Grammy nominee and million selling musician Billy Strange has had a
professional career as singer, guitar player, writer, arranger,
conductor and music publisher.
Billy began performing as a young boy in Long Beach California where his
Daddy was a singer and musician who had a long-standing radio program
and played clubs with his wife Billie. As an only child, "Son" was also to be found wherever
his parents were performing and at five years of age he won a yodeling contest.
Guitars and cowboy music were a fact of life as he grew up but his first
choice of an instrument was the trumpet. He had asthma however and so that career
was 'short winded', but when he was 14 a family friend gave him an old Gibson L-7,
showed him a few chords and he took to it as naturally as if he had been born with a
guitar in his hands.
At about the age of 16 he left school and took off across Texas with
his Dad and a wild bunch of musicians playing shows and dances and honky tonks.
He also ended up sometimes driving the old timey, un-air conditioned, school bus style,
touring bus without a drivers license when the other band members were incapacitated.
Although he didn't graduate from High School his father tutored him and
he never suffered from a lack of formal education in any aspect of his
personal or professional life. He was gifted with a bright inquisitive mind and natural
intelligence that served him well and still does.
Back in Southern California, several years of playing guitar with any
and all of the musicians of the West Coast Music scene from about 1950
onward. This lead to regular appearances in the new medium of live television when he
was in his early twenties. He had already been a part of the recording scene before
this time however.
Billy also enjoyed the rodeo, tagged along with his uncles driving truck and even
worked as a stunt man. But mostly his life was about the music. Regular live television
shows were a mainstay and he was always employed somewhere as a guitar player and singer.
Those early shows with The Sons of The Pioneers, and Roy Rogers, and Spade Cooley, and
Smoky Rogers and Tex Williams lead to working not only with all of the country
musicians of the 50's but also the pop and jazz players, even Count Basie.
When he was 20 a regular gig with the Cliffe Stone Hometown Jamboree
weekly television show and dance, also included doing a daily live
radio show six days a week.
He moved from the country stations to the networks to become a "boy
singer" at a daily show from CBS radio in Hollywood and continued working with pop,
big band and jazz entertainers as well as staying close to his country roots.
In his spare time he could be found playing guitar anywhere that his
country music or "pre-rockabilly" friends could be found. He played with all of them
from Bakersfield to San Diego and called them friends.
He was also working recording sessions for everyone and has played on
more records than he can remember, with everyone who was recording from the late
fifties and into the sixties and seventies. Because the recording industry was small
and tightly connected, all of the musicians and performers knew one another and
flowed from the studios of that time to the clubs and stages that were so plentiful.
Such studios as Gold Star, Western, and Radio Recorders lead to the larger places
including the new Capitol Records building on Vine St as well as performances in clubs
anywhere and everywhere, from Bakersfield to San Diego.
By the time the sixties arrived the tall handsome young man was on
everyone's list as first choice for his fine acoustical work or on his
twanging electric lead guitar. The list of people he worked with as a
band member, band leader, first call guitar player in the studios or on a stage
anywhere is too numerous to recall and adequate records weren't being kept at the time.
He was also just the good guy they all wanted to hang around with, with his quick wit,
sense of humor and distinctive laugh and also his take charge personality.
He has a strong personality which has sometimes lead to disputes and power
struggles between those who don't take to his air of complete confidence and
annoying habit of voicing his opinion loudly, and so there are those with whom he
butted heads from time to time, but he knew from a young age just what
it took to be the boss. That was in public however. In private he was a
sensitive and caring friend to anyone in need.
With his obvious talent, quick wit and take charge personality, the
inside joke among the studio musicians who have become known as The Wrecking Crew,
was "Have you heard about the Billy Strange doll? You wind him up and he takes
over the session ..."
Today anyone listening to or collecting what are considered to be 'The
oldies hits; golden music of the sixties in particular, can recognize
his well known sound because it has been featured in recordings in any
field of pop, rock and roll, or country music. When the official recognition
is finally awarded to the fine studio musicians who worked uncredited on countess
hit records for several decades, that list will include the name of Billy
Strange as lead guitar, rhythm guitar, session leader, arranger, conductor
or featured soloist.
Throughout the 1960's Billy was also recording his own guitar albums
and at least 18 of those are still in demand as collectors worldwide buy,
sell or trade for the privilege of owning one or all!
