About This Album
Ray had been arranging and conducting for several singers at Columbia starting with Eileen Rodgers in June 1955. In interviews, Ray stated that Mitch was ecstatic with the sound of the wordless male chorus Ray used on Don Cherry's "Band Of Gold" (rec. Oct 17, 1955) and immediately offered Ray an opportunity to record solo with his orchestra and chorus. However, the files at Columbia show that Ray recorded his arrangement of "Begin the Beguine" on October 7, 1955 (during an Eileen Rodgers session), a full 10 days before the Don Cherry session.
"Stardust" was recorded on on November 10, 1955 during a session with singer Cathy Johnson. Ray was not yet under contract with Columbia and was paid for arranging and conducting only (no royalties), as he was for all of the backings for Columbia. "Begin the Beguine" and "Stardust" were released as a single (Columbia 4-40660) on March 12, 1956 and received a lot of airplay (what Ray termed a "turntable hit.") That single led to a recording contract and 40 years on the Columbia/CBS/Sony label.
Ray talked about the album in an interview with Serge Elhaïk:
I did those two tunes first. We didn't get a hit single, but "Begin the Beguine" got phenomenal airplay all day, all night. It had a very unusual arrangement for that time. I used 6 guitars in the introduction, with the girl voices coming in with the trumpet and then the men came in with the trombones and saxophones. This pattern kept during the whole arrangement of "Begin the Beguine."
So the disc-jockeys played my first orchestra and chorus single again and agin. The strange thing was that the selling was not as important as the airplay was. Somebody at Columbia Marketing department, Hal Cook, thought that Conniff was not a "single-artist" like Presley and so on, but that I was an "album artist." He thought we should get ten more tunes and put them along "Begin the Beguine" and "Stardust" on an album.
"Dancing In The Dark" and "That Old Black Magic" were recorded on March 26, 1956; "Sentimental Journey," "'S Wonderful," "I'm An Old Cow Hand," and "Wagon Wheels" on June 15, 1956; "Sometimes I'm Happy," "September Song," "I Get A Kick Out Of You," and "Speak Low" on June 18, 1956. The album was produced by Mitch Miller and released on October 8, 1956 (Columbia CL 925). Reference books state that the album sold more than 500,000 copies but the album has not been certified Gold by RIAA.
Concerning the echo:
The two first tracks we recorded with the orchestra and chorus, "Begin the Beguine" and "Stardust," had a lot of echo. As I said, these two tunes were made in November 1955 at the 30th Street Studio, the old church, in New York. And we used to work in a room downstairs with some mikes on one side and the speaker on the other, and we used that for echo. When some months later in February or March 1956 Mitch asked me to do ten more tunes in order to have an album of 12 tracks, I insisted that we get the same engineer, Fred Plaut, who recorded "Begin the Beguine" and "Stardust" because it had a good sound on that single.
So we got Fred and Ernest Chapman and we taped the ten new songs, and then we went to mix them. Here I asked Fred, "what happened?" We had a great echo on the first two tunes and now there was no echo at all on the ten other tracks. So, Fred saw I was unhappy and he said to me, "Why? Would you like to add echo to the tape?" and I said "Yes, could we do that?"
So we went to Columbia Building at 799th Seventh Avenue 52nd Street corner New York and we sent the original sound recorded in the 30th Street studio through a speaker on the bottom of the stairwell area. We put a microphone on the 6th floor of that Columbia building. Then we taped that and we added that echo-sound recording to the original tape. So it was a stairwell echo! So we re-echoed the whole 's Wonderful album with the exception of "Begin the Beguine" and "Stardust" which were yet ok. And we had a better quality. That sound... great!
Occasionally, Ray would be accused of copying the big band recordings:
I remember that when I did the arrangement of "'s Wonderful" for Artie Shaw in 1945, I promised myself if I ever had a recording contract of my own I would rewrite that arrangement for my orchestra.
By the way, some years ago in Los Angeles I heard "'s Wonderful" by Artie Shaw on the radio, and the disc jockey said that Ray Conniff had copied Artie Shaw! He didn't know that I did that Artie Shaw arrangement!
's Wonderful! charted on Billboard on 3/23/57, reached #11 and charted for 7 weeks (Joel Whitburn's Record Research).
As is almost invariably true, the best way to find out about music is to listen to it, and that is especially so of this dazzling new collection by Ray Conniff and his Orchestra. Striking out along new paths in popular sounds, its distinction, apart from the superior songs it includes, arises from explorations in colorings, textures and improvisation, all impossible to capture in words.
What the talented Mr. Conniff has done with these beloved and familiar melodies is to build forward from them on an orchestral and choral basis, with a free use of percussion as a coloring force as well as a rhythmic one. Moreover, he has taken his chorus and used the singers as instruments in the arrangements; frequently the voices are along with the other instruments, at other times they are off on contrasting lines of their own. The result is a sort of musical dialogue between various voices and choirs of the orchestra as well as the vocal chorus. Improvisation is also present in the instrumental sections, allowing for an even freer interplay of sonic textures. If this sounds technical to some degree, remember that the basic conception of Mr. Conniff's work is the interesting presentation of interesting music: the fine melodies are still there, and just as songful as ever. What he aimed at is an increase in the already substantial interest of the music.
A former student at the Juilliard School of music, Ray Conniff prefaced his studies with ten years of arranging and composing, in addition to a solid career with the trombone. He was born in Attleboro, Mass., where he received most of his early training from his father. After finishing his early schooling he moved to Boston, and began working with various local orchestras, mostly in the "society" category, learning his trade as arranger with these and other, more swinging outfits. In 1936 he shifted to New York and joined the great Bunny Berigan outfit; later he joined Bob Crosby and Artie Shaw, for whom he arranged the Prelude in C-Sharp Minor and 'S Wonderful! among other memorable works. After an interlude in the Army, he continued his studies, and went to work arranging for Harry James. Later still he joined Columbia, arranging and conducting for star vocalists, and makes his album debut with this collection.
Along with the tingling Conniff arrangements may be heard some of the finest musicians in New York, among them Billy Butterfield, Urbie Green, Hymie Schertzer, Osie Johnson, Tony Mottola and others. The result is a collection of unusual musical interest, not only for the songs chosen, but for the far-ranging settings and the uncommon musicianship of the participants. From the introductory title song by George and Ira Gershwin, right through to the Johnny Mercer - Harold Arlen Black Magic, a program of wonderful listening lies ahead.
This is easily one of Ray's best albums. Ray rewrote several of his big band arrangements (most notably his arrangements of "'s Wonderful" for Artie Shaw and "September Song" for Harry James) and applied a formula that he would continue to use on his instrumental albums for more than 40 years.
The sound is a bit more primitive than on later albums, perhaps due to the fact that it was recorded in mono. By the time Ray released his first stereo Lp, 's Awful Nice in 1958, the sound was much more polished.
Ray re-recorded the title song in 1969 which was included on his Greatest Hits album. I feel this was a mistake; fans are expecting the original hit on a greatest hits compilation. Although it was in stereo, the new recording lacks the punch of the original. Unfortunately, the liner notes lead the listener to believe that it is the original and that make them wonder if the recording wasn't as good as they remembered