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Bucky Pizzarelli 1926–2020

A session man par excellence and master of the seven-string guitar dies at 94

Bucky Pizzarelli
Bucky Pizzarelli, The Cutting Room, NYC, June 2014 (photo: Jeff Tamarkin)

Bucky Pizzarelli, a celebrated guitarist whose collaborators ranged from Vaughn Monroe and Benny Goodman to Ben E. King and Paul McCartney, died April 1 at his home in Saddle River, New Jersey. He was 94.

His death was announced by his son John Pizzarelli, another frequent collaborator, who said that the cause of death was coronavirus, with which the elder Pizzarelli had been diagnosed on March 29.

Pizzarelli was faceless for most of his 75-year career, working with big bands, television ensembles, session musicians, and vocalists’ orchestras. When he was nearly 50 the guitarist began to gain a reputation with the public, getting notice first for a duo act with fellow guitarist George Barnes and then on his own, either leading his own bands or playing solo guitar.

He was a pioneer in jazz for his use of the seven-string guitar, which allowed him to play bass parts simultaneously with understated chords and single-note lines. The unusual instrument aside, he was known for his tasteful style, with chord-based solos that nodded more to rhythm guitarists like Freddie Green (whom he cited as his major influence) than melodists like Wes Montgomery.

Asked in his mid-eighties by writer George Cole about his approach to music, Pizzarelli replied, “Every day I get up and I try to correct what I screwed up the night before!”

John Paul Pizzarelli was born January 9, 1926 in Paterson, New Jersey. His parents, John and Amelia DiDomenico Pizzarelli, owned a grocery store—although his father had previously been a ranch hand in Texas and was obsessed with cowboys. He nicknamed his baby son “Buckskin,” which was shortened to Bucky and stuck for life.

Two of Pizzarelli’s uncles played guitar and banjo, and young Bucky decided to be a musician when he saw his uncle Bobby, the guitarist, working in big bands (and making big money despite the Great Depression). He began playing the guitar himself when he was nine, with his uncles as his first teachers.

Outside his family, Pizzarelli’s musical models were Green, Django Reinhardt, and two guitarists associated with Benny Goodman: Charlie Christian, the first great electric guitarist in jazz, and George Van Eps, the first to play a seven-string guitar. Through these gateways, Pizzarelli became a deep scholar of jazz guitar, able to outline its history and key players chapter and verse.

At 17, he joined singer Vaughn Monroe’s dance band and went on the road. After only a few months, however, he was drafted into the U.S. Army infantry, seeing action in Germany and Austria in the few months before the end of the European phase of World War II. He went to the Philippines to mobilize for an invasion of Japan—which, because of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, never came. After his 1946 discharge, he rejoined Monroe.

Pizzarelli went in 1952 to NBC Television, working in the orchestra for singer Kate Smith’s program. When that ended, he joined pop band the Three Suns for two years, then became a New York session player—appearing, uncredited, on massive hit records such as Dion and the Belmonts’ “A Teenager in Love,” Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind,” and Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.”

He returned in 1964 to NBC, where he became the guitarist in the Tonight Show band. In 1972, when the show’s production moved to Los Angeles, Pizzarelli stayed behind. He had already formed a duo with guitarist George Barnes, winning considerable acclaim and a sizable following at the Playboy Club. (They also performed a much-lauded concert at Town Hall in 1971, later released as an album on Columbia Records.) After breaking with Barnes, Pizzarelli started playing solo gigs and became a success. He soon began recording regularly as a leader.

In 1980, Pizzarelli and his son John, a guitarist and vocalist, began a four-week residency at the Pierre Hotel in New York. It was the beginning of a 40-year collaboration between father and son, who made numerous records together and toured frequently, sometimes with other players but more often just as a duo. Pizzarelli also worked over the years with another son, bassist Martin, and his daughter, Mary, yet another (classical) guitarist.

In addition to Benny Goodman, with whom Pizzarelli worked regularly from 1966 until Goodman’s death in 1986, his high-profile gigs included two performances at the White House under Ronald Reagan—one for the president of Italy, the other for the King of Jordan—and a third under Bill Clinton, as well as a performance at former First Lady Pat Nixon’s birthday party. In 2012, he (and son John) appeared on Paul McCartney’s standards album Kisses on the Bottom.

Besides his sons John and Martin and daughter Mary, Pizzarelli is survived by another daughter, Anne Hymes, and four grandchildren. (His wife of 66 years, the former Ruth Litchult, passed away a week after him, also of COVID-19.)

John Pizzarelli told USA Today that the family will hold “some kind of tribute as soon as we can all get within 6 feet of each other.”

Read a 1999 JazzTimes profile of Bucky Pizzarelli by Gene Lees. Originally Published

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.