Ray Conniff, Joseph Raymond Conniff (November 6, 1916 – October 12, 2002) was an American bandleader and arranger best known for his Ray Conniff Singers during the 1960s.
Ray Conniff was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts, and learned to play the trombone from his father. He studied music arranging from a course book. After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II (where he worked under Walter Schumann), he joined the Artie Shaw big band and wrote many arrangements for him. After his stint with Shaw he was then hired by Mitch Miller, then head of A&R at Columbia Records, as their home arranger, working with several artists including Rosemary Clooney, Marty Robbins, Frankie Laine, Johnny Mathis, Guy Mitchell and Johnnie Ray. He wrote a top 10 arrangement for Don Cherry’s “Band of Gold” in 1955, a single that sold more than a million copies.
Among the hit singles he backed with his orchestra (and eventually with a male chorus) were “Yes Tonight Josephine” and “Just Walkin’ in the Rain” by Johnnie Ray; “Chances Are” and “It’s Not for Me to Say” by Johnny Mathis; “A White Sport Coat” and “The Hanging Tree” by Marty Robbins; “Moonlight Gambler” by Frankie Laine; “Up Above My Head,” a duet by Frankie Laine and Johnnie Ray; and “Pet Me, Poppa” by Rosemary Clooney. He also backed up the albums Tony by Tony Bennett, Blue Swing by Eileen Rodgers, Swingin’ for Two by Don Cherry, and half the tracks of The Big Beat by Johnnie Ray.
In these early years he also produced similar-sounding records for Columbia’s Epic label under the name of Jay Raye (which stands for “Joseph Raymond”) amongst them a backing album and singles with Somethin’ Smith and the Redheads, an American male vocal group.
Between 1957 and 1968, Ray Conniff had 28 albums in the American Top 40, the most famous one being Somewhere My Love (1966). He topped the album list in Britain in 1969 with His Orchestra, His Chorus, His Singers, His Sound, an album which was originally published to promote his European tour (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) in 1969. He also was the first American popular artist to record in Russia—in 1974 he recorded Ray Conniff in Moscow with the help of a local choir.
His later albums like Exclusivamente Latino, Amor Amor and Latinisimo made him very popular in Latin-American countries, even more so after performing in the Viña del Mar International Song Festival. In Brazil and Chile he was treated like a young pop superstar in the 1980s and 1990s when he was in his 70s and 80s. He even played live with his orchestra and eight-person chorus in large football stadiums as well as in Viña del Mar.
Ray Conniff commented, “One time I was recording an album with Mitch Miller – we had a big band and a small choir. I decided to have the choir sing along with the big band using wordless lyrics. The women were doubled with the trumpets and the men were doubled with the trombones. In the booth Mitch was totally surprised and excited at how well it worked.” Because of the success of his backings Mitch Miller and the new sound Conniff created Miller allowed him to make his own record, and this became the successful ‘S Wonderful, a collection of standards that were recorded with an orchestra and a wordless singing chorus (four men, four women).
He released many more albums in the same vein, including Dance The Bop (1957) (a story follows about that album), S Marvelous (1957, gold album), S Awful Nice (1958), Concert in Rhythm (1958, gold album), Hollywood in Rhythm (1958), Broadway in Rhythm (1959), and Concert in Rhythm, Volume II (1959, gold album). The 1957 album Dance the Bop was an experiment by one of the brass at Columbia to cash in on a conceived dance step creation, but Ray didn’t like it from the outset, and when it sold poorly, Ray had it pulled off the market.
In 1959 he started The Ray Conniff Singers (12 women and 13 men) and released the album It’s the Talk of the Town. This group brought him the biggest hit he ever had in his career: Somewhere My Love (1966). The title track of the album was written to the music of “Lara’s Theme” from the film Doctor Zhivago, and was a top 10 single in the US. The album also reached the US top 20 and went platinum, and Conniff won a Grammy. The single and album reached high positions in the international charts (a.o. Australia, Germany, Great Britain, Japan) as well.
Also extraordinarily successful was the first of four Christmas albums by the Singers, Christmas with Conniff (1959). Nearly 50 years after its release, in 2004, Conniff was posthumously awarded with a platinum album/CD. Other well-known releases by the Singers included Ray Conniff’s Hawaiian album (1967), featuring the hit song “Pearly Shells”; and Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970), which included Coniff’s original composition “Someone”, and remakes of such hits as “All I Have to do is Dream”, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”, and “Something”.
Musically different highlights in Conniff’s career are two albums he produced in cooperation with Billy Butterfield, an old friend from earlier swing days. Conniff Meets Butterfield (1959) featured Butterfield’s solo trumpet and a small rhythm group; Just Kiddin’ Around (after a Conniff original composition from the 1940s), released 1963, featured additional trombone solos by Ray himself. Both albums are pure light jazz and did not feature any vocals.
Ray Conniff recorded in New York from 1955 through 1961 and mainly in Los Angeles from 1962 through 2000. Later in the 1960s he produced an average of two instrumental and one vocal album a year.
Ray Conniff was a quiet, modest sympathetic artist. He sold about 70 million albums worldwide, and continued recording and performing until his death in 2002.
He died in Escondido, California from a fall he suffered in a bathtub, and is interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. His grave marker bears a musical score with the first four notes of “Somewhere My Love.” Conniff was survived by his wife, Vera; a daughter, Tamara Conniff; son, Jimmy Conniff; and three grandchildren