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-instrumentalist, 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.
“Next to Lee, he was the guy on her records,” fellow guitarist Duane Eddy said Thursday. “Lee wrote ‘em and produced ‘em, and Billy arranged ‘em and guided her through musical rough spots.”
Strange also created the arrangements for a guitar-driven big-band album Eddy recorded in 1967, “Roaring Twangies,” that featured both of them wielding their instruments over a large ensemble of saxophones, trumpets and trombones. “He said it was one of his favorite projects because he did so much with the arrangements” of Glenn Miller hits and other songs mostly from the pre-rock era, said Eddy, who also wrote a song for and played with Sinatra, Hazlewood and Strange on their 2004 reunion album “Nancy & Lee 3,” three years before Hazlewood died.
A string of instrumental solo albums furthered Strange’s reputation as a guitarist, often casting hits of the day in deep twang settings that have been dubbed “loungeabilly.” His 1963 “12 String Guitar” album is considered a classic among electric guitar enthusiasts. He scored a couple of Top 100 singles with his versions of music from the James Bond films, “The James Bond Theme” in 1964 and “Goldfinger” the following year.
He was elected to the Musicians Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, both based in Nashville.
Strange is survived by his wife, country singer Jeanne Black, and their children, Josh, Jonmark, Kelly, Jerry and Rusty. There was no immediate word about the cause of death.