Billy May’s Orchestra
Analysed by Robert Walton
Right in the centre of a collage created by my wife of my personal and professional life, is a photograph of me holding a 10 inch 1950’s 78rpm disc of Billy May’s Rose-Marie. This was around the time the long playing disc first saw the light of day. It represented one of the first highly technical big band recordings on a 78, standing out as something really special. Capitol Record’s engineers had somehow managed to put all that brass and saxophones on to a simple 78, sounding a million miles from the 1940s. It was as if a brand new era had emerged. In fact it almost gave the impression of stereo on a 78. One wonders had the new 78 technology arrived earlier in the previous decade, would Stan Kenton have benefited?
When I was working in radio at Station 1ZB Auckland in 1955, there was a strict policy of the sort of music to be selected for the morning Breakfast Session. Nothing too noisy or jazzy was permitted. Music of a calm and cheerful mood was the order of the day, like Powder Your Face with Sunshine, Manhattan Playboy, or Dear Hearts and Gentle People. One morning (you’ve guessed it) a record planner had inexplicably included Rose-Marie in the mix. By the time the Head of Programmes and Station Manager arrived at the beautiful Art Deco building for work, they were absolutely apoplectic. The planner almost lost his job! That was the only time Billy made the Breakfast Session! Great dance music it certainly was but more suitable for late night consumption.
Billy May was perhaps the most versatile arranger of them all. An early outstanding chart was Carnival by two Harrys: composer Warren and trumpeter James. Then there were those brilliant scores for the Sparky Children’s Series. But May is best remembered for his glissing unison saxes, reviving Jimmy Lunceford’s lightly swinging style. Sometimes May was more “Nelson Riddle” than Riddle with Autumn in New York and Moonlight in Vermont for Frank Sinatra. However, simple tunes like Friml’s 1924 Rose-Marie proved to be ideal for May’s style, in fact even in the 21st Century that style is still the standard sound for any big band.
The opening trumpets with some perfectly placed piano comping is as fresh today as it was then. The slurping saxes take a turn at the tune, but when the brass return for the finale the orchestra erupts into a virtual volcano. On the San Andreas Big Band Fault Line, May’s outburst will remain etched on the memory forever!
Billy May “Naughty Operetta” EMI 4 98836 2
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