march 2012

billy strange

Mr. Guitar

Billy Strange

‘I have played every kind of music in the world’

September 29, 1930-February 22, 2012

By David McGee

Elsewhere in this issue a lengthy piece extols a box set of albums released on Phil Spector’s Philles label between 1961 and 1964. The recordings collected on those long players comprise the heart of the Spector legend—the Ronettes, the Crystals, Bob-B-Soxx and the Blue Jeans, the Righteous Brothers, a couple of hits packages—and by extension pay tribute to the gifted musicians who built Spector’s vaunted aural blitzkrieg known as the Wall of Sound. Many of those same musicians comprised the cream of the crop of Los Angeles’ studio musicians (Carole Kaye, Hal Blaine, Tommy Tedesco, Leon Russell, Steve Douglas, many, many more) collectively known as the Wrecking Crew. Billy Strange was not the most famous guitarist to emerge from the Wrecking Crew—that would have to be Glen Campbell—but he was as good as they came, an absolute master of tone, touch, and technique who distilled folk, country, pop, jazz and rockabilly into a soulful signature sound emanating from his Fender guitar. On February 22, following a brief illness, Billy Strange died in Nashville at age 81.

In the studio with Elvis

A quick study in the studio, he was famous among his Wrecking Crew mates for being able to lock into a song’s possibilities immediately upon hearing it in its rawest form—leading to the inside joke, “Have you heard about the Billy Strange doll? You wind it up and it takes over the session.” The sounds he created went far beyond Spector’s extravaganzas; the versatile Strange accompanied the likes of Nat King Cole, Elvis, the Ventures, the Beach Boys (he’s on the Pet Sounds album), the Everly Brothers, Wanda Jackson, Randy Newman, Jan & Dean, Willie Nelson and countless others spanning multiple genres. As a songwriter he had a chart topping single in the hapless Chubby Checker’s “Limbo Rock”; a minor hit with Elvis’s “A Little Less Conversation” that became a worldwide smash in a remixed version 28 years later; and with Mac Davis co-wrote one of Presley’s late career monuments, the wistful ballad “Memories.” He arranged all of Nancy Sinatra’s Reprise albums, from which came her enduring single “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and a million selling duet with daddy Frank, “Something Stupid” (Frank’s first million selling single); one of his signal achievements with Ms. Sinatra came as an arranger for her version of the Sonny & Cher hit “Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” on which Strange backed her wary vocal with only his own eerie, shimmering Fender electric, punctuating the verses with a gut rattling bass string swoop, creating an atmosphere thick with unceasing malevolence on an unforgettable recording. His TV soundtrack credits include The Simpsons, Smallville, Everybody Loves Raymond and Elvis, and as an actor he portrayed the great pedal steel pioneer Speedy West (he had played guitar on several Speedy West-Jimmy Bryant sessions from 1952-1954) in the 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic, Coal Miner’s Daughter. He also supplied Steve McQueen’s singing voice in the 1965 movie Baby, The Rain Must Fall. In addition, he wrote the soundtracks for a pair of Elvis films, Live a Little, Love a Little (1968) and The Trouble With Girls (1969) and played guitar on the memorable soundtrack of Viva Las Vegas.

Nancy Sinatra, ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),’ arranged by Billy Strange, guitar by Billy Strange

Born William Everett Strange in Long Beach, California, on September 29, 1930, Billy began performing as a young boy, accompanying his father, a singer and musician who had his own radio show and played clubs with his wife (and Billy’s mother) Billie. Billy’s first taste of success came at age five, when he won a yodeling contest.

His first instrument was the trumpet, but his asthmatic condition made playing it difficult. When he was 14 a family friend gave him a used Gibson L-7 guitar and taught him his first chords. By all accounts, he was soon playing as if he had invented the instrument himself. At age 16 he took off across Texas with a rowdy bunch of musicians playing shows, dances and honky tonks and would often take the wheel of the troupe’s dilapidated school bus when the other band members were incapacitated.

By his 20th birthday he had landed a regular gig on the Cliffie Stone Hometown Jamboree weekly television show and dance, and was also doing a daily live radio show six days a week.

Gotta love it: Billy Strange, ‘Hava Tequila’—‘Hava Nagila’ meets ‘Tequila,’ from his 1966 album, In the Mexican Bag

He moved from the country stations to the networks to become a "boy singer" at a daily show on CBS radio in Hollywood and continued working with pop, big band and jazz entertainers as well as staying close to his country roots by playing with what he called his “pre-rockabilly” friends in country venues from Bakersfield to San Diego. During this time he made the transition to studio session work and was soon a first-call guitarist working as many as five sessions a day in Los Angeles—after flying in from San Francisco, where he was a featured member on Tennessee Ernie Ford’s popular TV show.

