Chris Connor has won every conceivable critical and popular accolade in her half century reign as one of the most gifted and distinctive vocalists in jazz history. Born in 1927 in Kansas City, Missouri, Connor studied clarinet, but her career direction was clear at an early age. “I always knew I wanted to be a singer,” she said, “I never wanted to be anything else.” After completing her schooling, she took a secretarial job while commuting on weekends to the University of Missouri to perform with a Stan Kenton-influenced college jazz band. An admirer of Kenton singers Anita O’Day and June Christy, Connor recalls, “I had my sights set on singing with Kenton.”
Frustrated by the lack of vocal musical opportunities in her hometown, Connor pulled up stakes and headed east in 1949. She was hired by Claude Thornhill and spent the next five years touring with his orchestra. Then, while appearing with Jerry Wald’s band, she received the phone call she had been dreaming of. June Christy, Stan Kenton’s current vocalist, had heard Connor on a radio broadcast and recommended her to the orchestra leader, who chose her from dozens of other vocalists eager for the job. “My voice seemed to fit the band,” Connor said, “with that low register like Anita’s and June’s.
Connor’s ten-month stint with Kenton during 1952-53 won her national recognition. Her haunting recording of Joe Greene’s ballad “All About Ronnie” announced the arrival of a fresh new artist. But the years of one-night stands, fast food and interminable bus rides soured Connor’s enthusiasm for life on the road. “By that time, I’d endured about six years of one-nighters and I’d just about had it.” To this day she values the musical training she received with Kenton, especially the skills relating to time, phrasing and “how to come in on exactly the right note while 18 or 20 musicians are playing their parts.”
Determined to forge a career as a solo artist, Connor returned to New York and signed with Bethlehem Records in 1953. Her three albums for that independent label, featuring Ellis Larkins, Herbie Mann, Kai Winding and J.J.Johnson, established her as a major jazz voice. In 1956, she began a six-year association with Atlantic Records that produced a string of chart-topping recordings arranged by Ralph Burns, Al Cohn, Jimmy Jones and Ralph Sharon, showcasing a host of jazz legends - John Lewis, Oscar Pettiford, Lucky Thompson, Phil Woods, Kenny Burrell, Milt Hinton, Clark Terry, Oliver Nelson and, in a particularly memorable pairing, Maynard Ferguson’s big band.