Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


MAY, Billy

(b 10 November 1916, Pittsburgh PA; d 22 January 2004) Trumpeter; mainly arranger and bandleader. Wrote hit arrangements such as 'Cherokee', 'Pompton Turnpike' etc for Charlie Barnet '38-40, including an ingenious, swinging out-chorus on 'Leapin' At The Lincoln', a head arrangement based on 'Lady Be Good'. He played trumpet solos on Glenn Miller classics 'Song Of The Volga Boatmen', 'American Patrol', arranged 'Ida', 'At Last', 'Serenade In Blue' (the last two with Bill Finegan), others. May had more fun with Barnet, but Miller paid better (see Miller's entry for quotes). Subsequently people who worked for May had fun; he once announced at the beginning of a date, 'There'll be no drinking off the job!' He played, arranged, conducted on radio '40s; music director and played trumpet on septet session for ex-Jimmie Lunceford star Willie Smith at Keynote '45. Landing at Capitol through his work for Paul Weston he first recorded there as a leader '46, then formed his own popular band in the Lunceford mould; his writing for unison reeds became instantly recognizable, typified by 'Lean Baby' '51 (the slurping saxes on Sinatra's 'South Of The Border' '53 were long thought to be May's, but Nelson Riddle had done it in May's style). He was the only leader in the big-band style who had hit albums '52-5 (Big Band Bash, A Band Is Born, Bacchanalia and Sorta-May). He sold his own band to Ray Anthony '54; on staff at Capitol he made LPs with Peggy Lee (Pretty Eyes), George Shearing (Burnished Brass), Jeri Southern (Meets Cole Porter); worked with Nat King Cole (hit singles 'Walkin' My Baby Back Home' '52, 'Can't I?' '53, more), Frank Sinatra (Come Fly With Me must have included all the exotic percussion in Hollywood; also Come Dance With Me, Come Swing With Me). More May LPs on Capitol included Naughty Operetta '53, The Great Jimmie Lunceford '57, Grammy-winning Big Fat Brass '58, The Girls And Boys On Broadway '60 (with Conrad Gozzo, Pete Candoli, Don Fagerquist and Manny Klein all in the trumpet section: those were the days). He was music director on Stan Freberg's comedy records at Capitol, wearing a Hawaiian shirt to the studio; Freberg described him affectionately as looking like a porpoise at a luau.

As one of the best-known in the field he branched out: works included Bing Crosby/Rosemary Clooney LP Fancy Meeting You Here on RCA, Ella Fitzgerald's Sings The Harold Arlen Songbook and two albums with Anita O'Day on Verve, Sinatra Swings and Francis A. And Edward K. (with Duke Ellington) on Reprise. The album with Ellington was disappointing because the songs were badly chosen and the band hadn't learned the material, because they hated to play arrangements from outside. He prepared some of the Fitzgerald album but it was actually conducted by Hal Mooney. Weston said that May was very conscientious: he would always start writing the arrangements at least three hours before the recording began (then copyists might be working furiously during the session). He sometimes subcontracted arrangements; hence some of the charts on the Sinatra albums are by Swing Era veterans George Siravo or Heine Beau (who also worked for Weston). But the result always sounded like Billy May: he was responsible for the first LP in Sinatra's Trilogy '80, the best work of Sinatra's later career (the rest of the set was some of his worst). TV and film work included a couple of Sinatra pictures and other films '57-81; he did the theme for hit TV series Naked City. May's You May Swing '80 was originally recorded for radio transcription by Intersound.