Percussionist, composer, producer
A formally trained jazz improviser turned platinum-selling recording artist, drummer/composer Norman Connors was a pioneer in the convergence of progressive R&B and jazz, thereby creating a fusion that appealed to intellectuals and romantics alike. He is best known for his long list of classic hits, among them “You Are My Starship,” “Valentine Love,” “This Is Your Life,” “Betcha By Golly Wow,” “Invitation,” and “I’m Your Melody.” Throughout the 1970s, he encouraged many renowned jazz and neo-jazz players to also perform his style, including saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and bassist Stanley Clarke.
In addition, Connors proved himself an influential force behind the scenes as a major studio wizard, mastering tracks for a variety of different performers. Connors, sometimes called the “jazzy Quincy Jones,” discovered and nurtured the career of the late Phyllis Hyman, transforming the caramel-voiced singer into a signature diva during the 1980s. That same decade also saw a string of hits from another Connors protégé, Michael Henderson, namely the seminal “In the Nighttime” and the radio funk staple “Wide Receiver.” Working mainly as a producer throughout this period, Connors became more visible again in the 1990s, though primarily as an adult contemporary/crossover artist.
Born on March 1, 1948, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he lived in the same neighborhood as actor/entertainer Bill Cosby, Connors developed an interest in music, particularly jazz, at a young age. At five years old, he took up drums and was already writing his own music. In elementary school, Connors received extensive exposure to jazz through such schoolmates as Lex Humphries, also a drummer and the younger brother of bassist/future Jazz Messenger member Spanky De Brest. Then as a junior high student, the promising young percussionist started sneaking into jazz clubs, one night landing the opportunity to sit in for Elvin Jones at a John Coltrane gig. His idol, however, was Miles Davis, for whom he expressed his admiration by dressing like the legendary trumpeter and promptly adopting his style. One of the most exciting moments of Connors’ childhood occurred when, at age 13, he met Davis in person.
Without question, Connors intended to pursue music as a profession and his sights upon the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. After graduating, he began his career as a sideman, working with Billy Paul, Jackie McLean, Jack McDuff, Charles Earland, Sam Rivers, and Archie Shepp, who employed Connors for his 1967 Impulse! session Magic of Julu, the drummer’s first recording. In 1971, Connors settled in New York. By now a reputable player, he was soon hired by Pharoah Sanders, touring the world and participating on five of the bandleader’s albums.
In 1972, Connors signed as solo artist with the Buddah Records subsidiary Cobblestone. He recorded and
Born on March 1, 1948, in Philadelphia, PA. Education: Attended the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, NY
Began playing drums and writing songs at the age of five; met his idol, Miles Davis, at age 13; employed by Archie Shepp for his 1967 Impulse! session Magic of Julu, the drummer’s first recording; released debut album as a leader, Dance of Music, 1972; released Dark of Light, 1973; had first R&B hit with “Valentine Love,” 1975; released platinum-selling album You Are My Starship, featuring the Top 30, Grammy-nominated title track, 1976; produced and nurtured other artists’ careers, 1980s; released two albums for Motown’s Mojazz label, including Remember Who You Are, 1993, and Easy Living, 1996; formed own Starship Records label, released Eternity, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —EMI, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, NY 10104, (212) 253-3000. Website —Official Website for Norman Connors, http://www.nutbutton.com/captain.html.
released his debut as a leader, Dance of Magic, that same year. Produced by Skip Drinkwater and Dennis Wilen, the album featured such players’as Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws, Gary Bartz, Carlos Garnett, and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Dance of Magic “sounds like a funkier version of Chick Corea’s as-yet unformed Return to Forever” described Nicky Baster in Metro. “And the Vibe’ is as luxuriant as the Brazilian rain forest before the cutters came: drums and percussion are both burning low, while plangent keyboards (Herbie Hancock) dance and shimmer.” Connor’s 1973 follow-up, Dark of Light, also produced by Drinkwater and Wilen, became a critical favorite as well. Both are considered his standout recordings.
