Remembering Billy Strange, Ace Session Guitarist

Billy Strange poses for a portrait with a Fender sometime in the 1960s. i i

hide captionBilly Strange poses for a portrait with a Fender sometime in the 1960s.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Billy Strange poses for a portrait with a Fender sometime in the 1960s.

Billy Strange poses for a portrait with a Fender sometime in the 1960s.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Billy Strange was an ace session guitar player and arranger at a time in pop music when that might mean working with Nancy Sinatra one day, Elvis the next and recording your own album of James Bond-theme guitar instrumentals the day after that. Strange actually did all of that — though maybe not in such quick succession.

The California-born guitarist and songwriter died February 22 in Nashville at the age of 81.

He made his name in Los Angeles with the Wrecking Crew — a group of top-notch studio musicians that included Leon Russell, Hal Blaine, Tommy Tedesco, Glen Campbell, Jack Nitzsche and Carol Kaye. Strange played on hundreds of recordings throughout the 1960s — almost every kind of music, from The Everly Brothers to Nat King Cole, The Beach Boys to film and TV scores.

Strange's straightforward playing distilled rockabilly, country and folk influences through a deft, West coast, Fender-ish guitar sound. He recorded a series of his own instrumental albums — frequently backed by assorted Wrecking Crew buddies — that have since attracted the glib but not entirely inapt moniker: loungeabilly.

Yet it was precisely these records that caught my young ear. Strange often chose the distinctive sound of the 12-string guitar on his session and solo recordings and helped to popularize that instrument. 12 String Guitar, his album of folk instrumentals, and the later LP, Mr. Guitar, joined the regular rotation on my turntable after school. The album cover photo alone made Mr Guitar a keeper: a very un-strange-looking Billy Strange — in button-down shirt and dark blue suit — surrounded by guitars (all of them appear to be Fenders).

As a songwriter, Strange's credits include Elvis' "A Little Less Conversation" and Chubby Checker's "Limbo Rock." His career as an arranger spawned several indelible pop hits — although his key role in their creation may not be widely recognized. Who doesn't know Nancy Sinatra's classic "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" or her duet with dad Frank, "Something Stupid"? Strange arranged both.

But take a listen to his stark arrangement and equally spare guitar playing on her recording of "Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)". It's just Nancy and Billy. Sometimes simple is the most powerful.

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Robert Goldstein is NPR's music librarian and former guitarist with the Urban Verbs.

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