Monday, January 16, 2017

The beat goes on (and he played it!)

Don't you love it when two things you are thinking about just happen to meld into one topic?  It must be how it felt for the person who made a bowl of macaroni and day and said, hey, how about if we add some cheese to this, huh?

OK - the two topics blended into one are Hal Blaine and the Ringling Brothers Circus.

And you might not know the first, Hal Blaine, but you have pounded your steering wheel along with him a thousand times. 

And many of us are pounding their fists in dismay over the impending folding of the Ringling Brothers tent, a piece of Americana about to subsumed by entertainments such as pro wrasslin', monster truck shows, and Disney On Ice.

Hal Blaine was born Harold Simon Belsky almost 88 years ago in Massachusetts. His family moved to Hartford, Connecticut when he was 7, and by the time he was 14 he was playing drums with a marching band in town.

Blaine playing drums for a Phil Spector record
In 1963, Hal was working in Los Angeles as a session drummer for Phil Spector, who hired him to keep the beat on "Be My Baby" by The Ronettes. Go ahead and click on that link! Those opening drumbeats are probably the most famous in all of rock history. Hal went on the be a founding member of the instrumental group called the Wrecking Crew, and he and his fellow musicians actually made the music you thought was being made by The Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Carpenters, The Partridge Family and thousands of others.  His drums were on 40 number # one hits, 150 top ten hits and a total of more than 35,000 recorded tracks.

He accepted his behind-the-scenes status, happily making $35 for playing drums on a Beach Boys record that Dennis Wilson made $3500 a night for playing in concerts, as he said.  The simple fact is that until more accomplished "star" musicians came along, The Wrecking Crew made great music for us.

So what does he have to do with Ringling Bros?  Well, on July 6, 1944, at 15, young Hal went to see the circus when it came to Hartford. There are several versions of how he came to be there that afternoon. One story has it that he was one of the locals hired to do some chores in return for a ticket to the show.  At any rate, he was there when a fire broke out in the Big Top, and the fire spread rapidly across the canvas tent, because it had been treated with paraffin and gasoline to make it watertight. 

When the fire began in the back of the tent, the bandleader saw the smoke and flame and immediately cued his band to play "The Stars And Stripes Forever," which was always the signal to alert circus personnel of an emergency in the tent.  

Around 7,000 were under the big top trying to get out of that hell. 167 died, over 700 were injured.  

Hell on earth
Young Hal Belsky escaped and was able to help others get out. He volunteered to ride with burn victims in makeshift ambulances, as people were taken to hospitals for treatment.  It was that day, riding back and forth with those poor people, that he decided that life was meant to be lived to its fullest, and he vowed to make his music his life.

And why was he able to escape the inferno? Because he chose a seat right behind the band, not the best view of the show, but the best way to see the circus drummer at work. And the band was playing right near an exit.  That saved Hal's life and led him to make music that still comes out of our radios and iPods and everywhere else.

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