Before Chris Connor and I started talking about her career last
week, I asked for a favor: "Before we begin, can you say the word 'champagne' for me?" The word appears in the lyrics of three of Chris' songs—All About Ronnie, I Get a Kick Out of You and I Wonder What Became of Me. In each case, Chris enunciated the word beautifully, making it sound like the slow removal of a cork and sudden overflow of the bottle. She did this by breaking the word into two distinct parts, ascending slightly on the "sham" and coolly sliding down the "pane."
After saying champagne for me, Chris laughed heartily, clearly delighted by the very sound of it. Like many jazz singers, Chris breaks multisyllabic words into clean parts when she wants to make a point. Force of habit. She also likes the sound of certain words, much the way sculptors run their hands admiringly over stone. For Chris, words are alive and fun. So when Chris makes a point about someone being a "square," she'll say "skahhh-ware." "Fantastic" becomes "fannn-tastic," and "cool" emerges as "coo-ool," giving that "ool" a little extra push at the end. It all happens naturally.
In Part 3 of my week-long interview with Chris, the singer talks about her Bethlehem recordings, signing with Atlantic Records in 1956, Frank Sinatra's remark at Basin Street East, and sharing a bottle of champagne (of course) with Peggy Lee:
JazzWax: What happened after Bethlehem's Gus Wildi signed you to the label?
Chris Connor: I recorded six sides in late 1953 with a band arranged by Sy Oliver. The 78's were a kick but they weren't taking advantage of my singing personality. The next recording session in the summer of 1954 was for the label's first 10-inch LP called Chris Connor Sings Lullabys of Birdland. It was with Ellis Larkins, my favorite pianist of all time.
JW: Did you know Larkins was going to be on the date?
CC: Yes, but when I walked into the studio that day, I didn’t realize that he had just finished an enormous amount of time with Ella Fitzgerald. If I’d known that, I would have fainted. Ellis [pictured] was the most gorgeous pianist I have ever worked with. He never got in your way or got too loud. He went with you. Just beautiful.
JW: Have you listened to those recordings recently?
CC: Oh yes. I have all my recordings on CD in a stack next to my couch. There are about 60 albums total, including the re-issues. The digital sound is amazing. You can hear everything. I like my Bethlehem recordings very much, even though they were done a long time ago. The album with Ellis and the next one with the Vinnie Burke Quartet, which we recorded about a week later, are both intimate and unusual for the time. Back then, most labels put big bands or instrumental ensembles behind girl singers. Putting me with such small groups was Creed Taylor’s genius. He somehow knew I could pull the listener in hard if all the clutter was out of my way. Even the Bethlehem recordings with Herbie Mann and Kai [Winding] and J.J. [Johnson] in 1955 were pretty relaxed and suited to my style.
JW: In 1956 you signed with Atlantic. Why?
CC: I only had a three-year contract with Bethlehem. Monte Kay, my manager, was able to land me a deal with Atlantic because I had been a big success at Bethlehem. Lullaby of Birdland, as a single, did very, very well, which at the time was amazing for a jazz vocalist backed by a trio. So I signed with Atlantic for the next seven years. Those were the greatest recording years of my life.
JW: What makes the Atlantic sessions special?
CC: Well, I had the greatest arrangers, including Don Sebesky [pictured], Al Cohn, Ray Ellis, Ralph Sharon, Ronnie Ball and Ralph Burns. I also had Ralph Sharon on piano as well as arranging. Ralph was with me for eight years, before I signed with Atlantic and while I was there. But he left suddenly for Tony Bennett, who offered him much more money. Ralph left me in the middle of my Sings the Gershwin Almanac album. Ray Ellis came in and arranged the rest of it. I love this album. Actually, I love all my Atlantic records. And they're still selling more than 50 years later.
JW: What did Frank Sinatra think of your voice?
CC: I don’t know. But that brings me to one of the most thrilling nights of my life. I was following Peggy Lee into New York's Basin Street East in the 1960s. I learned Peggy was going to stay over and catch me singing the next night. She also had wanted to stay in New York for a few extra days. During that run, I was on the same bill as Stan Kenton and the Oscar Peterson Trio. People were lined up outside for three blocks, and it was a Monday. The club's manager came over to me and said, “Chris, having you, Stan and Oscar on the same bill is my dream night.” [photo by Popsie]
JW: What happened that night?
