Ray Conniff was digging ditches in Reseda, a suburb of Los Angeles. It was 1949. Up until then, he had been the most sought-after swing trombonist and arranger on the circuit. He had been working full time for the Harry James Orchestra, but when James requested arrangements that were bebop, a sound that relied more on a floating, sometimes inaudible beat, my dad gracefully resigned. He was a hot jazz arranger, where beat was defined and the rhythm section was strong and loud.
As a result, he could not get work. All of his contacts had already taken on full-time arrangers while he was working for James.
My father, who passed away seven years ago, recounted this time in his life to me many times because it was one of his most defining moments. Each time I listened to him intently, trying to suck the wisdom and the pain out of every word. This story occurred long before I was born, during his second marriage—I'm the daughter of his third and last wife.
My father was defaulting on house payments, and his phone was about to be shut off, which meant no one could reach him for work even if they wanted him. He packed up his trombone one night and went to a local jazz club to sit in, meet some musicians and maybe borrow a couple of dollars. A friend of his, a saxophone player, listened to my dad's tale of woe for 15 minutes—the saga of the holes in the kids' shoes, foreclosure notices, etc. The sax player finally asked my dad if his wife and kids were healthy. "Well, yes," he replied. Would he have a roof over his head tonight and enough food on the table for breakfast in the morning? "Well, yes," he replied. So you are a lucky man? "Well, I guess I am," he replied.
The sax player gave him $20, which at that time was a lot of money. He also passed him a pamphlet, outlining the basic principles of positive thinking (though Dr. Norman Vincent Peale's book The Power of Positive Thinking was not published until 1952). My dad clutched the $20 and promised to read the pamphlet. Semireligious in tone, it explained that the universe is unfolding as it should under God's law. It also pointed out the basic laws of attraction—if you put out good energy, good energy comes back to you. My father surmised that knocking on doors, begging for work was turning off prospective employers. He was giving negative and getting negative back. He also realized he needed to further himself musically.
So, he built a little shack on his Reseda property, put up a mirror and bought a "Learn How to Conduct" program recorded on vinyl. Every day after digging ditches, he'd lock himself in and teach himself how to conduct. Also at this time, he began visiting Billboard magazine's offices once a week to study the pop charts. He wanted to know what made a song a hit. When he was playing for swing kings Artie Shaw, Bob Crosby and Bunny Berigan, he cared more about what the other musicians thought as opposed to the audience. It was a time of hip cats, not popsters. However, starving gave him a different perspective on what music should be—a way to bring the audience joy. It was in that shack and in the Billboard offices that my dad learned the power of a hook and melody. It was also then that he came up with the idea of singing voices imitating instruments—an extension of jazz scat—but done for pop music.
He made the rounds at all the labels again. Instead of complaining about his life, he let the executives talk about their families. My father would listen attentively, smile, shake hands and right before walking out the door, he would say, "I've got an idea that I think would be beneficial to both of us. Give me a call if you're interested."
Suddenly the industry was buzzing about Conniff. What was his idea? What did he have up his sleeve? His phone started ringing.
Mitch Miller, then head of A&R (Artists and Repertoire) for Columbia Records, gave my dad a shot. As a result, and thanks to my dad's research on song hooks, he arranged such hits as "Chances Are" and "Just Walking in the Rain" (the whistle on the Jonnie Ray recording is my dad's). This evolved into a solo career, calling himself Ray Conniff and the Singers. He went on to be one of the most successful pop bandleaders, arrangers and writers, recording more than 100 studio albums and touring internationally until he was 84.
But he never forgot those ditches in Reseda. I have taken the principles of positive thinking and applied them to my life. Without this lesson, I would not have walked into the Billboard offices in 2004, full of positivity (though I was frightened), and become the brand's chief editor—the first woman and youngest person to ever hold the post.
I have recounted my dad's tale to many friends and musicians down on their luck—and I swear it works. These moments define us.
I look forward to sharing the stories of other musicians who have found wisdom in everyday life over many columns to come.
Tamara Conniff is a former editor-in-chief and associate publisher of Billboard and was named one of Crain's New York Business 40 Under 40. Most recently, she starred as a judge on Mark Burnett's P. Diddy's Starmaker on MTV.