On a recent episode of his TV talk show, David Letterman mentioned to guest Cher that he’d just seen the new documentary, The Wrecking Crew, which chronicles the coterie of L.A. studio musicians that helped create many of her records and hundreds of other hits for more than three decades. She immediately responded by naming A-list players including Leon Russell, Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, and Tommy Tedesco. But, the first name she mentioned was “Billy Pitman.”
Pitman’s four decades as a first-call session musician comprises a legacy that can be claimed by only a handful of guitarists. A charter member of the Wrecking Crew, he played on countless hit records; his most notable musical contributions to America’s sound track are numerous and include The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” the Pet Sounds and Smile albums, as well as the Byrds’ first hit, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” He even created the ukulele intro for B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.” He worked on every West Coast record produced by Phil Spector (to whom he gave lessons when Spector was a pre-teen).
A list of popular artists to whom he lent his extraordinary talent reads like a pantheon of national music treasures: Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Nat Cole, Tony Bennett, Burt Bacharach, the Everly Brothers, the Mamas and the Papas, hundreds of rock and pop groups and jazz artists. In rock’s early days, he recorded with Ritchie Valens and Sam Cooke.
Equally impressive is his list of film and TV credits, which includes Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Goodfellas, M*A*S*H, Jerry McGuire, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Dirty Dancing, Forrest Gump, and on and on. Though his TV work included “I Love Lucy,” “Bonanza,” “The Sonny and Cher Show,” “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” ‘King of the Hill,” “Star Trek” (for which he composed scores), he is perhaps best known among peers for the cool lead lines played on the Danelectro UB-2 bass guitar, a six-string instrument with a 291/2″ scale tuned an octave below standard guitar, for “The Wild, Wild, West.”
Pitman estimates that he played about 40 percent of his sessions on the Dano, which was often used as a lead instrument. “I really enjoyed creating that theme from The Wild, Wild West on the Dano. It was a specialized instrument, but more versatile than you’d think. And with that show, I got to play the instrument the way I envisioned when I bought it. Listen to the way Glen (Campbell) used it for the lead solo on his ‘Wichita Lineman.’”
Pitman recalls the first time he picked up the UB-2. “It was out of tune, and I played a chord that sounded terrible. But, when I played high on the neck, it had a rich sound because of the heaviness of the strings. So, I bought one, and mentioned it to Ernie Freeman, who’d arranged dozens of R&B and pop hits. He asked me to bring it to a session, loved it, and instinctively knew how to use it to enhance the sound of an upright bass. Arrangers are always looking for new sounds, and this was novel enough to qualify. I always asked that any parts for it be written in treble clef. I did a couple of John Wayne movies on a Fender bass, but my real love was playing straight-ahead guitar.”
Though he long ago sold or traded the Dano bass, today Pitman keeps handy a Dano four-string and a Fender Jazz.
A typical day for Pitman would include playing sessions with Larry Carlton, Bob Bain, Barney Kessel, Dennis Budimir, Al Hendrickson, Al Viola, Howard Roberts, and other heavyweights. Of course his daily (and nightly) routine with the Wrecking Crew found him working with Glen Campbell, Tommy Tedesco, Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Joe Osborne, Earl Palmer, Leon Russell, Larry Knechtel, and the other usual suspects.
In a 2012 an interview with Neil Conan for the National Public Radio program “Talk of the Nation,” Roger McGuinn recalled recording the Byrds’ first hit, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” for which he was the only member the label allowed to play the session, thanks to his studio experience.
“Leon Russell, Hal Blaine, Jerry Cole, Larry Knechtel, and Bill Pitman were in the studio at the time,” McGuinn recalled. “They were the coolest guys – like James Dean, you know? They wore black leather jackets with the collar up. I was honored. And they were so tight; you could really not get anything between the beats. It was really solid, solid music.”
“Bill played the Dano bass and was amazing,” said Brian Wilson. “He played really great bass and I got the best from him because you can get the slightly higher sound out of the Dano and I’d double him with Ray Pohlman, and put Ray on the bottom and Bill on top and you’ve got two great bass parts. Bill Pitman could really cook.”
Pitman was born in New Jersey. His dad was a staff-musician bassist at NBC for 24 years.
“He was also in demand as a freelancer, so there were times when we rarely saw him. We moved to New York because he was so busy. He’d have basses stashed around four or five studios so he could jump in a cab and run from one gig to another. He did four or five radio shows and was playing movie sound tracks and recordings, making a thousand dollars a week during the depths of the Depression. That’s how busy he was.”
