The Caped Crusaders Composers: Billy May - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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The Caped Crusaders Composers: Billy May

Pow! Chris Morley returns with a look back at the life and career of another of the Caped Crusader's composers.
For our next look around the dusty record shelves of the Batcave, time to delve into a man of similar vintage to Nelson Riddle as we move on to Billy May, who came to Batman in 1967 just as ratings were falling & Batgirl was introduced into proceedings alongside a more topical slant.

May got his start playing the tuba in his high school band,
"I sat in the rear of the stand. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was intrigued with becoming an arranger and an orchestrator."
His big break came when he got an affirmative response from Charlie Barnet to the notion of writing arrangements for his big band after having heard them on the radio over the summer of 1938, spending two years playing with them & giving them a hit with his take on Ray Noble's Cherokee.

The tune would rise to number fifteen on the pop charts. An extension of which, titled “Redskin Rhumba, subsequently became Barnet’s theme song. According to Don Kennedy, host of the Big Band Jump radio show...
“It was, of course, based on the plunger-muted trombones, but the “melody” was simply Barnet’s ad-lib tenor sax noodlings. That way, he told me, it could be expanded or contracted to fit any situation in a “live” remote.”
The muted trombone would later become something of a trademark for May, alongside his use of brass, which would find a home on Capitol Records. He then worked with many of the artists Nelson Riddle also had; Billy's sessions with Nat King Cole later collected into a 2CD set (drawn from singles & two albums, Just One Of Those Things & Lets Face The Music). He also worked with Frank Sinatra on Come Fly With Me, Come Dance With Me and Come Swing With Me. Indeed, the great man said of him that
"Riddle will come to a session with all the arrangements carefully worked out beforehand. With Billy, you sometimes don't get copies of the next number until you've finished the one before."
May's work at Capital Records was a fair happier experience for him than his time with Glenn Miller, who he'd worked with after leaving Barnet's band. As a Guardian obituary for Billy points out,
“May's arrangement of the Ray Noble tune Cherokee... caught the ear of swing-era titans Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, both of whom wanted to poach May from Barnet's band. May chose Miller, and he was to have a profound influence on the Miller sound, even though Miller took most of the credit.”
Nevertheless, after a spell in rehab for issues with alcohol in the mid-Nineties, May could at least admit that his spell with Miller...
“...helped me immensely. I learned a lot from Glenn. He was a good musician and an excellent arranger."
May was not responsible for any of the Glenn Miller band's signature hits, but he did write the introduction to Bill Finegan's arrangement of Serenade In Blue, and would appear on film with Miller's orchestra in Sun Valley Serenade & Orchestra Wives before moving into arrangements for film & television.

Arguably May's biggest hit, at least on the small screen, was aimed at smaller people, I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat was quite the showcase for Mel Blanc as the voices of both Sylvester the cat & Tweety-Pie!

Yet this was far from May's first brush with comedy, Fifties satirist Stan Freberg often called on him to lend a hand in his many spoofs of hits of the day, including a 15-episode long radio series for CBS. One member of the cast would remark of Billy's drinking at the time that he was "the only man I ever knew who could conduct a full orchestra and chorus while he was stone drunk."

May's first crack at superheroism came with his arrangement of The Flight Of The Bumblebee as a theme tune for the Green Hornet series of 1966, which came about as a direct result of the success of producer William Dozier's work on Batman itself.

The use of Rimsky-Korsakov's piece as a theme dates back to the original 1936 radio series where it was blended with a theremin-generated buzzing sound. Quentin Tarantino was evidently a fan as the theme appears in Kill Bill (note the Kaito masks in a fight scene, too).

There's also a reference in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood as Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth takes on Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, clad in his Kaito costume.

When Nelson Riddle declined the invitation to work on the third season of Batman, Dozzier reached out to May and brought him into the fold of Caped Crusader's composers. Although Tarantino has yet to offer up a homage on his Batman arrangements.

Next time out we look to what can surely be deemed a cinematic spiritual successor to the Sixties series, 1997's much maligned Batman & Robin, music courtesy of Elliot Goldenthal. Holy camp!

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