Tuesday 8 December 2009

Ray CONNIFF: His Orchestra, His Chorus, His Singers, His Sound

 (#67: 21 June 1969, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Memories Are Made Of This/I’ve Got You Under My Skin/Volare/They Can’t Take That Away From Me/Greenfields/Melodie d’Amour/Days Of Wine And Roses/Spanish Eyes/Somewhere My Love/Mrs Robinson/Up Up And Away

“Terminal addicts don’t notice how alienated they have become from old life, old friends, old ways, old interests. One day you realise you’d rather stay right here in this warm and comfortable drug chair, here, in the cool un-cruel shade, this the only place my mind don’t ache, this the only place my soul feels ripe, this the one place my body don’t itch and yelp and hurry, I like it here, what’s the problem, here I don’t need to DO anything, don’t need to meet anyone else’s demands, don’t need to stress or argue or bargain or barter or seduce or shine…I can just be me. And dream. Endlessly dream.”
(Ian Penman, “Notes Toward A Ritual Exorcism Of The Dead King,” from the anthology The Resistible Demise Of Michael Jackson: Ropley, 0 Books, 2009)

“But I’ll keep on waiting ‘til you return,
I’ll keep on waiting until the day you learn
You can’t be happy while your heart’s on the roam,
You can’t be happy until you bring it home,
Home to the green fields and me once again,
Home to the green fields and me once again.”
(“Greenfields” by Terry Gilkyson, Rich Dehr and Frank Miller)

It is January, 1972, three days past my eighth birthday. In the White House President Richard Nixon is hosting a dinner to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Reader’s Digest magazine. The guest list has been carefully drawn up by his trusted adviser, Irving Kristol; the Reverend Billy Graham, Lionel Hampton, Bob Hope – guaranteed non-boat rockers, guaranteed non-rockers, full stop (even if in another life Hampton might have held one of the strongest claims for inventing rock).

The onstage entertainment is to be provided by the Ray Conniff Singers. Conniff doesn’t have his usual band of crack West Coast session players to hand; he is using a small pick-up group of musicians from the Marine Corps and has had to hire in singers specially for the occasion, on the recommendation of his then contractor Jay Meyer. One of these is a Canadian, Carole Feraci, originally from Toronto but resettled in southern California. Initially when she gets the call from Meyer she’s sceptical but later calls back to accept the engagement. Unknown to anyone else, she and her boyfriend have meanwhile thought up a plan.

The singers make their way onto the makeshift stage. As Feraci approaches the microphone, she suddenly produces a banner. “STOP THE KILLING,” it states. She then begins a short speech, directed directly at Nixon, who keeps his countenance. The speech culminates in this sequence, which was shortly to become world famous:

“If Jesus Christ were here tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb.”

Conniff reaches for the banner and tries to grab it but Feraci is too quick for him and holds onto it confidently. “Bless the Berrigans,” she concludes, “and bless Daniel Ellsberg.”

In a room filled with the thickest and iciest of silences, Conniff strikes up the band. The song is “Ma, He’s Makin’ Eyes At Me,” a number which, in its Johnny Otis Show manifestation, had started a revolution fifteen years previously. She sings it dead straight, eyes unblinking. After the song has ended, voices in the audience yell for her to be thrown out. Conniff apologises to Nixon for the unexpected disturbance and then politely asks Feraci to leave; she politely does so. Immediately she is surrounded by reporters and cameramen; Secret Service agents are lurking but have been told to play it cool. Eventually she leaves the White House and disappears into history.

If anything got Nixon elected in 1968 – Sirhan Sirhan and Mayor Daley notwithstanding – it was his promise to end the Vietnam war. His beloved “great silent majority” core of supporters were weary of war and of the post-Kennedy promise which they felt had been squandered; they were afraid of Eugene McCarthy, weren’t much inspired by Hubert Humphrey. As things turned out, of course, the war laboured on for several more years; but that “silent majority” (and we should recall that the original meaning of that term relates to “the dead”) craved stability, some semblance of a return to the America they thought they once knew. In any case, many felt Nixon had been cheated out of the job by JFK back in 1960, and were increasingly baffled and intimidated by their free-thinking offspring with their new fangled ways of doing things and living life. They, in short, were scared, and thus the parallel refuge to music which sounded like the music they used to know; clear tunes, definable words, smart singers and musicians, the haze of memory wafting in from those ancient breezes. Life before younger life came to spoil everything.

Once upon a time, Ray Conniff too was scared; in the late forties he had relocated his family to Hollywood after the big band scene had fizzled out for partly economic and partly fashion-related reasons. He had previously made something of a name for himself as a relatively imaginative trombonist, composer and arranger for bandleaders including Bunny Berigan, Glenn Miller and Harry James, having (it should be noted) learned the basics of composition and arrangement via a mail order correspondence course in the thirties. But inventive solos and charts didn’t pay the bills, and after a couple of years in Hollywood Conniff was feeling the pinch, having to take on manual labouring to keep his children’s heads above water, always facing the imminence of bankruptcy and foreclosure.

