Skip Pitts, a master of the wah-wah pedal guitar sound whose signature riff on Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft” captured perfectly the blaxploitation vibe of the 1970s, has died. He was 65.
Pitts, who got guitar tips from his neighbor Bo Diddley as a kid growing up in Washington and also played on The Isley Brothers’ 1969 funk classic “It’s Your Thing,” died Tuesday at Methodist Hospital in Memphis after a struggle with cancer.
Following time with the Isleys’ backing band The Midnight Movers, Pitts in 1971 began a 37-year collaboration with Hayes.
When not on the road or in the studio with Hayes, he was a session player at Memphis-based Stax Records and played on many hit recordings by such artists such as Albert King and Rufus Thomas.
More recently, Pitts performed on the score for the 2005 Oscar-winning film Hustle and Flow with his band The Bo-Keys and played on two Grammy-nominated albums: Al Green’s I Can't Stop (2003) and Cyndi Lauper’s Memphis Blues (2010).
“His guitar style was very unique,” producer-musician Scott Bomar, Pitts’ bandmate in The Bo-Keys, told the Memphis newspaper The Commercial Appeal. “He took a little bit of the Bo Diddley rhythm, the Northern soul of Curtis Mayfield and the Memphis sound of Steve Cropper and Reggie Young and somehow came up with his own thing, a style that no one had.”
With Diddley’s guidance, Pitts learned to play guitar at age 11 and first recorded at 15 on Gene Chandler’s “Rainbow 65.” His uncle owned a hotel next to the prestigious Howard Theatre in Washington, and Pitts met such R&B legends as James Brown and Otis Redding. He soon was onstage himself, performing with Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett.
“Theme From Shaft,” written and sung by Hayes, who also played keyboards, accompanied the 1971 MGM film directed by Gordon Parks. It starred Richard Roundtree as suave New York private investigator John Shaft, the “black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks.”
The song spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in November 1971 and won the Oscar for original song the following year. Hayes also collected the Oscar for best original dramatic score.
“I didn’t think nothing of that song,” Pitts said in a 2011 interview. “When Richard Roundtree comes up out of the subway station, [Hayes] wanted a driving rhythm with his walk. It fitted in pretty well.”
Pitts is associated so deeply with the wah-wah pedal that he is interviewed in the 2011 documentary Cry Baby: The Pedal That Rocks the World alongside the likes of Slash, Buddy Guy, Eddie Van Halen and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett.
Pitts’ riffs have been sampled by such hip-hop artists as Dr. Dre with Snoop Dogg, Beastie Boys, Massive Attack, Eazy-E and DJ Shadow with Cut Chemist.
He also worked as an actor in his later years, appearing in the films Forty Shades of Blue (2005), Black Snake Moan (2006) and Soul Men (2008).
Survivors include his wife, Beverly. Funeral services will take place in Washington. Plans for a Memphis memorial service were pending.