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If Mantovani is the epitome of elevator music, Ray Conniff is the epitome of supermarket music. Like Liberace and others among these lists, Conniff made a conscious choice to stick with a formula that guaranteed commercial success. But the quality, and at times, the humor, of his work shouldn't be disregarded.
Conniff first became known as one of the best trombonists of the big band era. He played with Bunny Berigan, Bob Crosby, Art Hodes, and Artie Shaw, and several of his solos are still cited as some of the best of the period. Having studied arranging through a correspondence course, he also contributed occasional arrangements to all three bands.
After serving in the Army in World War II, which included working under composer and arranger Walter Schumann, he joined Harry James' band as an arranger, but quit and moved to Hollywood to get steadier work that would support his wife and three kids. He bumped around the studios for a few years until Mitch Miller hired him as a house arranger with Columbia in 1951. He mainly did fill-in work for other arrangers until Miller asked him to arrange a single, "Band of Gold," for crooner Don Cherry (no relation to the jazz trumpeter who worked with Ornette Coleman). Conniff used a tightly harmonized chorus in place of a string section, and the sound was an instant hook, taking the single to #5 on the Top 40 and giving Cherry his biggest hit.
Finally, in 1956, Columbia decided to try out Conniff as a featured performer with his first LP, "S'Wonderful." He combined a chorus of four men and four women with an traditional big band mix of 18 instruments, including guitarists Al Caiola and Tony Mottola. "S'Wonderful" was one of the best-selling instrumental albums of the time, and Columbia contracted for more of the same. Conniff's formula was to substitute the women's voices for the trumpet section from a fairly standard big band arrangement and the men's voices for the sax section. At first, these were wordless vocals that backed the melody, but he quickly moved them to the front, giving them the melody and often the words.
Conniff recorded with two groups: his "Orchestra and Chorus" and his "Singers." The former was a typical big band line-up of saxes, trumpets, trombones, and rhythm section and a chorus of four men and four women. The latter was a chorus of 25 singers--12 women and 13 men--with minimal instrumental backing. As described in a 1962 McCall's article,
In effect, these singers "play" their voices as though they were instruments ... more like subtly fluted woodwinds than singing.Despite his reputation as an easy-listening artist, Conniff did not use a string section until his most recent CD. Conniff's use of the vocal chorus influenced many other arrangers and established a solid following for later groups such as the Anita Kerr Singers and the Johnny Mann Singers to profit from. I suspect his "do-do-do" vocals were also an inspiration for Esquivel's "zu-zu-zu" effects.
Conniff produced 25 straight Top 40 LPs for Columbia during the 1950s and 1960s. Although the first were strictly compilations of standards, he began introducing current pop hit songs in the late 1950s and within a few years had made these the mainstay of his repetoire.
For as much as his work is maligned, Conniff doesn't deserve the bad rap. He never took his work too seriously--on the same album as his biggest--and one of his drippiest--singles, "Somewhere My Love" (an adaptation of Maurice Jarre's "Lara's Theme" from "Doctor Zhivago") is faithfully silly cover of Rolf Harris' immortal "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport." He was also a risk-taker in his private life: in his mid-50s, he got interested in off-the-road racing and ended up competing in several Baja 500 races.
His willingness to take on just about any material is impressive--or frightening, depending on your perspective. He loves to tinker with the classics, and has released at least three albums of adaptations of classical pieces. He'll cover whatever's popular at the moment, which creates some striking contrasts as we move into the 1970s: On You Are the Sunshine of My Life, we find his interpretation of "Dueling Banjos" opposite a bubbling take on Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra," titled "Bah Bah Conniff Sprach." He can ingest musical styles and content ranging from "I Write the Songs" to the "Theme from 'Shaft'" and produce a consistency of output rivaling an industrial shredder. Being able to achieve essentially the same musical effect whether the source is Beethoven's "Fur Elise" or "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" is something else. I leave it to you to decide just what that something is.
Conniff's singers were usually an anonynmous bunch of session singers, but a couple of Hollywood's better-known studio vocalists get cover credits, particularly on later albums. In the 1960s, Loulie Jean Norman and B.J. Baker were Conniff regulars, and from around 1970 on, Jackie Ward usually took the rare solos. Among the men, Jay Meyer assisted as conductor in the 50s and 60s, and John Bahler and Ron Hicklin, who also had a hand in the Love Generation, the Partridge Family, and other studio soft pop vocal group creations, came on board in the late 60s and early 70s. Conniff himself was his favorite soloist, but he credited a few other instrumentalists. The trumpet appears to have been his next favorite instrument, and he featured Bernie Glow in the 50s, Conrad Gozzo, Dick Cathcart, and Ollie Mitchell in the 60s, and John Best from the 70s on. West Coast jazz vets Jimmy Rowles and Pete Jolly, along with Welk vet Bob Ralston and Bobby Hammack, handled most of the keyboard duties, although Conniff loved to toss in his own clavietta solos. Jolly was still working with him in the late 90s. And powering his heavyweight strolling "Happy Beat," Al Hendrickson provided the strong rhythm guitar through dozens of albums.
Conniff continued to produce a steady stream of albums, although with fewer sales than before. Like Percy Faith, he was particularly inspired by Latin music and released several albums with Spanish language versions of popular hits. One of his later CDs, marking his 40th anniversary as a recording artist, featured Latin numbers and styles as well as an adaptation of "The Chorus of Slaves" from Verdi's opera "Nabucco" and Ray's own trombone solos--not bad for an 80 year-old guy.
Conniff has an active international fan club that meets holds an annual convention he usually attends and performs at. His first use of a string section after all these years was at the 1995 convention in Basel, Switzerland. He worked and played at a pace to put most of us to shame right until the end, playing concerts in Brazil less than a year before his death. In one of his last appearances, he performed "Somewhere My Love" at the wedding of David Gest and Liza Minnelli in March 2002.
Recordings (all on Columbia unless otherwise indicated)
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