Bill Pitman

Bill Pitman
Bill Pitman: Brian Lawson.

One of the last surviving members of the record industry’s famed Wrecking Crew, Bill Pitman died at his home in LaQuinta, California, on August 11, 2022. He was 102 and fractured his spine in a fall that ultimately caused his demise.

Until recently, Pitman’s wife, Jan, said he played guitar daily, often exploring Bill Evans compositions, and would frequently shoot his age on the golf course.

Perhaps no one personified the unsung studio musician as well as Bill Pitman. Few (if any) logged more recording sessions and fewer still were more-instrumental in creating our culture’s musical soundtrack. His 40-year career included playing on TV shows such as “The Wild, Wild West,” “King of the Hill,” ‘I Love Lucy,” “Sonny and Cher,” “Ironside,” “Star Trek,” “The Deputy,” and hundreds more. His 200-plus film credits include M*A*S*H, Jerry McGuire, Austin Powers, Omega Man, Paint Your Wagon, Dirty Dancing, and Forrest Gump.

Moreover, he did numerous record dates with jazz giants Marty Paich, Howard Roberts, Nat Cole, Shelly Manne, Peggy Lee, Mel Tormé, Frank Sinatra, and many others in addition to the hundreds of pop-record dates with the Wrecking Crew, often on the six-string Danelectro bass – sessions for the Beach Boys, Byrds, Everly Brothers, Mamas and Papas, and hundreds of Phil Spector dates. Pitman once gave a teenaged Phil Spector guitar lessons, advising him that because he couldn’t count time, he would never become a jazz guitarist.

On a September, 2013, episode of “Late Night with David Letterman,” the host once mentioned to guest Cher that he’d just enjoyed watching The Wrecking Crew documentary, which chronicled the coterie of musicians who helped create many of her records and hundreds of other hits. She responded by naming A-List players such as Leon Russell, Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Al Casey, and Tommy Tedesco. But the first name she mentioned was “Billy Pitman.” 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. And on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” in 2012, Roger McGuinn recalled recording the Byrd’s first hit, “Mr. Tambourine Man” with the Wrecking Crew.

“They were the coolest guys – like James Dean, you know? They wore black leather jackets with the collars turned up,” McGuinn said. “And they were so tight; you couldn’t get anything in between the beats. It was so solid.”

Brian Wilson once said, “Bill played the Dano bass and was so amazing. Bill could really cook!”

Pitman was born in New York in 1920, the child of Keith and Irma Pitman; the former was primary bassist at NBC and made a handsome living during the Great Depression, playing radio shows and recording dates. Young Bill and his pals, Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne, grew up playing music together and would often sneak into clubs to listen to Charlie Parker.

During World War II, Pitman spent five years in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a radio operator, flying numerous combat missions over the Himalayas.

After the war, Pitman attended music school on the G.I. Bill in L.A. where, in 1951, Laurindo Almeida scored him a gig with Peggy Lee. Soon after, Pitman was offered a radio gig on “The Rusty Draper Show,” which netted him a steady $250 a week as well as outside work, signaling a career of steady session dates. He was soon making over $400 per week filling in for established players. Before long, Pitman became a first-call player.

Many of today’s players cite Pitman as someone they’ve admired for decades.

“Bill came from that school of musicians I so admired,” said producer and guitarist Richard Bennett. “He’s long remembered as part of the Wrecking Crew, but his recording work pre-dates that era by nearly a decade. And there’s his Danelectro bass. How could you not love ‘The Lonely Surfer’? He probably didn’t, but I sure do.”

“Bill was a master musician whom we’ll miss greatly,” added Wrecking Crew producer Don Randi.

Contemporary smooth-jazz guitarist Thom Rotella said, “I remember as a kid seeing Bill’s name on the back of albums; he’s the last of the studio giants from the Wrecking Crew.”

“He was part of Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound,’” added guitarist Louie Shelton. “He did ‘Be My Baby,’ ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,’ and few people are aware he played ukulele on ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’.”

“Bill didn’t seek the ‘guitar god’ spotlight, but instead enjoyed an amazing career as a total pro,” said session veteran Tim May, while fellow session great Mitch Holder added, “There was an obvious reason that Howard Roberts chose Bill to play rhythm on many of his Capitol albums. Just listen to them. RIP Bill. I imagine he’s out on the golf course by now or working on re-harmonizing another Bill Evans piece!”

This article originally appeared in VG’s October 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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