CC: They announced me, and I came up on stage. For my first number, I was going to do Something’s Coming, from West Side Story. You might know I’d pick a hard tune like that, right? So I’m up on the stage and I look down at the first table. Sitting there was Ethel Merman, Judy Garland and Ava Gardner [pictured below]. And that's just at the first table. Well, my knees started to shake. Of course, I loused up the beginning of the song. But Stan stopped the band, made a joke and started all over again. The next time through I was perfect.
JW: Did Peggy Lee come back to your dressing room to see you after the first set?
CC: Did she ever. I was so excited. There was Peggy Lee [pictured], my childhood idol, sitting right in front of me. Peggy said, “Chris, I think you need some champagne, and so do I.” So we sat there for 45 minutes on my break and drank and talked. That was the thrill of my life, just being with Peggy Lee. When I got back on stage for my second show, I knocked them out. I blew them away. [photo by Popsie]
JW: Who else was in the audience?
CC: After the show I learned that Frank Sinatra was in a corner and had said to someone, "Shut up, I want to hear this broad.” [laughing] So I don’t know what Frank's verdict was. Hey, who knows, maybe he said, “She stinks.” [laughing]
JW: You have no idea what he thought of you?
CC: I do know that Sinatra listened to me. Not long ago, I sang at a tribute to Peggy Lee at Carnegie Hall. Nancy Sinatra [pictured] was on the same bill. I was talking to friends and taking pictures when I saw Nancy going up the stairs. I went over and told her how much I loved her voice. She said, “Chris, this is an honor for me. Frank used to play your records all the time.” It felt so good to know that.
JW: Did you ever want to record a Sinatra tribute album?
CC: Yes, but I knew that after Sinatra died, everyone was going to record one. For me, when you do a tribute to somebody, you’re always second best. Let me tell you, Sinatra’s phrasing—no one can improve on that. I stay away from those kinds of records. I did a bunch of Sinatra songs—Witchcraft, I Get a Kick Out of You, Oh You Crazy Moon, You Make Me Feel So Young, How Little We Know and some others—on different records. But not a complete album.
Tomorrow, Chris talks about Maynard Ferguson, June Christy and Anita O'Day; why she never became a pop singer; and how she came to record so many offbeat songs.
JazzWax tracks: Between December 1953 and April 1955, Chris recorded six 78-rpm singles for Bethlehem and four 10-inch albums. In addition to the Sy Oliver singles, she recorded Sings Lullabys of Birdland, Sings Lullabys for Lovers, This Is Chris and a handful of songs that appeared bundled on Bethlehem compilations featuring Chris, Carmen McRae and Julie London. These Bethlehem recordings are essential for any jazz collection. Lullabys of Birdland can be downloaded at iTunes (the fidelity is fantastic). Or you can buy the albums individually at Amazon or on the Chris Connor: The Complete Bethlehem Recordings box here.
While you can hear Chris' style emerging on the Bethlehem recordings, she clearly has arrived on her Atlantic dates. Chris' nearly 20 albums recorded for the label between 1956 and 1962 are stunning, right across the board. Standouts include Chris Connor (1956), arranged by Ralph Burns; A Jazz Date with Chris Connor (1956), arranged by Ralph Sharon and featuring Joe Wilder, Al Cohn, Eddie Costa, Oscar Pettiford and Osie Johnson; and Chris Connor Sings the George Gershwin Almanac of Song (1957). All can be downloaded at iTunes or Amazon, which offers about 300 downloadable Chris Connor tracks.
But If you want an Atlantic starter to see what the fuss is all about and fall completely in love with Chris' voice, download He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (1956), arranged by Ralph Burns. (Or you can buy the CD that combines this one and Chris Connor, both arranged by Burns). In my estimation, He Loves Me is one of the greatest and most overlooked jazz vocal albums. It also contains what I believe to be one of Chris' best-ever recordings—Arthur Hamilton's About the Blues, a ballad that makes Angel Eyes and The Bad and the Beautiful pale by comparison.