November 8, 1927– Chris Conner:
“The lyrics always come first, whatever I’m singing about. Maybe the feelings you’re hearing are coming from my subconscious. I’m not purposefully doing anything.”
Obituaries were the first public acknowledgement that renowned Jazz singer Chris Connor had been a lesbian, but I already knew.
Conner had a lush, foggy voice and a compressed emotional intensity. A singer who used little vibrato and was admired for her inventive rhythmic alterations of ballads, Connor belonged to the cool school of jazz singers that included Anita O’Day, June Christy, Chet Baker and Julie London.
In the mid-1970s, my boyfriend, who knew my musical tastes, told me about Connor and I immediately went to Tower Records and bought A Jazz Date With Chris Connor (1958). As soon as I heard the first few notes of her Moonlight In Vermont, I fell in love.
When I discovered she was queer, I heard her songs differently. They brought a feeling of context and a grounded visceral sense of a woman singing a love song to another woman, and that kind of changed my emotional reaction to her music.
I wish that Connor had worked in an era when she was didn’t have to keep her gayness hidden, yet it doesn’t really matter; she had the most important thing, a longtime partner who helped her throughout her long career and doubled as her manager. And beyond that, she had her voice and her art, and a full creative life of making the music she loved.
On A Jazz Date With Chris Conner, her voice is rich and intimate, the lyrics bittersweet and haunting and imbued with a feeling of genuine inwardness, making Connor’s delivery of them seem extraordinarily natural and confidential in tone. Her finest albums convey the sound of a singer rapt in a romantic spell. Both O’Day and Christy, whom she emulated, preceded her as vocalists with the Stan Kenton Band, which she joined in 1953.
During her solo recording career, Connor had only two charted hits: I Miss You So (1956) and Trust In Me (1957), both for Atlantic Records. But for most of her fans, her signature song is All About Ronnie (1954), a smoldering ballad of romantic obsession, and Pop-Jazz milestone of dreamy cool. The song was written by Joe Greene, who worked extensively for Kenton during the 1940s and 1950s, when the band was in constant need of original vocal material. Originally recorded with Kenton, she re-recorded it after she went solo.
Today, Connor’s 1950s and 1960s albums are regarded as Pop-Jazz classics. Three of the best were all recorded in 1956: Chris Connor, I Miss You So and the ironically titled He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not. Also give a listen to Chris Connor Sings The George Gershwin Almanac Of Song (1957) and A Portrait Of Chris (1960).
Connor worked with the best arrangers, including gay songwriter Ralph Burns. She brought her unique style to songs such as: Lush Life, Good Morning Heartache, Something To Live For, Lullaby Of Birdland, Witchcraft, Glad To Be Unhappy and Get Out Of Town.
Born Mary Loutsenhizer in Kansas City, Connor studied clarinet for eight years as a child before becoming a singer in her late teens. She decided to pursue a fulltime career after her public singing debut in 1945 at the Jefferson City Junior College graduation where she brought down the house.
Connor worked as a stenographer by day and sang on weekends in Kansas City, which had a vibrant jazz scene. Determined to hit the big time, she moved to New York City. She spent months trying to book any kind of singing job. She was kicked out of the hotel where she was staying for failure to pay her bill, and the hotel kept her belongings, including her winter coat. She met Greene, who was orchestra leader Claude Thornhill‘s road manager. Thornhill was seeking a new singer to round out his vocal group, The Snowflakes. Conner was a Snowflake on and off until late 1952.
Her dream of singing with Kenton was realized when June Christy heard her on a live broadcast in early 1953 and recommended her as her replacement. Within days, Connor auditioned and was touring with the popular band.
Life on the road took its toll, and she left a year later to go solo. She signed with Bethlehem Records, which simultaneously released two albums in 1954, Chris Connor Sings Lullaby Of Birdland and Chris Connor Sings Lullabys For Lovers. They were hugely successful.
Her repertoire often included standards by George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen, but her song selection could also be daring, including a version of Ornette Coleman‘s Lonely Woman.
In 1956, she became the first white female Jazz singer signed to Atlantic Records and recorded more than a dozen albums for the label. Still, in 1963, when it came time to renew her contract, she decided instead to sign with a small label, FM. The label declared bankruptcy the following year.
That unfortunate decision coincided with the Rock ‘n’ Roll insurgence, which swept aside singers like Connor, and her career never fully recovered. She endured what she later described as a bad period that lasted until the early 1970s, when she became a hit on the cabaret circuit. Singing in clubs, with easy access to booze, exacerbated her alcoholism. She stopped drinking in 1980, just in time for a series of warmly received albums and concert dates, selling out Carnegie Hall and performing at The Kennedy Center.
Unlike jazz singers Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney, Connor never expressed interest in a pop career. The change in popular music tastes, and that ill-timed decision to leave Atlantic, plus her struggle with alcohol affected her later recording career in the United States. But her music was embraced anew by audiences in Japan, where she also recorded and did concerts until the early 2000s.
I went to one of her shows at The Cafe Carlyle in 1977. My boyfriend and I couldn’t figure out who the truck driver looking lesbian was in baggy jeans, flannel shirt and baseball cap and what she was doing in this rather swank club where everyone else was dressed up. I ended up chatting with her at the bar; she turned out be Conner’s girlfriend and manager Lori Muscarelle. Turns out they had been together since 1962, when it was not common to be an out lesbian couple. Some say it hurt Conner’s career; they got together around the same time she left Atlantic Records and the hits stopped coming. Around that time, too, began her period of heavy drinking.
In 1957, she ranked Number 10 in the Favorite Female Vocalist disk jockey popularity poll, just behind Lena Horne and Christy. That same year, some dude named Elvis Presley ranked Number 10 in the male category.
Connor took her final bow in 2009, taken by cancer at 81 years old. Muscarelle was her only heir. Everything I Love (2003) is her final album.