The Chris Connor Bio-Discography:
Chief Musical Influences
(Stan Kenton, Peggy Lee, The Cool School)
by Iván Santiago Mercado

Page generated on Mar 15, 2017


Musical Influences

Chris Connor's chief influence among instrumentalists is well-known, and has never been in contention. Connor's main vocal influences are not as fully understood, however.

Stan Kenton

Long before she became a member of The Stan Kenton Orchestra, that ensemble had already earned Connor's admiration. In an extensive interview conducted one year before her passing, Connor stressed the longevity of her reverence. Way back in 1946, while working with the very first of various bands, "I already had my sights set on singing with Kenton," she told Marc Myers of jazzwax.com . She also shared with Myers her initial experience as part of the band: "The first time I heard Kenton's band from the singer's position, right in the middle of it all, I was blown away… Look, all I knew was that I was singing with the greatest band in the whole world."

Peggy Lee

As her main vocal inspiration, Chris Connor herself repeatedly identified Peggy Lee. As early as 1954, Connor was already telling the press that she considered Lee a role model: "Peggy Lee is doing what I'd like to some day. She's able to combine [technique] and feeling in a song and also make the public like it. She can sing a commercial song and not sound commercial. Peggy is a great artist, not just a singer." Some of Connor's earliest performance choices make the inspiration obvious. There is, for instance, the very close approximation to Lee's sound in one of Connor's 1952 vocals with Jerry Wald ("Raisins And Almonds"), or her choice to record a 1948 Lee hit ("All Dressed Up With A Broken Heart") for the Bethlehem label in 1955.

Over the decades, Connor continued to call Lee "my idol," and frequently sampled from Lee's catalogue of self-penned tunes. (See this discography's Composer Index, under "Lee, Peggy.") In a February 29, 1980 interview with Joseph Litsch for The Alabama Constitution, she added: "I'm listening to the same singers -- Peggy Lee, Sinatra, Ella -- that I was listening to when I was 19 and admiring them." During the aforementioned 2008 interview, Connor further told Marc Myers that, as a teenager, "I spent all of my spare time listening to Peggy Lee, Sinatra, Ella and Sarah -- I still listen to them today, and they're still the greatest."

Connor's own approach to the use of vibrato (lightly, rarely, and only for key dramatic moments) confirms her allegiance to Lee in particular -- and more generally to emotionally subtle vocalists of the Sinatra school. So does Connor's commendable use of silence, pauses, and legato phrasing. (The use of vibrato also separates her from the cool school to which she has been perfunctorily linked.)

During her interview with Myers, Chris Connor also reminisced about a visit that Peggy Lee once paid her, sometime in the 1960s, at Connor's Basin Street East dressing room: "I was so excited. There was Peggy Lee, my childhood idol, sitting right in front of me… That was the thrill of my life, just being with Peggy Lee. When I got back on stage for the second show, I knocked them out. I blew them away."

The Cool School

Because Anita O'Day and June Christy preceded Chris Connor as singers with The Stan Kenton Orchestra, fans and critics have cursorily (and somewhat unfairly) deemed Connor a slavish disciple of the other two singers. They have also categorized Connor as a member of the so-called "cool school," a vocal style whose founding mother is O'Day, and which is technically characterized for the avoidance of vibrato. This categorization is valid only to a certain extent. If Connor paid attention to the way that O'Day and Christy sounded, her motivation was not so much utter admiration of the singers' styles as a desire to immerse herself in the vocal sound that had been nurtured under the true source of her admiration: Kenton's band. As she declared during an interview for the San Diego-Union Tribune in 1986, "I may have spent more time studying Anita and June because I made up my mind early on I wanted to sing with the Kenton band." Connor further acknowledged that the first record she ever bought was "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine," O'Day's hit with Kenton. Once she achieved her dream of joining the orchestra, she probably continued to try her best to follow the stylistic model set by the band's previous vocalists -- which also included names other than O'Day and Christy.

After she became a solo artist, Connor clearly kept the influence but did not actively cultivate it, however. A good portion of Connor's solo singing could be described as "semi-cool," rather than thoroughly cool.

Other Singers, Other Instrumentalists

Of course, there were other vocalists who also made an impression on Chris Connor. In the 1950s, the shimmering vocal quality of Doris Day directly influenced Chris Connor's tone. In the later decades of her life, Connor further gave enthusiastic kudos to both Sarah Vaughan and Judy Garland. She even referred to Vaughan as her favorite singer (in something of a departure from previous comments, and perhaps under the influence of musician friends, who had been making a point of linking Connor to Vaughan, due to their shared interest in an improvisational approach). Like most other singers who worked in the realm of jazz, Connor paid lip service to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, too. Nonetheless, the one vocalist consistently mentioned by Connor over her lifetime was Peggy Lee.

Naturally, Connor also admired orchestras other than Kenton's, as well as particular instrumentalists and arrangers. Among them, and in no particular order: Ralph Burns, Mike Abene, Don Sebesky, Richard Rodney Bennett, Ray Ellis, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, and Oscar Pettiford.


Conclusion

In short, Chris Connor's main sources of inspiration were The Stan Kenton Orchestra and Peggy Lee. Being both a fan and member of Kenton's orchestra, Connor was naturally influenced by the cool singing style that was practiced by her more famous predecessors. However, such a "cool" influence should not be over-stressed, at the expense of the sources of inspiration that Connor herself consistently singled out throughout her career.