"NO ONE in my family was musical except me," Chris Connor said from her home in Plainview, N.Y. "I was the all-in-one. I used to hibernate and listen to records constantly. And I used to go down to 12th and Troost in Kansas City, Mo. where the Basie band played. I heard all the jazz bands going through."
Connor, who will launch the twice-monthly Great American Songwriters Series at the Corcoran on Sunday, played first chair clarinet in the high school band, one of her specialties being Artie Shaw's "Concerto for Clarinet." But she'd "always wanted to sing -- it just sort of came naturally. Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday. The top singers, too, like Dinah Shore and Doris Day -- I listened to them all."
As a 17-year-old Connor was singing weekends with a college band that had patterned itself after the Stan Kenton Orchestra. "I set my sights on the Kenton band," she confessed, although it would be another five or six years before she joined that legendary organization. In the meantime, she worked with a Kansas City jazz combo under the leadership of valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and then, having moved to New York in 1949, went on the road with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, first as a member of the band vocal group, the Snowflakes, and soon as featured vocalist. "I'd do three or four numbers, sit down and watch the crystal ball go around, then in the second part go on again."
The work that went into getting from one job to the next was not Connor's favorite part of the life style. "With Claude, the whole five years was practically one-nighters. You'd get to the job, if you were lucky, about 6 in the evening and have maybe an hour and a half to grab a hamburger at the White Tower and check in the hotel. And I'd have to get my gown ready, put it in the shower and let all the wrinkles hang out. Then we'd go immediately to the job. And we'd be there for two or three hours and then get back on the bus and travel all night, maybe 300 miles. You try that for like 12 hours at a time -- it's very rough. It did me in. And I was in my early twenties then, you know," she laughed. "I would never do it again -- I'll tell you that."
Of course when she joined the Kenton band, having been called to its leader's attention by former Kenton vocalist June Christy, it began all over again. "I just stayed with him nine months and I was physically exhausted."
Kenton comes down in the history of the music as a controversial character with messianic devotion to a musical philosophy, a man of enormous energy who drove himself and his band mercilessly, and a reactionary whose political heroes were George Wallace and former vice president Spiro Agnew. Connor, however, has only fond memories of him. "To me he was nothing but helpful and encouraging," she insisted. "He was a great inspiration to work with. As June Christy said once, 'If Stan had wanted to be president, he could have been.' "
Since her stint with Kenton, Connor has worked with her own small groups. Occasionally she will perform with a larger unit, as she recently did on a tour of Japan, where she was backed by 60 pieces for a TV show. "It was unreal," she gasped. "It just about blew my mind to get up there and sing with a symphony orchestra."
One big change in Connor's life occurred three years ago when she conquered a drinking problem that had crept up on her. "It just gradually, progressively got worse and you can't pinpoint when it crossed that invisible line. I didn't know how sick I was. And I haven't had a drink since. I've never been happier to tell you the truth. It's a completely different life. In other words, my life is divided into two parts. I can remember all the bad things and all the experiences and all that. But it's like it happened to a completely different person -- it really wasn't me. It's marvelous. If you want to say 'reborn,' I guess that's the word for it."