An Interview with Norman Conners
by Mark Ruffin.
Drummer Norman Connors is enjoying his biggest hit album in nearly 20 years, with the star-studded release “Eternity,” which features Norman Brown and Marion Meadows, both of whom were discovered by Connors. The man has built a career discovering musicians, but in the 70’s her was on a particularly incredible roll, bringing to the forefront, Michael Henderson, Phyliss Hyman, Eleanor Mills and others. He sat down with our Senior Writer Mark Ruffin, for a talk about his long illustrious career.
JazzUSA: I happen to think that “Love From the Sun” is one of the most underrated albums of the 70’s. My first question is when is “Love From The Sun” coming out on cd?
NC: (laughs) Of that series with “Dark of Light” and “Love From The Sun,” that was my favorite from that period. Though I was close to the first one, “Dance of Magic.” Those were some great days. But once I got to my “Starship” period, that was one of my favoirtes. And then “This Is Your Life.”
JazzUSA: What was cool before your “Starship” period as you called it, was, from the beginning with “Dance of Magic,” a star studded affair. You always had huge names on your records.
NC: Yeah, I had some great people, but I was like the baby with some of those guys like Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Buster Williams and all those people. I was like the youngblood.
JazzUSA: How’d you manage to get all those people on your very first album?
NC: When I was a teen-ager in Philadelphia, I used to go to the clubs and I became friends with Max Roach and Art Blakey and Rahsaan Roland Kirk and all those different people and McCoy Tyner who is from Philly. I used to go to his rehearsals before he became the big time McCoy Tyner, I used to go to rehearsals when I was like seven or eight or nine years old. They used to rehearse at a bass player’s house by the name of Spanky DeBrest, who eventually played with Art Blakey and a few other people. Spanky DeBrest had some very young brothers my age and I used to go around their and just watch them. Guys like Lee Morgan, McCoy, Lex Humphries on drums. Half the time I didn’t know what I was listening to. The music was way over my head, but I felt it. And then as I got older, it started coming to me. Luckily, I met all these great people who used to come to these two clubs. A club called Pep’s which used to be at Broad and South, and one block away, another club called the Showboat.
Miles Davis would be at the Showboat for one week. They’d come in on a Monday and stay through Saturday, and they had a Saturday matinee. I used to go to the matinees, which started at maybe four or five in the afternoon and go to about seven or eight, and then they come back at night. I used to watch Miles Davis at the Showboat, and down the street would be John Coltrane for a week at Pep’s. The best of everybody used to rotate through those two clubs every week. They got to know me because I was so young, and I was so into the music, and I got a chance to sit in at a young age with a lot of these guys. So, by the time I got to New York, when I was 18 or 19, I knew a lot of these guys, a lot of the heavyweights. They knew me as this young guy coming up.
JazzUSA: That was about the time you hooked up with Pharoah Sanders.
NC: I met Pharoah Sanders when Elvin Jones missed a gig at Pep’s, and I got a chance to play with John Coltrane. That’s when I met Pharoah. Everybody was telling Trane, get this young guy, he reminds us of Elvin. They called me and I got the gig and I was scared to death. We played “My Favorite Things,” and all kinds of things. I was scared to death, but I got through it.
JazzUSA: Did you go to Julliard?
JazzUSA: Is that why you went to New York?
NC: I actually went to New York to make it, to learn how to make it, and to go to Julliard. I called myself trying to follow in the footsteps of Miles and Lee Morgan and some of these other people. So, I went to Julliard for a couple of years, but at the same time I was like going down to the Village sitting in. I already knew Pharoah and Archie Shepp. Archie Shepp got to know me through Marion Brown and all those kind of guys. I was playing with Sun Ra, those guys at first.
JazzUSA: That’s something about your career that a lot of people don’t know about, but you actually began and started in the avant-garde space.
NC: Yep. Well, like in Philly, I was playing straight-ahead bebop, then I played with (pop singer)Billy Paul for a minute. You know, we played everything in Philly, and I was very highly influenced by Max Roach. But also influenced by Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey, Roy Haynes and Donald Bailey, who used to play with Jimmy Smith. Those are my biggest influences and Max Roach is my biggest influence. I used to play him note for note at one point. I was into this thing of trying to dress like him, and trying to walk like him. That’s how influenced I was. When I got to New York, I was much stronger and ahead of everything, much more than I thought. You know, when you think of New York, it’s like, ‘wow, I’ve got to get myself together.’ But I was a little more ahead than I thought I was. So, when I went to Julliard, I was very advanced, they felt. But I would study classical only, but then I would go down to the clubs, cause I was such a jazz musician. But, in school, I was just really studying classical. It all helped.
