Sometimes the past isn't hard to find. Leave Los Angeles, drive 125 miles into the oven heat of Palm Desert, down Sonny Bono Memorial Highway and across Frank Sinatra Drive, and the past might even greet you at his front door. "You found me," Hal Blaine says from behind huge sunglasses. "Come on in."
Inside, a few gold records adorn the wall, all hits by John Denver, all featuring Blaine on drums. What's missing from the walls of his modest home says far more about the backbeat of Blaine's life today. "I used to have, oh, 150 other ones, but I had to sell them all." Blaine kept time on some of the most memorable American recordings of the 1960s — "California Dreamin'," "Strangers in the Night," "Good Vibrations," "Mrs. Robinson," "Can't Help Falling in Love," "I Got You Babe" among them — but that was during what he calls "the absolute golden age of session musicians."
It was also, he adds, before "those machines" changed the making of music.
Blaine says the phone that never stopped ringing in the 1960s and early 1970s went silent in the following decade as the drum machine arrived and music trends veered away from him. A bitter divorce left him without his Rolls-Royce, yacht and the house above Mulholland. "I have to be honest with you. I'd be homeless today without my pension." Blaine was the king of Los Angeles session drummers, and today the weary, 74-year-old royal in the desert reflects his former kingdom. It would be hyperbole to say the session drummer is dead, but, like John Henry hammering away at that steel, you wonder what the long-term health is for a profession that tries to match swings with a machine.
"It's a tough time now, a real tough time, especially if you're one of those young people trying to get in," says Jim Keltner, the drummer who became a titan of the field in the 1970s, playing on major recordings by Bob Dylan, John Lennon and many others. Keltner remains a player in great demand, but now that makes him a rarity in his field. "There has been an erosion. Things aren't the way they were. But you really have to say that you could see it coming. It shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone."
The rudimentary drum machines of the 1970s were alarming to many of the old guard who predicted then that the robotic drumstick eventually would elbow out the human player. They were right. Entire pop albums are sometimes recorded today without a traditional drummer in the studio, and one of the premier genres of the age, hip-hop, is almost defined by the computer creation of beats by celebrity producers, not by a drummer.
Then there's the overall malaise in the session recording business. Laptops and modest home studios can be used to make professional-level albums now, and many of the lavish recording studios in Los Angeles and New York are wondering if in a few years they will have the allure of, say, an extremely well-appointed typewriter factory.
Albums sales are down, record labels are shaky and cutting back, and film and television work — the lifeblood for players in Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians — is often taken offshore for the discounted costs. It makes the local's president, Hal Espinosa, long for the days in the 1960s when he and other players scrambled across town to play session after session.
"There were 11 or 12 variety shows going on. I was doing Dean Martin's show, the Bob Hope specials, Carol Burnett's show. We were running from one studio to the next. Today you don't have that because of new technology. It's gone. It's not coming back." At least Espinosa was a trumpet man. "It's changed for all of us. But I imagine it's the worst for the drummers."
Some Learned To Adapt
Jimmy Bralower once believed drumming was a science only in the way boxing and whistling are sciences. "Look. Playing drums is holding two clubs in your hand. It doesn't get much more primitive than that, right?" Bralower is a New York record executive these days, a prominent vice president at Atlantic Records, but once he was a scrappy Long Island kid who dreamed of being a drummer. He bounced among bands in the 1970s, and by the 1980s he was working in the session rooms of SoHo with artists such as early hip-hop figure Kurtis Blow. It was cusp time — live R&B music and disco were giving way to the protean sound of hip-hop, and the beat of the new music was still being shaped.
"So one day someone brings in this box — it was a foot long and a foot wide and it had all these buttons on it. It was a Roland TR-808, a drum machine. They turned it on and, well, it was pretty daunting. There were beats and rhythms that were kind of impossible to play. This box could do stuff I couldn't do. It was a very threatening moment." Bralower came to embrace the new technology, at first out of career desperation, but then with the zeal of a painter finding whole new colors and canvas.
"Then I became the guy in New York who could program the drumming machines and I had reinvented myself," he said. He would work on some major albums, among them "So" by Peter Gabriel and "Back in the High Life" by Steve Winwood. Not all of his peers smiled on his success, and some producers, worried that the technology compromised their integrity, would ask the programmer if his name could be omitted from the credits. But the work kept coming.
The drummer was the most vulnerable of session players — a beat, a pulse, is the most mechanical of music, and therefore the easiest for a machine — but the synthesizer age has diminished the role of session players of all kinds as samples and swaths of sound made it easier to make music without musicians. The membership of Local 47 was once 16,000; now it's below 9,000. The refinements in technology continue too, so the declines continue. Just five years ago, more than 30,000 of the local's musicians were contracted for sound recordings. By last year, the number sagged to 23,500.
Advocates of the machines and software that create beats for so much of today's pop albums say they are cheaper, faster and easier than bringing in a human drummer. But veteran producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash) says it goes beyond practicality. He says the rise of hip-hop in the 1980s created in pop an artist and audience taste for the relentless, inhumanly perfect beats of the machines instead of the more expressive and organic rhythms of Blaine's era.
"If you buy an album by somebody like Britney Spears today, you won't find a drummer on it, and it's because the sound, the flavor, of the drum machine is what people want now," Rubin said.
He added that there is also a quality control issue: "Now anyone with a good idea for a beat can program that into the machine and hear it at its very best rendering. Now it's more about the idea than the skill. There are only a couple of handfuls of truly great drummers out there. But there are thousands and thousands of drum machines."
