Ray Conniff – The Great Pop Tunesmith

Conniff’s musical career at a glance

Ray Conniff (1916-2002) was an American composer, arranger and bandleader known for his easy listening treatments of old, as well as contemporary, music during his time. During the war, Conniff had a job with the US Army as an arranger for the Armed Forces Radio. After the war he was hired by Columbia’s A&R man Mitch Miller as the label’s resident arranger. While there he worked with several contract artists such as Johnny Mathis and Rosemary Clooney. Singer Don Cherry’s “Band of Gold” became a hit in 1955, thanks to Conniff’s arrangements. He also did arrangements for hit singles by Johnny Mathis, Frankie Laine and Marty Robbins. Columbia was so satisfied with his work that it allowed Conniff to work and record an instrumental album that was to become ‘S Wonderful in 1956. The album became a success. During his peak years (1957-1968), Conniff produced his biggest hit with “Somewhere, My Love” in 1966, his only Top 10 single. By the 1970s, although his chart performance began to slip, he continued to record and produced albums. He had released over 70 albums, netting over 50 millions of sales.

From an esteemed arranger to a prominent recording artist

The famed easy listening/pop tunesmith Ray Conniff was born Joseph Raymond Conniff on Novermber 6, 1916 in Atteboro, Massachusetts. Coming from a musically-inclined family, he learned to play the trombone from his father. During his high school days, he led his own band and played the trombone. He also studied music arranging on his own.

In his early career, he moved to the neighboring city of Boston and worked for Dan Murphy’s Musical Skippers as a player and arranger. During the 1930s, he felt he was experienced enough and went to New York, where he finally landed a job as a player/arranger with Bunny Berrigan, a renowned jazz trumpeter who rose to fame during the peak years of the swing era.

During the Second World War, Conniff joined the US Army where he worked for the Armed Forces Radio as an arranger. After the war, Conniff was hired by Columbia’s A&R man Mitch Miller as the label’s resident arranger. He worked with several contract artists such as Johnny Mathis, Marty Robbins, Frankie Laine, Guy Mitchell, Johnny Ray and Rosemary Clooney. In 1955, Conniff was responsible for arranging “Band of Gold,” a Top 10 hit single performed by Don Cherry (the singer, not the jazz trumpeter of the same name).

During his stint with Columbia, Conniff and his orchestra (later added with a male chorus) were also behind hits of other artists such as Johnny Mathis’ “Chances Are” and “It’s Not For Me To Say;” Johnnie Ray’s “Yes Tonight Josephine” and “Just Walkin’ In The Rain;” “Up Above My Head” by Ray and Frankie Laine, and so many others. Because of the success of these singles, Columbia wholeheartedly let its house arranger Conniff record his own album.

Conniff recorded and released his first original LP ‘S Wonderful (1956), which was also produced by Mitchell. The album consisted of Conniff’s updated instrumentals (with wordless chorus) of yesteryear’s tunes and standards of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Kurt Weill, Johnny Mercer and many other composers. ‘S Wonderful was a success, falling just a notch short of making it to the Billboard 200’s Top 10 albums.

During his peak years (1957-1968), Conniff’s albums were consistently formidable hit makers on the Billboard 200’s Top 40: Concert In Rhythm (#9 on the Billboard 200), Hollywood In Rhythm (#29), ‘S Marvelous (#10), Say It With Music (A Touch Of Latin) (#4), It’s The Talk Of The Town (#8), Conniff Meets Butterfield (#8), Concert In Rhythm – Volume II (#13), ‘S Awful Nice (#9), Young At Heart (#6), Memories Are Made Of This (#4), Broadway In Rhythm (#10), So Much In Love (#5), Rhapsody In Rhythm (#28), The Happy Beat (#20), Invisible Tears (#23), Music From Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, & Other Great Movie Themes (#34), the Christmas album Here We Come-A-Caroling (#15), This Is My Song (#30), It Must Be Him (#25), Hawaiian Album (1968) and his most commercially successful, 1966’s Somewhere My Love (#3), which produced Conniff’s only Top 10 hit single, “Somewhere My Love” (#9 pop, #1 easy listening). Undoubtedly during his time, Conniff was the master of the easy listening domain.

In 1959, Ray Conniff formed the Ray Conniff Singers comprised of 12 women and 13 men. The vocal group was responsible of Conniff’s biggest hits, including “Somewhere My Love.”

Later life and career

However, the rise of rock and roll during the 1960s caused Conniff’s chart performance to slide down. Later on he also tackled the more contemporary hits during his time, such as the Bacharach-David smashes, and hits from the Carpenters, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Fifth Dimension.

Although his commercial impact declined in his the later years of his career, Conniff continued to put out records and perform into the 1990s. In October 2002, Conniff suffered a fatal fall where he hit his head in a bathtub. He was 85 years old.

During his lifetime and career, Conniff had released over 70 albums, and sold over 50 million records worldwide.