JazzUSA: Even the avant-garde.
NC: Yeah, playing with Marion Brown, Archie Shepp, Sun Ra?(laughs) I used to play with Sun Ra at a club called Slug’s, and we would play like one set and it would last about three hours. They had some great musicians in that group, and I was all around those avant-garde guys, because I was avant-garde, a part of that community, and they loved me and I loved them. But I loved a lot of other things too, which I didn’t talk about. But deep down inside, I was into Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Temptations and the Delfonics.
JazzUSA: You got to show a little of that on your fourth album in the 70’s, “Saturday Night Special,” it was the first time that you came out of the avant-garde and post-bop modes.
NC: Exactly, on “Saturday Night Special,” I started to get into these other things. But I had all those kind of things in me anyway. Because, deep down inside, I used to feel, if I wasn’t a jazz musician, I wanted to be a Delfonic. They were my idols, I loved the Delfonics, and still do. That’s why I still do their songs, including “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind,” which is on my new album.
JazzUSA: You know they have a new album?
JazzUSA: Well, if you read JazzUSA.com in April, you would’ve found out that the jazz label Fantasy, reactivated the Volt label and signed some acts from the 70’s, including the Delfonics.
NC: I will get it.
JazzUSA: In fact, Preston Glass, co-produced the Delfonics album.
NC: Preston Glass is one of my associates now and a real wonderful guy. He’s on my new album with Angela Bofill. In fact we’re getting ready to do a film score together. JazzUSA; Ask him about the Delfonics.
NC: Now that I think about it, he did play me some things he was doing for the Delfonics, something I think Thom Bell wrote.
JazzUSA: Right, Thom Bell did have one tune on the album. So if you’re a fan, you’re going to love hearing William Hart’s voice.
NC: I love William Hart. That’s my man.
JazzUSA: Back to “Saturday Night Special,” that’s where you first start letting the public know that you had some pop leanings, then you had a hit. I know we’re way back there in time, but were you surprised that “Valentine’s Love” became such a big hit.
NC: No. I was the only one who knew what was happening. Even when we did “You Are My Starship,” I knew it was going to be gigantic. Michael Henderson didn’t know. I remember I went to Michael’s basement in Detroit, after we got the Top 10 r&b hit with “Valentine’s Love,” and I said Michael, ‘let’s get this thing together.” Michael said, ‘oh, I’ve got something for you,’ and he started messing around with this “Starship” thing He said, ‘you like Miles, you like that spacey stuff.’ He said, ‘I’m gonna keep the real commercial things for myself.’ So he kept things like “Be My Girl” I said, ‘okay Mike, you save what you want to save, but this “Starship” is it.’ And I knew what I had. And when they put that record out, it just wouldn’t stop, and it still hasn’t.
JazzUSA: Okay, let’s clear up a rumor. Now everybody knows how bad Michael Henderson was, I mean playing bass with Stevie to Miles to Aretha to the Rolling Stones. The rumor was that you guys were working on the “Saturday Night Special” album and you needed one more song and he went out in the hallway and wrote “Valentine’s Love” in 20 minutes.
NC: He wrote “Valentine’s Love” and he told me to get a singer to sing it. He did a demo on it, and I said, at least put your voice on it so the singer can hear how it goes. He did that demo and I kept it, because Michael didn’t think he could sing. And then we brought Jean Carn in for the female part. That’s how that went.
JazzUSA: After “You Are My Starship,” you had quite a career going?.
NC: I had a good career going before “Starship.” Actually, I’ve had different elements of great careers. The first two or three years, I had Dee Dee Bridgewater and we were playing like really out there, and you still heard a lot of the avant-garde in me somewhat, but we stretched. Then I got Jean Carn, and then the thing started coming more together with Jean’s angelic voice doing all kinds of acrobatics with her voice. She has that beautiful voice and can do so many things technically. So that was like a whole other program. Then when I got Phyliss (Hyman,) that just put the top on it. When I had Phyliss and Michael, that was the ultimate situation.
JazzUSA: Phyliss debuted with you, right?
NC: I found Phyliss in a club called Russ Brown’s, when she first got to New York, out of Florida, and I heard her sing five songs and that was enough for me to take her to the studio, and we did “Betcha By Golly Wow,” and the rest was history.
JazzUSA: Yes, and “We Both Need Each Other.” Who else have you discovered? Norman Brown is on that list, right?
NC: Yeah, Norman Brown, Glenn Jones. Glenn was all gospel. My lawyer knew Glenn and introduced me to him. He was real gospel and I loved his voice. I felt he was something like a Peabo Bryson, who I love, and we smoothed him out, and he was with us for a couple of years. And then he went on to RCA. We started with Dee Dee and then Jean and then Phyliss, and then Eleanor Mills, that was on the woman side. Then of course, Michael Henderson, and then there was Prince Phillip Mitchell, after Michael and then Glenn Jones. Then we had this other guy, who used to sing with Change. His name was James Robinson. He was with us for a little while. And then I got this guy, Spencer Harrison, out of Philadelphia. He died a few years ago, but he was just great. He was like a male version of Phyliss Hyman.
JazzUSA: You named vocalists there, but you’ve had some?.
NC: Oh, I’ve had some great instrumentalists too. This guy named Shunzo Ono, who played trumpet, Onaje Allen Gumbs, who did the arrangement on “Betcha By Golly Wow” and “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time.”
JazzUSA: He wrote and arranged on “Love From The Sun” too right?
NC: Right. Then there’s Gary Bartz. He’s not a discovery of mine, but he used to play the solos on all my tunes.
JazzUSA: What you do with Gary is so different than what he does away from you. I first caught his sound when he had that NTU Troop in the early 70’s, and when I first heard “You Are My Starship,” I knew it was him immediately. And he sounds so good on the new album.
NC: I try not to go into the studio without Gary Bartz and Bobby Lyle, and back in those old days, I used to not go into the studio without Stanley Clarke. I was thinking of trying to get Stanley on this one, maybe on the next one. But those were the guys. We called it the Brotherhood. Those are my boys.
JazzUSA: Are you credited with discovering Marion Meadows too?
NC: Yeah. I found Marion in 1979, and he’s part of the Starship family. He does his own thing, but he’s been with us since 1979.
JazzUSA: Let’s talk about the new album. This is your first album in a few years.
NC: Let’s see, I did two albums for MoJazz, “Remember Who You Are” and “Easy Living.” “Easy Living” was about three and a half years ago. So this is my first album since then.
JazzUSA: So it was you who first brought Norman Brown to MoJazz?
NC: Norman couldn’t get a deal for about two or three years. He was teaching at the Guitar Institute and came over to my house and had Thanksgiving dinner. He was with his girlfriend, and she was a friend of a friend of my wife’s at the time. He came over with his guitar and a tape, and I was kind of rude. We were listening to his tape and we had all this company, and I listened to his tape, and he played the guitar for me. And I was like, ‘damn, this boy is bad.’ Time went by. I was on the road a lot, and he was teaching, and we kept in touch. He kept telling me he couldn’t get a deal and I’d go hear him in these little places where he was like playing for the door at this little club in Westwood. Playing for the door at a club in Burbank and all of that. Finally, I said ‘let me go get this guy a deal.’ When I came off the road, I was speaking to (former MoJazz president and current president of Michael Jordan’s newly formed record company Hidden Beach) Steve McKeever, who was starting MoJazz. He didn’t even have the job yet, but he had the concept, and he was saying, ‘yeah, I’m going to start this label, and we want you.’ I said, ‘well, I’ve got a guitar player.’ I was pushing Norman Brown and he was talking about me. I knew I was getting in, but I made sure he got to hear Norman Brown in Westwood. I think I even rented a limousine to get him there. He came and stayed all night and eventually signed him. I pushed Norman Brown in front of myself. I produced that first album and Norman went number two, right behind Kenny G. He was number- one in a lot of markets.
JazzUSA: And rightfully so. That record is a 90’s contemporary jazz classic. For a veteran, that would have been a strong record. It was just stunning for a debut.
NC: Yeah, that was a very strong record. Norman outsold a lot of veteran acts. He was a bit thing, right from the start. So I felt pretty good about that. Then he went on and now he’s a big smooth jazz star.