Rubin is in the studio now with rapper Jay-Z and, instead of a live drummer, the beats will be created by the vintage TR-808, the same analog drum that had alarmed Bralower and was used in the 1980s by artists such as Public Enemy and Afrika Bambaataa. The TR-808 can create a variety of sounds, from congas to cowbells. By working its buttons, you can create the rhythm patterns for entire songs. Specialized gear like the TR-808 isn't even needed now; the software age has made computer hard drives into the newest drum kits.
There may be unexpected downsides to the new downbeats. Bralower worries that the ability to shape entire albums with little or no collaboration is creating a generation of musical loners.
"The idea of having a roomful of people there when you presented your ideas, that's kind of gone away," he says. "You could never make an album by yourself before; you could never create without working with other musicians There's also this whole generation now very used to computer-correct rhythm. That breathing thing that is people playing music is not presented as much. Even rock bands run their music through computers to clean it up. You know, once upon a time, Hal Blaine would just count it off. He was the metronome. Then came the ignorant third party, the technology that doesn't know what's going on in the room."
A Hall Of Famer
Ask people about session drummers and the name Hal Blaine always comes up. When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame created the category of sidemen, Blaine was the first inductee. He played on 42 songs that hit No. 1 and more than 150 that cracked the Top 10. The Grammy Record of the Year is the most coveted trophy in music — Blaine played drums on seven of them. He became a brand name, a must-have guy whether it was for a Frank Sinatra single, an Elvis Presley film or a Coca-Cola commercial. "If the music in the second half of the 20th century were the Empire State Building," Art Garfunkel once said, "Hal Blaine would be the ground floor."
Blaine first hit the recording session scene in Los Angeles in the late 1950s. He had by then served in Korea, and played drums in Chicago strip joints, Las Vegas comedy shows and San Bernardino R&B clubs. He hooked up with Phil Spector, the successful and eccentric producer, and a group of session players who became known as the Wrecking Crew. The L.A. scene's veteran players inspired the nickname. "They're wrecking the business," the muttering went when the new rock 'n' roll generation came in.
There was a measure of truth in the old-timers' appraisal. The concept of the self-contained rock or pop band that took hold in the wake of the Beatles and Rolling Stones began a gradual downsizing of the session players' role. Still, by the 1970s, rock had grown so large and lucrative that the top session players lived like the stars themselves.
Many of the premier session drummers of that era have moved on. Rick Marotta was known for his work with Steely Dan, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, Aretha Franklin, James Taylor and many others. "Back then, I couldn't take all the jobs that were offered," he said. "Now, if I was doing just that, I wouldn't be able to make a living."
Instead of rock albums, Marotta now works in sitcoms. He's the composer for "Everybody Loves Raymond" and other shows, writing the music needed for background environments and the show's breaks.
In his studio behind a dentist's office in Hollywood, Marotta admits that the gig is not as completely satisfying as his session days, but he also feels fortunate to have the strong, steady work. As he flips on electronic drum pads to give an example of the modern craft, he glumly confides that one of his well-known peers from the 1970s is now working at a car dealership. He also says a friend who sells, rents and tunes drums for pro players in Nashville is watching his business shrivel.
Marotta marvels at what his nest of computer equipment can do as he weaves music together for television shows, but he marvels even more that the gadgetry could replace artists. "I don't know how they got lost. I really don't. Machines are machines. There are things that I hear people did on records that machines can't do. There are things that drummers like Steve Gadd did, things that Jeff Porcaro did and Keltner did — machines cannot do those things."
Keltner may be his generation's equivalent of Blaine. After working in the early 1970s with Joe Cocker, he quickly reached the stratum of star session player. He would go on to sit with stars ranging from Pink Floyd to B.B. King, Jackson Browne to the Bee Gees, Elvis Costello to Willie Nelson, Barbra Streisand to Fiona Apple.
Keltner remembers a fellow drummer who told him in the 1970s that he was leaving the L.A. scene because the drum machines were gobbling up work. "I told him that instead of going back to Tulsa, he should get one of those machines," Keltner recalls. The technology of today does not alarm or offend Keltner but it occasionally disappoints him. He says he hears a steady stream of new albums that are so filtered and finessed that he can almost see the numbers inside the digital sound.
"You suddenly realize: These albums have real likable songs, they have likable performances from everybody, all the singing is good and very in tune, all the playing is good and the guitars are in tune," Keltner says. "But then you realize maybe that's what is wrong. That's why I don't like it. It's more like a mannequin. From a distance it looks like a really beautiful human being, but you get up close and it's not alive. It's standing there with painted-on features. That is the technology being abused."
The drummer is not dead in rock music, not by any means. In bands, drummers, be they Dave Grohl, Meg White, Larry Mullen Jr. or Lars Ulrich, have inspired a new generation to pick up sticks, and they will continue to do so. ?uestlove of the Roots has even brought a live player into the rap world. For session drummers, the new model may be Josh Freese, the gifted young player who also has ongoing and formal membership in three bands: Perfect Circle, the Vandals and Devo.
Blaine has no idea what the future will be for session drummers, but he expresses a solemn gratitude that he was at the right place and time. He moved into the Palm Desert home late last year and, for the first time in his adult life, there are no drums under his roof. His famous drum kits are now in museums or with collectors.
"I played the drums for years, and they played me," he says with a smile. "It's a different time now."