from the world's big
He had countless hit records. You never heard of him.
Many of the world's favorite records weren't really recorded by the artist on the label.
- Hal Blaine, the behind-the-scenes heartbeat of over 40 #1 hits, has died at 90.
- Many records by 1960s and 1970s artists were secretly recorded by session musicians and singers.
- These unheralded performers were some of the most talented artists ever.
Drummer Hal Blaine died on March 11 at 90 years young. Though you may not know his name, he was arguably the most important drummer in the history of recorded music. And the fact that so few were aware of his existence is no accident. If you're a fan of popular music of the 1960s and 1970s — or if you're simply a person who feels that the history of 20th century music is as worthy of study as, say, 18th century music — then you know his work.
Blaine was one of a handful of behind-the-scenes musicians and singers responsible for much of that era's most popular music. His was the anonymous beat driving a dazzling number of hit records.
Technology and the secret stars
Until Les Paul's introduction of overdubbing in 1948, recording was a pretty straight-ahead process: Talented musicians and vocalists were captured performing live by a handful of mics in a great-sounding studio room, and a lot of magic was captured. Warts and all. (Singer Joan Baez once described the period as a time when the final performance, or "take," was simply the one where no dog ran through the room barking.)
Les Paul changed all that. With overdubbing, a recording was made on one machine, and that recording was copied to a second machine while someone played or sang along. The resulting sound was the first performance with the second layered on top, both sounding as if they occurred at the same time. This process could be repeated lots of times, as in the hit recording made by Paul and his wife, "How High the Moon." With each successive overdub, though, each copy of a copy of a copy would degrade in clarity way down there at the bottom of the stack of performances.
By the early 1960s, most professional recording was done on "multi-track" recorders. These machines allowed you to pile up performances as overdubbing did, though each performance was actually captured on its own separate "track," a strip that ran the length of the recording tape alongside other tracks, much like a lane on a multi-lane highway. During playback, as with overdubbing, everything sounded as if it had been performed at the same time, but since each performance didn't have to be copied, its original audio quality was preserved. Also, recording engineers could "mix" the tracks later on to achieve the desired volume balance between them, and also gained the ability to add different sonic treatments to each track's performance.
This new technology provided a solution to a longstanding entertainment industry paradox: We like our stars attractive and talented, something that happens only rarely. There was another problem, too. Groups of musicians and singers who wrote their own material, such as the Beatles, became popular, an even rarer commodity: Multiple attractive people who are also talented and worked together. Oh, and wrote their own songs.
With buyers clamoring for new music, record companies didn't want to wait around for such acts to fall from the sky, so — using multi-track technology — a new business model emerged: Incredibly talented players, singers, and songwriters secretly churned out hit after hit for "stars" the public fell in love with. Sometimes the performers sang on their records, sometimes they didn't. But a surprising number of popular "bands" never actually played a note on their biggest hits. When it came time to go out and perform, there was often a mad scramble for them to learn to play, and what audiences heard on stage was rarely as good as what they heard on records.
One of the 4-track recorders on which The Beatles' *Sgt. Pepper* was recorded. Image source Josephinus P. Riley
Blaine played with a group of Los Angeles studio musicians known later on as the "Wrecking Crew." They weren't a band, per se, but rather just a collection very talented players who were often booked to play on the same sessions. The number of records they played on is staggering. Some of them later became stars in their own right, among them Glen Campbell and Leon Russell. Fans had little idea that hits by The Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Monkees and many, many others were in fact the music of the Wrecking Crew. Blaine also went on the road and recorded with artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra and John Denver. The son of guitarist Tommy Tedesco put together a loving film history of the Wrecking Crew.
The Wrecking Crew was hardly the only such collection of unknown side-men and -women. Fortunately, the stories of these unsung heroes have been finally emerging through a series of fascinating documentaries.
- The Funk Brothers, the aggregation of Detroit and L.A. players behind The Supremes, The Miracles, The Temptations, early Stevie Wonder records and many more classic Motown hits, are the subjects of Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
- Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Wilson Pickett recorded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section down in Alabama. (Franklin made her own killer piano contributions to those records.) Muscle Shoals tells their story.
- There are even musicians behind some landmark heavy-metal bands such as Metallica and KISS, as told in the documentary Hired Gun.
Blaine — born Harold Belsky — is said to have played on 40 #1 hits, enough for his own personal Top 40, though the list typically presented is actually missing some big songs, so it's really more than that. Spotify recently put together a Blaine playlist to mark his passing. The drummer's autobiography is Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew.