As a male vocalist Billy's strong and rangy baritone was heard on
soundtracks for the movies, on television shows including many for
Disney, and of course as a solo recording artist. As he progressed to the busy years
of flying to San Francisco several days a week as a featured member of the Tennessee
Ernie Ford television show, he would have to return quickly to Hollywood and speed
to the recording studios where he might find himself booked for 3, 4 or 5 sessions a day.
He could play with Willie Nelson or Nat King Cole, or Bob Wills or Dean
Martin, or Henry Mancini and Les Brown to the newest rock and roll
group wanting to make a hit record. Those early years began an association with Brian
Wilson and The Beach Boys playing on more hits than he can remember, and with Jan
and Dean and The Monkees and all of those other boy (or girl) groups. For two
years he played anonymous lead guitar for a popular group, The Ventures when a
couple of them were drafted and new records needed to be regularly released
(no hard feelings either, as it was necessary to keep the name of the
group alive and that successful group has always been most gracious t
o the men who helped the continuity so they could pick it up after
they served their country.
There was no ego involved either, as the substitutes never claimed any
credit and The Ventures name and music never faltered.
When Elvis came to town it was Billy he wanted as a friend, guitar
player, session leader or arranger. Billy wrote, scored and arranged several
of his movies and TV Specials and he also co-wrote several hit songs for Elvis.
As an artist Billy released hit cover recordings - solo guitar
arrangements with orchestra, of The James Bond Theme, Goldfinger, The
Munsters Theme, Batman, Have Gun Will Travel, Gunsmoke and many others became chart favorites.
He also had quite a connection with the Sinatra family, recording all
three of the performing family members, Frank Sr, Frank Jr, and of course Nancy.
His on the spot instant arrangement in the final few remaining minutes of a recording
session, led to one of the most recognizable intros in music history, "These Boots
Are Made For Walking".
Billy's arrangement (and conducting the orchestra) of the father -
daughter duet, "Something Stupid", gave Frank his first ever, million
selling record, for which Mr. Sinatra was always grateful to Mr. Strange.
As he transitioned into writing, arranging and conducting he found it to
be enormously satisfying. He went to a teacher finally to learn to read
music and found excitement in the next phase of his career in writing
arrangements, and he was in demand as an excellent arranger of anything
from a small rock group, to a country single, or a symphony orchestra.
He was the Music Director of several television musical shows, awards
show such as the first five CMA Award shows and also scored movies.
As Nancy Sinatra's arranger and conductor he traveled with her and she
always featured Billy by inviting him away from the large orchestra he
was conducting, to quietly accompany her with his 'still excellent'
acoustic guitar playing, or sometimes he'd bring the house to its feet by
singing a show stopping number. He could play guitar for the Beach Boys,
Nat King Cole or conduct the London or Berlin Symphony Orchestras, playing
music he created.
He moved to the Nashville area in the early 1970's to open and run a
Publishing firm for Frank Sinatra and settled into producing, and
writing arrangements and he played solo guitar less often. The residual checks trickle
in regularly from such songs as his arranging on David Cassidy's, "I Think I Love You",
or his arranging on Nancy's "Boots", or his guitar work on the Beach Boys hits,
or Jan and Dean and countless others, as well as Elvis' "Viva Las Vegas",
"Memories" (which he co-wrote) and others.
Recently, "A Little Less Conversation" was added to the Elvis list.
One night a little ditty that was written on a note pad in a Hollywood
Coffee Shop after a session. He called it "Monotonous Melody" but
it was retitled "The Limbo Rock" Go ahead and sing that melody all the way
through with only those words, "What a monotonous melody, what a
monotonous melody..." and see the joke he was playing to win a bet
about being able to write a song in five minutes.
The reluctant Mr. Strange has quite a musical history that he most
often dismisses as no big thing. The talent came from God but Billy has
magnified that talent to his own satisfaction and brought joy into the lives of
those who have been the recipients of his unique musical contribution in this
age of history. He's a nice guy, too and has more loyal friends than should be allowed.
His life has sometimes been agonizing and heartbreaking, but also
glorious and exciting, and usually very, very strange.
Jeanne Black (AKA Mrs. Billy Strange)
Photos: Billy and Jeanne Strange
Posted March, 2005
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