Billy May – Billy May’s Big Fat Brass [Capitol, 1958]

Billy May - Big fat brassBilly May was a prolific and widely admired trumpet player, arranger and orchestra leader with a renowned sense of humor. Unfortunately, many people in America are more familiar with Billy Mays, the wildly irritating pitchman for such products as Oxy-Clean and Mighty Putty…the man who looks like he was conceived during some homoerotic satanic ritual involving Bluto and Freddie Mercury.

Both men were born in Pennsylvania and have similar names, but that’s where the comparisons thankfully end.

Billy May began his musical career as a trumpet player for Charlie Barnet, before going on to work as an trumpeter and arranger with Glenn Miller and Les Brown. Following those gigs, May worked as an arranger at the NBC Radio Network, before moving on to Capitol Records in the late 40’s where he was the creator and arranger of a series of highly successful children’s albums. In 1951, he scored a top ten hit with a charming little ditty that he co-composed entitled I Taut I Taw A Puddy Tat.

In addition to his work on the kiddy records, Billy also wrote arrangements for some of the biggest recording stars of the era including Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Junior, Ella Fitzgerald and Bobby Darin. In the 60’s Mays did some interesting work for television and movies, including the theme song for the newly launched Batgirl character, who joined Batman and Robin in 1967.

Yes indeed, Billy was a most prolific lad, even finding time to record some of his own work, like Big Fat Brass- a title that would fit Billy Mays perfectly if you removed the b and r and added loud-mouth at the end. Big Fat Brass was released in 1958 and won Billy a Grammy award. At the same time he was also the musical director for Stan Freberg’s comedy radio show, and a hardcore booze- hound by all accounts.

Big Fat Brass is breezy, brash, bold and sassy, often simultaneously, like on the track Pawn Ticket. On Solving the Riddle, it’s sassy time as the band plays a tune that could easily accompany Mae West strutting her stuff and swinging her purse. On the track called Invitation I pictured Humphrey Bogart smoking and drinking at some dark and dingy bar while he eyed up some frisky, flirtatious dame across the room.

My personal favorite song on the album is Return Of The Zombie, which evokes a marching band of undead beatnik fiends, scarfing down on some poor unfortunate before abruptly switching tracks in order to drink, dance and sweat profusely. How can you go wrong with that combination?

Big Fat Brass is cool, old-timey music from an age many people only know through the movies, and to me, that’s what it conjures up: images from a by-gone era. You can smell smoke, sweat and liquor oozing through the speakers while listening to this album… which is great, unless you’re in a 12 step program.

Joe Pickell

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