Lyle Ritz, Wrecking Crew Bassist, Dies at 87

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Lyle Ritz (r.) in the studio with Ray Charles

He started out as a virtuoso ukulelist—yes, that is an actual word, meaning one who plays the ukulele—but it was in his capacity as bassist for The Wrecking Crew that Lyle Ritz contributed to best-selling recordings by the likes of the Beach Boys, the Monkees, the Righteous Brothers and Linda Ronstadt, among others. Ritz died Friday (March 3) at the age of 87. Details are not presently available on the place or cause of Ritz’s death.

He was born Jan. 10, 1930, in Cleveland, Ohio, and began his career in the music business in the 1950s, working as a demonstrator of instruments for the Southern California Music Company, a music store in Los Angeles. One instrument he was often called upon to demonstrate for potential customers was the ukulele, which was experiencing popularity at the time due to its use by radio personality Arthur Godfrey. Ritz discovered that he enjoyed the uke and took it upon himself to learn how to play it properly, not just as a novelty instrument, its usual fate then and now.

Related: BCB’s review of the documentary about the Wrecking Crew

He ultimately became a master of the four-stringed uke and after his stint in the Army (he played in the U.S. Army Band), Ritz was discovered by jazz guitarist Barney Kessel, who arranged for Ritz to be signed to Verve Records. His two albums for the label, How About Uke? and 50th State Jazz, became popular in Hawaii but nowhere else, so in order to support himself Ritz switched over to the bass, finding work in L.A.’s studios at the height of the burgeoning rock scene there.

Lyle Ritz, later in his life

By the mid-’60s, as a member of the collective of studio musicians loosely named the Wrecking Crew, Ritz found himself constantly busy, contributing to hits by the Beach Boys (“Good Vibrations”), the Righteous Brothers (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”), Ronstadt, the Monkees, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (“A Taste of Honey”), Sonny and Cher, Dean Martin and others. In all, Ritz estimated that he played on more than 5,000 recording sessions during his long career. He also contributed to the soundtracks of numerous television programs.

He never gave up the ukulele though, and as the Wrecking Crew’s reign in L.A. died down and the musicians went in search of other work, Ritz returned to his first love. In the 1979 Steve Martin film The Jerk, that’s actually Ritz you’re hearing when you see Martin playing the uke, and by the late ’90s, Ritz had returned to making ukulele records, usually in a jazz vein. In fact, he’s often been called “The Father of Jazz Ukulele.” He was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame in 2007.

Watch Lyle Ritz (beginning at around 47 seconds) talking about working with Brian Wilson

And now, listen to Lyle Ritz play ukulele on the standard “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”

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