The history of session musicians goes back to the 1920s and ’30s, when the major record labels each had their own “studio bands” that could quickly crank out the latest pop hits. Many of the musicians were in working bands that played at clubs late into the night, but they would show up at recording studios or radio stations during the day. Most were uncredited, and many went on to have successful careers in big bands and jazz combos.
As the decades rolled on, and specifically since the 2008 release of the film The Wrecking Crew, which documents the Los Angeles-based group of musicians who played on almost every major release from Phil Spector’s productions to the Beach Boys and Byrds’ albums along with literally hundreds of hit singles from the ’60s and ’70s, there’s been a renewed interest and spotlight on these unsung heroes.
While other books and films have come out in the past few years covering the studios and players in places like Muscle Shoals, Memphis, Detroit, and Nashville, it’s interesting that there hasn’t been much written about New York’s long historical recording tradition. The writing on Manhattan’s music industry has mostly been focused on the songwriting tradition from Tin Pan Alley to the Brill Building and the business acumen of the hundreds of record labels and radio and TV shows that were based there. But back in the day, there were probably more session musicians per square foot on the island than anyplace else in the world.
About three and half years ago, I wrote an article for No Depression on a New York-based singer-songwriter named Emily Mure who had just released her first album, and in our exchange of information and conversational emails, I learned she was the granddaughter of Billy Mure, a musician, producer, and arranger who has a cult following among “retro-billy” guitarists and was one of those people who had a quietly successful career lending his incredible talent to a long string of hits by other artists.
The first record he played on that made it to number one was “Rag Mop” by the Ames Brothers in 1950, a cover version of a song written by Bob Wills’ younger brother Johnnie Lee and Deacon Anderson. While the latter’s version was driven by a smokin’ pedal steel guitar riff, the Ames Brothers’ pop cover with Billy Mure comes riding along with a short classic solo 49 seconds in. That precedes by a year “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner, which some consider the first rock record. Billy may have beat that clock.
Born in 1915 in New York, Mure was playing violin by the time he turned five and moved to guitar in his late teens. Prior to World War II he played with several society orchestras on the high-end club and resort circuits. He learned arranging while in the military, working with the Air Force Band playing both string bass and tuba, and he lived in North Carolina for a spell before heading back to New York. He worked in the studio orchestra for radio station WNEW for 10 years while also doing a number of other gigs around town. By the late ’50s, he came up with the concept of Supersonic Guitars, which led to a string of albums for RCA and MGM. Jazz legend Bucky Pizzarelli picks up the story for Vintage Guitar:
“Billy was so busy. He was on WNEW, doing 15-minute radio shows all day long, and between those shows he was doing three record dates a day. I don’t know how he squeezed it all in, but he was a workhorse. There were a lot of dates where Billy was the arranger, and it would be Billy, George Barnes, and me. On the Supersonic stuff, he had more like five guitars – including me on (Danelectro six-string) bass guitar, Al Caiola, Tony Mottola, Al Casimenti, Don Arnone, and himself. Billy had his own style, and he wrote things out for the other guitars; sometimes George was the soloist.”
In that same article, retro-billy Deke Dickerson adds this:
“Undoubtedly, Billy Mure could lead an orchestra, read charts, and play a jazz gig, but just give a listen to ‘Tiger Guitars’ and tell me he’s not one of the great unsung rock and roll electric guitarists of the 1950s.”
I’ll get back to the Supersonic Guitars, but just to give you you a taste of Billy’s contribution to so many classic pop songs of the ‘50s and ‘60s, here’s just a few songs he played on that hit number one on the charts:
Paul Anka – “Diana”
Frankie Laine – “Rawhide”
Eddie Fisher – “Oh My Papa”
Marty Robbins – “White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation”
Bobby Darin – “Splish Splash”
Rosemary Clooney – “Come on-a My House”
Guy Mitchell – “Heartaches By The Numbers”
Perez Prado – “Patricia”
Tony Bennett – “Because of You” and “Cold Cold Heart”
Johnny Mathis – “Chances Are”
Patti Page – “How Much Is That Doggy In The Window”
Bryan Hyland – “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”
Johnny Ray – “Cry”
As a producer, Mure also had top ten success with Marcie Blaine and “Bobby’s Girl,” Ray Peterson’s “Tell Laura I Love Her,” and this one by a 17-year-old Bobbie Freeman:
Back to the aforementioned Supersonic Guitar series, Mure came up with that concept in 1957 and it was a hard-rockin’ offshoot to the short-lived craze of space-age pop that included exotica, bachelor pad, jet-set pop, cocktail, outsider, and other incredible strange music. Once again ahead of the curve, I would describe it as post-rockabilly and pre-surf.
In early August of 1959, MGM Records’ sales and promotion team traveled down to the Bahamas for their annual convention, led by my cousin Arnold Maxin, who at the time was president of the label. I can imagine that there was plenty of hard drinking, chasing women, playing golf or poker, and the occasional meeting and speeches. Billboard magazine reported that they dubbed their convention “The Profitonic Plan” and noted that Mure’s Supersonic Guitars album would be one of their strong sales leaders.
Two weeks later, Billboard gave it a four-star review, noting the five guitar players and three drummers, the danceable tunes, fine sound reproduction with interesting tone effects, and a cover that was an “eye-catcher” showing a jet breaking the sound barrier would be a sales winner. MGM also got similar reviews for two other artists in the release cycle: orchestra leader David Rose and Maurice Chevalier’s tribute to Al Jolson.
Unfortunately, none of these three albums made much noise on the charts, but a new girl singer named Connie Francis was the breakout, and Mure played on those sessions. MGM’s Supersonic Guitars (SE 3780) album was the last in the series that was ever released, yet through the years Mure found a number of projects to work on that ranged from instrumentals, novelty albums, budget product, children’s music, and many other session and production gigs. He was also a guitarist on TV shows by Jimmy Dean, Perry Como, and Barbra Streisand.
On September 25, 2013, Billy Mure passed away at the age of 97. As reported in Vintage Guitar, when he turned 64 he relocated to Florida. His son Gary reported that “he started playing solo guitar in a lounge, and that resurrected his career. In New York, he’d gotten replaced by the younger guys, but he was playing all over the restaurant circuit in Florida – sometimes two or three times a week, every week, up until his death.”
It was shortly after his passing that I came across Emily Mure’s Odyssey album and I reached out to her. In our correspondence I was very touched by how proud she was of her grandfather, and it has stayed with me over the years. When we recently had the chance to meet and stood together talking and catching up, I promised her that I was going to write the story of Billy Mure. And I’m going to let her own words close it out.
“My grandfather started playing music at 5 years old and played gigs regularly up until a couple of weeks before he passed. He came down for my release show in July and gifted me his banjo that Arthur Godfrey gave to him.
One week before he passed, we went to visit him down in Florida. I was fortunate enough to play some of my songs for him at his bedside. The man was almost completely deaf at that point, but he asked for my song “This Place,” one of his favorites from my new album, Odyssey, and he sang along with me on some of the “oooo’s” in the song.
He sang some of his own songs and we sang with him, and he asked to play my guitar, which he did from his bed. He passed peacefully at 97 years old, just a month and a half shy of his 98th birthday, with loved ones by his side.”
This one’s for Billy.
This article was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column, posted on No Depression dot com.