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Billy May
Born William E. May
November 10, 1916(1916-11-10)
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania U.S.
Died January 22, 2004 (aged 87)
San Juan Capistrano, California U.S.
Occupation composer, arranger, trumpeter

William E. "Billy" May (November 10, 1916 – January 22, 2004) was an American composer, arranger and trumpeter. He composed film and television music, for The Green Hornet and Batman (with Batgirl theme, 1966),[1] Naked City and collaborated on films, such as Pennies from Heaven (1981), and orchestrated Cocoon, and Cocoon: The Return among others.

May also wrote arrangements for many top singers, including Frank Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole, Peggy Lee, Vic Damone, Bobby Darin, Johnny Mercer, Ella Fitzgerald, Jack Jones, Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney.

As a trumpet player, during the 1940s big-band era, May recorded such songs as "Measure for Measure", "Long Tall Mama", and "Boom Shot", with Glenn Miller and His Orchestra[1], and "The Wrong Idea", "Lumby", and "Wings Over Manhattan" with Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra.[1] With his own band, he had a hit single, "Charmaine" and the released an album, Sorta-May.


Early life

May was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He started out playing the tuba in the high school band. "I sat in the rear of the stand. [...] . I didn't realize it at the time , but I was intrigued with becoming an arranger and an orchestrator."[2] At the age of seventeen May began playing with Gene Olsen's Polish-American Orchestra.[3] After playing for a few local bands, May heard Charlie Barnet's band on the radio in his hometown of Pittsburgh. May approached the bandleader and asked if he could write arrangements for the band. This happened in the summer of 1938. From 1938 to 1940, May wrote arrangements and played trumpet for Charlie Barnet's big band. His arrangement of the Ray Noble composition "Cherokee" became a major hit of the swing music era. During the Barnet days, May revealed a significant flair for satire on a composition titled "The Wrong Idea", composed with Charlie Barnet, that ridiculed the bland "Mickey Mouse" style of safe big band music with specific musical mockery of bandleader Sammy Kaye, known for his "swing and sway" trademark. May's caustic lyrics to the song called it "swing and sweat with Charlie Barnet". Bandleader Glenn Miller hired May away from Charlie Barnet in 1940. "May points out that he was not responsible for any of the [Glenn Miller] band's signature hits, but he did write the beautiful left-field introduction to [Bill] Finegan's [arrangement of] 'Serenade In Blue'."[4]

May worked as an arranger for the bands of Glenn Miller and Les Brown before being hired as staff arranger first for the NBC radio network, then for Capitol Records.

With Capitol Records

At Capitol, May wrote arrangements for many top artists. These included Frank Sinatra on the albums Come Fly With Me, Come Dance with Me! and Come Swing With Me; Nat King Cole on the albums Just One Of Those Things and Let's Face the Music!, as well as numerous singles (all his work with Cole being packaged later on the 2CD set The Billy May Sessions); Stan Freberg, with whom he was a longtime collaborator, featuring on many of the artist's comedy recordings; Peggy Lee on the album Pretty Eyes; Sue Raney on her second album Songs for a Raney Day; Vic Damone on the albums The Lively Ones and Strange Enchantment; Jeri Southern on the album Jeri Southern Meets Cole Porter; Keely Smith on the album Politely and on a duet single, "Nothing In Common"/"How Are Ya Fixed For Love?", with Sinatra; Bobby Darin on the album Oh! Look at Me Now; Nancy Wilson on the albums Like In Love, Something Wonderful, Tender Loving Care, Nancy - Naturally! and various tracks from the albums Just For Now and Lush Life; Matt Monro on several tracks from the albums Invitation to the Movies, Invitation to Broadway, and These Years; Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney on the albums That Travelin' Two-Beat and Fancy Meeting You Here; and Sir George Shearing on the albums Satin Affair and Burnished Brass, co-arranged with Shearing (May also conducted Shearing's album Concerto For My Love, on which Shearing had sole credit for the arrangements).

Additionally, May's orchestra was featured on many Capitol Records children's projects. He also worked closely with early 1950s satirist Stan Freberg, using his arranging skills to help Freberg create his spoofs of current hits by creating musical backing often stunningly close to the original hit single. On Freberg's Wun'erful, Wun'erful! a lacerating spoof of bandleader Lawrence Welk, May hired some of the best jazz musicians in Hollywood for his recording sessions, and they relished the idea of mocking the musically awful (if financially successful) Welk sound. The result was a note-perfect recreation of Welk's sound as Freberg and a group of vocalists created parodies of Welk's musical family. Freberg has recounted that Welk was less than amused by the results, which he could not have achieved without May.

