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FEATURE ARTICLE...

January 24, 2004
Arranger Extraordinaire Billy May Dead at 87
Matchless musicguy wrote for every genre, small screen to Big Band
by Jon Burlingame

Billy May, the jazz arranger and big-band leader who also worked extensively in film and TV music for many years, died of a heart attack Thursday, January 22, at his home in San Juan Capistrano, California. He was 87.

May's arrangement of "Cherokee" for Charlie Barnet and his arrangements for Glenn Miller's band made him well-known in the big-band arena. May can be glimpsed playing trumpet in Miller's band in the 1941 musical Sun Valley Serenade.

But his work at Capitol Records in the 1950s, which included everything from children's records – including the famous Bozo the Clown series – to Frank Sinatra's legendary Come Fly With Me album (1958), made him one of the most sought-after arrangers in American music. In addition to his records with Sinatra, he arranged for Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Yma Sumac, Nat King Cole, Paul Weston and others.

May was nominated for Grammys seven times, mostly in the arrangement categories. He won two, in 1958 (for his own Capitol album, Billy May's Big Fat Brass) and 1959 (for arranging Sinatra's Come Dance With Me LP). His arranging work for other artists, from George Shearing and John Williams, spanned the Grammy years from 1958 to 1981.

He also worked in radio, conducting for Ozzie Nelson and penning arrangements for Jack Benny, Red Skelton and The Kraft Music Hall.

May scored half a dozen movies, including The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown (1957, a Jane Russell comedy whose original soundtrack album is now quite rare), Sergeants 3 (1962, a Rat Pack comedy-western remake of Gunga Din), Johnny Cool (1963, a gangster melodrama with a hard-driving jazz soundtrack that Rykodisc re-released on CD), Tony Rome (1967, with Sinatra as a private eye), The Secret Life of an American Wife (1968, a comedy with Walter Matthau) and The Front Page (1974, Billy Wilder's remake with Jack Lemmon and Matthau).

His television music was perhaps less heralded but no less memorable, beginning with the theme and dozens of episodes for Naked City, when the filmed-in-New York police drama expanded from a half-hour to an hour in the fall of 1960. He did two seasons of Naked City until a heart attack sidelined him and Nelson Riddle – another great Sinatra arranger then working in TV – succeeded him for the series' final year.

May returned to TV in the fall of 1966 with The Green Hornet, including a clever orchestral takeoff on "The Flight of the Bumblebee" as the series theme, with a bravura performance by trumpet virtuoso Al Hirt. He composed 13 energetic original scores for the series (the other 13 were tracked with this material). May's stereo Green Hornet LP, on the 20th Century-Fox label, has over the years become one of the rarest of all TV soundtracks, fetching upwards of $300 on the collectors' market. Hirt's recording, with May's orchestral backing, can be heard on the current Kill Bill, Volume 1 soundtrack.

More television music followed. Riddle and May again switched places in the fall of 1967, when Riddle left Batman and May scored the final season of the series, including a theme for the new character of Batgirl. In the fall of '68, May moved over to The Mod Squad, alternating episodes with composer Earle Hagen.

May scored several TV-movies, including The Pigeon (1969, with Sammy Davis Jr. as a detective), The Ballad of Andy Crocker (1969, the first telefilm to deal with the Vietnam War) and The Specialists (1975, a pilot with Robert Urich and Maureen Reagan). The 1970s also saw him scoring many episodes of Jack Webb's Emergency! His final scoring assignments were the three-hour Joseph McCarthy story Tail Gunner Joe (1977) and the TV-movie Little Mo (1978), although he continued to create big-band arrangements and orchestrations for movies, notably for James Horner (including Field of Dreams, Cocoon and batteries not included).

His radio work with satirist Stan Freberg led to collaborations on some of Freberg's now-classic television commercials, including a 1970 spot for Heinz's "Great American Soups" that featured musical star Ann Miller – who also died in California on Thursday – tap-dancing atop a giant soup can amidst a studio filled with hoofers doing a Busby Berkeley-style routine.

Survivors include his wife, three daughters and a brother.

© 2004 Jon Burlingame

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