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Authors: Kent Hartman

The Wrecking Crew (7 page)

BOOK: The Wrecking Crew

“This is pure trash,” Alexander said to his secretary, flinging the disc into a garbage can next to his desk. “I'm not even going to bother Sam with it.”

But at that same moment, directly next door, in another office, a second set of ears had come to a very different conclusion. Joe Osborn, a bass player out of Louisiana currently playing in Ricky Nelson's band, had heard the song, too. And he liked it.

Having stopped by that day to conduct some business at Imperial Records, Ricky's label, Osborn could hear the record being played through the Warner Building's notoriously thin walls. He immediately thought the song might be just right for Nelson. It had a great hook and an easy, carefree feel, something the teen idol's fans had come to expect from his music.

Osborn walked next door and inquired about the song's name and writer. Alexander, a man of few words, merely motioned toward the 45 now sitting in the garbage can and said, “You want it? You got it. It's all yours—right there.”

When he took the record back to the studio for Ricky to hear, Osborn's instincts proved to be right on the money. Nelson loved the song. So much so that he and his band cut it within days, and it soon became his first number-one hit in over three years.

Jerry Fuller had scored big. With the success of “Travelin' Man” for Ricky Nelson, Fuller's stock as a songwriter had risen dramatically. Nelson now wanted to know what else he had song-wise, and Fuller had plenty to offer. He also brought in his old pal Glen Campbell to sing with him on backing vocals for Ricky on every song after “Travelin' Man.” Glen got to play his guitar on most of them, too. With help once again from Fuller, a stand-up guy if there ever was one, Campbell had finally achieved his longed-for entrée into the invitation-only world of LA recording studios.

*   *   *

In spite of his initial concerns, Bill Pitman's new role as the teenage Phil Spector's guitar teacher actually went better than he had expected. It wasn't his dream job, but working with the kid was okay.

Each Saturday morning, Pitman would show his earnest young student some standard jazz licks, and then Spector would diligently work on them at his home across town, always returning exactly seven days later to show his progress. Pitman's wife, too, would hang out in the kitchen and make chitchat with Bertha Spector, while teacher and pupil went through their paces just steps away.

But several lessons into the arrangement, Phil Spector showed up one week at his appointed time with something clearly weighing on his mind.

“Bill, I gotta ask you something,” Spector said, looking unusually somber.

“What's that?”

“Do you think I have a future as a jazz guitarist?”

Well, there it was. The elephant that had been silently sharing the living room with them from the very first lesson had been acknowledged.

Spector, to his credit, was nothing if not clearheaded and practical about his own prospects. He previously had mentioned to Pitman about his plans to possibly become a court reporter, going so far as to purchase his own stenographic machine and to take a series of courses. A recent job offer had even come his way. So he naturally wanted to know where things stood.

For Pitman, the question created a conflict of emotions. On one hand, he had grown to like Spector. Pitman could see that the serious young man was both hardworking and conscientious—two admirable qualities. But Pitman also detected one fatal flaw in Spector's playing. And he felt he had to be honest.

“No, Phil, in truth, I don't see that for you,” Pitman replied. “You're lacking one thing that a musician absolutely has to have. And that's meter. You don't
when one musical phrase ends and another begins.”

Spector didn't argue.

“I know I don't,” he replied resignedly.

Though perfectly proficient skill-wise, and with a good ear, Phil Spector—for all his intense effort and desire—just never seemed able to grasp where he was in a song.

“I'm sorry,” Pitman offered, feeling genuine empathy for the boy. “But I can't teach you that. I don't know anybody who can.”

*   *   *

Not long after the terrible circus fire in Hartford, fifteen-year-old Hal Blaine and his family moved to Southern California. His father had developed a serious asthma condition and the family doctor recommended drier air and a reduced amount of pollen as the best course of action. While Hal's parents moved in with his aunt and uncle in the Santa Monica area, he ultimately chose to live with his older sister, Belle, in San Bernardino, about eighty miles to the east of Los Angeles.

