Billy Strange obituary

Guitarist in the coterie of session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew

The American guitarist, songwriter and arranger Billy Strange, who has died aged 81, collaborated with many of the major figures in pop music, including Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, Phil Spector, the Sinatra family, the Everly Brothers, Jan and Dean, Lee Hazlewood, Duane Eddy and Love. A main player in the Hollywood session world of the 1960s, he co-wrote A Little Less Conversation for Presley and arranged These Boots Are Made for Walking for Nancy Sinatra. He played on the Beach Boys' Good Vibrations and Sloop John B, and on Love's Forever Changes, one of the landmark albums of the early psychedelic era.

One of his most distinctive contributions came about when he arrived for a Spector session at Gold Star studios in Hollywood in August 1962 and found himself playing lead guitar on an extraordinary version of Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, a song written for the Walt Disney film Song of the South (1946). Spector had turned a children's song into a dark, pounding lament, and while the backing track was being recorded, it turned even stranger.

Unhappy with the balance of the instruments during a typical marathon session with a host of pianists, bassists, drummers and guitarists, Spector's young recording engineer, Larry Levine, decided to turn off all the individual microphones and then bring them back up, one by one, as the musicians played. "We'd spent two and a half hours recording it, and my dials were jumping all over the place," Levine told me in 1970. "So I switched everything off. Phil said, 'What are you doing?' I told him I had to start again, right from scratch." Gradually the sound was reassembled, until only a single microphone remained off – the one in front of Strange's amplifier. By that time, however, the sound of his fuzz-tone guitar was already clearly audible, leaking into the open mics directed at the other instruments.

"That's it!" Spector shouted, and Strange's distant, distorted, vaguely menacing guitar solo became, along with fine lead vocals by Darlene Love and Bobby Sheen, one of the most striking features of a record that, when released under the name of Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans, gave Spector's new Philles label one of its early hits, reaching the US top 10.

Strange was born in Long Beach, California, and began his professional life as a session guitarist in the 1950s, recording country and western music for the Hollywood-based Capitol Records. In 1962 he wrote an instrumental, Limbo Rock, to capitalise on the popularity of the Champs' Tequila. With words added by the producer Kal Mann, it became a hit for Chubby Checker, whose career was riding the crest of the Twist craze.

Strange became one of the busiest members of a coterie of Hollywood musicians later known as the Wrecking Crew. Among his most enduring achievements was an arrangement for the Hazlewood song Some Velvet Morning, which Hazlewood recorded in 1967 with Nancy Sinatra. Strange found the perfect textures to underscore the gravelly, mysterious verses, sung by Hazlewood, and the ethereal interludes, delivered by Sinatra. Largely ignored in its time, the record would later become a hipsters' favourite. He also arranged Somethin' Stupid, for Nancy and her father, Frank.

A Little Less Conversation was written with Mac Davis for the Presley film Live a Little, Love a Little (1968). Released as a single to coincide with the film, at a time when the singer's popularity was on the wane, it reached No 69 in the US. The song was later used in the film Ocean's Eleven (2001) and a remix by the DJ Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg) became a No 1 hit in 20 countries, including the UK, Japan and Australia.

At a time when instrumentals were popular, Strange recorded many albums, including Great Western Themes, English Hits of 65, Secret Agent File, Billy Strange Plays Roger Miller, 12-String Guitar and Mr Guitar. He appeared as an actor in Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), starring Sissy Spacek as the singer Loretta Lynn. In the 1970s, he settled in Nashville to open a publishing company for the Sinatra family.

Strange was married three times – to the actor Joan O'Brien, Betty Jo Conrad and the country singer Jeanne Black. Jeanne survives him, along with two sons and a daughter.

William Everett Strange, guitarist, arranger and songwriter, born 29 September 1930; died 22 February 2012


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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