Jazz Professional               

Photo by Albert Watson


Hit Maker

Hit Maker
Right on the firing-line
Talking to Donald Currie in 1962
Taught trombone by his father in Attleboro, Massachusetts, Ray Conniff did his first arrangement for his school band—“Sweet Georgia Brown.” After playing in Boston, he played with Bunny Berigan in New York, followed by stints with Bob Crosby, Artie Shaw and Glen Gray as trombonist/ arranger. It was while playing with Artie Shaw that he found time to study orchestration properly at New York’s famous Julliard School Of Music.
Drafted in 1944, he spent two years as arranger with the Armed Forces Radio Services and joined the Harry James band on release. In 1953, as a free–lance, he did a backing for vocalist Don Cherry on “Band Of Gold” and this hit was followed by a string of others with Johnnie Ray, Frankie Laine, Guy Mitchell and Johnny Mathis. It was on the strength of these successes that he was given a solo album in 1956—‘Swonderful, which launched the Conniff sound. It caught on fast and remained a best–seller for nine months.

Ray Conniff is one of the ‘very few Americans who didn’t bring the ballyhoo with him when he visited us. To his surprise, he found it already here, waiting for him. Press receptions, reporters buggin’ him, autograph hunters . . . the full treatment.

He doesn’t like it. As the lights of the Juke Box Jury set fade, Ray stands and shakes the stillness out of his legs. This seems to be the signal for a stick of reporters to descend upon him. “Will you stand like this Mr. Cormiff?’ “Would you mind just sitting this way?” Ray takes it all in his stride. In the back seat of the car taking us from the studio to the Savoy, he opens up: “I like the quiet life. I hate giving time to publicity. It robs me of time to work.” Quiet, unassuming and surprisingly modest in manner, he continues: “I suppose you’re going to ask me all the usual questions about my electronics and how many singers I use and how many musicians I use and how many. . . ” “Hold it!” we protest. His smile holds relief.

The important thing to Ray Conniff, it seems, is what he intends to give us in the future. Here is a man, who has created a sound, who has made popular a style that reassures us that good music is still in there with a chance—even in this era of psuedo and necromantic composers and lyricists. Not to mention the ‘singers’ who occupy high places in the Charts.

Anyone who has studied the Conniff technique will have noticed the almost imperceptible change that has taken place over his career of eighteen LPs. Play any consecutive two of his discs and only the keenest ear can detect it. It becomes more evident, however, when you play his first—then his most recent. Not only a change in the instrumental approach, but usually an electronic adjustment, too.

This is because Conniff is always making changes. He has always experimented and consequently the equipment has to be modified. The gear itself is kept secret. “It would be suicidal for me to divulge any information regarding this,” he says. “Mind you, most of the technical data is out of my hands, so I probably couldn’t tell you much, even if I wanted to.” His experimenting reaches back to 1933, when he first learned trombone at high school. He kept at it until the late ‘thirties, when he was in New York City arranging for Bunny Berigan. Then on to 1956 when he conducted a full orchestra for the first time.

“That’s when the sound came out ?” we asked.

“No. I didn’t hit this sound until 1957. It was the result of just another little idea I had. People have asked me to say that I suddenly woke up at three in the morning and thought of it—all kinds of things they wanted me to say. But I’m afraid it was made in the cold light of day, when we intended to make it. Anyway, I like to sleep at nights. If I thought that what happens to guys like Presley could ever happen to me, I’d be terrified! I prefer to be at home, working or listening to my own stuff. When I do listen, it’s usually my latest because I’ve generally got it on my mind. Luckily, I can listen quite dispassionately, y’know."

Is he going to make more singles ? “I doubt it. I think that the future of all recording is bound up in EPs and LPs. People seem to like LPs.” Does he think that British singers and arrangers tend to copy the Americans? “I doubt it. They only seem similar because the Americans happen to have set a craze going. They set a standard. I don’t pretend it’s always a good standard—but sometimes it is. Record companies have to keep in line with what the public wants, I suppose. That is, if they want to stay in business.” Conniff despises the ‘art’ of “Woe, woe—yeah, yeah,” but admits its commercial value: “It’s the teenager again,” he says.

“But what I’m aiming at is something in between. A kind of a slice down the middle. I hope it will be accepted by teenage pop enthusiasts and not frowned upon by the long—haired ones. It’ll involve about twice the number of musicians I use at present. It’ll be a bigger sound—retaining the singers, of course.” This new big sound may be on his next LP. Ray has found that when folk go in for a Conniff disc, they don’t enter the shop and ask for a specific title. They simply ask what’s the latest Conniff release, and buy it. They have heard the Conniff sound on the air and that’s the sound they expect when they buy.

Conniff knows, in fact, that his public is conditioned and buys a standard of performance rather than a particular group of numbers. Therefore, Conniff feels obliged to be consistent. He cannot let his fans down by suddenly coming out with something entirely different.

Ray hints at some of his plans for the more distant future. We are let into a startling new idea. Visualise an LP with about fifteen numbers on each side. Basically, it would be just another to add to your set. But this time, instead of including only one or two of his own numbers, all of them will be his own compositions. On the LP the numbers will be arranged to form a story, the lyrics following a sequence to put the story across. In short, a small musical comedy with the first half on side one and the final act on side two. The LP will be sold to a television company. It produces a show that illustrates the story on the screen, using the LP as a musical background.

Conniff reckons that it would take all of a year to create, but he adds that he’d rather have one good show per annum than a third–rate effort every week or month. Simple—but how many people are going to say: “Why didn’t I think of that first?”

 Copyright © 1962Donald Currie. All Rights Reserved