“My first guitar was a short-scale instrument Dad commissioned John D’Angelico to build for me. Of course, it was beautiful and I fell in love with it. In high school, I was hanging out with two guys who went on to become major jazz names – (trumpeter) Shorty Rogers and (drummer) Shelly Manne. We’d play music all day, then go listen to Charlie Parker. I took lessons from a guy named John Cali, who used to rap my knuckles when I made a mistake. I didn’t like him, but I had to be prepared, and the stuff he gave me wasn’t easy. He told my father that I had talent but I was lazy (laughs), so my dad said, ‘Do what you have to do.’ And dammit, Cali did.”
Amongst guitarists, Charlie Christian was the one who first captivated a young Bill Pitman. “Later, in L.A., I studied with the great Allan Reuss because I loved harmony so much. Now, I try to emulate (jazz pianist) Bill Evans. I loved Charlie’s playing so much, but, harmonically, he didn’t interest me as much as Allan Reuss and George Van Eps. And when I first met Howard Roberts, I found that we both loved Van Eps’ and Reuss’ playing. Howard would play in Van Eps’ style, only using more-modern changes. That got me excited and I began investigating the harmonic structure of chords and using them to express myself when I was soloing and creating lines. It’s a fascinating study. So, Howard and I would work out wonderful things, and he could play that style better than George.
“I was also influenced by Eddie Lang, who was one of my first heroes. And I love Django – another wonderful talent with an outrageous personality. I revere him to this day.
“But, as a kid in the Bronx, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne and Eddie Bert, who became a noted trombone player, and I would play all the time. Shorty would get us a gig for which we’d each get fifty cents. Then we’d head to a deli and have a chocolate coke and talk about the band. It was a wonderful time and a great place to grow up.
“My first union card was from Local 802, for which you had to pass a test. They put music in front of me and I played it, then told me to play something without the music, but before I could, one said, ‘Oh, he’s Keith Pitman’s kid?’ ‘Well, okay.’ I got my card right away and started to work casuals. Then, my career was interrupted by the war.”
Pitman spent five years in the U.S. Army Air Corps, serving in India nearly four of those years, helping delivering gasoline to the Chinese. “I was a radio operator,” he said. “Finally, after I’d flown all those missions, a colonel wanted a band for the officers’ and enlisted men’s clubs, so they looked through the records of the 5,000 guys on the base and found those who’d played professionally. I wrote about 20 arrangements and was sent to Calcutta with carte blanche to purchase instruments. I had fun doubling guitar and trumpet.”
Paying Dues in L.A.
After his hitch, Pitman attended the L.A. Conservatory of Music and Art. There, he met his first wife, a singing student. They were together 18 years and had three children.
“I went on the G.I. Bill, but my wife got pregnant about six months before I finished my degree, so I had to go to work. I didn’t know anything except how to play the guitar, but I had no contacts in the business.”
Through a friend, Pitman got a job in a pipe-bending factory, where he worked for three years. A party at his boss’ house changed that.
“There was a guitar, and I began to play,” he recalled. “The boss really liked it, and he called me to his office the next morning and told me a story that changed my life. He’d always had a dream of being a farmer and said, ‘Bill, after working here for three years, you don’t know one end of a screwdriver from the other. It’s just not your thing. If I were you, I’d take a chance on your talent.’
“So, my wife said she’d get a job at General Motors if I’d promise to practice eight hours a day on what I needed to learn to be competitive. There were really no good guitar books then, so I got books for clarinet, viola, and oboe – instruments in the guitar’s range. But I sweated five and six days a week. Finally, one night I decided to go to a club and hear a group with a guitar player. I thought, ‘This guy plays well, but I think I can play better.’ I started to frequent different places and found one where Laurindo Almeida was working with Peggy Lee. He sounded so good. I went over to him and told him how wonderful I thought he sounded. Then, he mentioned going to South America in two weeks and asked if I was a good player. I said I thought so, and that I could read well.”
Almeida set up an audition for Bill with Lee’s group at her house in Coldwater Canyon. Larry Bunker played drums, Buddy Clark was on bass, and Lou Levy was on piano.
“We played a few and had a nice time, and later that evening, Peggy’s manager called and said the band would like to have me join. That was my start. It was 1951.”
After working three years with Lee, Pitman received an offer to play a five-days-per-week radio gig on “The Rusty Draper Show.” It was a steady $250 a week as well as outside work with one of the girl singers. Soon, session guitarist Tony Rizzi got wind of his ability and asked if he could hold a 2 p.m. date for him at Capitol until 2:30. The gig paid Pitman $25 and was harbinger of a career of steady session work. “I was making $400 a week just doing favors for guys – Howard Roberts, Jack Marshall, Al Hendrickson, Bob Bain, and Bobby Gibbons all called me to fill in, and that’s how I got started in the studios. And the next thing I knew I was calling guys to fill in for me. So there’s a lot to be said for being in the right place at the right time, and being prepared.”
