Born: November 10, 1916 | Died: January 22, 2004 Primary Instrument: Composer/conductor
The last of the great arrangers who wrote regularly for Frank Sinatra, Billy May had several varied careers in and out of jazz. His first notable gig was as an arranger/trumpeter with Charlie Barnet (1938-1940), for whom he wrote the wah-wah-ing hit arrangement of Ray Noble's Cherokee.
Later, he worked in the same capacities for Glenn Miller (1940-1942) and Les Brown (1942) before settling into staff jobs, first at NBC studios, then at Capitol Records, where he led his own studio big band from 1951 to 1954. His arrangements for Sinatra, beginning with Come Fly With Me (1957) and ending with Trilogy (1979), are often in a walloping, brassy, even taunting swing mode, generating some of the singer's most swaggering vocals.
May also did extensive scoring for television, film, and commercials. Although May was largely inactive in the '80s and '90s , he unexpectedly surfaced in 1996 with some typically bright big band charts for comic Stan Freberg's The United States of America, Vol. 2 (Rhino), 25 years after his contributions to Vol. 1.
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.