His resume included ambitious art-rock totems, easy listening schmaltz, TV theme songs, incendiary folk-rock, Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” and Steely Dan’s smooth softscapes. His beats backed a hall of fame of mid-20th century icons, including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, Simon and Garfunkel, Sam Cooke, Barbra Streisand, Herb Alpert, John Denver and Leonard Cohen.
But his most legendary beat is the primordial thump-thump-thump-crack heartbeat in the first four seconds of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” Here’s just a fraction of what Blaine tapped into musical history.
The Crystals, ‘He’s a Rebel’ (1962): The first Phil Spector production that Blaine — the drummer for the producer’s Wrecking Crew session band — drove to No. 1. In the final 30 seconds, you can hear Blaine exploding outward from his steady pulse into a frenzy. “Phil Spector, God bless him, used to let me just go nuts on records,” Blaine told Modern Drummer. “I would go totally bananas on the endings of those songs. Phil has always said that he was going to take all the fades and put them together and put out some records of that.”
The Ronettes, ‘Be My Baby’ (1963): Blaine wagered the creation of one of the most iconic opening drum beats of all time was “unintentional.” “Be My Baby” was possibly intended to have snare beats breaking up the pulse on 2 and 4 instead of just the big wallop at the end. In any event, its influence can be felt in the many songs that used similar beats in its wake: Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” the Boys’ “Brickfield Nights,” the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey,” Poison’s “Cry Tough” and Bat for Lashes’ “What’s a Girl to Do” among them.
Sam Cooke, ‘Another Saturday Night’ (1963): Blaine would eventually be known for his steady backbeats, but he can be heard playing wild fills all over this soul classic. “That was another one with that same drum lick every eight or 16 bars, whatever it was,” Blaine told NPR. “And all these drum licks kind of became the standard for rock ‘n’ roll. You know, all the drummers that I’ve spoken with through the years have told me that they grew up listening to the records that I played on, and that’s how they learned.” Naturally, the Who’s Keith Moon was a fan, as was Rush drummer Neil Peart. “When I was growing up, I played along to the radio,” Peart said in 2011, “so I played along to Simon and Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, the Association and the Byrds, and I was really playing along to Hal Blaine.”
The Byrds, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ (1965): Producer Terry Melcher wasn’t sold on the instrumental prowess of the Byrds so it was the Wrecking Crew session team that anchored the song most responsible for the advent of folk rock.
Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, ‘A Taste of Honey’ (1965): Blaine’s brushes on the snare are nuanced and dynamic, but the real iconic element of “A Taste of Honey” is his four-on-the-floor bass drum. This was another happy accident. Blaine said the band was coming in “like a train wreck,” so he provided a pulse. It became the most memorable part of the song.
The Beach Boys, ‘Good Vibrations’ (1966): The Beach Boys’ Mike Love wrote of his bandmate Brian Wilson: “When we’d go to Brian’s house, he would play ["Be My Baby"] over and over again, comparing it to Einstein’s theory of relativity.” Inspired by Spector’s wall of sound techniques, Wilson created “Good Vibrations,” a single that was epochal for its orchestral ambitions, studio-as-instrument techniques and early embrace of electronic music via the whining Electro-Theremin. Who better to anchor it to pop than one of Spector’s drummers of choice? “My particular sound for Brian,” Blaine wrote in his autobiography, “was basically the Phil Spector sound with a few minor changes. ... Afterwards, I would overdub percussion effects. I was invited to experiment, and I don’t ever remember Brian telling me not to play anything.”
Johnny Rivers, ‘The Poor Side of Town’ (1966): Though this chamber-pop song is mostly forgotten, it still knocked the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” out of the No. 1 spot in late 1966. Blaine’s high-hat work here — opening, striking, then closing for a pssssshp — has been credited by Drum magazine as integral for moving the sizzling sound from jazz to rock. It has since became a bedrock element of dance music.
Simon and Garfunkel, ‘A Hazy Shade of Winter’ (1966): Blaine plays drums on four of Simon and Garfunkel’s five studio albums, providing the tasteful accompaniment on No. 1 singles “Mrs. Robinson” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” But check out the apocalyptic Top 20 hit “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” first released in 1966 before appearing on the 1968 album “Bookends,” for a missing link between Motown and punk rock.
Nancy Sinatra, ‘Drummer Man’ (1969): Blaine’s work with Nancy Sinatra would yield bigger hits — most notably “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” and the duet with her father “Somethin’ Stupid,” both No. 1 hits. But this papa-was-a-rolling-stone single allowed the consummate sideman to stretch his legs (and arms) with monstrous tom-tom fills. Blaine brought a massive drum kit to accompany Sinatra for her performance on 1971 TV special “Movin’ With Nancy on Stage.” “I did a solo on the show, which was the first time anyone ever saw that set, so everybody just went crazy,” Blaine toldModern Drummer. “I gave it all to Ludwig. I expected them to call it the Hal Blaine super set or something. But they called it the Octoplus, and it was one of their biggest sellers.”
The Monkees, ‘Mary, Mary’ (1967): Looped to play three times, Blaine’s funky opening beat (and Jim Gordon’s percussion) on this Monkees classic was the first thing you heard on the first volume of Ultimate Breaks and Beats, the record series that served as an essential DJ and producer tool in the 1980s. Twenty years after it was recorded, Blaine would end up the unwitting participant in hip-hop records like Run-D.M.C.'s “Mary Mary” (1988), De La Soul’s “Change in Speak” (1989) and Big Daddy Kane’s “Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy.”
The 5th Dimension, ‘Medley: Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures)’ (1969): A song at the crossroads of psychedelia, soul, pop and Broadway, Blaine moves from a deconstructed “Be My Baby” to locomotive rock to groovy funk.
Tanya Tucker, ‘Lizzie and the Rainman’ (1975): Proving himself ever versatile, Blaine’s last era of chart success and prolific session work was during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s explosion of pop-country artists like Shelly West (“Jose Cuervo”), John Denver (“I’m Sorry,” “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”) and era-appropriate works by Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash. On Tanya Tucker’s “Lizzie and the Rainman” — a No. 1 country hit and a Top 40 pop crossover — Tucker says “beat the drum” in the middle of each chorus and Blaine plays a bonkers descending drum fill that pans across the speakers. It sounds like it was pulled from a Rush record instead of something that broke the Adult Contemporary chart.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.