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Billy May: 1951-53


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Before Frank Sinatra signed with Capitol Records in 1954, the label already had on staff a growing team of arrangers and bandleaders that were pouring the foundation for a neo-swing era. With the shift to longer-playing albums, vocalists and instrumental pop music were in demand by middle-aged couples for whom teenage R&B and classical meant little. To meet the growing demand, Capitol turned to orchestrators like Paul Weston, Nelson Riddle, Les Baxter, Frank De Vol and Skitch Henderson. But perhaps the label's most signature arranger in Capitol's stable between 1951 and 1953 was Billy May.

May's instrumental recordings weren't quite soothing pop or cerebral jazz but a swaggering mix of swinging bombast and nattering sections. What distinguished his sound were reeds bending notes almost in a wail. The dragged notes, particularly among the alto saxophones, would become closely identified with Sinatra after he began recording albums arranged by May.

One could argue convincingly that May invented the cocky updating of the big band sound that Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee slipped into comfortably a couple of years later in the 12-inch LP era. This is certainly evident on a two-CD set—Billy May & His Orchestra: Studio Recordings 1951-1953. Over the course of two years, May was the architect of a new Capitol sound that borrowed from Glenn Miller and Stan Kenton. Listening to these sides provides a glimpse into May's approach and how it developed. Instead of syrupy instrumentals, May's arrangements had a brashness, like someone stumbling over ash cans while trying to find the house keys after one too many. There also was a long-legged slyness about the charts, with one section leading the melody while others exploded here and there with meddlesome wise-guy commentary. 

Ultimately, May's early slinky instrumentals captured Hollywood's optimism of the early 1950s. Every time I hear his recordings from that time period, I think of those hulking round cars, red-and-cream plaid shirts, rolled up chinos, hamburger stands, new highways and palm-tree suburbia.

Billy May died in 2004.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Billy May & His Orchestra: Studio Recordings, 1951-1953 (Jasmine) here.

JazzWax clips: Here's My Silent Love (1951)...


Here's My Last Affair (1952)...


Here's Easy Street, with the bending saxophones...


Here's Billy May's Hollywood in 1952, via a brief home movie of Walter Shields, a trombonist in Ray Anthony's band...


Here's Beany's Drive-In Restaurant in Long Beach in 1952...


And here's Los Angeles in 1954...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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