Billy May

Trumpeter and Grammy Winning Arranger for the Big Bands, Television, Movies, and Sinatra

Billy May was a composer, arranger, trumpeter, and band leader.  He scored music for film and television.  Billy wrote the theme songs for the TV shows Naked City, The Mod Squad, Emergency, The Green Hornet, and Batgirl.  He contributed arrangements to the shows M.A.S.H, Chips, Batman, and more.  May wrote and arranged music for the movies Pennies from Heaven, Cocoon, Cocoon: The Return, and Field of Dreams, the Rocketwer, Swing Shift, Tony Rome, and Batteries Not Included.  Billy also arranged music for singers Frank Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole, Peggy Lee, Vic Damone, Bobby Darin, Johnny Mercer, Ella Fitzgerald, Jack Jones, Bing Crosby, Sandler and Young, Nancy Wilson and Rosemary Clooney.  He wrote the arrangement of "Come Fly With Me" for Sinatra.  During the 1940's he was a big band trumpet player who appeared on recordings of Measure for Measure", "Long Tall Mama", and "Boom Shot", with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and "The Wrong Idea", "Lumby", and "Wings Over Manhattan" with the Charlie Barnet Orchestra.  He wrote the hit arrangement of Ray Noble's song "Cherokee." for Charlie Barnet.  He had a hit single "Charmaine" with his own band.  Billy won two Grammy awards for his album "Big Fat Brass" in 1958 and for Best Arranging with "Come Dance With Me!" in 1959.

Edward William May Jr. was born in Pittsburgh on May 10 1916, the son of a roofer. He grew up in Lawrenceville and attended Schenley High School.  Billy began his musical career when a doctor advised him to fight his asthma by playing the tuba.  He played the tuba in his school band, where he came to appreciate other instruments and arranging.  Wanting to learn the trumpet he picked one up from a pawn shop for $20 and taught himself to play.  He also taught himself trombone, piano, and other instruments.  In the school orchestra he played the clarinet, bassoon and double bass.  He became a skilled instrumentalist who impressed listeners with his playing at school dances and concerts.  Listening to records while following along with sheet music, he taught himself arranging.  While in high school he hung out with Erroll Garner and Billy Strayhorn meeting them in an East Liberty bar where they had piano jam sessions.  His first professional job was at age 17 with Gene Olson's Polish-American Orchestra in 1933.  He graduated from Schenley High School in 1935 and joined the Sid Dickler band in 1936.  He later was a trombonist and arranger for the Baron Elliott Orchestra, that was a regionally known big band that performed regularly on Pittsburgh radio station WCAE.

One night while driving to a Baron Elliott performance, Billy heard Charlie Barnett’s band playing live on WJAS radio.  He was wowed by their music.  Barnett’s band was playing a week long engagement in Pittsburgh.  After the Elliot job Billy rushed to the club where Barnett’s band was playing.  May spoke with the band leader and asked if he could write an arrangement for the band.  Barnett agreed.  Staying up all night writing, May returned to the club the next afternoon while the band was rehearsing.  Barnett handed the arrangement to the band and they played it.   Barnett was impressed and hired May to write four arrangements a week at $5 a song for the band.  He rented an apartment for May in New York.  May wrote the arrangement for "Cherokee" that became Barnet's greatest hit, and that he played every night for the rest of his career.  He also scored a hit with the arrangement for "Redskin Rhumba."   Barnett later brought May into the band to play in the trumpet section.  May worked with Charlie Barnett from 1938 to 1940.

With his hit arrangements and hot horn, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller both wanted May for their bands.  Billy joined the Glenn Miller Orchestra as a trumpeter and arrangement in 1940.  May record several trumpet solos with the band and wrote arrangements of "Serenade in Blue", "Take the 'A' Train", and "American Patrol”.

In 1942 Miller broke up the band and enlisted in the Army.  Having failed his army physical May found work with the NBC radio band, then Woody Herman's Orchestra, then Les Brown and his Band of Renown.  In 1943 Billy moved to Hollywood becoming the conductor/arranger for the radio shows Red Skelton, Duffy's Tavern, Ozzie and Harriet, and Kraft Music Hall.  During the 1950s, Billy led his own touring band scoring hits on Capital Records with his arrangements of "All of Me," "Lulu's Back in Town," "Charmaine," and "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street."  He sold the band to Ray Anthony in 1952 and began working on films. television shows, and recordings Capital Records recording artists.  He arranging and conducted sessions for Frank Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole, George Shearing, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters, and Bobby Darin.  He worked with Sinatra and other recording artists through 1979.  May was mostly inactive in the '80s and '90s , but worked with comic Stan Freberg's on his The United States of America show in 1996. Billy died quietly at home on January 22, 2004 at the age of 87.

Billy May was inducted into the both the Big Band Hall of Fame and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1988.

Billy May's Arrangement of Come Fly With Me
The Billy May Orchestra