Composer Ray Conniff Dies

Ray Conniff, the Grammy Award-winning composer and bandleader whose arrangements epitomized the big band sound while spawning such albums as "S'Wonderful" and "Somewhere My Love," died Saturday. He wa

Ray Conniff, the Grammy Award-winning composer and bandleader whose arrangements epitomized the big band sound while spawning such albums as "S'Wonderful" and "Somewhere My Love," died Saturday. He was 85. Conniff died at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, Calif., after falling down and hitting his head, according to San Diego medical examiner's investigator Angela Wagner. He had suffered a stroke in April.

Born in November 1916 in Attleboro, Mass., Conniff gained much of his musical experience from his father, a trombone player, who led a local band while his mother played the piano. Conniff led a local band while in high school and eventually moved to Boston and began playing with Dan Murphy's Musical Skippers. He relocated to New York during the swing era in the mid-'30s and landed a job playing and arranging for Bunny Berigan in 1937. By 1939, he headed to Hollywood to join Bob Crosby's Bobcats, one of the hottest bands of the time.

Conniff broke out as a solo artist after being hired as a house arranger with Columbia Records in 1951. He was responsible for Johnny Mathis "Chances Are," Frankie Laine's "Moonlight Gambler," Johnnie Ray's "Just Walking in the Rain," and Guy Mitchell's "Singing the Blues." He also did arrangements for Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, and Marty Robbins.

It was Conniff's arrangement of "Band of Gold" for singer Don Cherry that hit the first high note of both men's careers. In 1956, the song reached No. 4 on Billboard's Top 100 and was widely thought to be Cherry's hottest recording.

That same year, Columbia decided to try out Conniff as a featured performer with a big-band mix that included guitarists Al Caiola and Tony Mottola. His debut album, "S'Wonderful," in which he combined a chorus of four men and four women with a traditional big band mix of 18 instruments, stayed on Billboard's albums chart for 16 weeks, peaking at No. 11.

Conniff made more than 100 recordings and produced 25 top-40 albums for Columbia Records. He rendered such classics as "Besame Mucho" and "New York, New York," in a career that spanned six decades. His most memorable song may have been "Somewhere My Love." The song was adapted from French composer Maurice Jarre's "Lara's Theme" from the film "Dr. Zhivago." It rose to the top of the pop and easy-listening charts and won Conniff a Grammy in 1966.

The Ray Conniff Orchestra and Singers typified the lounge-singing style of the 1950s and 1960s with a mix of wordless vocal choruses and light orchestral accompaniment.

Conniff's instrumental arrangements provided easy listening for a booming adult album market. His popularity waned with the rise of rock'n'roll but stars such as the Carpenters, Simon and Garfunkel, the Fifth Dimension, and Burt Bacharach benefited from his arrangements with recordings of "Laughter in the Rain," "I Write the Songs," and "I'd Like To Teach the World To Sing."

Conniff received countless international awards, continued touring, and produced about an album a year. He performed at the White House during the Vietnam War and in 1974 was the first pop artist asked to record an album in Moscow. In 2001, he gave a series of concerts in Brazil. In March, he performed "Somewhere My Love" at the wedding of David Gest and Liza Minnelli.

Conniff is survived by his wife, Vera; a daughter, Tamara Conniff; son, Jimmy Conniff; and three grandchildren.

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