Hal Blaine, 1929-2019

Hal Blaine in his native habitat.

Hal Blaine had a stamp, like the kind of embosser you used to show a bill has been paid or a letter has been received. Hal’s read “Hal Blaine Strikes Again,” and he liked to use it on sheet music.

It was a pun, you see. Hal Blaine, one of the busiest, most talented, most influential drummers in rock ‘n’ roll history, struck again and again and again, whether it was solid four-beats or delicate brushwork or the thunder underpinning the Wall of Sound – on “Be My Baby” and “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “Strangers in the Night” and “Good Vibrations” and “I’m a Believer” and “Aquarius” and “Superstar” and even backing up John Denver on tour.

Huey Lewis sings about the heart of rock ‘n’ roll. Hal Blaine was its living, pumping pulse.

Hal Blaine died Monday. He was 90. I always knew it would happen – death comes for us all – but somehow I hoped that Hal’s heart would beat to 100 and beyond.

I met Hal on an October day in 2011. It was unplanned; I had traveled to Los Angeles to interview Brian Wilson at the Capitol Records tower in conjunction with the forthcoming “Smile” boxed set release and a series I had planned to write on creativity. Wilson was challenging and intriguing and, once we got going, took all of maybe 15 minutes. So with an afternoon to kill before flying back to Atlanta, I asked the publicist if someone else would be available. Perhaps Hal Blaine.

She made a call and said he’d be interested, and the next thing I knew my videographer and I were driving out to Hal’s house in Palm Desert.

I don’t know how I imagined a pop legend’s house would look, but Hal Blaine’s house was a relatively modest dwelling in a subdivision carved out of the desert. The living room was dominated by a model train set; the walls were lined with memorabilia, including LP covers and a 1970s article featuring a photo of Hal in front of his Rolls-Royce. (The car went in a divorce, he said.) Hal was shorter than I imagined – this was the guy whose arms pounded the verse finales on “Da Doo Ron Ron”? — but his personality was every bit as muscular as I’d hoped.

He took us to his pool out back – nothing elaborate, just a standard-sized suburban pool with a few chairs here and there – and, over glasses of water, we talked. Or, I should say, he talked. I listened, rapt.

Some of it, I’m sure, recapitulated stories he’d told in his memoir, “The Wrecking Crew.” Other stories were reveries of times past, people lost. Years earlier I had gotten an out-of-the-blue email from Larry Levine, Spector’s engineer, in response to a piece about Spector’s shooting of Lana Clarkson. Blaine was visibly sad as he spoke of Levine’s decline and passing in 2008.

Blaine talked about the Beach Boys’ Wilson brothers and their overbearing father, Murry. He complained about bassist Carole Kaye, who he believed had taken credit for work done by Blaine’s preferred rhythm section partner, Joe Osborn. (Blaine himself was accused of the occasional embellishment, including the “Wrecking Crew” name, which he popularized in his memoir; Kaye said the musicians – including Osborn, Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, Tommy Tedesco, Steve Douglas, fellow drummer Earl Palmer, and Larry Knechtel — were called the Clique.) He told rollicking tales of his service in Korea. When I asked him what he liked to listen to, he said SiriusXM’s ‘60s on 6 channel – “because half the songs are me,” he joked.

Or half-joked. Hal Blaine knew how good he was.

My videographer and I ended up staying for two hours.

I don’t know where my interview recordings are, or what happened to my notes. I’d always planned to write a story about Blaine himself, rather than simply use a couple sentences in my story on Wilson. But I never got the opportunity, and so what I have to hold on to are the following: a couple photographs, a set of drumsticks, and an 8 ½-by-11 piece of paper stamped with “Hal Blaine Strikes Again.”

That, and the music.

Rest in power, Hal Blaine.

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