Coniff, Ray (1916—)

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Coniff, Ray (1916—)

Through a unique combination of genuine musical talent fused with a keen sense of both commercial trends and evolving recording technologies of the 1950s, arranger/conductor/instrumentalist Ray Coniff emerged as one of the most popular and commercially successful musicians during the dawn of the stereo age in the late 1950s. Coniff carried on the big band sound long beyond the music's original heyday in the 1940s, and charted 53 albums between 1957 and 1974, including two million-sellers, and 13 other LPs that reached the Top Ten and/or went gold.

Coniff was born into a musical family in Attleboro, Massachusetts, on November 6, 1916, and followed in his father's musical footsteps when he became the lead trombonist of the Attleboro High School dance band (in which he also gained his first arranging experience). After graduating in 1934 he pursued a musical career in Boston, and in 1936 moved to New York where he became involved with the emerging swing movement of the late 1930s and early 1940s, playing, arranging, and recording for such top names as Bunny Berigan, Bob Crosby, Glen Gray, and Artie Shaw. With the advent of World War II, Coniff spent two years in the army arranging for the Armed Forces Radio Service, and upon his discharge in 1946 continued arranging for Shaw, Harry James, and Frank DeVol.

But by the late 1940s the Big Band swing era in which Coniff had made his first mark was coming to an end, and, as one source put it, "Unable to accept the innovations of bop, he left music briefly around 1950." While freelancing at various nonmusical jobs to support his wife and three children, Coniff also made a personal study of the most popular and commercially successful recordings of the day in an effort to develop what he hoped might prove a new and viable pop sound. His efforts paid off in 1955 when Coniff was hired by Columbia Records. At Columbia he was soon providing instrumental backup for chart-toppers by the label's best artists, among them Don Cherry's "Band of Gold," which hit the Top Ten in January 1956, Guy Mitchell's "Singing the Blues," Marty Robbins's "A White Sport Coat," and two million-sellers by Johnny Mathis.

His singles arrangements led to Coniff's first album under his own name: S'Wonderful! (1956) sold half a million copies, stayed in the Top 20 for nine months, and garnered Coniff the Cash Box vote for "Most promising up-and-coming band leader of 1957." Coniff's unique yet highly commercial sound proved irresistible to both listeners and dancers (and stereophiles) and S'Wonderful! launched a long series of LPs, the appeal of which has endured into the digital age.

The classic sound of the Ray Coniff Orchestra and Singers was a simple, but unique, and instantly recognizable blend of instrumentals and choral voices doubling the various orchestral choirs with "oooos," "ahs," and Coniff's patented "da-da-das." His imaginative arrangements were grounded in the solid 1940s big band sound of his early years, while now placing a greater emphasis on recognizable melody lines only slightly embellished by improvisation. Touches of exotic instrumentation such as harp and clavinet sometimes also found their way into the orchestrations. This jazz-tinged but accessibly commercial sound was backed up by danceable, sometimes electrified modern beats derived in equal parts from the classic shuffle rhythms which Coniff made his own, and more contemporary Latin and rock-derived rhythms. Coniff's initially wordless backup chorus soon graduated to actual song lyrics and, as the Ray Coniff Singers, recorded many successful albums on their own.

The emergence of commercial stereo in the late 1950s emphatically influenced the new Coniff sound, and his Columbia albums brilliantly utilized the new stereophonic, multitrack techniques. Even today they remain showcases of precise, highly defined, and processed stereo sound. Coniff's popularity on records during this period led to live performances, and with his popular "Concert in Stereo" tours the maestro was among the first artists to accurately duplicate the electronically enhanced studio sound of his recordings in a live concert hall setting.

Coniff's best and most enduringly listenable albums date from the period of his initial popularity on Columbia Records in the late 1950s and early 1960s: among them, Say It with Music (1960), probably his best and glossiest instrumental album, and It's the Talk of the Town (1959) and So Much in Love (1961), both with the Ray Coniff Singers. These albums and much of Coniff's original Columbia repertory were drawn mostly from the popular, Broadway, and movie song standards that also had been favored in the big band era. Coniff also recorded two Concert in Rhythm albums showcasing rhythmic pop adaptations of melodies by Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Puccini, and other classical composers. But as his popularity and repertory grew, an increasing emphasis was placed on the contemporary Hit Parade. " Memories Are Made of This " (1963), with its calculated awareness of "Top 40" teen hits, was a prophetic album in this respect. By the late 1960s Coniff exclusively recorded contemporary songs, and two vocal albums, It Must Be Him, and Honey, both went gold.

Coniff's sales fell off after 1962 but were revived in 1966 by the release of Somewhere My Love. The album's title tune was a vocal adaptation of French composer Maurice Jarre's orchestral "Lara's Theme" from the popular 1965 film version of the Boris Pasternak novel Doctor Zhivago, and the LP won Coniff a Grammy, hitting No. 1 on both the pop and easy listening charts. While Somewhere put Coniff back on the charts, it also ensconced his sound in the "easy listening" mode which would more or less persist throughout the rest of his prolific recording career. (It also might be noted that in 1966 Coniff shared the million-seller charts with the Beatles, the Monkees, and the Mindbenders.)

Coniff continued recording and performing his popular international tours and Sahara Hotel engagements at Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas through the 1980s and 1990s. In March of 1997, at age 80 and after a 40-year collaboration with Columbia/CBS Records/Sony Music that resulted in more than 90 albums selling over 65 million copies, Coniff signed a new recording contract with Polygram Records which released his one hundredth album, I Love Movies. My Way, an album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra, was released in 1998.

—Ross Care

Further Reading:

Kernfeld, Barry, editor. New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. London, Macmillan Press Limited, New York, Grove's Dictionaries of Music Inc., 1988.

Murrells, Joseph, editor. Million Selling Records from the 1900s to the 1980s: An Illustrated History. New York, Arco Publishing, Inc., 1985.