Billy May Biography

Edward William May, 10 November 1916, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, d. 22 January 2004, San Juan Capistrano, California, USA. Although May is best known to international audiences for his arranging and conducting work with Frank Sinatra in the late 50s, he had already been a professional musician for nearly 20 years prior to his first session with Hoboken’s favourite son on 1958’s Come Fly With Me.

The son of a Pittsburgh roofer, May learned to play the tuba as a breathing aid for his asthma. He also played trumpet and trombone in his school band and studied arranging. May’s first impact on the big band scene came in 1938, when he joined the trumpet section of the Charlie Barnet Band and, most notably, began contributing arrangements. Among his best-known charts was Barnet’s hit record of the old Ray Noble song ‘Cherokee’. In 1939, May joined Glenn Miller, bringing a previously absent vitality to the trumpet section and more fine arrangements. The early 40s found him in great demand in radio and film studios, but he continued to write for popular bands of the day, including those led by Woody Herman, Les Brown and Alvino Rey.

When Capitol Records was formed, with a policy that called for the highest standards of musicianship, May was employed to write and direct for many major singing stars, including Sinatra (notably the aforementioned Come Fly With Me, Dance With Me, and Come Swing With Me), Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat ‘King’ Cole. During the 50s, May also began making big band albums, on which he gave full rein to his highly distinctive arranging style. Although adept at all kinds of big band music, he had a particular fondness for voicing the reed section in thirds, creating a so-called ‘slurping’ saxophone sound. For his studio band, May called upon such reliable sidemen as Murray McEachern, Ted Nash Snr. , and Alvin Stoller. Among his band’s successes were arrangements of ‘All Of Me’, ‘Lulu’s Back In Town’, ‘Charmaine’, ‘When My Sugar Walks Down The Street’, ‘Lean Baby’ and ‘Fat Man Boogie’ (the last two also his own compositions). His recording of the movie theme ‘The Man With The Golden Arm’ made the UK Top 10 in 1956, but May’s commercial success led to the disintegration of his marriage and he eventually sold the title ‘the Billy May Orchestra’ to Ray Anthony.

May continued to work for Capitol into the 60s before moving into freelance arranging. He also wrote for television, lending musical quality to series such as Naked City and to the occasional commercial, and was musical director on the recording sessions on which swing era music was recreated for a series of albums issued by Time-Life Records.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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