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Beat at their own game

Session drummers once played on pop's most memorable songs, back when gigs were plentiful -- before drum machines sidelined the sidemen.

June 15, 2003|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

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."

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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.

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