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Pittsburgh Jazz Legends 20: Billy May
Date created Tuesday, 12 July 2016 09:55 AM Item Author Written by  Rich Kienzle
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"Recording with Billy May is like having a bucket of cold water thrown in your face."
--Frank Sinatra.
Billy May's career took him from playing and arranging in Pittsburgh bands to the mainstream after World War II. His virtuosity, vision and buoyant good humor created a vision that enhanced the recordings of Sinatra and other singers. He also left a legacy of first-rate, swinging instrumental albums.
Edward William May, born in Pittsburgh in 1916, was the son of a fireman. Like so many Pittsburgh jazz greats, high school gave him his first serious exposure to music. He initially played tuba before embracing sousaphone trombone and trumpet. By 17 he was working professionaly with Gene Olson's Polish-American Orchestra and with forgotten local bands led by Lee Howard and Lee River and Baron Elliott, Pittsburgh's answer to Guy Lombardo. May, bored with trombone, decided to switch to trumpet.
The summer of 1938 brought Charlie Barnet and his Orchestra to the area, to perform at the New Penn Club. For May, Barnet, who based his aggressive, swinging style on that of his musical hero and friend Duke Ellington, was a breath of fresh air. Hearing Barnet live on local radio inspired the May to write an arrangement and take it to the bandleader.
In his autobiography, Those Swinging Years, Barnet remembered "the guys (in my band) groaned when I asked (Billy) to pass out his music. I kicked off the tempo and they attacked the parts half-heartedly, but after only a few bars, they were up on their toes, all interest, for the arrangement was sensational and right up our alley." Barnet took May's arrangement and never paid him. In 1939 May called Barnet and asked for his money. Instead, he hired May as arranger (he later joined the trumpet section).  The now-iconic arrangement of Barnet's biggest hit record was a May creation.
1939: "Cherokee." Barnet's original recording.
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Charlie Barnet & His Orchestra “Cherokee” on Bluebird B-10373 (July 17, 1939) Billy May
 
 
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May, like Barnet, was a prodigious drinker, who loved the wild, hard-partying Barnet atmosphere. Yet together they got the job done including this ambitious composition May composered for the 1939 New York World's Fair.
1939 "Wings Over Manhattan"
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Wings over Manhattan
 
 
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May joined Glenn Miller's Orchestra as trumpeter and arranger in November 1940. Miller, whose approach was more regimented than Barnet's freewheeling style, had a disciplined approach that conflicted with May's rollicking personality.  He and Miller co-wrote one song, heard in the 1941 film "Orchestra Wives."
1941 "Boom Shot" The soda jerk with co-star Ann Rutherford is played by Harry Morgan, who became immortal as MASH's Colonel Potter.
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♫ Boom Shot ♫ - Glenn Miller & His Orchestra
 
 
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Settling in Hollywood proved to be a smart one as May began devoting more time to arranging. It connected him with the new Capitol label including Capitol's kids records (he co-wrote "I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat"). He briefly led a performing orchestra himself, but eventually focused completely on arranging and conducting in the recording studios, including his own instrumental recordings for Capitol. This hit instrumental featured May's "slurping" saxophones, a sound widely imitated.
1952: "Charmaine"
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Charmaine
 
 
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May was arranging and conducting for Capitol's top pop singer at the time: Nat King Cole. Cole was de-emphasizing the jazziness reflected in his earlier records with the King Cole Trio, but May's arrangements kept his uptempo numbers swinging hard.  Again, note the slurping sax sound at the start.
1952: "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" with Nat King Cole a # 8 single.
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1952 HITS ARCHIVE: Walkin' My Baby Back Home - Nat King Cole (Cole's original version)
 
 
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 In the studio, he played it loose, wearing Hawaiian shirts and tennis shoes.  That good-time informality carried over to his LP covers, like this one from 1954.

 
 
Not all May's work was in the country field.  He created the spot-on arrangements behind Stan Freberg's brilliant musical spoofs, making them sound all the more authentic.  And on one occasion he backed Tennessee Ernie Ford (before "Sixteen Tons") and pop singer Betty Hutton on an explosive number including country-jazz guitarist Jimmy Bryant and pioneer pedal steel guitarist Speedy West.
1954: "This Must Be The Place"
 
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Betty Hutton & Tennessee Ernie Ford - This Must Be The Place (1954)
 
 
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 His greatest arranging and conducting came when he worked with Frank Sinatra, who joined Capitol in 1953. Along with Nelson Riddle, May became one of Sinatra's principal arrangers and conducted behind him in the studio. This May arrangement was among those that defined the classic Sinatra era.
1957: "Come Fly With Me." One of May's greatest arrangements for Sinatra.
 
 May would arrange for Bing Crosby, and for the duo of Crosby and Rosemary Clooney on their LP Fancy Meeting You Here.
1958: "Fancy Meeting You Here"
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Fancy Meeting You Here (feat. Bing Crosby)
 
 
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May continued doing music for recordings, film and TV.  Eventually he gave up drinking. Though he continued working for some years his final collaborations with Sinatra came in 1979 on the retrospective album Trilogy. Both older, their individual blend of humor and attitude remained on this performance, one last bucket of cold water.
1979: "They All Laughed"
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They All Laughed
 
 
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May eventually settled into retirement in California. He died in 2004. Two years before his death he did this joint conversation with another great Pittsburgh arranger: the late Sammy Nestico. In this brief excerpt, he discusses his early years.
 




 
 


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