King of the Road

We all deserve a little reward once in a while. For American bandleader and arranger Ray Conniff, that reward came in the form of a 1967 Cadillac DeVille convertible, white with burgundy interior, that he bought after his recording of "Somewhere My Love" by The Ray Conniff Singers won the 1967 Grammy for Best Performance by a Chorus. At this point in Conniff's long career, both the Grammy and the car came as hard-won rewards for years of dues paid. The Cadillac, which Conniff owned for 35 years, will be sold at Leland Little Auctions in Hillsborough, NC, in their Important Fall Auction on September 21st.

In hindsight, success can sometimes seem inevitable, especially when it comes on the scale that it did for Ray Conniff, who sold over 70 million albums worldwide throughout his lifetime. But like so many success stories that at first glance happen overnight, Conniff's story included several early chapters of hard work and scant recognition.

Ray Conniff was born in Attleboro, MA, in 1916, to parents who passed on to him their love of music. Conniff's father played the trombone in a local band, and by the end of high school Conniff, too, was the trombonist in a band he started with friends. It was also at that young age that he taught himself to arrange music, with a $1 gadget that he bought from an ad in the back of his father's Billboard magazine.

After high school, Conniff went to work in the big bands that were so popular at the time, as both a trombonist and an arranger. He worked for iconic big band names like Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Bob Crosby and others. After a stint serving in WWII, Conniff went to work playing and arranging music for Harry James and his band. As staff arranger, Conniff brought a new sound to the Harry James Band, giving it a refreshing swing after years of sweet wartime ballads. Several years into their fruitful collaboration, James started to request that Conniff make arrangements in the bebop style that had taken over jazz in the 40's. Conniff didn't like the style, and to James's great surprise, Conniff quit rather than write music he didn't like.

By his own account, when Conniff walked off the job with Harry James, he assumed that he'd be able to just pick up with a different band. Instead, he found himself in a several years-long dry spell, with a young family and an aging mother to support. Conniff moved to California and took a job digging ditches with a construction crew to make ends meet, earning a quarter of what he had as a musician. But rather than surrender his musical dreams, Conniff made use of the time away from the limelight to teach himself to conduct. He built a little studio in his garage out of plywood and cardboard, bought a copy of The Grammar of Conducting, and practiced conducting in the mirror to orchestral recordings. Several years later, when Conniff made his way back to New York to rejoin the musical scene, he was ready to take up the baton when producer Mitch Miller gave him the chance to conduct one of his own arrangements.

From that point on, Conniff was back in the game. Miller, who was at that time an executive at Columbia Records, hired Conniff as an in-house arranger. Conniff began with Columbia by arranging music for their stable of artists - talent like Rosemary Clooney and Johnny Mathis. But before long Conniff had the idea to research which songs had sold best in the previous decade or so, and re-arrange them for a band, and, iconically, a choir. With men's voices used in place of the saxophone, and women's in place of the trumpets, the signature Conniff sound was born.

Throughout the 50's and 60's, Ray Conniff was hugely prolific - he recorded an average three albums per year. Up until 1967, the balance of these were instrumentals, with the choir used as part of the band. But when Conniff recorded the song "Somewhere My Love," which was a lyrics-added version of "Lara's Theme" from the movie "Dr. Zhivago," it was such a raging success that Conniff switched to arranging more and more music with lyrics. "Somewhere My Love" was nominated for the Grammy in 1967 not only for "Best Recording By A Chorus" (which it won), but also for "Song of the Year" (which it lost narrowly to The Beatles' "Michelle").

"Somewhere My Love" has had a lasting impression on the musical zeitgeist. It has shown up in movies from "Super Mario Brothers" to "Ocean's 8" and "The Spy Who Loved Me." Just months before he passed away in 2002, Conniff played the song at the wedding of David Guest and Liza Minnelli. The first bar of the song is engraved on Conniff's headstone. And so it's fitting that Conniff commemorated the song's success with a car with such timeless style. There's never been a moment between 1967 and now that the '67 Cadillac DeVille hasn't been the epitome of classic American cool. Conniff was an avid car collector, and did his share of off-road racing. But his 1967 Cadillac was a lifelong companion. It is entirely original, and is being sold with years of Conniff's maintenance records, complete with his handwritten notes.
Just as Conniff always hoped to do with his music, the "Somewhere My Love" Cadillac takes us back to moments of first love, of first successes, of first hard-earned indulgences. By way of a classic American car, beloved by an American musical legend, anyone can be King of the Road.