By the late 1950s, a growing number of established female jazz
vocalists began making pop records. It was a natural course of events, given where adult tastes and money were flowing. Those singers crossing over during this period included Sarah Vaughan (Dreamy), Ella Fitzgerald (Ella Sings Broadway) and Dinah Washington (What a Difference a Day Makes!). Chris Connor was among a small group of singers who did not. With complete control over the material recorded on Atlantic, Chris held her recording dates to jazz, and her taste in material rarely wavered.
To some extent, Chris' staunch decision to remain a jazz singer in the late 1950s kept her from becoming as widely known as she should have been. But her devotion to jazz paid off in other ways. Looking over her Atlantic releases, there really isn't a single album that makes you cringe. The integrity of each work remains intact. When I asked Chris why she wasn't packaged like Patti Page or Kay Starr, she seemed shocked. "Oh, I could never sing a melody straight, I just wouldn't," she said. Chris has always viewed herself as a jazz insider, and jazz musicians have admired her for it. "I only worked with the cream of the crop," she said, playfully rolling the "r" in cream to make her point.
In Part 4 of my week-long conversation with Chris, the legendary vocalist talks about her two recordings with Maynard Ferguson, her aversion to pop records, how she came to select offbeat material including Ornette Coleman's Lonely Woman, and why June and Anita were at odds in the early 1980s:
JazzWax: How did those two albums with Maynard Ferguson come about?
Chris Connor: In 1957, I didn’t really know Maynard well, except when he was playing trumpet for Stan Kenton. The two albums we recorded late that year were part of an exchange deal—one album for Roulette and one for Atlantic. It was a business proposition that gave each label a record on which the two of us appeared. Personally, l think Double Exposure for Atlantic was better than Roulette’s Two’s Company. Don Sebesky wrote the arrangements for both albums.
JW: What's your favorite track?
CC: It Never Entered My Mind. It's the most gorgeous arrangement I’ve ever heard—and the most difficult one I've ever had to sing. From the singer’s perspective, with a band that strong and with that kind of arrangement, you couldn’t tell which was the right note to hit, especially at the end. The only way you could tell is if the piano played the right note in front. You know, just before the other instruments came in.
JW: What happened?
CC: I made all the chord changes with the help of pianist Jaki Byard. He cued me, and it turned out fantastic. I didn’t know Jaki before that date, but I sure appreciated what he did. The recording was used in Surrender, a 1987 movie with Sally Field and Michael Caine. But just my luck, Fatal Attraction came out at the same time. [laughing]
JW: Why didn't Atlantic try to package you as a pop singer, like Patti Page?
CC: The only time a record company did that was Bethlehem, on the first date with Sy Oliver. Sy had me do a couple of ridiculous tunes, Miser’s Serenade and Chiquita From Chi-Wah-Wah, probably because Anita or Ella or June was singing novelty stuff like that at the time. I don’t know. They songs certainly weren’t my choice. And they probably weren't any of those singers' choices either.
JW: But how did you avoid it at Atlantic?
CC: I didn’t feel like singing just a melody line. That was boring. I didn’t want to do that. Besides, early on, I had wanted to sing with Stan Kenton, and the only way that was going to happen is if I became a jazz singer. So that’s what I became. I always considered pop singers square.
JW: One of your greatest recordings, on He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, is About the Blues. That must have been one difficult song to sing.
CC: Oh yes, Arthur Hamilton wrote it. I liked that song very much. I always chose material no one else knew about. You know, all those times that I appeared at Birdland in the 1950s, I used to go over to Colony Records and pick out-of-the-way songs that I thought would be good for me. About the Blues was one of them.
JW: Smart thinking.
CC: I always liked to see what was new—and what was old and unknown that other singers had not recorded. That’s why I’m sort of known for singing offbeat material. I think I am the first and maybe the only singer to record Ornette Coleman's [pictured] Lonely Woman. Margot Guryan had written the lyrics and came down to a club where I was performing. She knew I was going to record shortly and asked me to have a look at what she had done. When I heard the song and the words, I knew immediately it was perfect for me. So I recorded the song on Free Spirits.
