After vocalist Chris Connor left Atlantic Records in 1962, she made two albums for ABC-Paramount (she owns the masters to these and hopes to re-issue them soon). She also recorded LPs for a range of smaller labels. With the rise of rock and r&b in the 1960s, and disco and soul in the 1970s, opportunities for jazz singers dwindled steadily. Nevertheless, Chris performed regularly in clubs in the U.S., France and Japan, and recorded for foreign labels. Her last album was recorded in May 2002. [Photo by Martha Swope]
In the post-1962 period, Chris' electrifying intonation and phrasing changed little, though her voice grew a little deeper. When we spoke recently, I asked Chris to sing a few bars of All About Ronnie and the result was clear and strong. What makes Chris so important as a jazz artist is her unrivaled ability to sing with both fearless abandon and transparent tenderness. This clash of confidence and vulnerability is what makes listeners take notice and feel so deeply. And that's what separates jazz from pop.
In Part 5 of my interview, Chris reflects on Zoot Sims, the specific difference between her voice and June Christy's, what's required to sing lyrics convincingly, the singer who influenced her most, and her own list of favorite Chris Connor tracks:
JazzWax: You recorded with dozens of jazz greats. Which musician did you like best?
Chris Connor: Excluding piano players, my favorite was Zoot Sims [pictured]. He played the most gorgeous tenor saxophone and had that Lester Young sound. Nobody says this and lives to see the next day, but I think Zoot was better than Prez. I was partial to Zoot’s much softer sound. I loved Al Cohn’s sound, too. I recorded several albums with Al. Oscar Pettiford also was a sweetheart. He always had a smile on his face, like nothing ever bothered him. I'd throw him a curve occasionally while singing but it wouldn't matter. No one would never even know anything had happened. He’d just go straight ahead and do his thing. I’ve been lucky to play with many great jazz musicians.
JW: I want to come back to something. When someone says Chris and June Christy sound alike, what goes through your mind?
CC: No way. We have different sounds. June [pictured] had a higher range than I did. I can’t explain it technically. We’re two different people with two different voices. We were similar—but nothing alike in our approach to a song.
JW: So what is the specific difference between your voice and June's and Anita’s?
CC: I don’t know. We were all individual singers. I had conversations with both Anita [pictured] and June over the years, and this sound-alike thing never came up. We all could hear the differences between our voices. I was talking to Dizzy Gillespie one time on a concert, and he said anybody who thinks Chris Connor sounds like June Christy needs to have their ears examined. [laughing] June has a low voice, and I have a low voice, and that’s what Stan Kenton wanted. But we were completely different. When I listen to June’s records, I can hear we are completely different. I loved June. She was the one responsible for getting me with Kenton's band.
JW: One more question on this: Is the similarity that the listener hears the breath before the note?
CC: Honey you’re getting into technical stuff now. It’s a mystery of the ages. I think I have a more intimate knowledge of my audience than June did. I tended to move people emotionally, and I don’t’ think June did so as much. She had a different approach. For me, the goal was always to reach my audience. [Pictured: Chris Connor]
JW: How are you able to feel a song so deeply when you sing?
CC: Once I go into a song, I feel every note, every phrase. I also know what I’m singing about. A lot of those experiences I’ve actually lived through in my life. If you’re a singer, there’s nothing better than tapping into your own experiences. If I sing a sad song, I feel sad. That feeling has to come through in the lyrics.
JW: When you sing a ballad, it sounds like you've just been jilted. Is that coming from a real place?
CC: I don’t know. I never had an earth-shaking love that I lost. Maybe it came from memories of my sister. I don’t’ question it, honey. It’s just there.
JW: There’s something in your voice that sounds so...
JW: Yes, that’s it. But with strength and resolve.
CC: I can understand that.
JW: When you sing, are you transported someplace else in your mind?
CC: Oh, yes. The lyrics always come first, whatever I’m singing about. Maybe the feelings you’re hearing are coming from my subconscious. I'm not purposefully doing anything.
JW: Would you say that you’re a romantic?
CC: Yes, I would say I am. But it's funny, people always expect me to be the same offstage as I am on stage or in recordings. A reviewer once said, “If Chris sings a sad song, you expect her offstage to be the same way. Instead, she comes on like a Sunshine Girl. She comes offstage and all of a sudden all the sadness is gone and she’s Little Merry Sunshine." [laughing]
JW: How are you able to do that?
CC: What? Switch on and off? When I’m off stage, I’m off stage.
JW: So to be a great singer like yourself, you have to be a superb actor?
CC: Absolutely. You said it. That’s it. For me, lyrics are like the script to a play. You have to act them out emotionally. Every singer that does anything worthwhile has to be an actor. You have to act out the lyrics of a song and put your personality into it.
JW: Which singer or musician paid you the greatest compliment?
CC: I think Peggy Lee. She used to call me “The Kid.” She gave me some great advice: “Kid," she said, "Take life as it comes.” Boy, that’s so true. If you start worrying too much about the things you can’t control, you can go nuts. As for a compliment, Peggy wouldn’t have spent 45 minutes with me backstage if she didn’t like me, now would she? [photo of Peggy Lee by Popsie]
Chris Connor's favorites: I asked Chris for a list of her favorite albums and tracks on those LPs. The songs appear below, followed by the album in parenthesis, in no particular order:
It Never Entered My Mind and All The Things You Are (Double Exposure)
Driftwood and My Shining Hour (A Jazz Date with Chris Connor)
Kansas City and I'm Gonna' Go Fishin' (Free Spirits)
When the Wind Was Green (Chris Connor)
For more on Chris Connor, visit her website here.
Last words: As I wrote and edited this post, I listened to Chris' Witchcraft from 1959. This album is as close as you'll get to hearing the similarity between Chris and Sinatra, from the up-tempo Witchcraft and How Little It Matters to the saloon song The Lady Sings the Blues. Or dig the wind down on Come Rain or Come Shine. All can be downloaded at iTunes or Amazon. This is what jazz singing is all about.