Bill Pitman Didn’t Like Rock ’n’ Roll. He Just Helped Shape It.
One of the awkward little secrets of early rock ’n’ roll is that many of the musicians who made it great had little or no use for it.
That doesn’t mean the singers or the writers, whose passion gave the music its furious energy — the energy that enabled it to outlast the smug declaration that it was a musical hula hoop destined to die the minute a shinier object appeared.
No, the musicians who looked down on rock ’n’ roll were some of the players in the studio and live bands, the professionals who had worked for, trained under or grown up with the big band and jazz music of the ’30s and ’40s. When the big bands broke up and the whole musical infrastructure changed after World War II, many of those musicians paid the bills by taking studio work — including backup for rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll artists.
These musicians, at least the best of them, had a level of musical sophistication that was legendary and deserved. So when they were handed the music for “Sh-Boom,” it’s not surprising they rolled their eyes.
Many of those musicians are gone now, and on Thursday we lost another one: Bill Pitman, a guitarist who was best known for his work with the famed Wrecking Crew studio ensemble, but who also worked behind artists from Peggy Lee to Frank Sinatra when he wasn’t playing the memorable music of The Wild, Wild West or plucking the ukulele for “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.”
Pitman, who was 102, said he started wanting to be a musician when he was 5. His father was a bass player and Bill auditioned instruments until he settled on the guitar. Eventually he would become a virtuoso on almost all stringed instruments, though he did said he was not quite as confident with the mandolin.
What he loved to play on those strings was jazz. He grew up listening to Charlie Parker, Eddie Lang, George Van Eps and other giants of the golden age. When he was well into his 90s, he told Vintage Guitar magazine, he still played every day, mostly on his Gibson ES-330.
“I like to re-harmonize tunes in the fashion of Bill Evans,” he said. “I’ll never stop doing that. I love to experiment and find out what more can be gotten out of the instrument.”
But much as he loved music, he also told Vintage Guitar, he had long since gotten everything there was to get out of his thousands of rock ’n’ roll sessions.
“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,” he said. “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 [Wilson] 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.”
It’s important to stress here that when we hear Bill Pitman’s guitar on records, from the Ronettes’s “Be My Baby” to the Byrds’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” to “Good Vibrations” or Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii,” we’re not hearing indifference. We’re hearing professionalism, the same quality musicians from the black bands brought to the rhythm and blues records of the ’50s. Dion DiMucci has talked about how those studio musicians thought this new stuff was pretty flimsy, yet at the same time made it more solid by their presence.
Being in demand, for Bill Pitman as for many others, meant he made a better living. Pitman’s story is a heartening one, starting when he talked his wife into getting a job at General Motors so he could quit his own job at a pipe-bending factory to spend all his time getting good at the guitar. That paid off when he went to a Peggy Lee show and struck up a conversation with Laurindo Almeida, Lee’s guitarist. That got his foot in the door, and after three years with Lee he spread his reputation further through a radio gig with popular singer Rusty Draper.
Lightning struck when Bertha Spector, Phil’s mother, bullied Pitman’s wife into making Pitman give young Phil guitar lessons.
Those lessons ended when Spector asked if he would ever become a jazz guitarist and Pitman told him frankly, kid, no. They parted amicably. Spector went on to become a serviceable guitarist — hear his playing in the Drifters’s “On Broadway” — and a big-shot record producer who hired Pitman as part of the Wrecking Crew for all his sessions.
After a crazy decade of constant work with The Wrecking Crew, Pitman segued to more movie and TV work, including the movie M*A*S*H. His TV resume went back to Bonanza and I Love Lucy, and his movie work would stretch out to Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Dirty Dancing.
In the studio, he backed artists like the Carpenters and Barbra Streisand, while trying to enhance his personal enjoyment by finding as many jazz gigs as he could.
It’s worth noting that at no time did he lose sight of the fact a significant part of his reward was the paycheck. In his Vintage Guitar interview he often recounted financial details from his line of work, like the fact he got ongoing royalties from Star Trek music, but nothing from Wild, Wild West “because it was filmed.”
He said his movie music royalties, from films like Butch Cassidy and Fast Times, netted him about $3,200 a year. “It’s like walking out the door once a year,” he said, “and finding several thousand dollars in the street.”
No one who knew Bill Pitman’s music would begrudge him a cent of that, and as a member of the Wrecking Crew, he might even be marginally more famous than most studio musicians. Like the Funk Brothers at Motown, the Wrecking Crew was smart to take a name. Still, studio players work in the shadows — territory where Pitman remains widely known today for, among other things, popularizing the Danelectro guitar, he played on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
For plain old music fans, what matters more is that he enhanced the stars of his generation, up to Sinatra, Streisand and Elvis. He recounted to Vintage Guitar how Elvis made a point one time of thanking him right before a live show, then added, “I guess it’s time for my sexhibition.”
“Sometimes,” said Pitman, “I think he would have been happier just driving a truck.”
Bill Pitman would not have been happier had he kept bending pipes. However he felt about rock ’n’ roll, what mattered was what he put in the grooves.