THE CREATIVE MENTOR – A spotlight on his career and recordings.
Relatively few musicians are capable of nurturing young raw talent and simultaneously developing their cult appeal amongst the jazz and soul fraternity alike. One such talent, who has spent nearly three decades delivering the goods consistently, is master percussionist and musical producer; Norman Connors.
Born in the city of Brotherly Love’, Philadelphia on March 1st 1948, Norman Connors came to prominence as a jazz drummer in his late teens. Following fruitful stints with a variety of avant-garde musicians including, Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, and Carlos Garnet, Connors settled with the Pharaoh Sanders Group in the late sixties. Learning valuable knowledge of improvisation techniques and mastering his craft, Connors flourished to the extent that in 1972 Cobblestone Records provided his initial recording contract.
‘Dance of Magic’ was later to gain a re-release and improved distribution deal via Buddah Records. The Norman Connors line up at this stage featured an impressive wealth of talent; Herbie Hancock, Gary Bartz, Stanley Clarke. Airto and Larry Young, just to name a few. Even at this early point in his musical career, Norman Connors had a unique flair for working and developing the best jazz musicians available Stateside.
An interview with Downbeat Magazine in 1972, recalls on the album sleeve that Connors gained more response, fan mail wise, than any other black musician that year.
1973 saw ‘Dark of Light’ emerge from Cobblestone and again, later, via Buddah Records. His second album introduced the vocal performance of a jazz legend, Dee Dee Bridgewater, on ‘Butterfly Dreams’. Other tracks worthy of attention are, ‘Laughter’, a tough afro style number and ‘Black Lightning’, a frantically energetic offering rom Connors on top-heavy percussion form.
‘Slewfoot’ in 1974, saw the third release with Buddah. Stand out track being the jazz club anthem; ‘Mother of the Future’, introducing vocalist Jean Carne’s initial recording liaison with Connors. Adjacent to his frantic jazz instrumental workouts, Connors was beginning to introduce a ‘cocktail style jazz’ element to his albums.
In 1975. ‘Saturday Night Special’ highlighted the style, with Jean Carne offering ‘Dindi’ and Michael Henderson debuting on ‘Valentine Love’. a sensuous soul ballad. Jazz buffs will find a version of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage’ and ‘Kwasi, much to their delight – a wild workout with Connors’ exhilaration much to their liking.
The album provided a springboard for many musicians to portray their goods to an ever-increasing number of followers. Changing direction in 1976, saw Connors realise the commercial potential of sweet soul vocalists on his productions. With the full accompaniment of the Starship Orchestra, by now he had a lush musical touch to his works. Phyllis Hyman, at that time a relatively unknown young Philly based vocalist, was to gain recognition via ‘Betcha by Golly Wow’ and ‘We Both Need Each Other. Both were picked up in the States as singles, gaining healthy sales figures. Phyllis Hyman moved forward with Buddah and, albeit on a smaller scale, with New York independent. Desert Moon Records. The closing track on ‘Saturday Night Special’ should appease jazz purists. as Gary Bartz and Hubert Eaves let rip with a workout of Sanders’ The Creator Has A Master Plan.
The mid-seventies was to prove Connors’ most fruitful period. Buddah even allowed him time to develop his creative production talents for ‘Norman Connors Presents Aquarian Dream’ in 1976. Mtume and Tawatha Agee being just two musical talents brought to the forefront. ‘Romantic Journey’ in 1977 witnessed the forging of a musical relationship with vocalist, Phillip Mitchell. Phillip later, under the ‘Prince’ tag, went on to greater heights with Atlantic and Ichiban Stables respectively.
A lush orchestral feel runs through the whole of the album as we are introduced to the talented, yet underrated, Eleanor Mills on ‘You Are Everything ‘ Gary Bartz, Lee Ritenor and Pharoah Sanders were still more than willing to assist Norman Connors on his quest for developing talent, despite having their own sofa careers progressing at this stage.