When Cobblestone folded after the release of Dark of Light, Connors moved to Buddah for several more dates. His next two albums, 1974’s Love from the Sun and Slewfoot, both again with Drinkwater, further enhanced his reputation in the world of jazz fusion. From there, however, Connors found greater successes on the R&B charts, thanks in large part to the talents of vocalists like Michael Henderson, Jean Cam and Phyllis Hyman. The drummer’s mainstream popularity first took an upward swing with his 1975 album Saturday Night Special. It featured the Top 100/number 10 soul hit “Valentine Love,” a collaboration with singer/songwriter Henderson.
In 1976, Connors broke into the Top 30 with the Grammy-nominated “You Are My Starship,” sung by Bridgewater, from the platinum-selling album of the same name produced by Drinkwater and Jerry Schoenbaum. As a side note, the boat featured on the album cover belonged to Western film star John Wayne. Romantic Journey, this time boasting actor Henry Fonda’s airplane on the cover as well as the memorable track “Once I’ve Been There,” followed in 1977, giving Connors yet another jazz-infused R&B success, though none of the songs made the pop charts. Connors continued in much the same R&B vein through the remainder of the 1970s and less visibly in the 1980s with stints for the Arista and Capitol record labels.
Meanwhile, Connors also embarked on a career as an outside producer, forming and guiding the Starship Orchestra and producing for Aquarian Dream, Sanders, Al Johnson, and more. He is also credited with not only producing for, but also discovering and nurturing the careers of Hyman, Henderson, Cam, Bridgewater, Angela Botili, Glenn Jones, Norman Brown, Marion Meadows, Gabriel Goodman, Duke Jones, Eleanor Mill, Ada Dyer, Denise Stewart, and Spencer Harrison.
Connors continued to record, tour, and introduce new talent well into the 1990s and beyond, making a comeback of sorts after signing with and spearheading Motown’s Mojazz label, for whom he recorded 1993’s Remember Who You Are and 1996’s Easy Living. Both records were popular among urban contemporary and crossover audiences.
In 2000, Connor launched his own Starship Records, a joint venture with The Right Stuff/EMI, with a new album entitled Eternity, featuring many of the songwriter’s previous guests on vocals. “I call the musicians and artists I work with the Starship family,” Connors explained, as quoted by Gail Mitchell in Billboard. “So this album was a matter of getting together with great people and putting them together with new people and new sounds. My favorite songs are classics now, so the title Eternity came to mind. I wanted to do another record that’s going to be out here forever. I used the old and the new, and it came out beautifully.” Critics overwhelmingly agreed. Lynn Norment of Ebony, for one, concluded that with Eternity, Connors “shows he is still a master producer with the golden touch.”
Dance of Magic, Cobblestone CST 9024, 1972; reissued, Buddah BDS 5674, 1976.
Dark of Light, Cobblestone CST 9035, 1973; reissued BuddahBDS 5675, 1976.
Love from the Sun, Buddah 5142, 1974.
Slewfoot, Buddah 5611, 1974.
Saturday Night Special, Buddah 5643, 1975.
You Are My Starship, Buddah 5655, 1976.
Romantic Journey, Buddah 5682, 1977.
This Is Your Life, Buddah/Arista, 1978.
Invitation, Buddah/Arista, 1979.
Take It to the Limit, Arista 9534, 1980.
Mr. C, Arista 9575, 1981.
Passion, Capitol 48515, 1988.
Remember Who You Are, Mojazz 530 202, 1993.
Easy Living, Mojazz, 1996.
Eternity, Starshipy The Right Stuff 24722, 2000.
The Best of Norman Connors, Sequel NEX LP 118, 1990.
Norman Connors—Encore Collection, BMG Special BMI 44529, 1997.
Best of Norman Connors & Friends, Capitol CAP 59784, 1997.
Melancholy Fire—The Best of Norman Connors, Razor & Tie 7930182194, 1999.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 5, 1995.
Billboard, February 26, 2000, p. 29; March 18, 2000.
Ebony, May 2000.
Metro, August 15-21, 1996.
Tri-State Defender, March 24, 1999, p. 1B.
Washington Post, June 8, 1998.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 26, 2000).
Norman Connors Discography, http://www.kolumbus.fi/soulexpr/connorsdg.htm (July 26, 2000).
Norman Connors Official Website, http://www.nutbutton.com/captain.html (July 26, 2000).
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