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.