Bill Pitman, revered studio guitarist, dies at 102
Bill Pitman, a guitarist who accompanied Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand and others from the late 1950s through the 1970s, and who for decades was heard on the soundtracks of countless movies and TV shows Hollywood, died Thursday night at his home in La Quinta, Calif. He was 102 years old.
His wife, Janet Pitman, said he died after four weeks at a rehabilitation center in Palm Springs, where he was treated for a spinal fracture suffered in a fall, and last week at the palliative care home.
Virtually anonymous outside the music world but revered within it, Mr. Pitman was a member of what came to be called the Wrecking Crew – a loosely organized body of peerless Los Angeles freelancers who were constantly in demand by record producers. to support the big names. As an ensemble, they transformed routine recording sessions and live performances into extraordinary musical moments.
Examples abound: “Strangers in the Night” by Sinatra (1966). “Blue Hawaii” by Presley (1961). “The Way We Were” by Streisand (1973). “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes (1963). “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys (1966). On “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” from the hit Paul Newman-Robert Redford film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969), Mr. Pitman played the ukulele.
Over a career spanning nearly 40 years, Mr. Pitman played countless gigs for studios and record labels that topped the pop charts but rarely credited the performers behind the stars. The Wrecking Crew has done just about everything – TV and film scores; pop, rock and jazz arrangements; even cartoon soundtracks. Whether recorded in the studio or on location, everything was played with precision and piquancy.
“They were crack musicians who moved effortlessly through many different styles: pop, jazz, rockabilly, but mainly the world of the two minute thirty second hit records that America has listened to throughout the years. 60s and seventies,” Allegro magazine recalled in 2011. “If it was a hit and recorded in Los Angeles, the Wrecking Crew cut the pieces.”
Jumping from studio to studio – often playing four or five sessions a day – the team members backed the Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, the Monkees, the Mamas and the Papas, Simon and Garfunkel, Ricky Nelson, Jan and Dean, Johnny Rivers, the Byrds, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, the Everly Brothers, Peggy Lee and many more – almost all prominent artists of the time.
The pace was relentless, Mr Pitman recalled in Denny Tedesco’s 2008 documentary ‘The Wrecking Crew’.
“You leave the house at 7 a.m. and you’re at Universal at 9 a.m. until noon,” he said. “Now you’re at Capitol Records at 1 a.m. You just have time to go, then you have a jingle at 4 a.m., then we have a date at 8 a.m., then the Beach Boys at midnight, and you do that five days a week.”
Mr. Pitman has been heard on the soundtracks of some 200 films, including Robert Altman’s dark Korean War comedy “M*A*S*H” (1970), the comedy “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” from ‘Amy Heckerling (1982), Emile Ardolino’s romantic comedy the musical drama “Dirty Dancing” (1987) and Martin Scorsese’s gangster fable “Goodfellas” (1990).
On TV, Mr. Pitman’s Danelectro bass guitar has been heard for years on “The Wild Wild West.” He has also worked on ‘I Love Lucy’, ‘Bonanza’, ‘The Deputy’, ‘Ironside’, ‘Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In’, ‘The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour’, ‘The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour’ and many others. other shows. He is credited with composing the music for the first episodes of the “Star Trek” original series.
Although generally indifferent to rock, his colleagues said, Mr. Pitman played it well, sometimes expressing surprise at the success of his work in the genre. He was much more enthusiastic about jazz, especially the work of composers and arrangers like Marty Paich, Dave Grusin and Johnny Mandel.
Mr. Pitman, who grew up in New York and had music teachers from the age of 6, returned from World War II and headed west determined to make a living in music. He attended the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, learned arranging and composition, and basically taught himself the skills of a master guitarist.
In 1951, at a club where Peggy Lee sang, he met guitar virtuoso Laurindo Almeida, who was leaving Mrs. Lee’s band. After an audition, Mr. Pitman was hired to replace Mr. Almeida, and his career was launched.
In 1954, he joined singer Rusty Draper’s daily radio show. Three years later, he replaced the guitarist Tony Rizi on a recording date for Capitol Records. It was his big break.
Word quickly spread about who could improvise with the best. Mr. Pitman got to know session guitarists Howard Roberts, Jack Marshall, Al Hendrickson, Bob Bain and Bobby Gibbons, and he was soon one of them.
His fellow session musicians included drummer Hal Blaine, guitarists Tommy Tedesco and Glen Campbell (before he had a successful singing career), bassists Carol Kaye and Joe Osbornand keyboardists Don Randi and Leon Russell (who also went on to a successful solo singing career). They coalesced around Phil Spector, the producer known for his “sound wall” approach, who employed them regularly.
Although not publicly recognized in its day, this ensemble is now regarded with reverence by music historians and insiders. Mr Blaine, who died in 2019, claimed to have named the Wrecking Crew. But Ms Kaye insisted he only started using the name years after his musicians stopped working together in the 70s. In any case, there was no disagreement over the contributions of Mr. Pitman.
In his book “Conversations With Great Jazz and Studio Guitarists” (2009), Jim Carlton called Mr. Pitman a pillar of the team. “Perhaps no one personifies the unsung studio player like Bill Pitman does,” he wrote. “Few guitarists have recorded more recording sessions, and even fewer have enjoyed being part of the American soundtrack.”
William Keith Pitman was born in Belleville, NJ on February 12, 1920, the only child of Keith and Irma (Kunze) Pitman. His father was a bassist for NBC Radio and a busy freelancer in New York; his mother was a Broadway dancer. The family moved to Manhattan when Bill was 6 years old and he attended children’s vocational school.
When he was 13, his parents separated. Her mother joined a company that made theatrical costumes. His father gave him guitar lessons, and young Bill gave 50-cent gigs with musicians who would later become famous, like trumpeter Shorty Rogers and drummer Shelly Manne. But his schoolwork at Haaren High School in Manhattan suffered and he dropped out. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1942, became a radio operator, and flew numerous supply missions over the Himalayas from India to China during World War II.
In 1947 he married Mildred Hurty. They had three children and divorced in the late 1960s. In the 1970s he married and divorced Debbie Yajacovic twice. In 1985, he married Janet Valentine and adopted her daughter, Rosemary.
Besides his wife, he is survived by his son, Dale; his daughters, Donna Simpson, Jean Langdon and Rosemary Pitman; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Mr. Pitman left session work in 1973 and went on the road, performing in concert with Burt Bacharach, Anthony Newley, Vikki Carr and others for several years. In the late 70s he moved to Las Vegas, where he joined the music team at the MGM Grand Hotel, playing for headliners well into the 80s. He also continued to play soundtracks of films until his retirement in 1989.
Mr. Pitman performed professionally only once in retirement – at a 2001 memorial concert in Pasadena, California, for an old friend, Jules Wechter, leader of the Baja Marimba group. Mr. Wechter, who died in 1999, suffered from Tourette syndrome and was an advocate for people with the condition.
Mr. Pitman continued to write arrangements and, at 99, he was still playing music and golf.
“He plays guitar at home almost every day,” his wife said in an interview for this obituary in 2019. “I’m a bassist. We only play jazz. No rock ‘n’ roll.” As for golf, she said, “He can still beat me.”