Despite his busy calendar of session and arranging jobs, Strange found time to be a solo artist in the ‘60s, following the lead of another guitar master, Chet Atkins. Recording for the GNP/Crescendo label beginning in 1963, Strange’s solo albums include 12-String Guitar (an album of folk instrumentals); four albums keyed to James Bond themes; an album of covers of British Invasion hits (English Hits of ’65); 5 String Banjo with 12 String Guitar, a collection of folk and bluegrass tunes with Don Parmley (1964); Railroad Man, a 1965 album of train songs; and the self-explanatory Great Western Themes (1969).

Billy Strange’s ambitious instrumental version of the big hit he arranged for Nancy Sinatra, ‘These Boots Are Made for Walkin'’

He moved to Nashville in the early ‘70s to oversee a publishing firm for Frank and Nancy Sinatra, which they also co-owned, and while there he carved out a productive career as a producer. In the meantime the royalty checks from “Limbo Rock” and other songs rolled in and allowed him to live a comfortable life off what he had created and helped create.

“I have played every kind of music in the world,” Strange said in a 2010 interview posted at Elvis Australia. “I’ve played rock ‘n’ roll, did all the surf records, played with big orchestras. If they needed somebody in a small group who knew what the hell they were doing in the studio, that was me.”

In His Own Words

On the opening sliding bass line in ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking’:
The sliding bass. Chuck Burghofer played that. That was just an idea that struck me and I said, ‘Why don’t we just go from here down to here down to here down to here?’ y’know. And Chuck said, ‘I’ve never done that in my life!’ I said, ‘I know. But we’re gonna try it.’ And it was the keynote of the record, actually.”

‘You keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin’’: Nancy Sinatra, ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking’

On working with Nancy Sinatra and recording ‘Boots’:
I was working with Lee Hazlewood on several projects, and one day he called and said, ‘How would you like to work with a skinny Italian girl?’ I said, ‘A skinny Italian girl?’ He said, ‘Yeah. Nancy Sinatra is gonna be produced by me and arranged by you. So, a few weeks later, I went to Nancy’s house and we were picking songs. And she picked ‘Boots,’ which was Lee’s song. He said, “No. That’s a guy’s song. You can’t record that.’ And she said, ‘I’m gonna record that song.’ Lee fought her tooth and nail. He said, ‘You don’t really want to record that,’ and she said, ‘I am going to record that song!’ We recorded ‘Boots’—one take—bad notes and all. It was the one song on the session that was a monster hit. She’s always right.”

On Elvis:
I was playing guitar on ‘Viva Las Vegas,’ I believe it was. I had met Elvis prior to that, but that was when we got close in the studio. He liked what I did on the song. But he and I over the years worked a lot together, and a lot of time was spent together. When his baby was born, he called me up and I went up to his house, and all we did was sit and play with the baby. We’d do that once a week. We were just good buddies.

Elvis, ‘Viva Las Vegas,’ written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman; guitar by Billy Strange

From his 1968 comeback special, Elvis introduces the Billy Strange-Mac Davis ballad, ‘Memories’

On writing for Elvis with Mac Davis:
I met Mac Davis at Liberty Records, he was working in the office. And he was miserable. We got to be buddies, and he came out and stayed at my house for quite some time. He’d come out while I was arranging, and we’d talk in my office. So we wrote ‘Memories.’ And during that same period wrote ‘A Little Less Conversation’ and one other thing that never saw the light of day. We wrote those three songs in a couple of days. We started on ‘Memories,’ and the next day I went back to the show Elvis was doing, and I said, ‘How does this sound to you,’ and I sang, ‘Memories…pressed between the pages of your mind…’ He said, ‘That’s great! Bring it to me!’ We didn’t even have it finished. Went home that night and finished it, did a little quickie demo of it and took it into him the next day. He recorded ‘Memories,’ ‘A Little Less Conversation’ and this other song…’Nothingville’! We did those three things in two days, and he recorded all of ‘em. ‘A Little Less Conversation,’ it was 28 years after we had written it that they re-released it and it became number one in the world. It was scary, just scary.
(Billy Strange quotes from an interview posted at Elvis Australia).

Billy Strange’s friendship with Nancy Sinatra never waned. Upon learning of his death, Ms. Sinatra posted a note online: “My dear friend, the legendary guitarist/arranger Billy Strange, passed away this morning in Nashville. My heart is shattered.”

‘My heart is shattered’: (from left) Billy Strange, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood in 2003

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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