bandleader, composer, conductor and trumpeter from Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, whose doctor recommended he take up the tuba to help
alleviate his asthma.
Eventually, he switched to his signature instrument, the trumpet,
and landed a gig with Gene Olsen and his orchestra in 1933.
around from band to band for about five years until he solicited Charlie
Barnet with some of his arrangements, which Barnet graciously accepted…
for free. His payment would
turn out to be a position in the band as an arranger/trumpeter. One of his arrangements, Ray
Noble’s American Indian-flavored “Cherokee”, was one of
the big hits of the big-band era.
He had an extremely high musical I.Q., as evidenced by his
recreation of Charlie Barnet’s entire songbook after it was claimed
in a fire at the Palomar Theatre in 1939.
In 1940, he
was drafted by Glenn Miller into his band, and was instrumental—pun
intended—in helping shape “The Miller Sound” by arranging
hits such as “Serenade in Blue” and “Take the
‘A’ Train” and playing trumpet on “American
Miller was drafted by Uncle Sam and thus disbanded his civilian band,
leaving May to fend for himself stateside, where he helped ex-Miller
woodwind musician Hal McIntyre launch his big band. He moved to L.A. and briefly worked
with Les Brown and Woody Herman before settling into a job as an arranger
for Capitol Records and NBC. While
at Capitol Records, he led his own big band and produced a series of more
than sixty children’s albums, showing his flair for comedy by penning
“I Tawt I Taw a Putty Tat.”
In 1951, he
took part in now-famous recording sessions with Nat King Cole. He arranged for a number of
high-profile artists, most notably Frank Sinatra, with whom he recorded the
#1 album Come Fly with Me and the
Grammy-winning Come Dance with Me. Another artist with whom he
collaborated quite a bit was parodist Stan Freberg,
on projects such as Wunnerful!
Wunnerful!, a Lawrence Welk spoof that split everybody’s sides except
In 1958, he
won another Grammy Award for Big Fat
Brass, which spawned a host of imitators. He also did quite a bit of film and
television work, writing music for ABC’s Naked City, which enjoyed a five-year run between 1958 and
1963. During this time, he also
continued churning out albums with Frank Sinatra, including Come Swing with Me, Softly, as I Leave You, and Swing along with Me. He also did more television work in
the ‘60s, writing the Batgirl theme for Batman and re-working “Flight of the Bumblebee” for
The Green Hornet. In 1967, he teamed up with Sinatra
again, recording in tandem with Duke Ellington and scoring the Sinatra
detective vehicle, Tony Rome.
left a huge project in May’s lap, asking him to conduct and arrange
enough big-band tunes to fill up twelve LPs, a multi-volume set known as The Swing Era. Time-Life must have been pleased
with the results, because they asked him to work on another project, an
anthology of ’50s and ‘60s instrumentals titled As You Remember Them. He was also charged with conducting
and arranging the “Past” third of Frank Sinatra’s 1979
boxed set, Trilogy.
on these massive projects, one can cut May some slack for slowing down a
bit in the September of his years.
He still scored the occasional movie, such as Batteries Not Included, and helped out Diane Schuur on a pair of albums, Timeless and In Tribute,
which were released in 1986 and 1992, respectively. In 1994, The Brian Setzer Orchestra employed his services for a couple of
arrangements on one of their albums.
Then Stan Freberg lured him out of
semi-retirement in 1996 to write some arrangements for his album, The United States of America, Vol. 2,
a quarter-century after they worked on Vol. 1.
He passed away
in 2004, aged 87.
May’s work is available on CD, including his work with Glenn Miller
and the aforementioned Sinatra albums.
An excellent introduction to “The Billy May Sound” is
1958’s Come Dance with Me.
He was voted
into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1988.