Tim Sampson, communication director with the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, said Pitts died Tuesday in Memphis after a long struggle with cancer.
Pitts was responsible for the unforgettable wah-wah pedal guitar sound on Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft,” the ’70s Blaxploitation film that remains a memorable moment in American popular culture — mostly due to the enduring popularity of the song. Pitts’ 1971 riff was angry and bristling with menace, capturing a dangerous vibe that transcended the screen and translated to the streets of a tense nation.
He also was responsible the guitar line from The Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing,” also a distinctive, influential moment in American music.
Schooled by neighbour Bo Diddley while growing up in Washington, D.C., Pitts first recorded when he was 15 and had a long, historic run in Memphis after moving there to join Hayes. He played with the deep-voiced soul singer for nearly four decades, worked as a session musician for Stax Records where some of America’s greatest music was made and logged time with many significant soul and blues acts, including Al Green, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas and Albert King.
Late in his career, he made appearances in movies like “Black Snake Moan,” to which he also contributed three soundtrack entries, and “Soul Men” and performed on the score for “Hustle and Flow.”
Most recently he appeared on Green’s “I Can’t Stop” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Memphis Blues,” both of which were nominated for Grammy Awards. He also released an album last fall with his band The Bo-Keys.