Part of what made Blaine so exceptional are the many standout drum licks he came up with, among them the "boom-buh-boom, CRACK, boom-buh-boom, CRACK," intro for the Ronettes "Be My Baby," the drum hook of Tijuana Brass' "Taste of Honey," and many more.
He's also responsible for the absolutely thunderous drum wallops in the choruses of Simon and Garfunkels' "The Boxer." In The Big Beat, a now-out-of-print book of interviews conducted by Bruce Springsteen's drummer Max Weinberg, Blaine recalled recording them in front of an open elevator shaft to get that sound:
"I set up two huge tom-toms and put on a headset so I could hear when the music got to the 'lie-la-lie' part, where I hit the drums as hard as I could. There was this massive explosion in the room, which is what you hear on the record. It was amazing, but the thing I remember most about the session is when the elevator door opened just as I came down on the drums, and this elderly security guard looks out and he hears this pow! It nearly scared him to death. He jumped back into the elevator, closed the door, and took off. We never saw him again and I think about his face every time I hear 'The Boxer.'"
Blaine in 2008
The story of Darlene Love is the centerpiece of 20 Feet from Stardom, a look into some of music's greatest unheralded singers who are on many of the world's classic records — they also sing on commercials. Love was the uncredited primary vocalist for The Crystals and other Phil Spector acts, and one of many outstanding singers who quietly supplied harmonies for countless hits. In the studio, these technically expert vocalists are blindingly adept: A little sheet music and a few verbal instructions is all it takes for instant harmonies and riffs. A number of star vocalists got their start as backup singers, among them Katy Perry (then Katy Hudson), Pink, John Legend, Whitney Houston, Maria Carey, Sheryl Crow, Gwen Stefani, Mary J. Blige, and Luther Vandross.
Today's top records rely to an even greater degree on multitrack recording — often with hundreds of tracks in a song, as opposed to the 1960s' 3-, 4-, 8-, and 16-track limitations — but there's now much less secrecy about who's playing what, and it's often just a record's hyper-talented producer.
Music is still a business, but we've come a long way from the days when supporting musicians, singers, and recording engineers were deliberately hidden from view. Now, though, in the post-CD era, there's a new problem: Streaming services don't — as of this writing — include credits. To find out who played or sang what, it's off to Wikipedia, or to artists' websites.
Maybe we just need to make sure those artists — and their teams — get the message that at least some of us want all the info they can provide on how those amazing sounds get made.
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
In more than a dozen countries as far apart as Portugal and Russia, 'Smith' is the most popular occupational surname
- 'Smith' is not just the most common surname in many English-speaking countries
- In local translations, it's also the most common occupational surname in a large part of Europe
- Ironically, Smiths are so ubiquitous today because smiths were so special a few centuries ago
Meet the Smiths, Millers, Priests and Imams - the most popular occupational surnames across Europe.
Image: Marcin Ciura<p>Although very few people are smiths by profession these days, there are millions of Smiths by surname the world over. It's the most popular surname in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, as well as the second most popular surname in Canada and the fifth most popular one in Ireland. And they're a thriving bunch, at least in the U.S.: the 2010 Census (1) counted 2,442,977 Americans called Smith, 2.8% more than in 2000.</p><p>Curiously, 'Smith' also is one of the most popular surnames across most of Europe –translated in the various local vernaculars, of course. This map shows the most common occupational surnames in each country. By colour-coding the professions, this map shows a remarkable pro-smith consistency across Europe – as well as some curious regional exceptions.</p>
‘Smith’ popular throughout Europe<p>'Smith', in all its variations, is the most popular occupational surname throughout Europe. Not just in the UK, but also in:</p> <ul><li>Belgium (<em>Desmet</em>) and Luxembourg, (<em>Schmitt</em>);</li> <li>France (<em>Lefebvre</em>), Italy (<em>Ferrari</em>) and Portugal (<em>Ferreira</em>);</li> <li>Slovenia (<em>Kovačič</em>), Croatia (<em>Kovačevič</em>), Hungary (<em>Kovács</em>), Slovakia (<em>Kováč</em>), Poland (<em>Kowalski</em>), Lithuania (<em>Kavaliauskas</em>), Latvia (<em>Kalējs</em>) and Belarus (<em>Kavalyov</em>);</li> <li>Estonia (<em>Sepp</em>); and</li> <li>Russia (<em>Kuznetsov</em>).</li></ul>
