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May, Brian (1934–1997)

by D. D. McNicoll

from Australian

Brian May Composer, band leader. Born Adelaide, July 28, 1934. Died Melbourne, April 25, aged 62.

Brian May's ability to write music to suit the action of films and television shows made him one of the most respected and widely recognised composers in the country. Few Australians had not heard his music and a whole generation of ABC television viewers remember fondly his time as conductor and musical director of the ABC's Melbourne Show Band.

During his career May composed the music for more than 40 films, in Australia, Britain and the United States — including the highly acclaimed Mad Max series — and produced more than 50 albums, CDs and singles for record companies in Australia, Europe and Asia.

Born in Adelaide in 1934, May was educated at Adelaide Boys High School and the Elder Conservatorium before embarking on his first career as a pianist. He joined the ABC in Adelaide in 1957 as a music copyist for the ABC's Adelaide Band and the Combined Adelaide Singers — two groups that thrived in the days when the ABC had in-house show bands and orchestras in almost every State.

Displaying the determination that was to be the hallmark of his career, May soon established his own band within the ABC's Adelaide organisation. With due modesty it was known as the Brian May Show Band. The band was an on-again, off-again thing — forming when needed — but it enabled May to become a much-loved "musical son" with ABC management, which recognised his organising abilities and devotion to hard work.

In 1968 the ABC transferred May to Melbourne and placed him in charge of the venerable Melbourne Show Band, which had until then been headed by Frank Thorn.

Under Thorn's direction the band had a front line of only five strings but under May it rapidly increased to a 36-piece band with a fulltime permanent orchestra to work with and a staff of five arrangers.

May's drive and search for perfection initially came as something of a shock to many Melbourne musicians. His demands for absolute professionalism led to a number of hirings and firings in the band, but he finally moulded it into what was generally agreed to be the finest show band in the country.

Throughout the 1970s, the Melbourne Show Band, which was hugely popular with the public, worked for both radio and television but it gradually spent more and more of its time working with the visual medium. In one of those managerial quirks insiders say could only happen at the ABC, the Melbourne Show Band was financed entirely by the ABC's radio division, even though most of its work was for television.

During one of the ABC's internal rationalisations, the executive in charge of radio decided to increase his radio budget by getting rid of the expensive band, and the Melbourne Show Band's days were numbered. May remained in charge until its demise in 1982, when he resigned to work virtually full time on film and television scores — an area he had first entered successfully in the 1970s when he wrote the score for the film The True Story of Eskimo Nell.

May was a rather private man who many colleagues found difficult to get to know. He was a hard taskmaster and this further distanced him from some of his fellow musicians who enjoyed a more relaxed lifestyle. However, those who became close remember him for his humour, his enduring friendship, and his distinctive belly laugh.

He was generally regarded by fellow musicians as a very efficient composer who always did a good job rather than as a musical genius whose work will be remembered down the ages. His speed at writing film scores, however, amazed all his colleagues and endeared him to producers.

As well as films such as Mad Max and Mad Max 2, May worked on a series of Australian productions including Hurricane Smith, Bloodmoon, Sky Pirates, Frog Dreaming, Kitty and the Bagman, Roadgames, Race for the Yankee Zephyr, The Killing of Angel Street, Gallipoli, Harlequin, Patrick and The Survivor. In the US, he scored films including Missing in Action II and Nightmare on Elm Street 6 and television series such as Tales From the Crypt.

His film and television work won him many awards, including the Australian TV Society best original music award in 1977, the Australian Film Institute award for best original score in 1979, the Los Angeles Newspapers award for the year's most outstanding score in 1982 and the Australian Performing Rights Association special gold award in 1984.

May had four children with his first wife, Beryl, whom he married in Adelaide.

His second marriage, to Ruth, ended in divorce last year but they remained close friends.

Over the last decade, May had divided his time between his home on Queensland's Gold Coast and Los Angeles, depending on where the demands of work took him. A fanatical golfer all his life, he once played off a handicap of seven and in recent years was cheerfully regarded by fellow members of the Surfers Paradise Golf Club — where he was vice-president — as a "burglar" when his handicap drifted up into the teens.

May died suddenly of a heart attack while visiting the home of a friend in Melbourne. He is survived by his four children and seven grandchildren.

Original publication

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Citation details

D. D. McNicoll, 'May, Brian (1934–1997)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/may-brian-31198/text39266, accessed 23 September 2021.

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