Conniff, a trombonist and big band leader who made a remarkably prolific and successful transition to orchestral pop composer, leader, and arranger, died at 85 after injuring his head in a fall:
- A top-selling big band leader and trombonist, Conniff made more than 100 albums, 25 of them reaching the top 40, in a career that spanned six decades. His easy-listening albums sold more than 70 million copies.
He earned a Grammy Award for his recording of “Somewhere, My Love,” along with two Grammy nominations, more than 10 gold albums and two platinum albums, “Somewhere, My Love” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The latter brought him a citation as CBS Records’ best-selling artist for 1962.
….Said Mitch Miller, a veteran A&R man who hired Conniff as a staff arranger at Columbia Records in the 1950s: “He was a consummate craftsman, and he knew that the simpler, the better … but it’s also harder to do it that way. He arranged the first Johnny Mathis recordings, and they were all hits: ‘Chances Are,’ ‘It’s Not for Me to Say,’ ‘Wonderful! Wonderful!’ ‘Scarlet Ribbons.’ He could take a good idea and run with it, and I think he probably sold more records for Columbia than any other artist we had at the time.”
Still touring and recording until he suffered a stroke six months ago, Conniff performed “Somewhere, My Love,” the theme from “Dr. Zhivago,” on March 16 at the wedding reception of Liza Minnelli and David Gest, an event portrayed in an article by his daughter, Tamara Conniff, music editor of The Hollywood Reporter.
A native of Attleboro, Mass., Conniff learned to play the trombone from his father, who was also a trombonist, and his mother, a pianist. He got his first professional job with Dan Murphy’s Musical Skippers in Boston. He played trombone, arranged music and drove a panel truck for the band. Just in time for the birth of swing, he left for New York.
Conniff landed a gig in the trombone section of Bunny Berigan’s band, playing on Berigan’s famous recording of “I Can’t Get Started.” Bob Crosby hired him in 1939; he joined Artie Shaw a year later and had moved on to Glen Gray when World War II broke out. Conniff spent two years in the Army, arranging for the Armed Forces Radio Services in Hollywood. When he was discharged in 1946, he began arranging for Harry James, but his career hit a snag when bebop, an intellectual genre that he rebuffed, became the rage.
A fallow period ended when Miller hired Conniff in 1951. His work on Don Cherry’s 1955 hit “Band of Gold” led to opportunities to arrange for some of the label’s leading artists. He arranged the top 5 hits “Just Walking in the Rain” for Johnnie Ray, “Moonlight Gambler” for Frankie Laine, “Singing the Blues” for Guy Mitchell and “A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)” for Marty Robbins. He also did arrangements for Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney (news).
Columbia jumped him to featured artist in 1956, and his debut album for the label — “S’Wonderful” — spent 20 weeks in the top 20.
Recording with the Ray Conniff Singers and the Ray Conniff Orchestra and Chorus, Conniff specialized in covering popular tunes with his own blend of vocal and instrumental music.
He arrived at his sound by substituting women’s voices for the trumpets and men’s voices for the saxophones in big-band arrangements. At first, the voices backed melodies without words, but Conniff soon moved the voices to the front of the mix. A magazine writer described his band as “singers who ‘play’ their voices as though they were instruments, more like subtly fluted woodwinds than singing.”
Think disembodied voices going “dooo dooo dooo dooooo, aah aah aah aaaah” and you’re thinking Ray.
See the Ray Conniff fanclub site here, with links to other Ray sites. Rock on, er…, lounge on Ray.