‘Miller’ on top in many Germanic-language countries<p>'Miller' is the most popular occupational surname in many Germanic-language countries, but also in Spain and Ukraine (perhaps because the grain in both countries is mainly in the plain):</p> <ul><li>There's <em>Müller</em> (in Germany and Switzerland), <em>M</em><em>ø</em><em>ller</em> (in Denmark and Norway) and <em>Möller</em> (Sweden);</li> <li><em>Molina</em> (in Spain – the map also shows the most popular surname in Catalonia/Catalan: <em>Ferrer</em>, i.e. 'Smith'); and</li> <li><em>Melnik</em> (in Ukraine).</li></ul>
Clergy surnames rule in the Balkans<p>Catholic clergy must remain celibate, so 'Priest' as a surname is rare to non-existent throughout Europe. Except in the Balkans, where Catholicism is largely absent. Here, the Orthodox and Islamic clergies have passed on the title from father to son, eventually as a surname, to popular effect. Orthodox clergy are addressed as <em>papa</em> or <em>pope</em> (which means 'father' – so the surname rather redundantly translates to 'father's son'). Islamic teachers or imams are known by the Turkish/Persian term <em>hodzha</em>. An overview:</p> <ul><li><em>Popov</em> (in Bulgaria), <em>Popovic</em> (in both Serbia and Montenegro), <em>Popovski</em> (in Macedonia);</li> <li><em>Popa</em> (in Romania); </li> <li><em>Papadopoulos</em> (in Greece); and</li> <li><em>Hodžić</em> (in Bosnia-Herzegovina), <em>Hoxha</em> (in both Kosovo and Albania).</li></ul>
Landowners and other professions<p>Austria and the Czech Republic have different national languages but are neighbours and share a lot of history. Could that explain why they have a similar most popular occupational surname, for 'landowner'?</p> <ul><li><em>Huber</em> (in Austria) and</li> <li><em>Dvořák</em> (in the Czech Republic).</li></ul> <p>Just four professions, that wraps up all but five countries on this map. Those five each have their very own most popular occupational surname:</p> <ul><li><em>Bakker</em> (in the Netherlands): 'Baker'</li> <li><em>Kinnunen</em> (in Finland): 'Skinner'</li> <li><em>Ceban</em> (in Moldova): 'Shepherd'</li> <li><em>Avci</em> (in Turkey): 'Hunter'</li> <li><em>Murphy</em> (in Ireland): 'Sea Warrior' </li></ul>
Even more Smiths<p>Judging from the popularity of these surnames, your generic European village of a few centuries ago really couldn't do without a smithy. It was a much more essential craft even than that of the miller (or the baker, who put the miller's flour to good use) – except in the Balkans, where spiritual sustenance apparently sated a greater need. On the outskirts of <em>Anytown, Europe</em> live the shepherd and the hunter, the skinner and the pirate.<br></p><p>A bit too simplistic? Perhaps not simplistic enough. This map could have been dominated by even more Smiths. As the original poster explains, he always picked the most frequent version of an occupational surname, even if multiple variants point to a more popular alternative. </p><p>In the Netherlands, for instance, people with the surnames <em>Smit, Smits, Smid, de Smit, Smet </em>and <em>Smith</em> collectively outnumber those with the surnames <em>Bakker, Bekker, de Bakker</em> and <em>Backer</em>. So, the Netherlands could be considered another win for 'Smith' – except that the variant <em>Bakker</em> is more frequent than any other single variant.</p><p>Same story in Germany: added up, there are more people named <em>Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz </em>and <em>Schmid</em> than <em>Müller</em>. Ditto for Spain: <em>Herrero, Herrera </em>and <em>Ferrer</em> together outnumber <em>Molina</em>. Also in Finland, where <em>Seppä</em>, <em>Seppälä</em> and <em>Seppänen</em> together have a higher count than <em>Kinnunen</em>. </p>
Smiths in other cultures<p>'Smith' was a crucial occupation in other cultures too, judging from the familiar ring it has in these languages:<br></p><ul><li><em></em><em>Demirci</em> (Turkish)</li><li><em>Hadad</em> (Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic)</li><li><em>Nalbani</em> (Albanian)</li><li><em>McGowan</em> (Gaelic)</li><li><em>Faber</em> (Latin)<span></span></li></ul>
Other most popular surnames<p>Take note, though: 'Smith' may be the most popular surname in in the Anglosphere, this map does not mean to show that its variants in French, Russian and other languages also are the most popular surnames in the countries marked grey. They are merely the most popular <em>occupational</em> surnames.<br></p><p>As this sample of most common ones for each country shows, surnames can refer to a host of other things. Personal qualities or physical attributes, for example:</p> <ul><li>Russia: <em>Smirnov</em> ('the quiet one')</li> <li>Turkey: <em>Yilmaz</em> ('unflinching')</li> <li>Hungary: <em>Nagy</em> ('big')</li> <li>Italy: <em>Rossi/Russo</em> ('red', in northern and southern Italy, respectively)</li></ul> <p>Another option: the origin of the name-bearer (be it a place or a person):</p> <ul><li>Sweden: <em>Andersson</em> ('son of Anders')</li> <li>Slovakia: <em>Horvath</em> ('Croat')</li> <li>Kosovo: <em>Krasniqi</em> (refers to the Krasniq tribe and their mountainous home region)</li> <li>Portugal: <em>Silva</em> ('woodland')</li> <li>Latvia: <em>Bērziņš</em> ('little birch tree')</li> <li>Estonia: <em>Tamm</em> ('oak')</li></ul> <p>But sometimes, even for the most popular ones, the exact origin of the surname is lost in time:</p> <ul><li>Spain: <em>Garcia</em> (originally Basque, possibly meaning 'young', 'bear' or 'young bear')</li> <li>Finland: <em>Korhonen</em> ('hard of hearing' or 'dim-witted'; 'village elder'; 'proud'; 'upright'). </li></ul>
