Bill Pitman, revered studio guitarist, is dead at 102

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Bill Pitman, revered studio guitarist, is dead at 102
As a versatile member of the loose association of musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, he was heard on many of the biggest pop and rock hits of the 1960s and ’70s.

NEW YORK, NY.- Bill Pitman, a guitarist who accompanied Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand and others from the late 1950s to the ’70s, and who for decades was heard on the soundtracks of countless Hollywood films and television shows, died Thursday night at his home in La Quinta, California. He was 102.

His wife, Janet Pitman, said he died after four weeks at a rehabilitation center in Palm Springs, where he was treated for a fractured spine suffered in a fall, and the past week at home under hospice care.

Virtually anonymous outside the music world but revered within it, Pitman was a member of what came to be called the Wrecking Crew — a loosely organized corps of peerless Los Angeles freelancers who were in constant demand by record producers to back up headline performers. As an ensemble, they turned routine recording sessions and live performances into extraordinary musical moments.

Examples abound: Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night” (1966). Presley’s “Blue Hawaii” (1961). Streisand’s “The Way We Were” (1973). The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (1963). The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” (1966). On “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” from the Paul Newman-Robert Redford hit movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969), Pitman played ukulele.

In a career of nearly 40 years, Pitman played countless gigs for studios and record labels that dominated the pop charts but rarely credited the performers behind the stars. The Wrecking Crew did almost everything: television and film scores; pop, rock and jazz arrangements; even cartoon soundtracks. Whether recorded in a studio or on location, everything was performed with precision and pizazz.

“These were crack session players who moved effortlessly through many different styles: pop, jazz, rockabilly, but primarily the two-minute-thirty-second world of hit records that America listened to all through the sixties and seventies,” Allegro magazine reminisced in 2011. “If it was a hit and recorded in LA, the Wrecking Crew cut the tracks.”

Jumping from studio to studio — often playing four or five sessions a day — members of the crew accompanied the Beach Boys, Sonny & Cher, the Monkees, the Mamas & 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 scads more — nearly every prominent performer of the era.

The pace was relentless, Pitman recalled in Denny Tedesco’s 2008 documentary, “The Wrecking Crew.”

“You leave the house at 7 in the morning, and you’re at Universal at 9 till noon,” he said. “Now you’re at Capitol Records at 1. You just got time to get there, then you got a jingle at 4, then we’re on a date with somebody at 8, then the Beach Boys at midnight, and you do that five days a week.”

Pitman was heard on the soundtracks of some 200 films, including Robert Altman’s Korean War black comedy “M*A*S*H” (1970), Amy Heckerling’s comedy “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982), Emile Ardolino’s romantic musical drama “Dirty Dancing” (1987) and Martin Scorsese’s gangster fable “Goodfellas” (1990).

On television, Pitman’s Danelectro bass guitar was heard for years on “The Wild Wild West.” He 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 other shows. He was credited with composing music for early episodes of the original “Star Trek” series.

While generally indifferent toward rock, colleagues said, Pitman played it well, sometimes expressing surprise at the success of his work in that genre. He was far more enthusiastic about jazz, especially the work of composers and arrangers like Marty Paich, Dave Grusin and Johnny Mandel.

Pitman, who grew up in New York City and had music tutors from the time he was 6 years old, came home 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 composing, and essentially taught himself the skills of a master guitarist.

In 1951, at a club where Peggy Lee was singing, he met guitar virtuoso Laurindo Almeida, who was quitting Lee’s band. After an audition, Pitman was hired to take Almeida’s place, and his career was launched.

In 1954 he joined singer Rusty Draper’s daily radio show. Three years later, he sat in for guitarist Tony Rizzi at a recording date for Capitol Records. It was his big break.

Word soon got around about the comer who could improvise with the best. 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 studio musicians included drummer Hal Blaine, guitarists Tommy Tedesco and Glen Campbell (before he had a hit-making singing career), bassists Carol Kaye and Joe Osborn, and 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 “wall of sound” approach, who regularly employed them.

While not publicly recognized in its era, this ensemble is viewed with reverence today by music historians and insiders. Blaine, who died in 2019, claimed that he named the Wrecking Crew. But Kaye insisted that he did not start using the name until years after its musicians stopped working together in the ’70s. In any case, there was no disagreement about Pitman’s contributions.

In his book “Conversations With Great Jazz and Studio Guitarists” (2009), Jim Carlton called Pitman a mainstay of the crew.

“Perhaps no one personifies the unsung studio player like Bill Pitman does,” he wrote. “Few guitarists have logged more recording sessions, and fewer still have enjoyed being such a legitimate part of America’s soundtrack.”

William Keith Pitman was born in Belleville, New Jersey, on Feb. 12, 1920, the only child of Keith and Irma (Kunze) Pitman. His father was a staff bassist for NBC Radio and a busy freelance player in New York; his mother was a Broadway dancer. The family moved to Manhattan when Bill was 6, and he attended the Professional Children’s School.

When he was 13, his parents split up. His mother joined a firm that made theater costumes. His father gave him guitar lessons, and young Bill played 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 many supply missions over the Himalayas from India to China during World War II.

In 1947, he married Mildred Hurty. They had three children and were divorced in the late 1960s. In the ’70s 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.

Pitman quit 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 staff of the MGM Grand Hotel, playing for headliners well into the ’80s. He also continued to play on film soundtracks until he retired in 1989.

Pitman performed professionally only once in retirement — at a memorial concert in 2001 in Pasadena, California, for an old friend, Julius Wechter, leader of the Baja Marimba Band. Wechter, who died in 1999, had Tourette syndrome and was a spokesman for people with the disorder.

Pitman continued writing arrangements, and at 99 he was still playing music — and golf.

“He plays the guitar at home just about every day,” his wife said in an interview for this obituary in 2019. “I am a bass player. We play only jazz. No rock ’n’ roll.”

As for golf, she said, “He can still beat me.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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