Born on November 6, 1916, in Attleboro, MA; died on October 12, 2002, in Escondido, CA; son of John Lawrence and Maude (Angela) Conniff; married Emily Jo Ann Imhof, February 14, 1938; marriage ended; married Ann Marie Engberg, August 23, 1947; marriage ended; married Vera Schmidheiny, August 2, 1968; children: (with Imhof) James Lawrence, Jo Ann Patricia; (with Engberg) a foster son, Richard J. Bibo; (with Schmidheiny) Tamara Allegra. Education: Attended the Juilliard School of Music; studied with Tom Timothy, Sol Crosby, Hugo Friedhofer. Addresses: Business--P.O. Box 46395, Los Angeles, CA 90046-0395. Record company--Abril Music, website:

Conductor and composer Ray Conniff is sometimes hailed disparagingly as the godfather of Muzak. Yet as an arranger at Columbia Records during the 1950s, he charted repeatedly with the instrumental and vocal arrangements that he prepared for other artists. With a natural appreciation for varied musical styles he assembled an orchestra of his own and capitalized on his talent for melody and harmony, recording more than 100 albums beginning in 1954 and into the 2000s. Among these recordings are a series of albums with his Grammy-winning choral group, the Ray Conniff Singers. Conniff is credited as the first arranger to use voices to double as instruments on his recordings, and in the mid-1960s was the first to stage a live concert using three-channel stereo feeds. Between 1962 and 1992 Conniff released 13 gold-certified records, including three that earned platinum certification.

Conniff was born on November 6, 1916, in Attleboro, Massachusetts, the son of John Lawrence, a trombonist, and Maude (Angela) Conniff, a pianist. Conniff's father led the Jewelry City Band in Attleboro and taught his son to play the trombone. By his junior year of high school, Ray Conniff and a group of schoolmates had formed a dance orchestra. After arranging musical numbers for the ensemble, he took his first job out of high school as a musician, arranger, and gofer for the Musical Skippers, a Boston-based group led by Dan Murphy. The job offered only low-profile exposure, but success tapped Conniff squarely on the shoulder after he relocated to New York City in the mid-1930s. There he studied at the Juilliard School of Music and under the guidance of Tom Timothy, Sol Kaplan, and Hugo Friedhofer.

After sitting in on impromptu gigs in the New York clubs, Conniff spent 15 months performing and arranging with Bunny Berigan beginning in 1937--his first paid work as a professional musician. Conniff next worked with Bob Crosby's band from 1939-40 and quickly developed a solid reputation among the big band leaders. By 1940 Conniff found himself working for Artie Shaw and soon afterward for Glen Gray. Even as an Army recruit during World War II, Conniff's talent was recognized, and he remained stateside, stationed at the Armed Forces Radio Services in Hollywood, California. While in the military Conniff worked with the Harry James Orchestra; he hooked up with James again later as a civilian in 1946.

With the advent of bebop in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Conniff withdrew into a self-imposed exile from the popular music scene and all but disappeared as a musical presence. Although he never abandoned his musical career, he spent time in introspection, dissecting pop music and putting together his own theories of rhythm and rhyme. He received a jump-start into the recording industry in 1954 by taking a job with Columbia Records through the backing of the popular producer and bandleader Mitch Miller. It was this involvement at Columbia Records that initially set into motion Conniff's commercial career, which spanned the second half of the twentieth century and showed no sign of stopping into the early 2000s.

As an arranger for Columbia, Conniff produced his first top-five chart hit within a year of joining that label. The record, "Band of Gold," featured vocalist Don Cherry and served as a prelude to more Conniff hits, including his arrangements for Guy Mitchell ("Singing the Blues") and Johnny Mathis ("Chances Are"), both of which charted at number one. Conniff is credited with arranging other of Mathis' hits as well, including "Wonderful, Wonderful," and "It's Not for Me to Say." Additionally, Conniff put singer Johnny Ray into a top-five hit with "Just Walking in the Rain," and Frankie Laine and Marty Robbins charted near the top with Conniff's arrangements of "Midnight Gambler" and "A White Sport Coat," respectively.

Conniff's ingenuity as an arranger extended to his knack for using female voices to cover clarinets, high saxophones, and trumpets, and likewise employing male voices to double as trombones and lower saxophones. While at Columbia, Conniff recorded a personal debut album in 1957, 's Wonderful, conducting an instrumental group billed as Ray Conniff and His Orchestra. The album enjoyed a nine-month sojourn among the top 20 albums on the pop chart, and at its peak the album broke into the top ten. 's Wonderful was certified gold in July of 1962 along with a subsequent release, Concert in Rhythm, which appeared in 1958. A succession of theme albums carried Conniff for half a decade, beginning with Say It with Music in 1960. His 1962 holiday fare, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, appeared on the chart for six Christmas seasons and went platinum in 1989.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Conniff adapted to the changing times and successfully accommodated the rising popularity of rock music without sacrificing his style. Instead he found fresh material in arranging selections from the softer rock material that became available. He brought his chorus to increasing prominence with his trademark sound, crediting the Ray Conniff Singers on several albums. In 1966 they recorded a piece called "Lara's Theme" for the Dr. Zhivago soundtrack; the track became a hit single, peaking at number nine on the popular music charts and spawning a platinum-selling album, Somewhere My Love. The popular "Lara's Theme" earned the Ray Conniff Singers a Grammy Award in 1966 for Best Performance by a Chorus. The group received a second Grammy nomination in 1968 for "Honey," and a third in 1969 for Conniff's version of the Rod McKuen song "Jean," which served as the title track for one of his albums that year.

During the late 1960s, inspired by advancements in audio technology, Conniff toured the United States and Europe, presenting a series of live concerts in three-channel stereo sound, an unprecedented accomplishment at that time. Selected concerts were televised; a live recording was released in 1970. As the 1970s unfolded, Conniff toured the world, including South America, Japan, and England, and went on to become the first Western artist to make a recording in Soviet Moscow. By the end of the decade Conniff's music had migrated into a Latin sound, a decision that insured his ongoing popularity into the 1980s. By 1989, according to the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Conniff had placed 37 albums in Billboard's Top 100 chart. His enchantment with Latin music continued for a decade longer, and he signed with Abril Music of Brazil in 1997, touring annually through Brazil, and releasing his one-hundredth album, I Love Movies, that same year. Conniff released albums consistently in the late 1990s--averaging at least one every year--and even into the 2000s.

Conniff married his third wife, Vera Schmidheiny, on August 2, 1968, and they had a daughter, Tamara Allegra. He has two children, James Lawrence and Jo Ann Patricia, from his first marriage to Emily Jo Ann Imhof in the 1930s. Additionally, Conniff has one foster son, Richard J. Bibo, from his marriage to Ann Marie Engberg in the 1940s.

Conniff died on October 12, 2002, in Escondido, California, after falling down and hitting his head. He was 85.

by Gloria Cooksey

Ray Conniff's Career

Trombone player with Bunny Berigan, 1937-39; with Bob Crosby, 1939-40; with Artie Shaw, 1940-41; arranger, Armed Forces Radio during World War II; with Harry James Orchestra, 1946; recorded with Bobby Hackett, 1943; recorded with Art Hodes, 1944; arranger, composer, conductor for Columbia Records, 1954; formed the Ray Conniff Singers, 1957; world tours; began recording with Abril Music, 1997.

Ray Conniff's Awards

Cash Box magazine's up-and-coming Bandleader of the Year, 1957-59; Grammy Award (with Ray Conniff Singers), Best Performance by a Chorus, 1966.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 16 years ago

[correction] Neither of the "Concert In Rhythm" recordings are "live".