Billy May: The Transcriptions

Something happened in the 1950s. Actually two things did. The generation that grew up during the Depression and fought in World War II turned 40 in 1955.

Just as they blew out the candles, the long-playing album expanded from 10 inches to 12. Both trends set the table neatly for Frank Sinatra’s recording comeback. It was quite a rebound. [Photo left of Frank Sinatra and Billy May during the Come Fly With Me recording sessions]

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By the time Columbia producer Mitch Miller had finished with him in 1951, Sinatra was a washed up novelty singer. What’s more, the syrupy ballads he sang that used to give comfort to forlorn teenage girls in the late 1940s no longer made much sense in the early ’50s. Those girls had married. [Photo above of Dagmar and Sinatra in 1951 recording Mama Will Bark, one of Sinatra’s last recordings for Columbia before being let go]

After Sinatra signed with Capitol Records in 1953, he quickly became known for his swaggering singing style as he began to update the Swing Era songbook with brassy arrangements. His output for the label in the years that followed would connect more firmly with men going through a midlife crisis than their wives. But Sinatra wasn’t the inventor of that ring-a-ding-ding approach. We have Billy May to thank for that. [Photo above of Frank Sinatra and Billy May]

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Starting in 1951, May had hits for Capitol with instrumentals in which he overhauled Tin Pan Alley standards. His arrangements had an elasticity that built on the approaches taken by Count Basie and Les Brown. In 2015, I posted on May’s studio recordings from the early 1950s issued by Jasmine Records (go here). Yesterday I spent time with Let’s Go to Town With Billy May & His Orchestra: Transcription Recordings, which Jasmine released in 2002. Listening to the tracks is like spending time with the tailor who designed Sinatra’s musical wardrobe at Capitol in the years to come.

The two-CD set features four different groupings of transcriptions. But first, for those who are unfamiliar with the definition of a transcription, I quote from George Hulme’s notes:

“In the U.S, every town of any size had its own radio station and the larger cities had several. Most of the stations were quite small and could not afford to employ orchestras and there were restrictions on the use of commercial records. They solved the problem by buying recordings from transcription services offering records that were free of copyright restrictions and could be used to create programs or used as filler or background music. The transcription companies were often associated with the major record companies and used the same artists to perform similar material to that which the artists had recorded for commercial release. The U.S. government sponsored a large number of programs that were used as entertainment for military personnel.”

The two Jasmine CDs feature four different transcription recording sessions by May—the Talent Standard sessions in 1951, The Billy May Show for the Navy in 1954, the Voice of America show in 1954, and the National Guard’s Let’s Go to Town show recorded sometime in the ’50s.

In the 1951 recordings, we hear the sassy approach that Sinatra would wear so well two years later. All of these May tracks are abbreviated versions of May’s studio recordings and are taken at a slightly faster clip. All run about two minutes or a pinch longer. There’s All of Me, with May’s signature dragging saxophones; the breezy When Your Lover Has Gone, which sounds as if you’re riding in a speeding convertible from the period; and the fascinating I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan, which glides along with the band’s sections folding neatly into each other.

At Capitol following Sinatra’s signing, the deft arranger Nelson Riddle (above) was able to deliver the high-octane power of May’s style, but he quickly developed his own more sophisticated sound for Sinatra that would come to define him. But in 1951, as Sinatra languished, May’s arrangements of Just You, Just Me and You’re Driving Me Crazy were already fully formed Sinatra charts minus the voice.

Sixty-six years after these transcriptions were recorded, May’s vast contribution to Sinatra’s ’50s style and the influential innovations he brought to big band arranging have been largely forgotten. And that’s a shame.

Billy May died in 2004.

JazzWax tracks: You’ll find Let’s Go to Town With Billy May & His Orchestra: Transcription Recordings (Jasmine) here.

JazzWax clips: Here’s Talent Standard’s Just You, Just Me

Just You, Just Me

And here’s Talent Standard’s I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan

I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan