Influential jazz vocalist Chris Connor died on Aug. 28, 2009 in her adopted hometown of Tom’s Rivers, N.J. She was 81 years old. The cause of death was cancer.
Born Mary Loutsenhizer in Kansas City on Nov. 8, 1927, Connor rose to stardom in the late 1940s and early ’50s, first with the Claude Thornhill Band, as a member of Thornhill’s four-member singing group The Snowflakes, then with bandleader Jerry Wald. While with Wald, she was heard on the radio by Stan Kenton’s departing vocalist June Christy, who recommended Connor as her replacement. To this day, the stylistic similarity among Kenton’s three successive vocalists-Anita O’Day, Christy and Connor-remains widely noted.
During her Kenton years, she scored a handful of hits, most notably “All About Ronnie.” (In a 1995 interview, she cited “All About Ronnie” and “Lush Life” as her two favorite songs to perform.) Connor launched her solo career in 1953, signing with Bethlehem. She moved to Atlantic Records in 1956, releasing 14 albums before departing the label in 1962. Among her greatest Atlantic successes were I Miss You So (1956), the title track of which was a surprise chart hit; Chris Craft (1958); and Free Spirits (1961). Indeed, 1961 would prove Connor’s busiest recording year, also marking the release of back-to-back albums with Maynard Ferguson, Double Exposure on Atlantic and Two’s Company for Ferguson’s label, Roulette. She moved briefly to FM Records for the live 1963 album Chris Connor at the Village Gate, but the label folded before a second album, A Weekend in Paris, could be released. Two albums for ABC followed, including the pop-oriented Now!.
She was known for her husky voice that rarely used vibrato, thereby giving rise to an unfair reputation as an overly cool or emotionless singer. Throughout the late ’60s and ’70s, Connor was under the radar, recording sporadically and battling alcoholism. However, by the early ’80s Connor had reestablished herself as an internationally recognized artist, with much influence on a younger generation of baby-boomer singers. Throughout her career she performed and recorded with renowned pianists Hank Jones, Fred Hersch, Ellis Larkins and Ralph Sharon, all famous for their talents in accompanying notable singers.
The late Joel Siegel, writing in the Jan/Feb 2000 issue of JazzTimes, said about Connor: “Chris Connor’s most distinctive qualities are her daredevil sense of time and her signature sound. She swings at all tempos, phrasing so far ahead or behind the beat that you fear she’ll never reclaim it, but somehow she always does. The complex timbre of her voice is difficult to describe-misty yet strong, slightly strained but mellow. Her approach to lyrics is similarly ineffable. She never indulges in overt emoting, but imbues rueful ballads with a bruised, introspective quality. She shares with her ’50s movie counterpart Kim Novak a stolid but vulnerable sensibility, implying that she knows much more about pain than she’s willing to articulate.”