Extracurricular Activities: Bill Wurtzel

By Tk Published on .

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Veteran adman Bill Wurtzel did not have your typical childhood -- from the age of 9 he was a singing cowboy. He grew up in upstate New York, where his father ran a bar and grill that featured live music as well as a jukebox. "I picked up the guitar when I was a kid, and eventually became known as Pecos Bill, doing Hank Williams songs," Wurtzel chuckles, still tickled by the memory. "I knew them all from the jukebox."

He made the rounds of the kid's TV talent shows in the '50s, and a music career beckoned, but Wurtzel was a natural draftsman as well as a natural musician, and he struck out in an art/design direction instead. He went first to Pratt, then the School of Visual Arts and later landed a job working for Lou Dorfsman at CBS. "He was my idol and I was his right-hand man," says Wurtzel proudly, but music remained in his life. "I never let either art drop," he says. "I played in dance bands at night. I just didn't sleep much."

After four years at CBS he became creative director at the Lampert Agency in New York and scored a big hit in 1966 with the Zorba the Greek-inspired "No Dancing in the Aisles" campaign for Olympic Airways. He spent 12 years at Lampert, then went to Hicks & Greist for 12 years as executive creative director, where he did the "Riunite on Ice" campaign, among others.

Through it all, Wurtzel kept one foot firmly planted in the music world as an an accomplished jazz and classical guitarist. He's played at Town Hall and Lincoln Center, he was the house guitarist at the West End Cafe for 15 years and a decade-long member of the Countsmen, a jazz ensemble composed mostly of Count Basie band alumni.

In 1989, Wurtzel quit the ad business outright to go on tour with organist Bill Doggett's quintet. It turned into a seven-year gig. "It was a Walter Mitty kind of thing," he explains, "and it was easy turning my back on the business. But eventually former clients started to call me."

The result is his at-home New York agency, Wurtzel Inc., which handles clients like Gym Source and Central Holidays, an Italian tour operator. In retrospect, it all worked out quite nicely. "My life is split for creative reasons, which is the best of all possible worlds," he says.

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