Tedesco, Pitman, and the Studio Years
The fix was in. Pitman’s daily schedule was booked solid and indicative of a reliable, creative session guitarist. He’d realized his goal and was living a rewarding, lucrative life, artistically and monetarily. Moreover, it was an era when he and Tommy Tedesco became close friends while playing hundreds of sessions together. In fact, on occasions when union rules were bent, either could be counted on to raise the sometimes awkward issue of overtime. Tedesco was nicknamed “King Salt,” while Pitman was “Junior Salt.” “If for some reason, King Salt didn’t say something, Junior Salt certainly would,” said Pitman. Their fellow session musicians were forever grateful for one of their own standing up for the deserved compensation that so many producers would often conveniently forget.
In 1963, when Phil Spector produced the enormously popular “Be My Baby,” he titled the jam session on the flip side “Tedesco and Pitman,” honoring two of his favorite guitarists.
If you’re lucky enough to have or find a copy of an album titled Guitars Incorporated, you’ll hear Pitman put the Dano through its paces in ensemble arrangements written by Marty Paich, Dave Grusin, Johnny Mandel, and Jack Marshall. “We made those recordings featuring Tommy playing the lead parts, sometimes on a Fender mandolin tuned like a guitar. Al Hendrickson, Howard Roberts, Bob Bain, Bobby Gibbons, and Tony Rizzi played rhythm and harmony parts. I was always on the Dano bass. They’re some of the most intricate and extraordinary guitar ensemble recordings ever created. How could we miss, with those four arrangers? They were among the best in the world.”
Movies and Television
Pitman played on more that 200 film scores and still receives money from the Motion Picture Royalty Fund, especially for popular films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. “That netted me about $3,200 a year for a long time,” he said. “Funny, it really did well in Russia. It’s like walking outside once a year and finding several thousand dollars in the street.”
Pitman also receives money from ASCAP because he wrote the music for a handful of “Star Trek” episodes. “I get checks because they’re playing all over the world. I shared that show with Howard (Roberts). It was originally his, but when he couldn’t make it, I’d do it.
“You don’t get paid on the back end for filmed TV. But I did ‘The Glen Campbell Show’ for three and a half years and got residuals for a couple of years afterward for summer reruns, getting 75 percent of original pay. I did ‘The Sonny and Cher Show,’ too; and ‘The Wild, Wild West” for five years, but I don’t get a dime because it was filmed. Same with ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘Green Acres.’ And oh yeah, Tommy and I did ‘Bonanza.’ We had so much fun.
“So many guitarists can claim they played the ‘Bonanza’ theme because the union fixed it so it had to be re-recorded every season. It just happened that often a different guy would get the call every year.”
Bill was fortunate enough to get calls from the best composers and arrangers in the business. He lists a number of his favorites. “I loved Marty Paich, Dave Grusin, Johnny Mandel, and Neal Hefti. Dennis Budimir and I did ‘The Odd Couple’ for Neal and I worked on a couple of westerns with him. I loved his taste because he could say so much with just a few notes. He was wonderful. I also loved working with George Dunning, at Disney, and Jerry Goldsmith, who’s a great, great writer. He did the score for the film Chinatown.
“I have fond memories of playing ‘The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour’ because Marty Paich had a huge orchestra. I did that show with Larry Carlton, who was basically a rock player, but could play jazz and read very well. He’s a big talent.
“I was a freelance player my entire studio career. I had an answering service and a cartage service that yanked my instruments and amps from one studio to another. In those days, the record companies picked it up because you had to have five or six instruments and amps and be ready to play whenever they wanted. And you couldn’t carry all that stuff around because sometimes you couldn’t find a place to park within 10 blocks.”
Though Pitman played hundreds of rock and pop sessions, he found relatively few of them rewarding.
“Five minutes after I was out of the studio, I couldn’t have told you which song we’d played or who the date was for. It was strictly a matter of making a living. When I got a call for the Beach Boys, I gave them what they wanted, then got the hell out. As a matter of fact, when we did ‘Good Vibrations,’ I didn’t know which tune we were doing because it took so long. Brian kept coming in at midnight and would get hungry, then order Italian food for us, and finally say he was too tired to work. He’d say, ‘Barbara, pay the guys and give them double scale and we’ll do it again tomorrow.’ So, sometimes it was hard to take it seriously. So many of the pop tunes then, except from a couple of groups like Steely Dan, weren’t rewarding. But Steely Dan is a far cry from Jan and Dean.”