Out of his fear he formulated a plan. He sat down and carefully studied and analysed every number one Billboard hit record of the preceding ten years, in tandem with the leading advertising jingles over the same period. He studied the commercial virtue of repetition, the relationship of rhythms to hooks, the most palatable ways in which voices and instruments could be combined to produce the best value result. The strategy paid off, and he was soon hired by Columbia producer Mitch Miller as a staff arranger. Miller’s story and relationship to pop – a story which, amazingly, has not yet ended at the time of writing – will be looked at more fully at a later stage as, equally amazingly, he will crop up again in this tale (as a contributor to entry #116).

But Conniff’s big break came with his score for “Band Of Gold,” a 1956 ballad hit for the crooner Don Cherry (needless to say, not the same Don Cherry who in 1956 was rehearsing with Ornette Coleman in L.A. in preparation of overthrowing other notions of order). His tactic here was to substitute a chorus of voices for a string section; they were wordless, purely instrumental, smooth, and an instant success. He went on to arrange many hits for the likes of Guy Mitchell, Marty Robbins and Rosemary Clooney before Columbia gave him the chance to record with his own orchestra. Assembling a band of stalwart West Coast studio reliables, many of whom had known Conniff from the big band days (for instance, guitarist Al Hendrickson, formerly a staple of the Artie Shaw Orchestra), and an eight-strong team of singers (four male, four female), Conniff’s albums found great and immediate favour. Covers of albums such as The Hi-Fi Companion, The Happy Beat and It’s The Talk Of The Town set the tone; this music was hip, swinging and urban without being especially threatening.

As the fifties ironed themselves into the sixties Conniff’s album covers leaned towards featuring pretty girls with beaming (if rarely smiling) faces filling the (hopefully) welcoming space, the only striking exception being 1964’s Invisible Tears, an album of country-flavoured ballads whose cover featured no faces but simply the title and Conniff’s name in large, black, forbidding type; there was, as we shall see, more than a hint of recividist melancholy underlying Conniff’s work.

His Orchestra, His Chorus, His Singers, His Sound was a budget-priced sampler of key tracks from the 1960-8 period released especially for the European market and to publicise Conniff’s then current European tour and owes its inclusion in this tale (as does its successor, entry #68) to a brief experiment undertaken by chart compilers the British Market Research Bureau where all albums – both full-priced and budget-priced – were included in the same chart rather than (as had previously been the case) separate ones. The gold and black label (“THIS LABEL IS REMOVABLE”) on my copy indicates that in Britain it retailed for fifteen shillings, but does that mean that the music sounds cheap, and if so, whether Conniff’s career is a long term study of the impotency of cheap music?

I am not so sure. The album devotes a side apiece to his “Chorus” work and his “Singers” work, and the difference – or, if it can be counted as such, the evolution – is quite remarkable. As soon as Conniff’s 1960 band breaks into “Memories Are Made Of This” – which, along with “Volare,” ushers in that most insecure of holders of fleeting memory, Dean Martin, a man for whom, in 1969, life was already becoming a memory, he having become his own legend, and therefore, strictly speaking, outside himself – his debt to his big band schooling is obvious. Despite the occasional harp glissandi and the decently distant, wordless chorus echoing in the middleground, “Memories” gives us a useful beginner’s class in big band arranging. With every verse Conniff varies the voicings; in the first, the trumpets carry the main melody while the saxophones do the calling and responding, in the second the trombones work against the trumpets, and that latter scenario is reversed in the final verse. In addition, the surprisingly brash and bold trumpets throughout – a direct legacy from Conniff’s Harry James days – indicate that, while this music clearly aimed to please, it was not a lazy music.

Conniff had worked out his “Sound” with geometrical precision, and despite the progressive modifications he applied to it, the basic precepts never changed; discreet rhythm, set back in the mix, with the accent on echoing rhythm guitar and click bass, with enough space to allow brass, reeds and voices to come through in meticulously-determined proportions. In addition, he was very much in favour of large unison brass/reed lines, as can be demonstrated by his arrangement of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” which, if dutifully and scrupulously stripped of all the sex, dirt and longing both Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra had applied to the song – as with many other tracks here, it could have served as the backing track to courtly Home Counties formation dance teams, cha-cha rhythm and all – its horn voicings look curiously forward to the work of Medeski, Martin & Wood (and it should not be forgotten that no less a personage than Gil Evans adapted not dissimilar voicings for his own bands from the late sixties onwards) and there is genuine inspiration in the way Conniff finally but gracefully and patiently makes the tune recede towards a central point of silence.

