Print Shortlink

May, Billy (10 November 1916-22 January 2004)

Arranger, 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.

He bounced 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 Patrol”.

In 1942, 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 for Welk’s.

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 MeSoftly, 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.

Then Time-Life 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.

After working 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.

Much of 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.