Chris Connor died August 29th, 2009.
Chris was the first of Creed Taylor’s production career and became a major success. Taylor and Connor would never work together after both leaving Bethlehem in 1956. Remarkably, Chris and Creed were both in their twenties at the time. Those Bethlehem releases were never marked, “produced by Creed Taylor” but it would eventually happen on CTI.
Connor was the third major female singing talent to emerge from Stan Kenton’s Big Band. The first of whom was Anita O’Day and the second, June Christy.
Christy’s body of solo work was often dismissed and largely underappreciated, written off as a “bargain basement Anita O’Day”. Connor, largely through her Bethlehem recordings with Creed Taylor avoided the same fate. She was though regularly compared to O’Day and Christy, and told Marc Myers in a 2008 interview:
I had to be my own woman and do it my way. I was influenced by June Christy and Anita O’Day, of course, but I never tried to copy them.Marc Myers, Jazzwax.com – 2008
Bethlehem Records had been formed in 1953 and formally announced in Billboard, February 27th, 1954 issue with Gus Wildi, President, Chris was the first artist signed to the label for a two year deal, with “at least 24-songs.” The first recording sessions were in New York City on December 17-18th, 1953, backed by the Jim Bright Orchestra with Sy Oliver as conductor and arranger. None of the early Bethlehem releases had made much of a sales impact. In fact, by 1954, Bethlehem was struggling.
Taylor, newly arrived in New York, after two years in the Marines, and a graduate degree in psychology from Duke University, looked up a friend from Duke who had been a drummer when Creed played trumpet. Creed was introduced to Wildi through the friend. Creed convinced Gus that by trying to force Chris Conner into pop records wasn’t using her real talent. Rather than record with an orchestra, Creed pulled together a jazz trio to record Conner, the trio consisted of Ellis Larkins, best known for his recordings with Ella Fitzgerald just a few years earlier; bassist Beverly Peer and guitarist Everett Barksdale.
The recording sessions took place on August 9th and 11th, 1954, at the Fulton Recording Studios at 80 West 40th Street. The engineer was Tom Dowd, who would go on to fame with Atlantic Records a few years later. In what would become a Taylor trademark production technique, he talked with the musicians before the session, let them rehearse and then bought in Chris for the recording. At the sessions, Taylor would sit in with engineer Tom Dowd, and let the musicians do their thing. Those recordings would become “Chris Connor Sings Lullabys of Birdland.”
Those recordings were so well received, just 10-days later they were back in the studio on August 21st, recording tracks for the second Creed Taylor/Chris Conner release “Chris Connor Sings Lullabys For Lovers”.
With the recordings done, Wildi then did something that would also become a trademark of Taylor’s own releases. Wildi packaged, marketed the albums using covers with a modern artists flair. The covers were heavily laminated and the typeface on the cover, kept simple, uncluttered and elegant. The Bethlehem sleeves played on Connor the chanteuse, but also vulnerable. The releases though would not name Creed as producer, not uncommon for recordings for that era.
Taylor would go on to record many other artists for Bethlehem in the following year and a half, including using Herbie Mann, Kai Winding and J. J. Johnson, to back Connor in April 1955 sessions which became her “This Is Chris” album. Winding and Johnsons relationship with Creed is well know, I’ll try to come back to the curious case of Herbie Mann in a future post.
Life After Bethlehem Records
Taylor left Bethlehem in 1956 to join ABC-Paramount, Wildi would go on the record some of the earliest Nina Simone tracks, and coincidently, Taylor would record arguably the last solid Simone album, “Baltimore”.
What of Chris Connor? The success of her Taylor produced recordings, and the frequency of the sessions meant Connor had fulfilled her original contract terms, and then went through a somewhat controversial end with Bethlehem. On June 4th, 1955 Bethlehem announced they were suspending her contract because she’d refused to record more.
Connor went on to perform in cabaret for a week at the Copa in Pittsburgh, August 15th, and the into the Las Vegas Baltimore on August 23rd for 5-days. In January 1956, Connor signed for Atlantic Records. Chris Connor continued to enjoy recording success through the late 1980’s and recorded her last sessions for HighNote in 2001, and 2003. her sessions for Creed though, aged just 26, sound as fresh and clear as they were in 1954. They have been re-released, re-mastered many times.
At Atlantic, Chris was in perhaps the golden era for Jazz singers. Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day at Verve, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington at Mercury, June Christy at Capitol, Carmen McRae at Decca-Kapp. There was never a better, but more competitive time to be a female solo jazz singer.
The fact there seem to be few videos/films of Chris singing live, is almost criminal. Here she is in the studio in 1992.
Even in her eighties, Chris could still make your hair stand on end, her last major live performance in New York at a memorial tribute to Peggy Lee at the JVC Jazz Festival.
Chris Connor, born Mary Loutsenhizer in Kansas City, Missouri, November 8th, 19267, died from the result of cancer, August 29, 2009 (aged 81) in Toms River, New Jersey, U.S.
Produced By Creed Taylor
I assume that when it came to producing the PDCTI Series with German distributor, ZYX, Creed and his team looked at what labels and recordings ZYX had distribution rights for, and went ahead with remastering a Creed Taylor back catalogue on CD. From everything I’ve read about Creed he is a somewhat modest man, who does not seek the limelight. It’s ironic then that finally, 40-years later, he would finally get a “producer” credit for his Chris Connor recordings, and it would be on the final, and 3rd incarnation of CTI.
As Doug Payne notes:
The ZYX arrangement, however, allowed nearly 30 of Creed Taylor’s great pre-CTI recordings to be issued under the “CTI” banner – complete with all-new artwork, mostly designed by Taylor’s son, Blake, and some featuring exciting new artwork by the always great photographer Pete TurnerDougpayne.com – PDCTI (Germany)
THIS IS CHRIS Chris Connor Recorded: April 1955. Issued: 1993. a. Blame It On My Youth b. It's All Right With Me c. Someone To Watch Over Me d. Trouble Is A Man e. All This And Heaven Too f. The Thrill Is Gone g. I Concentrate On You h. All Dressed Up With A Broken Heart i. From This Moment On j. Ridin' High Issues: a-j on PDCTI (Ger) 1127-2 [CD] (=Bethlehem BCP-1002 titled THIS IS CHRIS). Producer: Creed Taylor Engineer: Tom Dowd (Digitally re-mastered in 1993).
Chris Connor Discography [via discogs]
Chris Connor [wikipedia]
Marc Myers fiver part interview with Chris Connor [via jazzwax.com]
Bethlehem Records [wikipedia]
The Bethlehem Records Story by Callaghan and Edwards [via Both Sides Now publications]
Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers [via the Internet Archive]
This Is Chris – Chris Connor PDCTI Release [via discogs]
This is Chris – Chris Connor [via music.youtube.com]
PDCTI on CTI [via dougpayne.com]
PDCTI Reissue Series [via discogs]