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The Man with the Golden Touch

Retrospective RTS 4297






The 1950s was a bit of a pop music desert decade, with a plethora of animal songs, many quite inane, dominating the play lists on radio, e.g. How Much Is That That Doggie in the Window; Hound Dog; The Chipmunk Song; Bird Dog, etc. For many of us, some composers and arrangers rode in to save the day, one being Billy May, he of the swooping saxophones, or as he referred to them “slurping saxophones.” Jazz fans were also relieved, since May was a jazz man at heart as his arrangements attest.

This two-disc set provides much of his best work, by my reckoning. The first disc starts out with some of the many big bands May graced with his presence in the brass section, trumpet being his instrument of choice. In Cherokee by the Charlie Barnet band, in addition to leading the trumpet section, he also did the arranging. So we have the marvelous riff that the piece is built on—the low, guttural muted trombones with the muted trumpets playing a wa-wa phrase over them and the sax section playing a chirping syncopated riff to punctuate it, all of that under the single saxophone playing melody lead. Another of May’s characteristics is a sense of humor which frequently asserts itself as here, where he has a muted trumpet (possibly his own) quote a phrase from the well-known bugle call Call to Assembly (better known to most, perhaps, as “There’s a soldier in the grass, etc.”) on top of the muted trumpet riff. The second Barnet track is a May composition, but there is not much to be said about it other than it is a tone poem that borders on the morose.

Following the Barnet tracks come two by the Glenn Miller orchestra for which May both played trumpet and wrote charts. The first is a May composition, but it was not exactly deathless. The second, however, probably everyone finds familiar, American Patrol, from the Miller movie “Orchestra Wives.” Although he is in the trumpet section, May did not arrange this particular tune, that having been Jerry Gray, another prolific arranger for Miller

May and his orchestra was also a favorite choice of many singers to back them, and with several he made several albums. Thus here we find him backing Hoagy Carmichael (Memphis in June), Peggy Lee (I Get Ideas), and Nellie Lutcher (Mean to Me) on disc one; and on disc two Nat “King” Cole (These Foolish Things Remind Me of You), Kay Starr (Honky-Tonk Hardwood Floor), and Frank Sinatra ( Moonlight in Vermont; It’s Nice to Go Trav’ling), Keely Smith (I Can’t Get Started), Anita O’Day (All of You), Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong (The Preacher), Bobby Darin and Johnny Mercer (Two of a Kind/Indiana), and Ella Fitzgerald (Over the Rainbow).

But by far the best of May and his orchestras is that which features his swooping saxophones which were, in effect, his signature. Other than Jazz Club on the BBC, programs such as the Pete Murray show on Radio Luxembourg, and the American Forces Network (AFN late at night) from Germany, I believe it was, we waited on the latter two for anything by the big bands, especially May’s; then it was a trip to the record store to order the latest 78 and wait, patiently, for its arrival. Most of them are here and how we thrilled to the upward glissandi on these saxes playing in unison. Listening to Fat Man Boogie, even now, so long after, I recall exactly where Alvin Stoller punched in the drum accents or the saxes started that long swoop up and the band returned to the shuffle rhythm, so often did we listen to it as it whirled round on that turntable. (At the time we had no idea who Eddie Condon was in the exclamation!) Another highlight was the magnificent sense of insanity May evoked in You’re Driving Me Crazy with the discordant sax riffs, the seemingly wild muted brass phrases, and as coda the mad carousel of the saxes in an ascending discordant phrase until the final release—almost quiet by comparison, but the whole number redolent of insanity. Wonderful stuff, indeed.

Billy May was a big presence—physically and musically—and when he died of a heart attack in 1987, he left a big hole, one which has yet to be filled, if ever it can be.

Bert Thompson

Disc 1 (1939-1952):

1. Cherokee

2. Wings over Manhattan

3. Long Tall Mama

4. American Patrol

5. Clambake in Bb

6. Lazy River

7. Memphis in June

8. Fat Man Mambo

9. Minor Mambo

10. I Get Ideas

11. All of Me

12. My Silent Love

13. Lulu’s Back in Town

14. Mean to Me

15. Fat Man Boogie

16. Lean Baby

17. I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan

18. Walkin’ My Baby Back Home

19. Honky-Tonk Hardwood Floor

20. Charmaine

21. Unforgettable

22. When Your Lover Has Gone

23. Mayhem

24. You’re Driving Me Crazy

25. Perfidia

Disc 2 (1952-1961):

1. Gin and Tonic

2. Easy Street

3. Cocktails for Two

4. Top Hat, White Tie and Tails

5. Little Brown Jug

6. Let’s Put Out the Lights and Go to Sleep

7. Rose Marie

8. Thou Swell

9. Blues in the Night

10. South Rampart Street Parade

11. The Man with the Golden Arm – Theme

12. I’ll Never Say “Never Again” Again

13. Say It Isn’t So

14. These Foolish Things Remind Me of You

15. Moonlight in Vermont

16. It’s Nice to Go Trav’ling

17. Burnished Brass

18. Cheek to Cheek

19. Brassmen’s Holiday

20. Autumn Leaves

21. Ping Pong

22. Solving the Riddle

23. I Can’t Get Started

24. All of You

25. The Preacher

26. Two of a Kind – Indiana

27. Over the Rainbow

Musical Groups Include:

Charlie Barnet & His Orchestra

Glenn Miller & His Orchestra

The Capitol International Jazzmen

Charles LaVere & His Chicago Loopers

Billy May & His Orchestra

Billy May & His Rico Mambo Orchestra

Billy May & His Dixie Band

Billy May & His Big Fat Brass

George Shearing & his Quintet

Billy May & His Brass Choir

Vocalists Include:

Hoagy Carmichael

Peggy Lee

Nellie Lutcher

Nat King Cole

Kay Starr

Frank Sinatra

Keely Smith

Anita O’Day

Bing Crosby

Louis Armstrong

Bobby Darin

Johnny Mercer

Ella Fitzgerald

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