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Billy May on Cherokee and Legacy

SOURCE: Published: 2008-06-05
Billy May WILDLY IMAGINATIVE
Arranger-Bandleader Billy May Leaves Legacy On Making A Tune Sound Great

The following article on Billy May was originally published in the July 2000 issue of Jazz Connection Magazine.

THE WAY BILLY MAY SEES IT, being an arranger requires a good imagination. And May himself has been described by big band critic George T. Simon as “wildly imaginative."

May, a huge man with a dry wit that was reflected in much of what he wrote, has been one of the most exciting arrangers to come out of the Big Band era. One of the biggest hits and signature sounds of the swing era, the chipped saxophone riff on the classic Cherokee, was arranged for Charlie Barnet's orchestra in 1939 by May. After playing trumpet and arranging for Barnet and Glenn Miller, May went into the recording studios to gain prominence as a much-in-demand arranger for Capitol Records backing up such singing stars as Frank Sinatra, Nat “King" Cole and Peggy Lee. For a brief period in the early 1950s, he was even a successful bandleader in his own right, often performing the hottest show in town.

“I guess some of the things I have done musically were very successful," said May, 83, via telephone from his home in San Juan Capistrano, CA. “We got lucky."

May is free to consider the outcome of his work as having to do with luck, but many critics see it as coming from his keen “inspired imagination." Many would even say genius, if you will.

These critics see May's music as reflecting the combination of energy, enthusiasm, fun and creativity that is filled with exhilaration, excitement and ebullience.

“Obviously, you approach the material you are to arrange with a lot of factors in mind such as the composition itself, the targeted listeners, the artist who will be recording it, etc.," May said about how he receives the inspiration to do arrangements. “Sometimes suggestions are given by those who hire you. Doing something for Time/Life Records is different than doing something for Frank Sinatra. You have to consider all the factors."

Born November 10, 1916, in Pittsburgh, PA, May started his musical training on the tuba at age 14, due to health reasons.

“I suffered from asthma as a boy and the doctor suggested that I play a horn to increase my lung capacity," May said. “I talked to the band teacher about it and he gave me a tuba."

May became interested in arranging because he had so much time to observe the other instruments when he played the tuba, he said.

“I was intrigued with arranging right from the beginning," May said. “The tuba had the bass part in the band and I began noticing that some arrangements had more interesting bass parts than others."

By the time he graduated from Schenley High School in the1935, the Big Band era was just starting, and May had begun taking up playing the trombone and trumpet.

During the ensuing years, May worked with a variety of Pittsburgh bands, he said.

It was a chance meeting with bandleader Charlie Barnet during the band's stopover in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1938 that forever changed May's life.

“I had heard Charlie's band and I fell in love with it," May said. “I went to Charlie and asked if I could write an arrangement for him. He said sure and that his band was going to rehearse the following day. I stayed up all night and wrote a chart. I brought it to him and he liked it very much. He made a deal with me and then went out of town. Shortly after that, Charlie went on another one of his marital adventures and broke up band."

Not to be discouraged, May kept on fine-tuning his arranging skills while continuing to play with local bands.

In early 1939, while tuning in on the radio, May heard a broadcast of Barnet's band from New York. Not to be denied, he wrote the saxophone playing bandleader a letter asking him for the money he owed him for the arrangement.

“Instead of sending money, Charlie called me and asked me to come to New York to work with him," May said. “I arranged and played trumpet in the band."

It didn't take long for May to come up with a hit arrangement for the Barnet band. He took an Indian-inspired tune that British bandleader Ray Noble had played in a suite and wove it to fit Barnet's hard, swinging style.

“Someone was fooling around with the plunger mutes on the trombones doing a “wah-wah" sound," May recalled. “I got the idea of using the three trombones starting off the piece that way."

The result was a wild, romping version of Cherokee, recorded on July 17, 1939, which became Barnet's biggest hit and the bandleader's theme song.

“It became the most popular record Charlie ever made," May said.

Other members of the Barnet who were on the recording include Robert Burnet and John Owens, trumpets; Don Ruppersberg, Bill Robertson and Ben Hall, trombones; Kurt Bloom, Gene Kinsey, James Lamare and Don McCook, saxophones; Bill Miller, piano; Bus Etri, guitar: Phil Stephens, bass; and Cliff Leeman, drums.

In fact, Cherokee became one of the biggest hit tunes of the Swing Era - an anthem of sorts for the period - probably second only to Glenn Miller's In The Mood.

The song also became a key inspiration for bebop players a few years later. Charlie Parker's Ko-Ko is based on the chord changes in Cherokee.

With May and alto saxophonist/arranger Skippy Martin and trombonist/arranger Lyle “Spud" Murphy joining Barnet's band, things started to really cook. It waxed a number of great sides for Bluebird including The Count's Idea, The Duke's Idea (both Sept. 10, 1939), The Right Idea and The Wrong Idea (both Oct. 9, 1939), Comanche War Dance (Jan. 3, 1940); It's A Wonderful World and 720 In The Books (both vocals by Mary Ann McCall, Feb. 7, 1940); Leapin' At The Lincoln (March 21, 1940); Southern Fried (Sept. 17, 1940), and Redskin Rhumba (Oct. 14,1940). Barnet used his own composition of Redskin Rhumba, a follow-up to Cherokee, as his closing theme.


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