Conniff takes “Volare” to the airy penthouse, Hendrickson’s guitar and echoplexed rhythm astonishingly reminiscent of (or anticipating) dub. The loungey swing is confident, robust, although I note the use of the xylophone rather than the vibraharp; there is a certain residual martial stiffness still present in his work, but certainly this is the kind of thing that Jack Lemmon would have slapped on the deck in his apartment in preparation for Shirley MacLaine to come round (although we forget at our peril that MacLaine’s character in The Apartment does eventually attempt suicide).

But then that aforementioned melancholy begins to creep in, creating shades of wintry dusk. Introduced by a prematurely fatigued bass trombone and celeste unison, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is perhaps one of this record’s key tracks; the title alone speaks volumes about its intended audience. There is cleverly descending counterpoint between voices male and female and the voice-as-instrument schemata, though notably less flexible than subsequent developments inspired by it – particularly in Britain, where John Dankworth was undertaking more adventurous experiments in the same mode, using Cleo Laine’s voice as an additional horn, and those in turn inspired one-time Dankworth trumpeter Kenny Wheeler (like Feraci, an expatriate Torontonian) to utilise Norma Winstone’s voice in the same way in his own big band – is a more substantial innovation than Conniff is usually given credit for (indeed, Esquivel’s habitual use of “zu-zu-zu” in his work may be regarded as a direct commentary, possibly satirical, on Conniff’s trademark “do-do-do”s). The overall feeling, however, is muted, hesitant, although at one point the stately piano (either Pete Jolly or Jimmy Rowles) is abruptly intercepted by a blast of screeching cha-cha brass before quietude resumes.

Side one concludes with the album’s deepest and most resonant track. “Greenfields” (recently revived by Michael Stipe as part of Faultline’s Your Love Means Everything project) was a melancholy hit ballad for the Brothers Four in 1960 and Conniff (six years later, by which time everything had changed) approaches the song with real, perceptible emotion. He takes the number very patiently, with a slow, harp-driven 6/8 tempo. The piano picks at the memory like a widowed scavenger polishing lilacs at the grave. Again, however, two-thirds of the way into the track an unexpected wave of danceband brass and quavering reeds briefly engulfs the song – those memories of Miller, the ghosts of forgotten winds. It resembles a tug of war; look, I know our world is vanishing, it seems to be saying, but remember how it used to be – and maybe, if we try really hard, and that includes screwing our eyes up as firmly as possible, it will happen again? This knowing sadness infiltrates the sometimes forced jollity of the rest of the record.

With side two we are suddenly in a different, and not necessarily a better, world. “Melodie d’Amour” commences, unexpectedly, like a Shadows B-side, all twangy, tremolo guitars; but now the voices have found and learned a language – two languages in fact, since they sing the song in both French and English, but at this stage (still 1966) the Singers – by now expanded to 25 in number, 12 females and 13 males) seem to know what they’re singing and why they’re singing it. Conniff makes ingenious use of stop-start and silence tropes in the middle eight, although the fade is rather abrupt.

Thereafter, however, a strange, eerie jauntiness appears to dominate. “Days Of Wine And Roses” is anything but a jaunty song, and moreover contains in Mercer’s lyric one of the greatest opening lyrical tropes in all of popular song, a sentence as endless as the tracking sequence that commences Touch Of Evil and which also paraphrases Gauguin (“…a door marked ‘Nevermore’ that wasn’t there before”). The voices – and suddenly there is nothing to hear except voices; the big band trappings have subtly vanished and we gradually realise that the voices have effectively replaced the (obsolete?) instruments – treat the song, however, like an amiable night at the bridge club.

Conniff’s “Spanish Eyes” (a.k.a. “Moon Over Naples”), a song co-written by his curious German counterpart Bert Kaempfert, is taken at a brisker pace than Al Martino’s famous version (and Engelbert Humperdinck’s only marginally less famous reading). The yearning buried not so deeply within the song, however, is almost entirely ignored – the singers are reciting the words almost passively, and the inevitable mandolin which ushers in the would-be climactic key change displays unwelcome signs of slipshod laxity, or worse, indifference.

The new problem is compressed with Conniff’s reading of “Somewhere My Love,” which also brings into play the contemporaneous recording of the song by another German counterpart – and, in the end, perhaps Conniff’s better – James Last. Far more successful in Europe than Conniff, Last has since 1967 built a career on unashamedly giving the public what it wants, but exhibits a certain élan which the later work of Conniff frequently lacked. Last’s concerts are party events, the equivalent of hen parties and bingo nights, the audience’s unabashed celebration of itself; it is deceptively democratic. Whereas I picture a solemn, dutifully seated audience passively absorbing the “quality music” of Conniff onstage, even though Conniff himself appears to have been extremely passionate about both his music and its live delivery. Last’s version of Lara’s theme – as heard on his 1967 album Love, This Is My Song – is artful, seductive and finally heartfelt. But Conniff’s version is so damned foursquare – with the emphasis on “square” – that one is reminded of Melina Mercouri relating her fairy tales in Never On Sunday, all of which end with “they all go to the seashore,” a cheerful allegory for death (since that is the only way all stories can end). His “Somewhere My Love” seems fully equipped for that terminal beach journey.