Smith popularity theory<p>So why exactly is Smith – and not Miller, for example – the most popular surname in many English-speaking countries? The theory propounded by historian C.M. Matthews in <em>History Today</em> (July 1967) probably also holds for the other-language variants so popular throughout Europe:<br></p><blockquote>"The reason for (the) multiplicity (of the surname 'Smith') is not so much that metal-workers were numerous as that they were important and widespread. On the skill of the smith, both rich and poor depended for the most essential things of life, the tools of husbandry and the weapons of hunting and war. Every community in the land must have one, every castle, every manor; and so distinctive was his trade that he would seldom need another name".<em></em></blockquote><p>That does not mean all people with the surname have a forefather who forged iron into weapons and farm tools. Especially in North America, 'Smith' was adopted by many people precisely because it was already common – as a secret identity or to blend in, for example by natives, slaves and immigrants.</p>
A recent analysis of a 76-million-year-old Centrosaurus apertus fibula confirmed that dinosaurs suffered from cancer, too.
- The fibula was originally discovered in 1989, though at the time scientists believed the damaged bone had been fractured.
- After reanalyzing the bone, and comparing it with fibulas from a human and another dinosaur, a team of scientists confirmed that the dinosaur suffered from the bone cancer osteosarcoma.
- The study shows how modern techniques can help scientists learn about the ancient origins of diseases.
Centrosaurus apertus fibula
Royal Ontario Museum<p>In the recent study, the team used a combination of techniques to analyze the fibula, including taking CT scans, casting the bone and studying thin slices of it under a microscope. The analysis suggested that the dinosaur likely suffered from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects modern humans, typically young adults.</p><p>For further evidence, the team compared the damaged fibula to a healthy fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, and also to a fibula that belonged to a 19-year-old human who suffered from osteosarcoma. Both comparisons supported the osteosarcoma diagnosis.</p>
Evans et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The shin bone shows aggressive cancer at an advanced stage," Evans said in a <a href="https://www.rom.on.ca/en/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/rare-malignant-cancer-diagnosed-in-a-dinosaur" target="_blank">press release</a>. "The cancer would have had crippling effects on the individual and made it very vulnerable to the formidable tyrannosaur predators of the time."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease."</p><p>The fossilized fibula was originally unearthed in a bonebed alongside the remains of dozens of other <em>Centrosaurus </em><em>apertus</em>, suggesting the dinosaur didn't die from cancer, but from a flood that swept it away with its herd.</p>
Dinosaur fibula; the tumor mass is depicted in yellow.
Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University<p>The new study highlights how modern techniques can help scientists learn more about the evolutionary origins of modern diseases, like cancer. It also shows that dinosaurs suffered through some of the same terrestrial afflictions humans face today.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Dinosaurs can seem like mythical creatures, but they were living, breathing animals that suffered through horrible injuries and diseases," Evans said, "and this discovery certainly makes them more real and helps bring them to life in that respect."</p>
Join the lauded author of Range in conversation with best-selling author and poker pro Maria Konnikova!
UPDATE: Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell was not able to make the live stream due to scheduling issues. Fortunately, David Epstein was able to jump in at a moment's notice. We hope you enjoy this great yet unexpected episode of Big Think Live. Our thanks to David and Maria for helping us deliver a show, it is much appreciated.