Arts and Leisure

Ray Conniff Puts the Muzak in Music

Somewhere My Love, a romantic ballad also known as Lara’s Theme, was an enormous hit in 1966 for Attleboro, Mass., native Ray Conniff. The single went platinum and won him a Grammy.

Ray Conniff, 1967

Ray Conniff, 1967

During the ‘60s the bandleader had a string of hits with his popular Ray Conniff Singers, 13 men and 12 women who sang wordless lyrics accompanied by a light orchestra. Conniff arranged a mix of popular standards and contemporary hits of the 1960s with enormous success. The Ray Conniff Singers recorded more than 100 albums and sold 70 million worldwide. Detractors called his easy listening productions Muzak.

Of all the easy listening maestros in the Cold War Landscape,” wrote Joseph Lanza in Elevator Music, “Ray Conniff comes closest to furnishing music that is ‘to the supermarket born’.”

Ray Conniff

Joseph Raymond Conniff was born Nov. 6, 1916. As a boy, he picked up the trombone from his father, who led the Jewelry City Band.  His mother played the piano. As a high school junior He started a dance orchestra for which he arranged his first song: Sweet Georgia Brown.

After he graduated from high school, he got a job in Boston with Dan Murphy’s “Musical Skippers,” playing trombone and driving the band’s panel truck.  A friend told him his talent was too big for a small city like Boston, so he moved to New York. Ray-Conniff-Somewhere-My-Love-528128

He got his first break arranging for Artie Shaw. When World War II broke out, he joined the U.S. Army and arranged for the Armed Forces Radio Services in Hollywood.

After the war, he worked for Harry James as an arranger for a while. But he moved to Hollywood for steadier work to support his wife, Vera, and two children, Tamara and Jimmy.

Conniff got his second big break when Mitch Miller hired him to arrange for Columbia Records. He arranged Johnnie Ray’s Just Walking in the Rain, Mary Robbins’ A White Sport Coat, and Johnny Mathis’ Chances Are. He arranged so many hits Columbia let him record an album under his own name in 1956.

That debut album, S’Wonderful, was in the Top 20 for nine months.

Ray Conniff in 1979

In 1959, he founded the Ray Conniff Singers, and they lasted until 2001. Over the years about 60 singers belonged to the group.

Top 40–Albums

For the next decade he had a string of hits, producing 25 Top 40 albums for Columbia Records. The advent of rock ‘n roll in the mid-1960s hurt his popularity, however. His one hit single, Lara’s Theme, reached number nine on the charts in 1966 partly because of its inclusion in the film Doctor Zhivago.

He adapted all kinds of music. On his 1970s album, You Are the Sunshine of My Life, he recorded Dueling Banjos opposite Johann Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. “His willingness to take on just about any material is impressive–or frightening, depending on your perspective,” observes the Space Age Pop website.

In his later years, Conniff toured Europe and South America, where he was treated like a rock star. He played Somewhere My Love at the wedding of Liza Minnelli and David Gest, one of his last appearances.

Ray Conniff died Oct. 12,  2002. His gravestone bears a musical score with the first four notes of Somewhere My Love.

His music lives on, however, especially over the winter holidays. Two recordings by Ray Conniff and The Singers appeared on Billboard’s annual Hot 100 list of top holiday songs. Ring Christmas Bells made the list four times beginning in 2015, and the Twelve Days of Christmas reached the chart in 2018 and 2019.


Images: Conniff in 1979 CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1710468. Album cover By artist of cover art unknown – https://www.discogs.com/Ray-Conniff-And-The-Singers-Somewhere-My-Love/release/2124115, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66234340. This story was updated in 2021.

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