With “Mrs Robinson” this placidity becomes offensive, and downright disturbing. The crucial “about you for our files” sequence is recited exactly as one would expect a call centre employee to recite it – was this a deliberate commentary on Conniff’s part? – and the banally jaunty brass and incongruous Basie piano fills are exceeded in missing the point by the voices’ scary, mechanical “hey hey hey”s which sound as though punched into a computer, stripped of all emotion and indeed all humanity.

It is here that I have to bring in the concept of Muzak. It is not my intention to reiterate Joseph Lanza’s admirably full – if, I fear, fully misguided – history of this genre in his indispensable Elevator Music, but I note that elsewhere Conniff’s style has been described as more attuned to supermarkets than elevators, and this may well be the case – growing up, I heard this sort of thing lurking through the speakers while my parents were doing the Saturday shop, and it was the effective lingua franca of Radio 2 over the same period (its final, fitting destination being the David Jacobs Collection, which airs last thing on a Sunday night, the last remaining refuge for what its 83-year-old presenter describes as “our kind of music”). The history of Muzak as a tool for increasing productivity at work – and subsequently for increasing consumer output in shops and shopping malls – is fully documented but the early vitality of Conniff’s approach seemed to dissolve as the sixties resolved and reformed, replaced by a numb anaesthesia, a panacea, a placebo to a disaffected but resolutely silent “majority” of an audience.

This becomes most evident in the album’s closing track, a 1968 take on “Up Up And Away.” Ironically, while Jimmy Webb was at this time busy redefining and reshaping what came to be known as “easy listening” – as though “MacArthur Park” or “Wichita Lineman” could remotely be described thusly – Conniff sounds intent on neutralising his experiments. He applies the same, click track formula to this most ill-fitting of songs to which to apply it; there is virtually no rhythmic vitality at work at all, and the album’s nadir comes with the Singers’ “Wheeeeeeee!!!!,” an expression of compulsory gaiety if ever I heard one (and which, along with the aforementioned xylophony, takes us unpleasantly back to the days of the Mitchell Minstrels).

But the album was a huge success, in the confused “other” Britain of 1969 – the Britain which didn’t quite get the long hair stuff, which quite liked the Beatles before they went all strange, the Britain of depressed, Valium/cooking sherry-dependent housewives – a prematurely bereaved nation looking for the cheapest of painkillers (even though the cheapest painkillers only help create and intensify the pain so that you have to keep taking them). “All passion spent” as the phrase goes. Side one proves that with Conniff there was some early passion – and, as later records like 1972’s I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing confirm, invention and imagination were not entirely lost from his music – but it is worth remembering why he made this music in the first place, and what, if everything, had been lost along the way. This was a music, remember, that was originally fashioned out of fear – the not-so-modern disease of fear of the bailiffs superseding the fear of death – rather than love, whose formula was arrived at and determined scientifically. I also sense a parallel with another album (from the next decade) where the artist gradually vanishes from his own record – the two sides of Bowie’s Low. In addition, Conniff was born in November 1916, the same month as Walter Cronkite; but where Uncle Walt turned against the Vietnam war at a crucial moment and played no small part in its eventual end, Conniff, natural conservative that he was, could only watch in bafflement and horror as one of his singers did it for him. That speech of Carole Feraci’s was eventually sampled on “America No More” the shattering B-side of 1992’s “America: What Time Is Love?” by the KLF – and if you thought that format of Conniff’s sounded familiar, read the KLF’s Manual and marvel at how the same approach could lead to two diametrically opposed roads.

When we listened to this album at the weekend, however, we followed it with “Bliss” a 2005 track by Alan Braxe and Fred Falke under the pseudonym of Defender, and wondered how a piece of music constructed under exactly the same construct as Conniff’s – mechanical repetition, practically no “human” involvement – could be so warm and alive as opposed to the deadness of Conniff’s “Up Up And Away.” There are reasons architectural and aesthetic for this, of course – the hymnal organ which provides the undertow for “Bliss” and eventually comes to the fore as a natural coda – but it really is a matter of life versus death, of ambient (Eno’s Music For Airports made passengers feel twitchy and nervous when tried out in an actual airport) versus ambience; the active reception of sound rather than the passive acceptance of “Sound.” Conniff survived; he continued to record and tour until only a few months before his death in 2002, one month short of his 86th birthday. But look at the girl on the cover of this record, and wonder at how many people were glad not to smile. She too is lost in an endless dream – and how can we tell that it’s not a nightmare?