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Billy Strange: Guitarist with the Wrecking Crew


The record companies in Los Angeles and Hollywood in the 1960s found Billy Strange a useful musician for a session. He could sing, play guitar, arrange and conduct and he would do whatever was asked of him very effectively. The drawback was him telling others if he thought they were wrong, leading to the industry joke, "Have you seen the Billy Strange doll? You wind it up and it takes over the session."

Billy Strange was born in Long Beach, California in 1930. His father, George, presented a country music show onthe radio and sang in clubs with his wife, Billie. Because of asthma, the young boy had difficulty in learning thetrumpet and he switched to guitarwhen he was 14. He joined his father's band two years later and when all the adult members were too drunk he would drive the bus home even though he had no licence.

By the 1950s Strange was in demand as a guitarist backing country acts on both radio and television and became a regular singer on a TV show from Hollywood. He became a session musician as he could adopt easily to what was wanted – lead or rhythm guitar, electric or acoustic.

In 1962 he was challenged by his friend, Jon Sheldon, to write a song in 15 minutes. He wrote a riff and sang "What a monotonous melody" for every line. Sheldon supplied the lyric, "Limbo Rock". It was recorded by Chubby Checker and went to No 1 in the US.

In the '60s Billy Strange became a guitarist with the famed LA session men known as the Wrecking Crew. In 1962 he was recorded as part of the Ventures when the lead guitarist was drafted and the band did not want to lose its impetus. Although he recorded his own instrumental and vocal albums, they were not big sellers, but he did provide the singing voice for Steve McQueen as a rockabilly singer in Baby The Rain Must Fall (1964).

Strange undertook session work for the Beach Boys, in particular, being hired by Brian Wilson to record Pet Sounds (1966) while the other Beach Boys were on tour. He played on several of their hit singles including "California Girls" (1965). He recorded with Ricky Nelson, Jan and Dean, the Everly Brothers and Doris Day (including "Move Over Darling") His strangest moment came in 1964 when he played lead guitar on "Bikini With No Top On Top" for two busty blondes, Mamie Van Doren and June Wilkinson.

In the mid-1960s Strange was the music director on two of Presley's films and he and Mac Davis collaborated on the songs, "Memories", "Clean Up Your Own Back Yard" and "A Little Less Conversation". Strange befriended Elvis Presley and they rode Harley-Davidsons together in the Hollywood hills. Unfortunately, Strange broke a finger in a motorcycle accident and could no longer play the guitar competently.

Strange's most intriguing collaborations were with the singer/songwriter Lee Hazlewood, who had a succession of off-the-wall projects including the atmospheric Trouble Is A Lonesome Town (1963). With Hazlewood as producer and songwriter and Strange as arranger, they worked on "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'", a transatlantic No 1 for Nancy Sinatra in 1966. Strange arranged her equally successful duet with her father, "Somethin' Stupid" (1967) as well as her 1967 album with Hazlewood, Nancy And Lee, which included the country duet, "Jackson" and the attractively mysterious "Some Velvet Morning".

In 2001, an alternative take of Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation" was used in the George Clooney film Ocean's Eleven. This was remixed by a Dutch DJ, Tom Holkenberg (aka Junkie XL), for Nike commercials, and as a single it became a surprise No 1 hit under the billing, Elvis vs JXL.

In 2003, Strange worked on a new album, Nancy And Lee 3, which included a moody arrangement of "She Won't" with guitarist Duane Eddy, which showed that they hadn't lost their touch. Strange's third marriage was to the singer, Jeanne Black, and he had produced her US hit, "He'll Have To Stay", in 1960.

William E Strange, guitarist: born Long Beach, California 29 September 1930; married 1954 Joan O'Brien (one son), 1960 Betty Jo Conrad (one daughter), thirdly Gloria Jeanne Black: died Franklin, Tennessee 22 February 2012.