Guitarist Billy Strange and the Elvis Presley years
Guitarist-arranger-songwriter Billy Strange, who died Tuesday at 81 in Nashville, was a fixture on the L.A. music scene in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, a good chunk of which the Long Beach native spent among the group of studio musicians who later would be known as the Wrecking Crew.
That was also the time that Elvis Presley was working extensively in Hollywood on his film career, during which he and Strange became good friends, and Strange landed the role of musical arranger on three of The King’s late-'60s films.
That relationship to Presley led Strange and lyricist Mac Davis to team up and write “A Little Less Conversation,” for the movie “Live a Little, Love a Little.”
“I remember playing ‘Conversation’ for Elvis and he seemed to have a great time with it,” Strange told the Washington Post in 2002. “The song’s not a world-beater, but Elvis loved it and he peformed it in his Las Vegas nightclub act for years.”
He was talking about a 33-year-old song in 2002 because it had returned to the charts again in a remix by Amsterdam DJ Junkie XL. That version made it only to No. 50 in the U.S.—still higher than the original recording’s chart peak of No. 69 in 1969 — but went to No. 1 in Britain, which earned it a bonus spot on the hits compilation “Elvis 30 #1 Hits,” released that year (but assembled before “Conversation” had reached the top of the pops overseas).
The song's return to the charts brought it a whole new fan base — thanks also to its appearance in the all-star remake of the film “Ocean’s Eleven.” Strange said, “I’m thrilled to have written a hit song so old it has whiskers, and now it’s vibrant and everybody’s loving it again.” The income bump from the increased songwriting royalties was good news too: “It’s going to help with the house payments.”
One reason there was room for Strange and other studio players at those movie music sessions with Presley was that his original guitarist -- Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Scotty Moore -- was so put off by the pedestrian material that he bowed out of participating in many of them, Moore told The Times several years ago.
“Elvis’ records were always lesser than what he was vocally,” Strange said in the same interview. “He had more talent than he was ever able to show, particularly with the motion picture songs, which were not very good material. He was never happy with them, and therefore did not perform them well.”
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: Billy Strange in the recording studio with Elvis Presley in the 1960s. Credit: billystrangemusic.com