In celebration of the March 1st birthday of the multi-talented Mr. Norman Connors, a rewind to a 1978 interview conducted by David Nathan as Norman began stepping out from behind the scenes to becoming a recording artist in his own right…
Norman Connors: Norman’s Conquests
By David Nathan
Responsible for bringing several talented folk to the fore in recent times, Mr. Norman Connors is finally coming out front himself and in this 1978 interview with SoulMusic.com founder David Nathan, he raps about what he’s been doing and some of the things he has planned for the future…
It’s really difficult to pinpoint what Norman Connors does.
Yes, he’s a drummer with several years experience, working with the likes of Billy Paul, Leon Thomas, Pharaoh Sanders and Archie Shepp. He’s also a talented producer: he worked on albums with Aquarian Dream and Vitamin E (two groups that he brought to Buddah Records) as well as producing Pharaoh Sanders’ first Arista album and his own debut for the label.
Over and above all that, he’s a wizard at spotting good talent and bringing it to the forefront and from the success rate he’s enjoyed thus far, it would be fair to say that he definitely has a good ear for picking hit songs (“You Are My Starship”, the Thom Bell-Linda Creed tune, “Betcha By Golly Wow”, “We Both Need Each Other” and “Valentine Love”, hit records that brought Michael Henderson and Phyllis Hyman into prominence).
It would be true to say that, however, Mr. Connors has chosen to keep what can only be called a “low profile”. That seems to be changing, so the man says: “I guess I never really got into the importance of being visible to the public. But, since my situation is so much better now, I feel like I’m ready.”
The situation Norman refers to is his recent pacting directly to Arista Records, after having established a base for himself with Buddah Records. From the outset, Norman states: “There is really a difference working with a company like Arista. I feel like whatever I do now has the proper support in terms of promotion and exposure, although Buddah did a great job in putting me on the map.”
In addition, Norman is now responsible entirely for his own production chores. “For the first time, I’m involved in every facet of the albums I do from the cover design right down to the mixing. You see, I’ve always had a lot of input into what I did but never that last final word. So now I’m getting to use ideas that I may have had ten years ago but could never really employ. That’s why I guess I worked hardest on this new album, “This Is Your Life”. Because I had to! Plus I got a total commitment in terms of what I could do from Arista and that really helped. I could finally do what I felt had to be done in terms of production.”
Certainly, the album is a fine production and Norman has utilized the services of some of the best musicians around. In addition to his own Starship Orchestra, guests include Jean Carn (who, of course, spent about a year with Norman and recorded “Valentine Love” with Michael Henderson), Richard Tee, Wall Wah Watson, Lee Ritenour, Gary Bartz and Pharaoh Sanders, with featured vocalizing from Eleanor Mills. He feels it’s his best project yet but only an indication of what to expect in the future.
A solid background in jazz and music in general (“I’ve been listening to music since I was about four years old,” he recalls) is probably responsible for having that knack of finding great talent, Norman states. The Philadelphia-born musician has attended music schools in his home town, at Temple University and the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York City. He notes, “I guess all that learning and exposure to great musicians like Pharaoh — with whom I spent some time on the road, as well as recording five albums with him — helped me a great deal in hearing great talent.”
Norman says that his own group (“which I formed when I felt I had done as much as I could with Pharaoh and I really wanted to do my own thing — I guess around six years ago”) has brought to the limelight the likes of Dee Dee Bridgewater, Jean Carn, Phyllis Hyman and Michael Henderson. “Dee Dee was singing around clubs in New York when I first heard her and her style was reminiscent of Sarah Vaughan in some ways. I dug the fact that she was really versatile. She was with us for a couple of years and then went on to work in (the Broadway show) The Wiz. Then, Jean I knew from her work with her husband Doug Carn. She stayed with us for over a year and she’s someone I would love to produce because she is really a great artist and a great person. Of course, you know she signed with Philly International and I have a great respect for Gamble and Huff so it was good for her. But what happened was that there were business problems between the people who were handling my affairs and Jean’s people so I found myself stuck without anyone to complete work on the “Starship” album back in ’76. Anyway, Jean and a couple of other people had told me about this great singer who was working in a club in New York’s upper West Side. So I checked her out and Phyllis Hyman finished the sessions on “Starship”. Now Phyllis is another lady I’d love to produce because she too has a great vocal style and is a really nice person. Maybe in time! And then Michael…well, I knew him from his days with Miles Davis and it was never our plan to have him sing on the album (“Saturday Night Special”) it just kinda worked out that way.”
