Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Magic Behind 1960's Hit Music - The Wrecking Crew Studio Musicians


Hal Blaine put his hand on my shoulder. "This is going to break your heart, but much of the music you heard in the '60s and early '70s wasn't recorded by the people you saw on the album covers," he said. "It was done by me and the musicians you see on these walls."

Talk about a "Wizard of Oz" moment. Last week I traveled to Mr. Blaine's home here to talk about his prolific career as the Buddy Rich of rock and pop recordings. I also wanted to know more about his role as the ringleader of the Wrecking Crew—an ad hoc group of about 30 highly skilled Hollywood studio musicians who played the instruments on thousands of hit records released between 1961 and 1976.

Many baby boomers still remember the outrage that followed a magazine's revelation in 1967 that the Monkees didn't play on all of their recordings. It turns out that neither did the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, the Byrds, the Association, Jan & Dean and dozens of other rock groups of the era. That honor belongs to Mr. Blaine and the Wrecking Crew, whose members included Glen Campbell and Leon Russell.  

If rock is about a beat, and a beat is about the drums, then the 82-year-old Mr. Blaine is arguably one of America's greatest living rock musicians. Wednesday marks 50 years since he recorded his first No. 1 hit—Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love." Mr. Blaine went on to appear on 38 additional chart-toppers, including the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man," the Mamas & the Papas' "Monday, Monday," Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and the Carpenters' "(They Long to Be) Close to You."

Those represent just a fraction of his output. Mr. Blaine's beats set hips twisting on upward of 5,000 songs—many of them also hits. He even was the drummer on the Grammys' "Song of the Year" for six years in a row from 1966 to 1971. In this regard, Mr. Blaine has no living peer. On Billboard's Hot 100 chart, Mr. Blaine's nearest rival is the Beatles with a measly 20 No. 1 hits.

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, Mr. Blaine remains largely unknown today. Which raises two questions: Why were studio musicians even needed back then, and why weren't teens aware of their contribution at the time?

"When the demand for rock exploded at the very start of the '60s, record companies had to churn out tons of music with a big beat and a tight sound," Mr. Blaine said. "To hold down studio costs, producers had no choice but to bring in musicians who could nail songs the first time through. That meant us."

An unspoken pact kept Mr. Blaine and the Wrecking Crew a secret hit-making machine. "Teens wanted to believe that their idols on the TV and stage were the ones playing on the records, record companies didn't want to spoil the party, and we wanted to keep earning," Mr. Blaine said. "No one said a word."

At his busiest, Mr. Blaine played on as many as seven studio sessions a day, moving effortlessly from the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" to Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night." The story of the '60s-rock studio scene has been documented in "The Wrecking Crew," a newly completed film that is awaiting funding for song licensing. Its director is Denny Tedesco, son of Tommy Tedesco, the group's late guitarist. "All that music was just notes on a page until these musicians gave them punch and excitement," Denny Tedesco said.

While all of the major pop-rock acts could sing and in some cases write music, record producers weren't satisfied with their abilities as instrumentalists. In other cases, songs were recorded and groups were assembled to front them. "Many of these kids didn't have the chops and were little more than garage bands," said Mr. Blaine. 

The Wrecking Crew name originated in 1961 when an older Hollywood studio musician quipped: "These young studio guys are going to wreck the music business." When word of the crack got back to Mr. Blaine and recording jobs poured in, Mr. Blaine simply told his paging service to "round up the Wrecking Crew." "The name stuck," he said.
Mr. Blaine was over the age of 30 when his rock-recording career began. Born Harold Belsky in Holyoke, Mass., in 1929, Mr. Blaine moved to Hartford, Conn., with his family when he was 7 years old and took up the drums as a teen. When his father came down with asthma, the family moved in with relatives in San Bernardino, Calif.

After his discharge from the Army in 1948, Mr. Blaine enrolled under the G.I. Bill at the Roy C. Knapp School of Percussion in Chicago, where he studied for two years by day and played strip clubs at night. In the '50s, he toured with several lounge combos and changed his last name to give it a show-biz ring. 

In 1957, Mr. Blaine joined the Raiders, a country group that backed teen idol Tommy Sands. In 1961, he was recommended for Presley's album "Blue Hawaii." Among the songs recorded was "Can't Help Falling in Love." "I used brushes on the snare drum with my right hand and a soft mallet on the tom-tom with my left," he said. "The result was a hint of surf and Hawaii that Elvis liked," Mr. Blaine said.

Work with producer Phil Spector followed. Mr. Blaine's urgent beat on songs by the Ronettes, the Crystals and other groups helped drive and sell Mr. Spector's "wall of sound." "The beat I used on the Ronettes' 'Be My Baby' was actually a mistake," Mr. Blaine said. "I was supposed to play more of a boom-chicky-boom beat, but my stick got stuck and it came out boom, boom-boom chick. I just made sure to make the same mistake every few bars."

To come up with the right hit-making drum beat for each recording, Mr. Blaine insisted on hearing a group sing through a song first, often backed by just a piano. "A song is a story, and I wanted to hear how the lyrics were phrased and where the drama was," he said. "Then I'd add a beat and sound that snapped."

Mr. Blaine's famed beats also helped make hits of the Beach Boys' records. To Brian Wilson's credit, he was the one who replaced his brother Dennis with Mr. Blaine, starting with "Little Deuce Coupe" in 1963. "I tightened my snare drum for the Beach Boys so it had a higher, speaking-voice sound," said Mr. Blaine. "Then I'd hit the floor tom-tom on the same beat as the snare. Both added tension to the group's soft, harmonic sound."

Was drummer Dennis Wilson miffed? "Physically, he seemed to be on a 45-degree angle—living for speed, the surf and the beach," Mr. Blaine said. "My playing took the pressure off of him. Besides, while I made $65 for an afternoon in the studio, he'd make $65,000 that night in concert."
Is this why so many groups back then didn't sound as good in concert as they did on their records? "You tell me," Mr. Blaine said, laughing. "At concerts, people hear with their eyes. Teens cut groups slack in concert, but not when they bought their records."

Another one of Mr. Blaine's No. 1 pop hits was Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass's "A Taste of Honey." "The first time we ran down the intro, it was a train wreck," he said. "The horns didn't come in together on the same beat after the pause. So I counted off the beat by thumping the bass drum, which gave the horns a cue."

What does Mr. Blaine listen to today? "Mostly an oldies station on XM radio," he said, pouring himself a teenage-size Cherry Dr Pepper. "It's an amazing ego trip since I'm on so many of the songs. But it has its drawbacks. You hear your youth. I hear a day at the office or a divorce."

Mr. Myers writes daily about jazz, rock and R&B at

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