May also composed and conducted the music for Freberg's short-lived comedy radio series on CBS, which ran for fifteen episodes in 1957.

In 1959, May won the Grammy Award for Best Performance by an Orchestra.

With other record labels

The Crosby-Clooney collaboration was a sequel to their earlier album on RCA Records, Fancy Meeting You Here, also arranged by May.

May’s other non-Capitol work included another Bing Crosby duet album, this time with Louis Armstrong, entitled Bing & Satchmo; a further duet album twinning Bobby Darin with Johnny Mercer, called Two Of A Kind; the sixth in Ella Fitzgerald's acclaimed series of Song Books for Verve Records, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook; a similar dip into the Rodgers and Hart opus with Anita O'Day, entitled Anita O'Day and Billy May Swing Rodgers and Hart; Mel Tormé’s Latin-flavoured album ¡Olé Tormé!: Mel Tormé Goes South of the Border with Billy May; early albums by Jack Jones (Shall We Dance?) and Petula Clark (In Hollywood); one solitary session with Sarah Vaughan for Roulette Records in 1960, to record the single The Green Leaves of Summer and three other tracks; and two more albums with Keely Smith, recorded nearly forty years apart – CheroKeely Swings from 1962 and Keely Sings Sinatra, one of May’s last pieces of work, from 2001.

After Sinatra left Capitol to start his own label, Reprise Records, May continued to provide arrangements for him, off and on, for nearly thirty more years, working on the albums Sinatra Swings, Francis A. & Edward K. (with Duke Ellington) and Trilogy 1: The Past, as well as the chart for what is thought to be Sinatra's last ever solo recording, "Cry Me a River" (1988), which was eventually released on the 20 CD Box Set Frank Sinatra - The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings. In addition, May was the natural choice to arrange Sinatra's knockabout duet with Sammy Davis Jr., Me And My Shadow, which was a hit single on both sides of the Atlantic in 1962, whilst he also contributed to Sinatra's ambitious "Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre" project, providing a few arrangements for three of its four albums, South Pacific, Kiss Me, Kate and Guys and Dolls, May's charts being variously performed by Sinatra, Davis, Crosby, Dean Martin, Jo Stafford and Lou Monte and yielding a perennial Sinatra concert favourite, "Luck Be A Lady" from Guys and Dolls.

In 1958, May arranged a holiday album on Warner Bros. Records featuring the Jimmy Joyce Singers, titled A Christmas to Remember.

Musical style

May's charts often featured brisk tempos and intricate brass parts. One distinctive feature of his style is his frequent use of trumpet mute devices; another, a saxophone glissando, is widely known as his "slurping saxes". However, May was also an accomplished writer in slower tempos, sometimes using string arrangements. Good examples of this aspect of his work include his brass chart for "These Foolish Things" on the Cole album Just One of Those Things and his string arrangement of "April in Paris" on Sinatra's Come Fly With Me album.

Film and television soundtrack work

May's musical compositions for television include "Somewhere in the Night," which was the theme music for the Naked City (1960) television series, and his jazz style re-arrangement of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee, which was the theme music for The Green Hornet (1966) television series, which featured a trumpet performance by Al Hirt. May also composed the music for the "Batgirl Theme" song, which was used in the Batman (1966) television series when the Batgirl character was added to the cast in 1967. Along with Nelson Riddle, he was also involved in scoring episodes of Naked City (1960), Batman (1966), The Green Hornet (1966), and Emergency! (1972). May also composed the score for the Rat Pack film Sergeants 3 (1962).

Compositions by Billy May

Billy May's compositions included "Long Tall Mama" and "Measure For Measure", recorded with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, "Boom Shot", written with Glenn Miller (Billy's wife Arletta originally received credit as co-author in his place) for the soundtrack of the 1942 Twentieth Century Fox movie Orchestra Wives, "Lean Baby", "Fat Man Boogie", "Ping Pong", "Jooms Jones", "Gabby Goose", "Lumby", "Daisy Mae" and "Friday Afternoon" with Hal McIntyre, "Miles Behind", "The Wrong Idea" with Charlie Barnet, "Wings Over Manhattan", "Filet of Soul", "Mayhem", "Gin and Tonic", and "Solving the Riddle". But his biggest hit as a composer was the children's song, I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat, which he recorded with Mel Blanc in 1950.[5]


In 1988, Billy May was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.

External links


  1. ^ a b c IMDb
  2. ^ Will Friedwald (1997), Sinatra! the song is you, p. 278, ISBN 9780306807428  
  3. ^ Friedwald 278
  4. ^ Friedwald 280
  5. ^ Friedwald 282
  • Mirtle, Jack (1998), The Music of Billy May: A Discography, Greenwood Press, ISBN 9780313307393  


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