Chris Connor: Jazz singer who worked with Stan Kenton
Friday 11 September 2009
The last of the big band vocalists to become a solo star in her own right (others were Peggy Lee, Anita O'Day and June Christy) Chris Connor was perhaps the most substantial jazz singer of all of them. She rarely agreed to compromise in her choice of material and the connoisseur can find a basket full of little-used gems of songs – "A Cottage For Sale" springs to mind – in her oeuvre.
Although, with her poise and almost complete disdain of vibrato, she was regarded as the ultimate "cool" singer, there was a contradictory warmth of emotion to be found deep in her songs that kept the intelligent listener always intrigued. Her subtle interpretations demanded close attention and the resulting rewards meant that her followers stayed fans for life. She did have a handful of hits in her big band days, notably with "And The Bull Walked Around, Olay" and "All About Ronnie" with the 1953 Stan Kenton band, the former bringing a little relief from the drudgery of National Service as it blasted through a thousand military camp loudspeakers.
Connor studied clarinet for eight years as a child but her ambition was always to be a singer. Her first public appearance as a singer was in 1945 at a graduation ceremony and this led to work with the University of Columbus big band, with which she sang for 18 months while holding down a secretarial day job. Frustrated by the lack of opportunity in Kansas City (although she did work there briefly with a band led by the young Bob Brookmeyer) she moved to New York in 1949 to try to start a career as a vocalist.
Starving hungry and nearly broke, she managed to get a job in an office so she could eat during the seven weeks it took her to find a job in a vocal group. It was called The Snowflakes and was part of the adventurous band led by the pianist Claude Thornhill. She stayed with Thornhill until 1952 and in early 1953 was singing on a broadcast from New York's Roosevelt Hotel when she was heard by June Christy, then the vocalist with the Stan Kenton band. Christy, who was leaving, recommended her to Kenton and within days Connor was on the road touring with Kenton. The records that she made with Kenton established her reputation but after 10 months she was tired. "By that time I'd endured about six years of one-nighters and I'd just about had it," she said.
She returned to New York, where she hired Monte Kay as her manager. He found work for her at New York's Birdland Club where she was heard by the owner of Bethlehem Records and signed on the spot. Her records became the label's best sellers and she was allowed unusual freedom in her choice of material and accompanying musicians. Throughout her career she worked with some of the most accomplished jazz musicians.
In 1956 she became the first white singer to sign for Atlantic Records, up until then a rhythm 'n' blues label with artists like Ray Charles and Joe Turner. Again she was given unusual freedom, and the top arrangers she used included Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. In 1962 Monte Kay started his own record label and persuaded his client to move to it. With rock music in the ascendancy her albums didn't sell well and the company went bankrupt in 1964. From then on she recorded for a variety of companies, including JVC and Sony. Although her voice declined with age her popularity returned in the 1980s and tours of Japan and elsewhere carried her through the years until she made her last album for Highnote Records in 2003.
Mary Loutsenhizer (Chris Connor), vocalist: born Kansas City, Missouri 8 November 1927; died 29 August 2009.
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