny California – Tommy Sands
There was never any doubt about where he was headed, drumming perfection, only the route to get there.
Hal settled with his older sister and her family in the town of San Bernardino, plodding along barely in high school and finally bailing out to join the U.S. Army at the very young age of 16. Korea was his immediate destination – but within a couple of years, he was out and back on a musical journey.
His first groups were “The Novelteers” who also performed as “The Stan Moore Trio”, travelling around the Midwest injecting their music with stand-up comedy. He knocked around Chicago, picked up some musical training before finding his way back to California.
His first break would come when he was tapped to join an up and comer teen star’s backing band, Tommy Sands. This went well for a time until Sands elected to retire and move to Hawaii, surprising his band. (Tommy had married teenager Nancy Sinatra while both were still teens but this marriage dissolved rather quickly).
Into the Studio
Blaine’s destiny was to take a sharp and positive turn when he was picked up to drum for singe Patti Page and in short order he would meet arranger/composer H.B. Barnum who liked what he was hearing and seeing from the young Blaine – and that was Hal’s beginning as a studio musician. His earliest assignments were drumming for Sam Cooke and backing The Diamonds.
During that stretch Blaine would become acquainted by premier drummer in Los Angeles, Earl Palmer and the two would be life long friends and session mates. Palmer had come out of New Orleans where he had backed many Louisiana singers and mainly Fats Domino working as part of Dave Bartholomew’s band.
Blaine’s earliest recording successes as a studio musician can be heard on his first charting session, “Baby Talk” by Jan and Dean in 1959 (#10) followed by Connie Francis’ “Mama” (#8, 1960) and then another Francis hit “Where the Boys Are” (#4, 1961) along with the Elvis number 1 hit “Can’t Help Falling In Love with You” also in 1961.
The Wrecking Crew and The Wall of Sound
Hal’s next stop would prove to be one of the premier moments in rock and roll. Phil Spector had settled back in California and was busy inventing an approach to producing rock and roll like none other before (or since).
Spector had released a handful of singles which didn’t create much of a stir nationally – but a respectable showing nonetheless – A couple of releases by his early Philles-contracted group “The Crystals” – “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)” a song more reminiscent of a by-passed doo wop era reached number 20 and was followed by the group’s “Uptown” (#13 in early 1962) which was more of hint of what was soon to follow.
Enter the raucous group of mostly young and very talented musicians who would change the landscape of recorded music.
Blaine reflects “As for our nickname, The Wrecking Crew, it came about because that was the impression we gave older musicians. The established studio musicians always wore their blue blazer and neckties and always cleaned their ashtrays after a date. We were the new guys, and we dressed as we lived – in Levi’s and T-shirts. We were informal and spontaneous, and a lot of the old hands thought we were wrecking the industry.
It didn’t take long for the word to get around that a new breed of musicians was making the hits. We were new in town, and it seemed like everything we touched turned to gold.”
According to Hal’s account in his biography, there were many, many members of the “Wrecking Crew” but the solid core who were constantly called on by Phil Spector in the Gold Star studios were (along with Hal):
- Carol Kaye and Ray Pohlman – Fender Bass
- Lyle Ritz, Jimmy Bond – Upright Bass
- Tommy Tedesco, Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts, Glen Campbell, Bill Pitman – Guitars
- Don Randi, Leon Russell, Larry Knechtel, Michael Melvoin, Al Delory – Piano
- Steve Douglas, Nino Tempo – Sax
- Jay Migliori, Roy Caton, Ollie Mitchell, Tony Terran – Trumpet
- Earl Palmer – Drums
- Jack Nitzsche – Charts
“The Wall of Sound” would prove to be immensely successful, with a six-year-run for Spector and company. But more importantly, The Wrecking Crew was now entrenched as the band of choice for hundreds of recording sessions.
The musicians were extremely busy, often booked for five or six recording sessions in a single day, often going for days with minimal sleep. The pay was great. Many made a fortune and the gig topped being part of name band, or touring by far.
Hal Blaine alone provided the beat for more than 150 Top Ten hits between 1959 and 1981 including 42 number 1 songs!
My favorite chapters in Blaine’s biography were those describing his relationship with The Beach Boys and then Jan and Dean. He became very close to both groups – and was with Brian through the ups and the downs, as he was with Jan and Dean.
An ironic moment in rock is related when he recalls when the entertainment press shockingly “revealed” that the Monkees were not playing their own instruments! If you were around back then you might recall what a stir that caused and almost was the downfall of the group.
Little did any know that hardly anyone in the southern California music scene was providing their own instrumentation in the studio, including the Beach Boys and many others. And according the Hal, the musicians he came into contact with didn’t resent the fact. They chose to focus on touring and performing live (even then with some help from the Wreckers).
This book takes about one evening to read, but is worth every minute!
Post Script: I located to minor references to any connection to Colorado with Hal Blaine in this book – One is his appearance he made with an early group of his “The Guys and Dolls” at The Falcon Room in Colorado Springs Hotel (shown below) and the other was some time spent in Aspen, Colorado when he was a member of John Denver’s touring group.
Blaine Chart Toppers
Here are the tracks featuring Hal Blaine on the skins which reached the number 1 spot in the nation.
Singles and Long Plays Featuring Hal Blaine
Hal Blaine in Colorado 1953