Grammy nominee and Gold Record musician, Billy Strange has had professional experience as a writer, arranger, conductor, producer, publisher and as a performer, and because in spite of the successful accomplishments of his life, he is a modest man, he refuses to talk about himself.
So It falls to me as the woman who loves and admires him to tell you about him.
Billy began performing as a young boy with his father and mother on radio in Long Beach, California. In fact at a mere 5 years old he won a yodeling contest !
Guitars and cowboy music were a part of his young life but his first choice as an instrument was the trumpet. When he was 14 however, a family friend gave him an old Gibson (L-7) guitar, showed him a few chords and he took to it as naturally as if he was born with a guitar in his hand.
As a teen he played in bands and with his parents, cowboy entertainers George and Billie Strange. At about 16 however he took off across Texas with a wild bunch of musicians playing shows and dances and Honky Tonks and driving the old timey, non air conditioned, school bus style, touring bus when the other band members were incapacitated.
Altho he didn't graduate with his High School class, 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 and inquisitive mind that served him well, and still does.
Back in Southern California, several years of public appearances with any and all of the musicians of the West Coast music scene led to regular appearances in the new medium of live television, in his early 20's. He also rodeoed, tagged along with his Uncles as truck drivers and even worked as a stunt man.
But mostly his life was about the music. Regular live television shows was a mainstay as he was always employed as a guitar player and singer. Those early shows with The Sons Of The Pioneers and Roy Rogers, and Spade Cooley and Smokey Rogers and others, led to working not only with all the country musicians of the 50's but also the pop and jazz players , even Count Basie.
A regular gig with the Cliffie Stone Hometown Jamboree weekly television show and dance, also included doing a daily radio show -six shows a week.
He moved from the country stations to the networks to become the staff guitarist and "boy singer" at CBS radio in Hollywood, and continued working with pop, big band and jazz entertainers as well as staying close to his country roots. He was also working on recording sessions and because the recording industry was small and tightly connected, all the musicians and performers knew one another and flowed from the recording studios of Gold Star, Western Recorders, Radio Recorders to the larger labels including the new Capitol Records building on Vine Street, and onto live performances anywhere and everywhere, all the time.
It seemed that the handsome, tall young man was everyone's first choice as back up player for either his fine accoustical work or on his twanging electric lead guitar.
The list of people he worked with as a band member, band leader, first call guitarist in the recording studio or on any stage anywhere, is too numerous to even recall. He was also just the good guy they all wanted to hang around with, with his quick wit and take charge personality. The inside joke among the group of studio musicians who came to be known as The Wrecking Crew, was "Have you heard about the Billy Strange doll? You wind him up and he takes over the session..."
Even today, anyone listening to the radio stations that play the oldies, or who enjoys the recordings of prior generations, can recognize his well known sound, featured in any field of pop., rock or country music...
When the official recognition is finally awarded to the fine studio musicians who worked uncredited, on countless 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.
He was also recording his own guitar albums through out the 1960's and at least 18 of those are still in demand as collectors worldwide buy, sell, trade or dicker for the privilege of owning one or all !
As a male vocalist, Billy's strong and rangy baritone was heard on the soundtracks of the movies, on television shows including many for Disney, and of course as a solo recording artist.
As he progressed from the busy years of flying to San Francisco regularly to be a featured member of The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, and then returning to race to the recording studios, he'd often find himself with as many as 3, 4 or 5 session bookings a day.
He could play with Willie Nelson or Nat King Cole, or Bob Wills or Dean Martin, or Henry Mancini and Les Brown.
Those years also began an association with Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, playing on more hits than he even remembers, and with Jan and Dean and The Monkees and dozens of other similar groups, and for two years as a ghost player for a popular group called The Ventures, and literally hundreds more.
When Elvis came to town it was Billy he wanted as a player, arranger or session leader. Billy wrote and scored movies and TV Specials for Elvis and co-wrote several of Elvis hit records. They also hung out together and sometimes would ride their Harley's together in the wee hours of the morning, through the Hollywood Hills.
His solo cover recordings of such things as The James Bond Theme, 007, Goldfinger, The Munsters Theme, Batman, Have Gun Will Travel and many others were chart favorites that blur together and are too numerous to list here.
When he worked with Nancy Sinatra his, on the spot instant arrangement, in the final few minutes remaining of a recording session, led to one of the most recognizable intro's in music history for "These Boots Are Made For Walking".
The association with "The Nancy" (as I refer to her), put him forever, into the good graces of her father Frank Sinatra, and Billy's arrangement of the father daughter duet "Something Stupid", gave Frank his first million selling single record, ever.... for which he was always grateful to Mr. Strange.
Billy transitioned into arranging, writing and conducting which he found enormously satisfying. He was busy writing for the recording studios and was in demand as an arranger - conductor, for many, many performers including all three performing Sinatra's. He was the musical director of the first five ACM Award shows among countless others.
In the Nancy Sinatra nightclub act, she always featured Billy by asking him to step away from the large orchestra he was conducting, and quietly accompany her with only his, still excellent accoustic guitar work, and sometimes he'd bring the house to it's feet by singing a show stopping number....
In case you've stopped to wonder, he did take himself to a teacher, somewhere along the way in order to learn to read music, and put on paper what he was hearing in his head, and sometimes the teacher would stop him and say, "Now just what was that lick you played on, whatever, hit song???"
He was side man, featured performer and could easily go from jamming with a rock and roll band to the most soulful of country sounds, to conducting the Berlin or London Symphony Orchestras, playing the music he created.
He moved to Nashville in the early 1970's to open and run a publishing firm for Frank & Nancy Sinatra, which they also co-owned. He was a divorced man raising a ten year old daughter, with two older boys more or less on their own.
He has lived in Franklin for nearly 28 years and has worked, or not worked as he chose. He owned and operated his own publishing firm and was a record producer for more artists than he can recall..
Dragged kicking and screaming into retirement by the ongoing changes in a youth oriented music business, he has had his mortgage paid, for 40 years by Royalties from a little song he wrote in an idle moment, called Limbo Rock. He manages to get by comfortably tho not lavishly, on residuals from motion pictures and recordings and songs he's written over the years.
The checks trickle in from David Cassidy's Partridge family theme, "I Think I love You", to "These Boots Are Made For Walking", to "Viva Las Vegas" and others, but and especially from , Elvis Presley's classic "Memories", co-written with friend Mac Davis.
So, the reluctant Mr. Billy Strange has quite a musical history, that he most often dismisses as no big thing.
-Jeanne Black -