Sy Oliver, Melvin James “Sy” Oliver (December 17, 1910 in Battle Creek, Michigan – May 28, 1988 in New York City) was a jazz arranger, trumpeter, composer, singer and bandleader.
Sy Oliver was born in Battle Creek, Michigan. His mother was a piano teacher and his father was a multi-instrumentalist who made a name for himself demonstrating saxophones at a time that instrument was little used outside of marching bands.
Sy Oliver left home at 17 to play with Zack Whyte and his Chocolate Beau Brummels and later with Alphonse Trent. He sang and played trumpet with these bands, becoming known for his “growling” horn playing.
Sy Oliver arranged and conducted many songs for Ella Fitzgerald from her Decca years. As a composer, one of his most famous songs was T’ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It), which he co-wrote with Trummy Young.
In 1933, Sy Oliver joined Jimmie Lunceford’s band, contributing many hit arrangements for the band, including “My Blue Heaven” and “Ain’t She Sweet”. In 1939, he became one of the first African Americans with a prominent role in a white band when he joined Tommy Dorsey as an arranger, though he ceased playing trumpet at that time. (Fletcher Henderson joined the Benny Goodman orchestra as the arranger in the same year.) He led the transition of the Dorsey band from Dixieland to modern big band.
His joining was instrumental in Buddy Rich’s decision to join Dorsey. His arrangement of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” was a big hit for Dorsey, as were his own compositions “Yes Indeed” (a gospel-jazz tune that was later recorded by Ray Charles), “Opus One,” “The Minor is Muggin’,” “T.D.’s Boogie Woogie,” and “Well, Git It.”
After leaving Dorsey, Sy Oliver continued working as a free-lance arranger and as music director for Decca Records.
One of his more successful efforts as an arranger was the Frank Sinatra album I Remember Tommy, a combined tribute to each man’s former boss.
In later years, up until 1980, he led his own jazz band, for which he took up the trumpet again.