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Billy May Dies

Billy May, an arranger, composer and trumpeter who supplied charts for many of Frank Sinatra’s recordings of the 1950s and ’60s, died of a heart attack on Thurs., Jan. 22 in his San Juan Capistrano, Calif. home. He was 87.

Born Edward William Jr. in Pittsburgh in 1916, May was playing trumpet professionally by at least age 22, when he joined Charlie Barnet’s band. He began contributing arrangements for the band shortly thereafter and developed a “slurping” or “scooping” sound for the saxophone section that became his trademark. His arrangement of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” became a standard of the swing era. He stayed with Barnet for two years and then joined Glenn Miller’s orchestra, again as a trumpeter/arranger, again for two years. After spending the fall of 1942 in Les Brown’s band, May settled in Los Angeles and did session work in the studios. This led to May’s employment at NBC as a staff arranger and conductor.

In the 1950s May led a studio big band at Capitol Records. It was there that he began working on Frank Sinatra sessions, backing the swaggering singer with vibrant, colorful charts perhaps best sampled on the hit Come Fly With Me album from 1958. Sinatra is by no means the only big name May worked with. His discography also lists credits with Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Nat “King” Cole and pop artists like the Carpenters.

May is survived by his wife, four daughters and a brother.

Originally Published