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Ray Conniff, 85; Popularized Choral Sound

October 15, 2002|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Ray Conniff, the bandleader, composer and arranger whose orchestra and chorus produced a string of Top 40 popular music albums such as " 'S Wonderful" and the Grammy-winning "Somewhere My Love," has died. He was 85.

Conniff, who had a stroke in March, died Saturday at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido.

In a career of nearly 70 years that began as a swing-era trombonist in the 1930s and included stints as a player and arranger with the Bunny Berigan, Bob Crosby and Artie Shaw bands, Conniff recorded more than 100 albums that have sold more than 70 million copies.

He scored 28 Top 40 albums from 1957 to 1968, including "Say It With Music (A Touch of Latin)," "Memories Are Made of This" and the 1966 million-seller "Somewhere My Love."

The title tune of the "Somewhere My Love" album -- "Lara's Theme" by Maurice Jarre from the film "Dr. Zhivago," with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster -- also made the top 10 singles charts and earned Conniff a Grammy for best performance by a chorus.

In his last public appearance in March, Conniff conducted a choir singing "Somewhere My Love" at the wedding of Liza Minnelli and David Gest.

Conniff had more than 10 gold albums and two platinum albums (for "Somewhere My Love" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"); he also won CBS Records' award for Best Selling Artist for 1962 and numerous international awards.

Joining Columbia Records in 1954 as an arranger, Conniff arranged a string of hits produced by legendary artists and repertoire director Mitch Miller, including Don Cherry's "Band of Gold," Johnnie Ray's "Just Walking in the Rain," Guy Mitchell's "Singing the Blues," Frankie Laine's "Moonlight Gambler," Marty Robbins' "A White Sport Coat" and Johnny Mathis' "Chances Are," "Wonderful, Wonderful" and "It's Not for Me To Say."

It was during this period that Conniff launched the "new sound" that became his signature, using male and female singers' voices as though they were instruments.

"Very few arrangers had trademarks, but if you heard a Conniff arrangement, you knew it was Ray," Miller said Monday.

Miller said Conniff had done an arrangement for Harry James' hit version of George and Ira Gershwin's " 'S Wonderful."

"I said, 'Take that same arrangement and add women's voices to the brass as other instruments to give another color and men's voices to the woodwinds,' " said Miller. "We tried it out on a single record, and it got lots of play."

The ensuing album " 'S Wonderful" spent nine months in the Top 20, ultimately sold about 15 million copies and was followed by " 'S Marvelous" and " 'S Awful Nice."

"The integration of the orchestral and the choral was something that hadn't been explored much in popular music, and for the time, I think he was considered by many a pop music master," said Timothy Edwards, head of operations at UCLA's musical special collections.

Indeed, Cash Box magazine named Conniff "the most promising up-and-coming band leader" in both 1957 and 1958. And in 1959, disc jockeys voted the Ray Conniff Orchestra and Singers "the most played orchestra on the air."

In 1960, on "It's the Talk of the Town," Conniff began altering his formula by having his chorus sing words.

Actor Buddy Ebsen, a close friend of Conniff, remembers him as a gentle man. "I have been a fan of Ray Conniff and his talent since long before I met him," Ebsen said Monday. "I worship the quality of all his music and his integrity as a person."

Born in 1916, in Attleboro, Mass., Conniff grew up in a musical family. His mother played piano and his trombone-playing father led a local band. In high school, Conniff started a dance orchestra. After graduating, he landed his first professional job, playing with a band in Boston called Dan Murphy's Musical Skippers.

He joined Berigan's band in 1937 as a trombonist and arranger, and was hired away by Crosby in 1939.

After playing with Bob Crosby's Bobcats for a year, Conniff spent four years with Artie Shaw and was featured on several Shaw hits.

After a stint with the Glen Gray band, Conniff spent two years in the Army, arranging for the Armed Forces Radio Services in Hollywood. After the war, he joined the Harry James band as an arranger and freelanced as an arranger before joining Columbia Records.

After his Grammy win for "Somewhere My Love," Conniff earned two other Grammy nominations -- in 1968 for "Honey" and in 1969 for Conniff's version of the Rod McKuen song "Jean."

In the late '60s, wanting to create the same sound listeners heard on recordings, Conniff toured the United States and Europe doing the world's first live concerts in three-channel stereo. In 1974, he became the first American popular musician to record in Russia, where he used a local chorus to make "Ray Conniff In Moscow."

His daughter, Tamara, went on to become music editor of the Hollywood Reporter.

Until his stroke, he continued recording about one album a year and toured annually in Brazil with his full orchestra and chorus.

He is survived by his wife, Vera; his daughter; a son, Jimmy; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

A private funeral service for family and friends will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park and Mortuary, 1218 Glendon Ave., Los Angeles.

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