Obituaries : Sy Oliver; Influential Arranger in Big Band Era

Associated Press

Jazz composer-arranger-band leader Sy Oliver, one of the big band era’s most influential and imitated arrangers, died Friday at Mt. Sinai Hospital of lung cancer. He was 77.

Oliver gained fame as trumpeter, vocalist and arranger with the Jimmie Lunceford Band from 1933 to 1939. “Sunny Side of the Street,” “My Blue Heaven” and “Ain’t She Sweet” were among his most acclaimed arrangements. He arranged for Tommy Dorsey from 1939 through the late 1940s, using a powerful two-beat style.

Oliver is ranked with Fletcher Henderson among the era’s top arrangers. His works include “Opus I,” “Tain’t Whatcha Do,” “Easy Does It,” “Swing High,” “Dream of You,” “For Dancers Only” and “Yes Indeed.”


For a decade from 1947 he worked as a musical director for Decca and other record companies. From the late 1950s he was a free-lance arranger for singers Frank Sinatra, Ethel Merman, Sammy Davis Jr., Peggy Lee, Jo Stafford, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters and the Mills Brothers.

In the 1970s he led a band on a fairly regular basis, including two lengthy engagements at New York’s Rainbow Room. Oliver concentrated on the music of Lunceford, Dorsey, Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. He retired about three years ago.

Melvin James Oliver was born Dec. 17, 1910, in Battle Creek, Mich., and grew up in Zanesville, Ohio, where his parents taught music.

After high school he joined Zack Whyte’s band in Cincinnati. Fellow musicians early on gave him the nickname ‘Sy,’ short for psychiatrist, because he read extensively and had a large vocabulary.

He is survived by his wife Lillian, whom he met when she joined the singing Clark Sisters on the “Endorsed by Dorsey” radio show in 1946, and two sons.