By now, it was apparent Connors had little difficulty surrounding his musical protégé with highly established jazz musicians and letting them develop their expressive talents. ‘Thembi’. a haunting cool sax workout by Pharoah Sanders. is well worth a listen.
‘The Best of Norman Connors and Friends’ saw a celebration of musical production via Connors with the talented vocal stable including Dee Dee Bridgewater, Jean Carne, Eleanor Mills and Michael Henderson. The rear of the album sleeve has excellent black and white photos portraying his ensemble. The album served as a highlight of his Buddah period. ‘This is Your Life’ in 1977, saw Norman Connors bow out from Buddah with what he considered to be his crowning achievement. The full backing of the Starship Orchestra highlighted Miss Eleanor Mills and the talents of Detroit Stalwart and McKinley Jackson. The title track, This Is Your Life’, serves as a fine example of the lady’s soaring, high-pitched, emotive vocal talents.
As the 70’s came to a close, Connors moved over to the Arista label and in 1979 ‘Invitation’ introduces Miss Adaritha, a new vocal talent Connors was to develop following his previous success with Michael Henderson, Jean Carne and Phyllis Hyman (who were all by now pursuing successful solo careers). ‘I Have A Dream is a mellow jazz cool work-out, aside the jazz/funk of Miss Adaritha on ‘Your Love’ and ‘Handle Me Gently’.
Adaritha was to be found alongside Connors with his second Arista album, ‘Take It To The Limit’. The album introduced the voice of Glenn Jones. Glenn, at this stage was receiving minimal exposure in gospel circles with The Modulations, ‘Feel The Fire’ LP for Savoy Records out of New Jersey. The title track. ‘Take It To The Limit’. offered Connors his biggest success, being a sure-fire winner on the jazz/funk circuit, gaining a British 12″ release, it also saw spins on the fragmented Northern Soul scene, which at that time was undergoing a transitional period of airing 70/80’s releases.
‘Mr C’ was to follow in 1982. A poor example of Connors’ musical talents. He seemed somewhat disillusioned with music and this was highlighted in his decision to take a break from the rigours of recording. Connors quoted at the time “I felt it was time to step back and let the creative juices flow”. His re-association with Pharoah Sanders at Theresa Records saw Connors stimulate his musical prowess in a percussion and production role. Away from recording, he spent time travelling through Europe. Residing in Paris for a short time.
Regaining his quest for musical excellence. 1988 saw his Capitol CD/LP ‘Passion’ hit the streets. With a healthy cash injection behind the project, Connors sought to develop the vocal talents of Spencer Harrison and Gabrielle Goodman. Spencer was a Philadelphian talent Connors had linked with on his return home. Meanwhile, Gabrielle Goodman had limited exposure singing lead vocals on The Strangers’ one off Salsoul LP on the ‘It’s Too Late’ ballad.
Freddie Hubbard guested on the LP with ‘Samba For Maria’ blowing to full effect. The album complemented by Marion Meadows, a progressive saxophonist, who again following advice from the mentor, went on to success.
A five year gap brings us up to the early 90’s period with Motown’s subsidiary – MoJazz. Set up to complement the jazz artists of the future. Norman Connors bowed in with the 1993 CD, ‘Remember Who You Are’. Stand out tracks feature Eve Cornelius’ rendition of Herbie Hancock’s Tell Me A Bedtime Story’ and Denise Stewart vocalling on ‘I Can’t Wait Till I See You Again’. Jazz standard, ‘Naima’ allows Connors a jazz journey lacking on his previous two albums.
The last year has seen little activity from Norman Connors at MoJazz. However, he should take a bow with the musical genius accolade for introducing and developing many acts along their path : Phyllis Hyman, Michael Henderson, Phillip Mitchell, Jean Carne, Norman Brown. Spencer Harrison, Gabrielle Goodman and Glenn Jones to name a few.
Sequel Records (if you can’t locate any of his original LP’s) released a Best of Norman Connors CD in the 90’s. This highlights his Buddah period to full effect.
We await the creativity of Norman Connors once more…
Biography by Glyn Thornhill