When I first moved to Nashville, Billy Strange was the first music publisher I ever met with, My memories of that meeting in May of 1987, got started on what musicians would call a GREAT BIG CLAM, They follow his obit from the L A Times

Billy Strange, was a songwriter, guitarist and arranger who worked with Elvis Presley, Nancy Sinatra, the Beach Boys and the Everly Brothers.

(Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Billy Strange dies at 81; guitarist, arranger for Presley, Nancy Sinatra

February 24, 2012|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times

Billy Strange was one of the hottest players on the L.A. studio scene. He arranged Nancy Sinatra's 'These Boots Are Made for Walking' and played guitar on the Beach Boys' 'Pet Sounds' album.

Guitarist Billy Strange once took the kind of phone call that thousands of musicians receive only in their best and wildest dreams. "I was staying at a hotel in Nashville in 1965 when my telephone rang and this unmistakable voice said, 'Billy, this is Elvis. I'd like for you to stop by my studios and play some music with me,'" Strange told an English newspaper in 2002. "I was absolutely thrilled, so I went along and he just sat at the piano playing gospel songs. We had a lot of fun; so much so that we never got around to recording anything that first day."

That made it a rare day in Strange's life in the 1960s: He not only was one of the hottest players but also a successful songwriter, arranger and recording artist working in L.A.'s' top recording studios at what may have been the pinnacle of a long career in which he contributed to hit records by artists such as Presley, the Beach Boys, Phil Spector, Frank and Nancy Sinatra, the Everly Brothers, Dean Martin, Willie Nelson and the Partridge Family.

Strange, who died Wednesday in Nashville at 81, is most widely known for his role as musical arranger of Nancy Sinatra's first No. 1 hit, "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'," in 1966 and her 1967 duet with her father, "Somethin' Stupid." Strange also was the budding pop singer's co-star on her eerie song "Bang Bang (He Shot Me Down)," on which the only accompaniment to her wistful vocal were the strums and runs from Strange's tremolo-soaked electric guitar.

"Billy made my brother's song 'Somethin' Stupid' sound right smart, as he added raw insight to every session he sat in on," Van Dyke Parks, a composer, arranger, producer and multi-instrumentlist, said Thursday of the song by Carson Parks that Frank and Nancy Sinatra turned into a No. 1 hit.

Strange played on hundreds of recording sessions as one of the cadre of accomplished young L.A. studio musicians later dubbed "The Wrecking Crew" because they took work away from the veteran studio pros of the time.

William Everett Strange was born Sept. 29, 1930, in Long Beach and early on established a musical identity with his own work.

He recorded at Capitol Records in Hollywood in the early '50s, playing country and boogie-woogie flavored numbers such as "Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves" and "The Crazy Quilt Rag."

In 1962 an instrumental that Strange wrote, and which had been recorded by the Champs of "Tequila" fame, became a huge hit for "The Twist" singer Chubby Checker after songwriter Kal Mann added lyrics to Strange's music, allowing Checker to extend his dominance in the dance-craze genre. "Limbo Rock" exploited the early-'60s fascination in the U.S. with the limbo, and Strange's song gave limbo parties an anthem to be built around.

Strange held no illusions about the long-term artistic merit of the pulsing number, which he described as "just about the dumbest thing I've ever heard."

With his all-around skills as a songwriter, arranger and player, Strange was soon in high demand in recording studios, adding to sessions with Ricky Nelson, the Everlys and Spector, the latter connection segueing into work with Spector disciple Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, for whom he played on their high-watermark album "Pet Sounds" in 1966.

Those credits helped bring him to the attention of Presley, whose career as a recording artist faltered in the 1960s as he focused on formulaic Hollywood movies set up for him by his manager, Col. Tom Parker. After that first meeting, Presley and Strange became close friends.

"Elvis used to call me up around 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. and say, 'Hey Billy, let's go for a ride,' " Strange recalled in 2002, when "A Little Less Conversation," a song that he and Mac Davis had written for Presley 33 years earlier, suddenly was a hit again thanks to an electronic dance remix by Amsterdam DJ Junkie XL. "I lost a dear friend when Elvis died. I couldn't bring myself to go to the funeral of one who expired so needlessly and tragically."

Strange's path intersected with that of another 20th century pop music titan when he and songwriter-producer Lee Hazlewood were auditioning songs with Nancy Sinatra for her debut album.

"Lee and Billy came over and Lee was picking some things on the guitar, and I said, 'I like the one about the boots,' " Nancy told Larry King in 2002. "My dad, when he was leaving, he said, 'You're right. It's the one about the boots.' A hit song is a hit song. The only other time I felt that feeling was with 'Somethin' Stupid,' and it also went to No. 1."

Strange served as arranger on most of her recordings and also played on many of them.



..... Another person who passed away shortly after my arrival in Nashville, was someone I really had hoped to meet, except he lived in Gatlinburg over in East Tennessee. Boudleaux and Felice Bryant were song writing heroes of mine. They wrote a lot of the Everly Brothers biggest hits and some of my all time favorite songs. Boudleaux’s funeral was held in Nashville however. It was like the who’s who of Music Row there. I recognized many of them, but it was no occasion for introductions. Then Gordon Stoker, of the Jordanaires came up to me and we sat together. We both agreed to stop meeting like this. Thom Schuyler gave the eulogy, Chet Atkins and Sonny Osborne were some of the pallbearers. A string quartet played a melody of Bryant songs. Love Hurts, Devoted To You, All I Have To Do Is Dream etc. Then a bagpiper led the casket out. All in all it was very emotional. I wanted to offer my condolences to Felice, but she was mobbed by friends.

A few days later, I met up with Gordon and the entire Jordanaires at a much happier occasion. They were taping a New Country show at The Cannery for TNN, backing up Don McLean, who had just recut some of his hits in Nashville. When they got ready to close with American Pie, Don cautioned the band “Not to screw it up.” About halfway through the 7 minute song, Don’s voice cracked – EVERYONE cracked up laughing. The version they finally got on tape 3 tries later, really cooked. Everything was smoking.

Gordon had me sit at his table. There was a guy seated next to me who looked a bit like Santa Claus. He introduced himself as Billy. I casually asked him if he was in the music business. “Sort of”, came his reply. After the show Gordon asked me if I enjoyed talking with Billy Strange and did I know that Billy was a song publisher? Yikes ,,, That was Billy Strange! BIG CLAM * ...Billy was a studio legend back in Los Angeles. The next day, I sheepishly called him to ask if I could play him some songs. He said "Sure , come on over" and I had my first official music row appointment.

Billy had Tom T. Hall’s old studio out in Brentwood. It was called the Toybox. He was producing Marty Haggard at the time for MTM Records. He listened to my tape and told me that although he couldn’t use any of what I had, that didn’t mean the guy across the street couldn’t. I thanked him and he told me that his door was always open to me. I felt the visit was a complete success, as more than anything else, I just wanted to be accepted. Funny thing though, I never returned and I don’t really know why. The last time I did talk with Billy was over a decade later at John Hartford's house. We were gathered there for John's funeral

*CLAM a recording studio term for a mistake

Excerpt from autobiography" If The Devil Danced In Empty Pockets He'd Have A Ball In Mine , by Ken Spooner © 2011