It was in San Berdoo, as the locals called it, that Blaine's professional drumming ambitions finally began to take shape. Getting together with some local high school friends, Blaine formed his first band, a little six-piece, part-time combo, and subsequently played his first paying gig at the Chick-A-Bunny restaurant and nightclub in tiny Norco, about a half an hour away. The place wasn't much, but Blaine earned five bucks a night and had his choice of either a free chicken or rabbit dinner. And he loved every minute of it.

After dropping out of high school and serving a two-plus-year hitch in Korea during the late Forties playing drums as the only PFC in an all-officer U.S. Army band, a nineteen-year-old Blaine returned stateside and soon used his G.I. Bill benefits to enroll in the prestigious Roy C. Knapp School of Percussion in Chicago. Blaine knew that to really succeed as a professional drummer he needed to both polish his skills and learn how to read music. Guys who could read drum charts, as well as the rest of the band's music charts, were the ones who were in big demand. Without that ability, the chances of one day playing for a major orchestra led by someone like Count Basie or Benny Goodman were practically nil.

Following graduation, Blaine then spent several years honing his sight-reading skills by playing drums in several Chicago strip joints and then in nightclubs and supper clubs all over the country with a number of small bands. He even found time in the mid-Fifties to squeeze in a short-lived marriage to a beautiful young singer named Vicki Young. But by 1957, with Blaine single once again, he finally made his way back to California for good, settling in for an extended run as the drummer for the Carol Simpson Quartet, a noted jazz combo.

One night, just after finishing a show with Simpson and the band at the celebrity-laden Garden of Allah hotel lounge in Hollywood, Blaine felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to see a short, stocky Mafioso type standing right behind him.

“Hey, kid, I've been watching you,” the wiseguy said, puffing on a cigar. “And I like the way you play. You wanna make some money? I got a band auditioning tomorrow for Capitol Records and they need a drummer.”

Hal thought for a moment. Getting some studio work was definitely appealing. That had long been one of his goals. Maybe it would be worth hearing this guy out.

“What kind of music?”

“It's called rockabilly, like rock and roll, but with some country and western thrown in.”

Blaine had been listening to some of the latest rock-and-roll records on the radio and didn't think much of them. As far as he could tell, rock and roll was mostly just a bunch of beats and a bass drum. Not nearly as interesting or challenging as playing jazz, his latest love. And he was already in a band.

“Nah, I don't think I'd be interested,” Blaine said. “I don't really have much experience with that kind of music.”

“Well, would you be interested if I gave you seventy-five bucks just to come in for the audition and then leave?”

Now that was more to Blaine's liking. No strings attached and some quick and easy green to shove in his pocket.

“Okay, I'll do it,” he said.

It would be one of the smartest moves the young drummer would ever make. And a funny thing happened to Hal Blaine after barely playing one song with the unknown rockabilly musicians just before their big audition: he became the band's permanent drummer.

After meeting with the young trio of musicians to talk things over and maybe rehearse a little bit, Blaine, much to his surprise, found himself taking an instant liking to them. They were country to the core and at least a decade younger, but he loved their enthusiasm and collective sense of humor. It also didn't hurt that they told Blaine they were in fact auditioning to be the backing band for teen sensation Tommy Sands and desperately needed a good drummer to go on the road with them if they got the gig.

Hal knew that a national tour with a name star like Sands would likely mean a nice pay increase and it also might provide some welcome exposure for his drumming career. The kid was too hot not to score some major network TV appearances along the way, Blaine thought.

Though he wasn't really looking to leave the Carol Simpson Quartet, by the time Blaine finished jamming with the three Texans on an old tune made famous by Hank Williams called “My Bucket's Got a Hole in It,” the notion of actually throwing in with them began to take hold.

But before Blaine could give it any further thought, a booming voice rang out from the shadows.

“You're just what we need,” a man said. “When can you start?”

Tommy Sands and his manager had been secretly watching the whole time. And they liked what they had heard. The four musicians were a perfect blend.

