Billy May, Grammy-winning arranger known for his work with Frank Sinatra and for arranging such classics as “Cherokee,” “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Serenade in Blue,” died Thursday Jan. 22 at his home in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. He was 87.
Sinatra’s 1957 album “Come Fly With Me,” the first of May’s collaborations with Ol’ Blue Eyes, reached No. 1 on Billboard and established May’s reputation, even though he was a 20-year showbiz vet by then.
Pittsburgh native got his start with local bands, then joined Charlie Barnet’s big band in 1938 as a trumpeter and arranger. Barnet soon recorded May’s arrangement of “Cherokee,” Barnet’s biggest hit and showcased May’s signature sound of blaring brass tempered with scaling saxes.
Following his two years with Barnet, he worked with Glenn Miller (for whom he arranged ” ‘A’ Train”) and Les Brown bands as well as Woody Herman and NBC, then segued to the Hollywood studio scene in the mid-1940s. That led to him joining the fledgling Capitol Records as a staff arranger. At Capitol, he worked with Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee and others — even providing music for a series of children’s albums.
He also set up and led his own Billy May Orchestra, but after the mid-1950s it functioned primarily in the recording studio.
For TV, he composed or co-created the themes for the series “Naked City,” “The Mod Squad” and “Emergency”; for film, he scored “Sergeants Three” (1962), “Johnny Cool” (1963), “Tony Rome” (1967), “The Front Page” (1974) and more.
In 1979 he reunited with Sinatra forthree-disc “Trilogy.” In 1996 he reunited with Stan Freberg for the long-delayed sequel to the 1961 comedy album “Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Vol. 1.”
He is survived by wife Dorris, five daughters and a brother.