Edward William "Billy" May, Jr., better known as Billy May (10 November 1916 – 22 January 2004) was an American composer, arranger and trumpeter.
May was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He started out playing the tuba in the high school band. At the age of seventeen May began playing with Gene Olsen's Polish-American Orchestra. After playing for a few local bands, May heard Charlie Barnet's band on the radio in his hometown of Pittsburgh.
May approached the bandleader and asked if he could write arrangements for the band. This happened in the summer of 1938. From 1938 to 1940, May wrote arrangements and played trumpet for Charlie Barnet's big band. His arrangement of the Ray Noble composition Cherokee became a major hit of the swing music era.
During the Barnet days, May revealed a significant flair for satire on a composition titled The Wrong Idea that ridiculed the bland Mickey Mouse style of safe big band music with specific musical mockery of bandleader Sammy Kaye, known for his swing and sway trademark. May's caustic lyrics to the song called it swing and sweat with Charlie Barnet.
May worked as an arranger for the bands of Glenn Miller and Les Brown before being hired as staff arranger first for the NBC radio network, then for Capitol Records.
He also attempted to make a name for himself as a bandleader, with limited success. By the time he formed his own ensemble in 1951, the big-band boom had peaked; although his band attracted some interest, keeping it together was a struggle, and he was not temperamentally suited for the demands of life on the road.
He continued to release albums as a leader from time to time, but after the mid-1950's the Billy May Orchestra existed only in the recording studio. In 1959, May won the Grammy Award for Best Performance by an Orchestra.
At Capitol, May wrote arrangements for many top artists. These included Frank Sinatra on the albums Come Fly With Me, Come Dance with Me! and Come Swing With Me; Nat King Cole on the albums Just One Of Those Things and Let's Face the Music!, as well as numerous singles (all his work with Cole being packaged later on the 2CD set The Billy May Sessions); Stan Freberg, with whom he was a long-time collaborator, featuring on many of the artist's comedy recordings; Peggy Lee, Sue Raney, Vic Damone, Jeri Southern, Keely Smith, Bobby Darin, Nancy Wilson, Matt Monro, Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, ; and Sir George Shearing on the albums Satin Affair and Burnished Brass, co-arranged with Shearing (May also conducted Shearing's album Concerto For My Love, on which Shearing had sole credit for the arrangements).
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.
Mr. May also wrote for television and film. He composed the themes for the television series ''Naked City,'' ''The Mod Squad'' and ''Emergency'' and the scores for ''Sergeants Three'' (1962), ''Johnny Cool'' (1963), ''Tony Rome'' (1967), ''The Front Page'' (1974) and other movies.
He was relatively inactive in recent years, but occasionally resurfaced if a project interested him. In 1979 he reunited with Sinatra, providing arrangements for an ambitious three-disc set ''Trilogy.'' In 1996 he reunited with Mr. Freberg for the equally ambitious, and long-delayed, sequel to the 1961 album ''Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Vol. 1.'' He conducted a number of pops concerts for the BBC in Scotland and England around the same time.
The veteran arranger died of heart failure at the age of 87 in his home in San Juan Capistrano, California.