The Bold And Brassy Sound Of Billy May

A talented trumpeter who at times led a very successful orchestra of his own, Billy May is probably most remembered now as a composer and arranger, one of the best ever. During a decades-long career that began in the swing era, the Grammy-winner worked with a staggering list of stars; among them Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Bobby Darin, and a host of others.

A Pittsburgh native, May’s first instrument was – of all things – a tuba, which he played in his high school band and also in local polka combos, but he soon migrated to the trumpet. He also began a life-long fascination with composing and arranging, talents that came in very handy when he eventually joined Charlie Barnet’s band, and later worked for both Glenn Miller and Les Brown.

Even though he was a vital part of the big band era, May really came into his own in the post-war years when he began leading studio bands for NBC and later Capitol Records. It gave him plenty of opportunities to become the favorite arranger and bandleader for a number of recording stars, and he built an impressive resume throughout the 1950s. He also began getting more and more into movie and TV work, not only composing soundtracks and theme songs but also as a bandleader, as in the rare 1959 color video below which shows Billy walking on camera at the beginning of a Milton Berle special. (Frankie Avalon fans can see him in the video too – in fact, he performs later on.)

It was during those years that May won two Grammys, one for best performance by an orchestra (for his album Big Fat Brass) and another for arranging (for Sinatra’s Come Dance With Me), and he continued to find success through the 1960s and 1970s but things eventually slowed down a little. However, he did continue working behind the scenes and was still composing and arranging into the 1990s. He died at age 87 in 2004.

Billy May & Orchestra – “Invitation” 

(sorry — video removed at source)

One thought on “The Bold And Brassy Sound Of Billy May

  1. I like Billy May, I think of “Mission Impossible” of course, but he did so much good music!

    A lot of his music is on my internet stream

    I actually used a clip of his “Mission Impossible” for the youtube video, I’ve wondered how many people could recognize him by photo.

    Most everyone can probably recognize at least some of the great music he did, I’ve searched for him before and a certain infomercial personality always seems to come up. (grrr!)


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