P. O. Box 4015 Arsenal Station
Pittsburgh, PA 15201-0015

Billy May (1916-2004)

Capitol Records LP cover from 1960.

Edward William “Billy” May, Jr. was a multiple Grammy-winning composer, arranger, band leader, and trumpeter. Growing up in Lawrenceville, his home address was 412 44th Street. Billy’s music career began as a tuba player in the Schenley High School band. An asthmatic as a youth, his physician advised therapy through playing the tuba. As the solo opportunities were limited for that instrument, he also took up the trumpet. At the age of seventeen May began playing locally with Gene Olsen’s Polish-American Orchestra. In 1938, Billy caught the attention of big band leader Charlie Barnet and was placed in the band’s trumpet section. May also arranged for the band and it wasn’t long before he caught the attention of another big band leader, Glenn Miller.

May joined Miller’s outfit in 1940 and stayed on until Miller disbanded in 1942 and joined the Army Air Corps to create a service band. May (who was 4F) moved on as staff arranger first for the NBC radio network, then for Capitol Records. At Capitol May wrote arrangements for many top singers, including Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Bobby Darin, Johnny Mercer, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bing Crosby. He also collaborated with satirist Stan Freberg on several classic 1950s and 1960s satirical music albums. (Billy May solos at the 1:45 mark in the clip below.)

May’s orchestra was also featured on many Capitol Records children’s projects, including cowboy star, Hopalong Cassidy. He composed film and television music for The Green Hornet (1966), The Mod Squad (1968), Batman (with Batgirl theme, 1967), and Naked City (1960). His biggest hit as a composer was the children’s song “I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat,” which he recorded with Mel Blanc in 1950.

In the early 1950s, Billy May had his own orchestra, for which the theme was “Lean Baby,” featuring his trademark sax style. May had a hit single, “Charmaine,” in 1952, and in all, May’s orchestra released 17 albums. (Below is Billy May’s orchestra and arrangement for singer Vic Damone in 1962, “Little Girl.”)