“I got a phone call one day, from Phil Spector’s mother, who asked if I’d take on her son as a student,” Pitman recalls. “I told her I had no time, but she began to beg. So, I took him on – Saturday mornings. He didn’t display a lot a natural talent, and he had no meter. He just couldn’t feel time. He’d be three or four beats late or come in several beats early, and had no idea where a bar would begin or end. I considered it a challenge, but knew if someone has no meter there’s just no way they can be a musician.”
“I give him credit – he worked very hard and was such a nice kid. But on the final day of the three months that I taught him, he said, ‘Bill, I need an honest answer.’ And he looked so pathetic and sincere that I knew what he was going to ask. He said, ‘Do I have any chance at all of becoming a jazz guitarist?’ I said, ‘Phil, I’m not God and can’t tell you what anyone can or can’t do, but you just can’t feel time.’ He said, ‘I know… I come in early or late and it doesn’t occur to me what I’m doing wrong.’ He said he was studying to be a court reporter, and I encouraged him to work on that.
“About a year later, when I was working on ‘The Rusty Draper Show,’ Phil asked me to pass along a demo of a song he’d written to anyone who might be interested. I asked one of the singers, who was an arranger, if he’d do this kid a favor and listen to it. The next day, he came back excited and wanted to meet Phil and subsequently had several meetings with him about raising money to produce it. But Phil had already lined up someone else. Later, I got a call from someone representing Phil and asking if I could play a session at Goldstar Studios. Sure enough, we recorded ‘To Know Him is to Love Him,’ and it was a monster hit. It was a song he wrote in memory of his dad. I did all his sessions on the West Coast and he’d also use Howard Roberts, Tommy Tedesco, Al Hendrickson, and Barney Kessel. Barney had also given lessons to Phil, and typical of Barney, he wisecracked, ‘Phil, you have no talent for music. You should become a producer.’
“Guys who can’t play well often become band leaders or contractors. I preferred playing sessions with the more-sophisticated jazz artists like Marty Paich, Dave Grusin, Johnny Mandel, or certain movie studio writers like Alex North or Jerry Goldsmith.
“I also worked with some great singers. I did [part of] ‘Strangers in the Night,’ with Sinatra. Jim Bowen produced it and Ernie Freeman was the conductor and wrote the arrangement. Dennis Budimir and I played on ‘The Way We Were’ for Streisand, and I did many Peggy Lee sessions. I did all of Karen Carpenter’s records – she played drums on those dates. I also recorded with Al Martino and played on ‘That’s Amore’ for Dean Martin. I worked with Mel Torme, with Marty Paich. I get chills when I mention that because it was so great. Marty also conducted an album I did for Ray Charles. And, like all of the guys, whenever we got a good call, we’d get excited because we could stretch a bit and it was so gratifying. I’d often get to ad lib solos, so it was wonderful being part of something excellent. I loved Dave Grusin’s playing. He has such taste and we got along very well together, which sometimes doesn’t happen between piano players and guitar players. You’re both doing the same thing in essence because they’re chordal instruments, and you’re doing the same job but trying to stay out of each other’s way.
“One of my fondest memories was working on those classic Howard Roberts Capitol albums.”
One gig that was particularly stressful, ultimately had a handsome payoff.
“We were sitting on the date, and the music hadn’t arrived. The conductor, Julian Davidson, was starting to sweat, and he approached me, saying, ‘Bill, the name of this thing today is ‘Far Out Jam.’ They’re in space and meet musicians from another planet… We don’t have any music because the composer is sick. Can you help?’ Then, he told me it would be worth my while because I’d get residuals. I took an hour and came up with something as far out as I could. Julian liked it, so we had it down by the end of a three-hour session. And even though it was filmed TV, I get royalties as a writer, not a musician.”
The King Himself
Pitman worked with Elvis Presley many times – live, on TV shows, and on three films. One indelible moment happened working in the orchestra. “I was backstage, talking with the Jordanaires, when Elvis approached and said, ‘Mr. Pitman, I want you to know how honored I am to have you working with us tonight.’ I was flabbergasted that he knew my name or that I was even alive. Then, I got the signal, and told him that I had to get to the bandstand. He said ‘Yeah, I guess it’s about time for my sexhibition.’ It was poignant, and sometimes I think he would have been happier just driving a truck.
Looking at him, it’s hard to believe he’s nearly 95. He still shoots his age on the golf course and plays guitar every day, mostly his Gibson ES-330.
“I like to re-harmonize tunes in the fashion of Bill Evans. I’ll never stop doing that. I love to experiment and find out what more can be gotten out of the instrument.”
Spoken like a true artist.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s May 2015 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.