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Arranger, composer, bandleader, Sinatra associateby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins
Bandleader, conductor, composer and arranger William E. "Billy" May, who came up in the Charlie Barnet trumpet section and made his name with the Chairman of the Board, died of heart failure on Thursday, January 22, 2004 at his home in San Juan Capistrano, California. He was 87 years of age.
May joined the Barnet orchestra in 1938 at the tender age of 22. Good on the horn, he was even better with the pen and soon became a staff arranger for the band. By the following year the jazz world was already taking notice of May's talents, thanks to his popular arrangement of Ray Noble's "Cherokee" which became Barnet's theme. It, like many of May's charts, was characterized by his signature "swooping" sax-section phrases. In 1939 he also met a young singer who would become a reliable fixture of May's career: Frank Sinatra.
He moved on to Glenn Miller's band, where he took the bold step of crafting a suitable swing arrangement of Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train". May was unafraid of digging into the black big-band repertoire, professing an unabashed love for the music of Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford. Miller was equally interested in May's trumpet chops, featuring him on hits like 1942's "American Patrol". Eventually the likes of Woody Herman, Les Brown, Alvino Rey, the Andrews Sisters, Capitol Records and NBC all called upon May for his coveted writing skills.
In 1951 May debuted his own orchestra on A Band Is Born, and built the band's repertoire from the American jazz and pop canon ("Lulu's Back In Town", "All of Me") and his original works ("Fat Man Boogie"). Six years later he wrote his first charts for Sinatra, including the smash hit "Come Fly With Me". May began composing for film and TV in the 50s, creating music for Red Skelton, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, "Naked City", and other programs. Musical and comedy performers alike benefitted from the May magic: Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee, Stan Freberg, Mel Blanc, John Williams' Boston Pops, Ella Fitzgerald, the Carpenters, Diane Schuur, Anita O'Day, Nat King Cole, Bobby Darin, George Shearing, Nancy Wilson, and Mel Tormé, among many others.
May's own bands assayed a diverse variety of styles, from mambo and Nelson Eddy (Naughty Operetta, 1955) to Dixieland (Sorta Dixie, 1955), Beatles-era pop (the somewhat flagrant Billy May Today!, 1966; all on Capitol) and Lunceford. His work with the Four Freshmen assisted their rise to fame in the 50s and early 60s. May could always rely on having top-notch sidemen in his bands, among them clarinetist Matty Matlock, trumpeters Dick Cathcart and Conrad Gozzo, guitarist Howard Roberts, percussionist Julius Wechter (whose later Baja Marimba Band drew deeply from May's inspiration), bassist Chuck Berghofer, and trombonist Milt Bernhart (who ironically passed away the same day as May).
May's association with Sinatra on record continued through a phenomenal number of hits and albums, drawing from the Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer and Ellington songbooks and just about every other source, up through 1979's "Trilogy". In the 1980s May paid back some old dues by supporting Frank Sinatra, Jr., on disc and in live concerts. When Sinatra returned to the studio in 1994 for Duets and Duets II, his old friend May's charts were at hand once again. One of May's final projects was the debut recording of contemporary crooner Michael Bublé, who carries those grand Sinatra sessions close to his heart.
Billy May is survived by his wife, Doris; daughters Cynthia May, Laureen Mitchell, Joannie Ransom and Sandra Gregory; and brother, John.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.