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Celebrating the centenary of two bandleaders, smooth and sharp

Ray Conniff

Ray Conniff

This week sees the 100th birthdays of two notable bandleaders: Ray Conniff (1916-2002) and Billy May (1916-2004), born Nov. 6 and 10, respectively. The Attleboro-born Conniff, a big-band trombonist (first in the Army, then with Artie Shaw), eventually became an arranger at Columbia Records. Throughout the 1950s, Conniff, rejecting the complexity of postwar jazz, honed his own easy-listening approach: simple harmonies, bright rhythms, and, crucially, a choir, leavening the sound with vocal cheer. Records featuring the Ray Conniff Singers proliferated — sometimes two or even three a year.

The albums were eerily similar: pre-established, recognizable hits, filtered through Conniff’s chipper style. Conniff occasionally winked at himself (as with a 1973 Conniff-izing of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra”). But the sprawling variety of music Conniff’s formula could accommodate — not just Strauss, but also Russian favorites (on 1974’s “Ray Conniff in Moscow”), hits from South America (where Conniff enjoyed late-career popularity), everything from Tin Pan Alley standards to “Blowin’ in the Wind” to “Phantom of the Opera” — was both impressive and disorienting. Conniff, throughout a lifelong career, never wavered.

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May, too, started in big bands, talking his way into playing trumpet and arranging for Charlie Barnet’s band, then joining up with Glenn Miller. By the 1950s, May was house arranger for Capitol Records, his orchestra backing the likes of Nancy Wilson, Vic Damone, and, especially, Frank Sinatra; May became, alongside Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and Don Costa, one of Sinatra’s favorite arrangers. (Where Riddle’s arrangements, for instance, often mirrored Sinatra’s brash, robust attitude, May opted for a crisp, transparent swing that put the singer’s swagger in relief.)

But May’s sardonic side cemented a longstanding collaboration with humorist Stan Freberg, who first gained notoriety with a series of parodistic covers: a “Heartbreak Hotel” that finds Elvis consumed by a vortex of reverberation; a version of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” in which the bongo player, disparaging the singer’s “piercing” tone, banishes him down the hall; an anarchic sendup of polka impresario Lawrence Welk’s show, the Astoria Ballroom eventually drifting out to sea on a wave of bubbles.

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The mockery seems mild, but the targets were not amused. May’s precision amplified the satiric thrust: stylistically exact, impeccably played, the arrangements, by dint of sheer assurance (May and his players quite possibly did Lawrence Welk better than Welk himself), whetted Freberg’s absurdities. Conniff regarded the churn of popular music as roughness to be smoothed; May, both in earnest and in jest, sharpened his craft on the wheel.

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.
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