JW: Wait a second. All those songs recorded for Atlantic were your choices?
CC: Oh yes. No one ever picked anything out for me. When I was with Atlantic, they never dared interfere with my music. They let me have a free rein. That’s why I liked them so much. Producer Nesuhi Ertegun let me record anything I wanted. That’s my taste on those records. [Pictured: Chris and Nesuhi's brother Ahmet Ertegun]
JW: There's a story that early in your career you grabbed away a musician’s clarinet and played it for him?
CC: [laughing]. Yes, it was Herbie Fields [pictured] in 1952. He was a nice saxophonist but a lousy clarinet player. I was giving him a subtle hint. When he was taking a breath, I took his clarinet away and showed him how to play it right. [laughing] He wasn’t too upset. Of course, I would never have done that with Benny Goodman.
JW: Did you run into June Christy over the years?
CC: From time to time. I remember meeting June in Denver in the early 1980s at the Fairmont Hotel. It was just after Anita O’Day’s book, High Times, Hard Times, came out. June was with her husband, Bob Cooper, at a jazz party upstairs. She came down to hear me sing. I knew she was in the audience, so when I finished, I went over and sat at her table. We talked about all the old clubs. Girl talk, you know.
JW: Did you ask her about Anita's book?
CC: Yes. June [pictured] said she was miffed at Anita. She said Anita had lied about being an influence on June. “Anita didn’t discover me,” June said. “I was living on tuna fish sandwiches in Chicago when my manager brought me to the attention of Kenton.” I think June’s feelings toward Anita date back to when Anita first heard June sing and saw her as competition. When Anita first met her, she gave June the up-and-down and cracked, “And bangs too?” Anita was implying that June had copied her right down to her hairstyle. [laughing]
Tomorrow, in the final installment of my interview with Chis, she talks about her favorite jazz musician, the specific differences between her voice and June Christy's, the trick she uses to become deeply absorbed by a song's lyrics, and her own favorite Chris Connor recordings.
JazzWax tracks: Chris' two albums with Maynard Ferguson were made months apart in 1960 and 1961. Yet both are slightly different recordings. Two's Company for Roulette is a bit brassier and meant to showcase the band. By contrast, Double Exposure is a moodier and more intimate. Two tracks that stand out on Two's Company are Something's Coming and Can't Get Out of This Mood. Much more of the material on Double Exposure was ideally suited to Chris' sultry style, though the heat of the incredible Ferguson band and complexity of the arrangements probably were not suited to any vocalist.
Chris' recording of Ornette Coleman's Lonely Woman (1961) is on Free Spirits. The album was arranged by Al Cohn and featured Joe Newman and Clark Terry on trumpets, Phil Woods, Oliver Nelson and Sol Schlinger on saxes, Ronnie Ball on piano, Ben Tucker on bass and Dave Bailey on drums.
Anita O'Day's book, High Times, Hard Times, is a terrific read. You get a first-hand look at the jazz scene through the eyes of a fearless insider who threw everything she had into the music and often went over the edge with drug and alcohol abuse. It's a brutally honest rendering and self-evaluation.
Some of my favorite Chris Connor recordings appear on a little-known No Strings: An After Theater Version (Atlantic). It's a jazzy interpretation of No Strings, the 1962 Richard Rodgers musical. You'll also hear a young Bobby Short who here sounds like Bobby Darin. The band backing Chris featured Ernie Royal and Nick Travis on trumpets; Jimmy Cleveland on trombone; Gene Quill, Phil Woods, Oliver Nelson and Sol Schlinger on saxes; Ronnie Ball on piano; Milt Hinton on bass; and Gus Johnson on drums. Al Cohn arranged and conducted the date. The CD can be found at Tower here.