His name may not be familiar to many but his talent left an indelible mark on the history of rock. Billy Strange wrote hits like Memories, Limbo Rock and A Little Less Conversation. His guitar playing is heard on thousands of records by the likes of the Beach Boys, Nancy Sinatra, Jan & Dean, Wanda Jackson and Nat King Cole. As an arranger and conductor, he worked with Frank Sinatra, Duane Eddy, Elvis Presley and Dean Martin. Add in the fact that he is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and you have one of the most well rounded artists in history.
Strange passed away on Wednesday morning in Nashville from an undisclosed ailment. He was 81.
Billy started early in music, playing with his parents on the radio in Long Beach, CA as early as five years old. His first instrument was the trumpet, but a gift of a Gibson L-7 guitar made him change his musical allegiance.
After traveling around the southwest with various band while in his late-teens, Strange settled down in Southern California where he played and sang with The Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers, Spade Cooley and other country stars of the day.
With his reputation solidified in the Los Angeles recording scene, he soon became a go-to session guitarist, eventually becoming a member of the Wrecking Crew, the best that the city had to offer. Not only did he play on many hits of the early and mid-60's, but he also had a strong relationship with surf kings Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys. Strange also came into his own as a recording artist, lending his voice to soundtracks for Disney TV programs and movies and releasing a series of instrumental albums covering many of the hits of the day. His version of the James Bond Theme made it to number 58 in 1964 and two of his albums, James Bond Theme and Others and English Hits of '65, made it into the Billboard Top 200.
Strange counted some of the biggest artist ever as both close friends and business associates. He worked often with Elvis Presley and wrote a number of his hits. An association with Nancy Sinatra led to him working with her father, Frank, including the arrangement on their duet number 1, Something Stupid. He also has credit for the arrangement on Nancy's These Boots are Made For Walking and and the guitar work on her Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).
By the late-60's, Strange had transitioned from musician to arranger and conductor, leading Nancy Sinatra's touring orchestra. In the early-70's, he moved to Nasville to run a publishing firm owned by Frank and Nancy.
Nancy Sinatra visited the boards on the Billy Strange site on Wednesday to write a touching goodbye:
I'm heartbroken that I didn't make it back there in time to give you just one more hug and kiss. Part of you will live in my heart forever - my broken, shattered heart.
I have treasured our friendship for these 45 years and I thank you for all the beautiful music you wrote that made our records so special. I'm very happy we got to travel the world together, and that we were able to finish the Nancy and Lee Trilogy for posterity.
You were appreciated by our industry even though you didn't think so, and if I could express one more regret here, it would be that you moved so far away and that our visits were so few over the last several years. I would have kept you working in a studio where you belonged.
I hope you knew how much I loved you, Boo. You were my mentor, godfather, roadie and father confessor and I don't like that when I dial your number you won't answer the phone anymore.