There's a lot of Frank Sinatra in Chris Connor's voice. On slow and medium-tempo numbers, she sounds like a bartender's last customer, singing about being jilted without ever looking up from her drink. On up-tempo numbers, Chris belts knowing and carefree renditions, unafraid of a song's challenges. The more you listen to her voice, the more you hear how risk-averse Chris was. Like Sinatra, she habitually painted herself into melodic corners just to see how coolly she could slide out. Her voice is like a broken bottle of perfume, smoke trailing off a snuffed out candle, or the only light on in an apartment building at 3 am. A simple image with back-story baggage. Chris' voice makes you think, which to me is the definition of art.
Chris' big band period in the early 1950s was tough. She turned professional just as the popularity of big bands had crested and many were breaking up due to lack of work or were economizing. Yet Chris managed to see her childhood dream realized in 1953 when she was hired to replace a departing June Christy in Stan Kenton's powerhouse band.
In Part 2 of my conversation with Chris, the jazz vocalist talks about stints in the bands of Jerry Wald and how she came to the attention of Kenton:
JazzWax: In 1952, after three years singing mostly one-nighters as a member of Claude Thornhill's Snowflakes, you decided to leave. Why?
Chris Connor: By 1952 Claude [pictured] wasn't recording much or getting engagements. The music and the business were changing, and Claude was going to disband and take a long vacation. I couldn’t sit around without getting paid while he was away. I had heard that clarinetist Jerry Wald needed a singer for his big band. So I got word to Jerry through his road manager, who I knew. I then recorded four sides with clarinetist Herbie Fields before joining Jerry’s band later in the spring as his girl singer.
JW: Was joining Wald a good move?
CC: It was, though I didn't know it at the time. Shortly after I joined Jerry [pictured], we played an engagement at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans that was broadcast on the radio. I sang three or four tunes. Lo and behold, June Christy was listening in California. She told me years later that at first she thought she was listening to herself. She said, “My god, that’s me. But that can't be me because I'm in California doing the dishes.” [laughing].
JW: What happened next?
CC: I returned to Claude's band later in the year as his featured singer for a time. When June planned to leave Stan Kenton's band and go solo at the start of 1953, she recommended me. Stan’s road manager, George Morte, tracked me down in Ohio. When George called, he said, “When can you join the Kenton band?” Well, I couldn’t believe it. I thought someone was playing a joke on me. But they weren’t. He asked me again, “Can you join?” I said, “Yeah, yesterday I can join.”
JW: When did you officially join Kenton?
CC: George Morte told me I had to be out in Los Angeles a week later. When I arrived in Hollywood in February 1953, I walked into the Capitol Records studios and recorded my first songs for Kenton. That was my first real studio recording experience.
JW: Was it nerve wracking singing with Kenton in 1953?
CC: Oh yes, my goodness. During an April recording date, our second studio session, Joe Greene, the songwriter, was there. He had written this song they wanted me to sing. I had never heard the song before. The band rehearsed me for about an hour. Then Stan [pictured] told me the band was going to record it. I thought I was going to die. I didn’t know how I was going to get through that song. But I did, and All About Ronnie turned out pretty good.
JW: That 1953 band was among Kenton’s best. What was it like singing with those tigers?
CC: I rehearsed all of my material, of course, but not as much as I had wanted to. Still, they had a recording schedule, and I had to stick to it. I already knew much of their book pretty well. When I really started to sing with the band was at the Blue Note in Chicago that April. That’s when I sang with the band every night.
JW: This was your teenage fantasy come to life.
CC: I know. The first time I heard Kenton's band from the singer's position, right in the middle of it all, I was blown away. You had 19 or 20 great players in there, and as a singer you always want to come in on a lead note. But in that band you'd hear 19 or 20 different note choices behind you. That experience really trained my ear. You had to hear everything.
JW: Did the guys behave around you?
CC: Oh, sure. They were angels. I didn’t have to manage them. By the time we’d get on the bus each night to travel 200 to 300 miles to our next gig, nobody needed managing for anything. They could care less about me or anything else. All they wanted to do was sleep. I’m not tough, but they didn’t fool around with me. They didn’t dare. I was the girl singer. They were sweethearts—Lee Konitz, Conte Candoli [pictured], they were all great. Look, all I knew was that I was singing with the greatest band in the whole world. They treated me great.
JW: How long were you with Kenton?
CC: Only until July. I had to leave because I was worn out. I was tired and couldn’t take the road anymore. We’d be in a different place every night, maybe two nights in a row at best, which was considered a layover. [laughing] My voice was strong. I was only 25 years old at the time. I simply was exhausted, and eating those White Castle hamburgers every night didn't help. [laughing]
JW: June Christy came back to Kenton's band after you left. Did you two talk about your departure or her return?
CC: No, I didn't see June after I left Stan, and we didn't see each other for a long time.
JW: What did you do after you left Kenton?
CC: I took some time off and acquired a manager in New York, Monte Kay. He booked me at Birdland in the fall. While I was there, Gus Wildi, the head of Bethlehem Records, saw me sing. He was looking for a star to boost his label, which was going under. On the spot he offered me a contact, and I agreed. [pictured: Chris at Birdland]
Tomorrow, Chris talks about the small-group sessions for Bethlehem Records that attracted national attention, signing with Atlantic, getting a pep talk from Peggy Lee, and what Sinatra thought of her voice.
JazzWax tracks: Chris recorded four 78-rpm sides with clarinetist Jerry Wald in April 1952—You're the Cream in My Coffee, Cherokee, Pennies from Heaven and Raisins and Almonds. They do not appear to be currently available on CD or as downloads.
Chris' recordings with Kenton over five months in 1953 were a mix of radio broadcasts and studio dates. Most of her recordings with the band are available on an out-of-print Mosaic Records box called Stan Kenton: The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Holman & Russo Charts.
But All About Ronnie from April 1953 is on Stan Kenton's Retrospective: The Capitol Years and can be downloaded here.