After an exchange of introductions and a quick round of small talk, the pair got down to business, offering Blaine a deal on the spot: he would start at three hundred dollars a week to be the band's drummer and road manager. He would also get to play on Tommy's recordings at Capitol, something Blaine particularly coveted. That would give him some important studio experience and might also help him make a few good connections. And with many veteran drummers in Hollywood unable or unwilling to play rock and roll, Hal Blaine's timing could not have been more perfect. Working with Sands would provide a road-tested crash course in laying down a solid rock beat, a skill that producers, arrangers, and contractors all over town were increasingly hungry to find.

As they all said their good-byes that day, Tommy Sands's manager, Ted Wick, wanted a decision. Was Blaine on board?

“Let me think it over,” Hal said with a smile, knowing full well he had been presented with the opportunity of a lifetime.

“Don't think too long,” Wick replied. “You're leaving next week.”

With Blaine agreeing by the next day to accept the manager's offer, going on tour with Tommy Sands and his band turned out to be three years' worth of everything that the drummer could have hoped for and more. The quintet toured the world several times over, playing for hoards of screaming teens by night and lounging by the pools of luxury hotels by day. And Blaine did in fact end up on national television multiple times, appearing with Sands on network variety shows hosted by the likes of Red Skelton, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Garry Moore.

Perhaps more important, while working at Capitol Records Blaine not only played on most of Sands's recordings but also got to know plenty of movers and shakers involved in LA's studio world. These connections directly translated into playing on session dates for other major-label artists, including the Diamonds, the singers Patti Page and Connie Francis, and even Elvis on several of his movie soundtracks, including
Blue Hawaii
Girls! Girls! Girls.
Other than occasionally kidding around in the studio, however, Hal Blaine and the rest of the movie musicians interacted sparingly with Elvis on a personal level. The King had his so-called Memphis Mafia on hand for all that. If Presley so much as wanted a Coke, a half dozen of these handpicked hangers-on would leap to grab one for him.

By the beginning of the Sixties, through this growing number of session opportunities, Blaine also got to know a couple of fellow studio musicians named Steve Douglas and Earl Palmer, who were doing most of the rock-and-roll dates around town. Not only did they quickly become Blaine's good friends; they also generously saw fit to recommend his services to producers and contractors wherever they could.

Suddenly Blaine's stick work was in high demand. And the irony of it all didn't escape him. After years of virtual invisibility while providing the rhythm on countless, often-complicated arrangements for all sorts of crooners, Big Bands, and jazz combos, it took playing the drums in a three-chord rockabilly band to finally put him on the map. Hal Blaine was now fast becoming the last thing he could have imagined: a rock-and-roll studio drummer.

*   *   *

Despite the deflating realization that he had no future as a professional jazz guitarist, Phil Spector found it within himself to take the news from Bill Pitman in stride. There were other ways Spector could make a living in music; he was sure of it.

No longer seriously considering the option of becoming a court reporter, the diminutive Spector instead was pushed by his overriding love for music and his overweening personality in another, more suitable career direction. He decided to form his own singing group.

In early 1958, after joining with a couple of his classmates from Fairfax High School, Annette Kleinbard and Marshall Leib, the always-hustling Spector managed to finagle a record deal for the trio (through a friend's neighbor) with a tiny label in Hollywood called Era Records. Naming themselves the Teddy Bears (after the Elvis Presley song from the year before), they worked up an arrangement of a Spector-penned song based on the epitaph carved on his late father Ben's gravestone. To virtually everyone's surprise, the song—“To Know Him Is To Love Him”—ended up becoming a number-one national hit. Still only a senior in high school, Phil Spector had accomplished what seemed to be the impossible. He had metamorphosed from an unknown, struggling jazz guitar student to local rock-and-roll royalty, all within a matter of months.

With the Teddy Bears' promising future unfortunately derailed in less than a year by the release of a series of ill-conceived follow-up singles, their initial chart-topping success did serve one major purpose. It provided Phil Spector with a clear view of
future. Yes, he had enjoyed all the singing, writing, and camaraderie that had gone into creating their one and only hit. But what
turned Spector's crank had been putting all the individual elements of the song together in the studio. It was like working on a real-life jigsaw puzzle, only he got to control all the pieces. An especially intoxicating proposition for a boy desperate to forge his own identity away from a domineering mother.

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