Since having such distinguished members work with Norman, the gentleman has also been availed of the services of “Prince” Phillip Mitchell (“He’s a great writer and singer”) who has gone on to a new album with Atlantic Records and is currently working with Eleanor Mills, a cousin of Stephanie on whom Norman may well produce an album and James Robinson, another featured vocalist on his latest album, “Romantic Journey.” Norman claims that producing other artists is easy. “It’s great, I really like it. I always felt it would be great to be in a position to produce other people and it’s a challenge. I did the albums on Aquarian Dream and Vitamin E and in fact, there’s another album on Dream in the can with Buddah. “I knew of the group through a young guy who’s playing on my own album, Jacques Burvick — to me, he’s like a young Herbie Hancock, he writes and arranges, everything. And Vitamin E I knew of because when I was here in New York starving whilst getting my education, I ran into this guy who wrote great songs. Paul Smith I tried to perservere here in New York but he went back to San Francisco and I always felt that if the opportunity came, I’d like to work with him again. So when it did, we did the Vitamin E project.”
Subsequently, Norman has produced “Love Will Find A Way” on his former employer, Pharaoh Sanders! “He’s always been one of my favourite musicians and I always felt like I knew what was needed to get him over to a bigger audience. I used to rap with Stanley Clarke about it way back. As I knew Pharaoh’s personality already, it helped. “Now, it wasn’t easy because he just put it all on me — told me to go ahead and do whatever I felt was right. Fortunately, I think it worked out real well.”
Norman’s ability to pick ‘hit’ songs has certainly helped a great deal and he notes: “I feel like the Stylistics’ album with all those great Thom Bell-Linda Creed songs is a classic, that’s why we’ve done songs like “Betcha By Golly Wow”, “You Are Everything” and “You Make Me Feel Brand New”. He notes, “I find Thom’s songs are romantic and very simple and that’s why I like them so much. In fact, Thom has sent me some new songs myself so hopefully. I’ll be using them on future albums.”
Indeed, one particular aspect of Norman’s talent which we can expect to see more of in the future is his singing. “I did a couple of things on this album but I will get more into it in the future. Of course, there has been that identity problem before — people figured I was singing on things like “Starship” and “Valentine Love” and a lot of people didn’t know I was a drummer. But it’s been changing slowly. People seem to know a little bit about who I am now! But Phyllis (Hyman) always used to encourage me to get out there and sing myself. It’s just been a problem of confidence. When you have so many great singers like her and Jean around you, you just feel it’s not worth it to go out there and do it yourself! But I think it’s going to come with time and most important, experience. That’s what will help me sing more — just doing it.”
Having been a jazz musician per se for so long, Norman states that crossing over hasn’t been an entirely easy affair. He says, “When I first formed the group, I’d say the first four years were fairly easy because I knew what I was into and I built up a following. But when we started to cross to the R&B and broader pop people, I found audiences expected more of a show visually. Plus I didn’t want to be accused of selling out by my fans. So it hasn’t been entirely easy. I think though, after the last couple of years, we’ve finally gotten it together to the point where the older fans find music they can dig and the younger audience are getting what they want as well as being exposed to the more complex stuff, which is great. Those younger fans see that we’re jazz-orientated and we try to cover the whole spectrum in our concerts. So I guess “it’s kinda educational for them, which is great.”
Norman’s future plans include a possible movie soundtrack, working on music for a cartoon and continuing to produce as well as do live concerts: “We’ll be doing less club work this year and more concerts — like a kinda three month on the road, two in the studio, three on the road, two back in the studio schedule. Of course, all the time I’m out on the road I’m thinking of material and putting it together for when we do come back. As far as producing is concerned, I’d like to spread my horizons. Maybe do someone like a Frank Sinatra or a Tony Bennett, who are into a different thing. It would be really interesting. And then someone like an Aretha Franklin — because she has all the power, all the ability. In fact, there are quite a few people I’d like to work with in a producing capacity.”
However, Norman is also concerned that he finally becomes more visible to the pubic, as stated at the outset. “I guess doing more interviews, more television, things like that will bring me more into the public view,” the genial gent states. “There are just so many other facets of what I’d like to do that I want to present. Did you know, for instance, that I’m into tap dancing! Really. I guess I’ll get the opportunity to display that maybe when we have a television special, something like that. Now that things are going well, I feel almost like it’s a new beginning for me.” Norman concludes, “There are a lot of aspects of this business I want to deal with and I guess people are in for a few surprises! But when the time is right, they will be revealed.”
© 1978, 2022, David Nathan