Generated on Nov 7, 2014
Chris Connor's Pre-recording Period
Chris Connor's pre-recording days were spent in Missouri's Kansas City (1927-1940) and Jefferson City (1940-1947). At home, her father enjoyed playing the violin, and encouraged his daughter to also play a musical instrument. She took eight years of clarinet study in school, becoming not only first chair in the clarinet section but also the school's top instrumentalist for various years.
Connor's main musical love was not the clarinet, however. Dating back to her early childhood, singing had been foremost in her mind. As a 6 year-old child, she would entertain herself by humming the melody of the song "Ramona." As a teenager, her incipient interest in becoming a professional singer triggered the decision to learn to play an instrument. "I just assumed," she told Marc Myers in an interview conducted in 2008, "that reading music would be important if I eventually decided to become a singer and that it would help my phrasing and breath control."
Connor first sang publicly in 1945, at graduation time in Jefferson City Junior College. The song was Amor. "I had nothing to lose," she said during an interview for Downbeat in 1952, "I did it for kicks and the audience liked it. That did it. I decided to become a singer."
In 1946 and 1947, Connor divided her days between bills-paying jobs (primarily as a stenographer) and singing gigs with a college band from the University of Columbus. A dance-oriented outfit, this band was led by a college teacher named Paul Cherches, and consisted entirely of college students -- with the sole exception of Connor, who was not enrolled in school at the time. They routinely played in venues near the university's campus, located about 30 miles away from her Jefferson City hometown. When the band members graduated and disbanded, the twenty-year-old Connor continued to pursue her career goal by moving back to Kansas City, which happened to be not only her birthplace but also one of America's centers of traditional jazz and blues music.
In Kansas City, Connor's schedule continued to combine clerical work on weekdays with singing gigs on weekends. And once more, she served as vocalist for a college ensemble. This time it was a small combo comprised chiefly of students enrolled at the University of Missouri. Some reports claim that the combo included a nineteen-year-old Bob Brookmeyer, who would in time become a celebrated valve-trombonist and composer. The accuracy of those reports, quoted in most Chris Connor obituaries, remains doubtful. In 2006, when Connor was asked to confirm that she had worked with Brookmeyer, she replied: "[s]omebody made it up. I met him, but I never sang in his band." The original source of the incorrect statement was probably the back cover of the Bethlehem 10" LP Chris Connor Sings Lullabys Of Birdland, in which we read that the vocalist "ended up singing with a jazz group led by valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer" in Kansas City. (Perhaps in an effort to make the singer's story all the more interesting, the album's liner annotator -- or one of his sources - embellished this and a few other details of her biography. Alternatively, the annotator might have simply misunderstood some of the biographical details which were communicated to him. Another example of embellishment: Connor's dad is incorrectly identified as "a professional violinist." He was instead a telegrapher who informally played the violin.) The 1958 Atlantic LP Chris Craft perpetuated such bits of misinformation by stating that "[a]n important event in Chris' early career was a stint with a group helmed by Bob Brookmeyer in Kansas City." Ditto for the 1984 album Out Of This World, on Affinity Records.
In 1948, the budding vocalist decided to try her luck in New York City. An agent had given her the "vague promise" (her own words) of a singing job there. But no such job materialized when the singer came into the metropolis. By her own account, during her first seven weeks in Manhattan she nearly starved. A 1974 Newsday article declares that Connor "struggled to survive on the $10 that her parents sent each week." Other sources have qualified those statements, claiming that she found a temporary job, working once again as a stenographer.
During an interview conducted over the phone and published in the May 2007 issue of Swing Journal, Connor talked at some length about this period of her life: "An agent promised me that he would give a job, and I rented a room in a hotel when I first came to New York City. I thought I could pay the rent by working, but it wasn't easy to get a job. My debt for the hotel room grew, and it was eventually locked so that I could not use the room! For several days, I lived on the street like one of the homeless people you see these days. Even then, I did not want to go back to Kansas City. All my belongings, including my winter coat, were in the hotel room. While I was wondering around in thin clothes during the freezing winter season, I accidentally met the musician Eddie Matthews, of the Hal McIntyre band, on the street, and I was saved. He saw how I was, and brought me to his girlfriend, who was a model, and let me stay there until I found a job. She even let me borrow some clothes and fed me. I was truly saved."
After those first hard weeks, her stay in The Big Apple paid off, however. "One day I prayed in Saint Patrick's Cathedral [where she had spent at least one of her homeless nights, if not more]; it was my last hope," she said during the aforementioned 2007 interview. "Then, suddenly, the very next day, I had the good fortune of landing a job singing in the Claude Thornhill band. I will never forget it." She had met a manager who was in turn acquainted with Claude Thornhill's road manager (the latter identified as Joe Green in various sources), and who had told Connor about an opening in The Claude Thornhill Orchestra. A success, the audition set Connor on her road toward national and international recognition.
For a more detailed account of Chris Connor's music activities with Thornhill (and with other various ensembles), see lenghty note at the bottom of this discography's Big Band page.