Back in the fifties when jazz vocalist Chris Connor was at her peak, it always seemed that like most of the other female singers of the period, she took a back seat to Ella Fitzgerald. It was as though there was Ella, and there was everyone else. Now while there is no question Fitzgerald was a remarkable talent who deserved every accolade she received, Connor and others deserve some time out from under her shadow. This is not to say that the singer had no recognition in her day. Her records were best sellers and her appearances in legendary jazz clubs like Birdland and the Village Vanguard were sellouts. Although she made her share of TV appearances, she never quite achieved the mass appeal of Fitzgerald.
Perhaps that’s why in 1965, after leaving her long term contract with AtlanticRecords, she would join with producer Kenny Greengrass and arrangers Pat Williams and Don Sebesky to turn out a couple of pop albums much more likely to have an appeal to a larger audience. Unfortunately, if that were the intention, it didn’t quite pan out as hoped: for whatever reason the records never went very far. And that is doubly a shame, because they show the singer at her accessible best. Luckily the first of these, Chris Connor Sings Gentle Bossa Nova, is soon to be re-released by Just A Memory Records. Old timers will have the luxury of revisiting one of the great voices of their youth; youngsters will have the joy of discovery.
Connor’s smooth styling and crystalline tone were made for the mellow dance rhythms of bossa nova, the jazzy Brazilian import which was sweeping the country with Stan Getz’s 1964 recording of “The Girl From Ipanema” with vocalist Astrud Gilberto. Not only did the Latin transplant have pop cache, saxophone master Getz gave it jazz credibility as well. Choosing material for Connor was a no brainer; nearly all of the songs they selected for the album had been popular hits. There was a nice variety of tracks, and Williams’ arrangements swing. It should have been a smash, and even a cursory listen to the album today has to make you wonder why it wasn’t.
The album opens with the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” and follows with the Petula Clark hit “Downtown.” There are tunes from Hollywood such as “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” from the Bette Davis and Olivia de Haviland horror flick, and a really fine version of “The Shadow of Your Smile” from The Sandpiper. “Baby the Rain Must Fall,” also from a film, is something of a disappointment with its chirpy arrangement, especially for anyone who remembers the drama of Glen Yarborough’s recording. There are some show tunes, including what for my money is the highlight of the album: a smoky version of the classic “Feeling Good” that is as good as any you are likely to hear. Her sultry version of “A Taste of Honey,” famously covered by Herb Alpert, is another winner.
All in all, Chris Connor Sings Gentle Bossa Nova is an album that deserved a better fate. Lori Muscarelle, Connor’s manager and partner, describes their disappointment that the beautiful piece of work Connor and Williams had produced “just got buried somewhere.” This re-release should give it a real shot at resurrection.