JazzUSA: Speaking of big time smooth jazz stars, I love the opening track of the album, written and performed by Gerald Albright.
NC: We’ve become friends over the last six years. I used to always see him. I used to do all my productions (in Los Angeles), and I would see him doing studio work here and there. And I watched him and I noticed that he was really growing. He’s got such a great sound and he’s such a nice guy.
JazzUSA: Yes he is.
NC: Yes, a beautiful guy. Now we’re friends and I use him all the time.
JazzUSA: Yes, that’s a strong opening track.
NC: He always writes some nice things for me.
JazzUSA: I know you expect smooth jazz radio to jump all over that.
NC: Eventually. Unfortunately, the way smooth jazz is now with (consultants) Broadcast Architecture and everything, they usually don’t take tunes with background vocal.
JazzUSA: You know when I worked at WNUA in Chicago, I worked with a guy, Alan Kepler, who became an executive at Broadcast Architecture, and he went to high school in Kansas with Norman Brown.
NC: Really. You know now that I think about it, I think Norman did tell me he went to school with one of the guys at Broadcast Architecture.
JazzUSA: You know it’s amazing what you’ve done with all these people without sacrificing your art, and your name. How do you do that?
NC: I have no idea. I think it just comes from having such great appreciation for the art itself, and so much appreciation for great music and great people. I’ve been around great people all my life, so I think it’s just imbedded and it comes out that way. I’ve always liked all music, ever since I was three years old, up to now. It’s been nothing but music, music,music.
JazzUSA: Yeah man, if you analyze it, you might mess it up.
NC: I’m not even trying to analyze it. I’m just doing what I love, and I love everything from Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton to Archie Shepp and John Coltrane. I have a deep passion for all of that, and have another kind of passion, even when I hear someone like Barbra Striesand.
JazzUSA: So what do you think of the smooth jazz movement?
NC: (hearty laughter) Well, what they call the smooth jazz movement, Herbie Hancock and Ramsey Lewis has been playing that stuff for years.
JazzUSA: No, don’t put them down like that.
NC: What I’m saying, those people they’re calling smooth jazz, I heard that music back then with Herbie and Ramsey.
JazzUSA: I think now there’s a line between a contemporary jazz sound and a smooth jazz sound
NC: Oh, you’re drawing a line between that. When you say smooth jazz, I’m thinking about contemporary period. When you say smooth jazz, or commercial jazz, I just go straight to Herbie, Miles?
JazzUSA: Well right now there are 20-somethings out there and when they think of jazz, they think of Kenny G, they think of Boney James, so I think there has to be a line drawn between what Kenny Garrett and Marcus Miller does as opposed to?
NC: Oh, Kenny Garrett., I don’t call him smooth jazz
JazzUSA: Have you heard his new record?
NC: Of course. Look, when you say smooth jazz, you can’t get no smoother than John Coltrane playing ballads, all those beautiful notes that he chooses. You can’t get no smoother than that. So, that smooth jazz thing was confusing me for a while, but I understand where they’re coming from, and I understand the language, so it’s cool. What I think about smooth jazz? Boney James, he does some things I like. And you have to check the whole thing out, because as far as Kenny G is concern, millions of people love this guy, and there’s a reason for that. Kenny plays pretty and he does some things that I like, but Kenny Garrett does too. So does Gary Bartz and a whole lot of other people I know. It’s all relative.
JazzUSA: I hear some things on “Eternity” that are very smooth jazz, but there are also some things that are very black. How you thought how this would be received and accepted at radio, or do you even care?
NC: (laughs) They made me think about it. Most of the time I do what’s in my heart and I just do it. But then I started getting these things where certain people in the record company would say ‘wow, we took this to this organization and they said they wouldn’t put it on the play list because it had too much feeling,’ and things like that. I was like ‘wow, I can’t take the feeling out of it.’ When we came up, you couldn’t get enough feeling. When you hear Miles and John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins and Cannonball Adderley, that’s what they were striving for, to go deep into our feelings. How can you grow up and play a lot of music throughout the years, reaching deep down inside yourself and feeling, how can you get to the point of taking the feeling away? There’s no such thing. So, if we play too much for certain formats, what can I say.
Be sure to check the next issue of JazzUSA for a review of Norman Connor’s smoking new release ‘Eternity’ – Ed.