Vet soul/jazz producer Norman Connors has gone through his rolodex and picked out a few of his celebrity friends to feature on his latest album, applicably titled “Star Power"
Despite his extensive tenure in the music business, Norman Connors is hardly a household name. Celebrated in the jazz/soul world, the fact that Connors is primarily a drummer who writes and produces his distinctive brand of jazzy soul for mature audiences has limited his exposure to musicians and avid music fans. In fact, his signature song, “You Are My Starship” is probably better known than the man himself. Connors came of age around jazz playing alongside jazz legends such as John Coltrane while still a teen. Such was his proficiency, the Philly native won a scholarship to the prestigious Juillard School of music.
He is best known for his works with the likes of for Aretha and Miles Davis bassist turned singer Michael Henderson (lead singer on “…Starship”) as well as helping to nurture the career of Phyllis Hyman. Connors enjoyed success in the 70’s on the Buddah label working, in addition to the afore-mentioned, Angela Bofill, Herbie Hancock and Stanley Clarke.
Other regular collaborators with Connors include Jean Carne, Bobby Lyle and Onaje Allan Gumbs and more recently guitarist Norman Brown over a career that has him signed to both Arista, Capitol and Motown.
His latest offering is courtesy of the ever industrious Shanachie label and features a host of past associates and friends. A generally smooth jazz offering with a healthy dose of soul thrown in personal favorites include the Howard Hewett led ballad “Where Do We Go From Here” featuring newcomer Antoinette. Also a standout is the slow jam, “I Waited All My Life For You” (featuring Juanita Daley).
As is often the way with smooth jazz releases there is a fair smattering of covers such as the Ray Parker Jr featured reworking of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You”. Sade’s “The Sweetest Taboo” featuring Antoinette and Bobby Lyle and his own “…Starship” with Peabo Bryson, Marion Meadows and Michael Henderson.
Jeff Lorez: Like all your albums this features a lot of guest artists. How do you decide who you need for each song and when do you know the have the right mix of material for an album?
Norman Connors: After I did the song with Ray Parker Jnr., “Rock With You” I knew the album was completed so it was time to shop it. Me and Ray Parker and Michael Henderson I’ve known for years. We were all label mates on Arista. I used to use Ray Parker on all my early productions before I used Paul Jackson Jr. Howard Hewett is someone I’ve known since his days at Shalamar. He was one of my favorite singers back at that time and still is. Peabo Bryson is one of my all time favorites too along with Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross. We did a lot of shows together. When I called him he was thinking about doing “You Are My Starship” anyway. When I was at Capitol I did some tracks on Peabo and Angela Bofill. Bobby Lyle I’ve used on every production, almost going back to the ‘70’s. I discovered Norman Brown, the guitar player. I produced his first record on MoJazz.
JL: Do have a concept in mind for each album or just record what feels good?
NC: I usually have concept in mind and usually have certain songs that fit the concept. I usually go to LA to record. I used to live out there and I like the studios out there. I like the engineers out there.
JL: You’ve been around a long time. Do the same things inspire you in 2009 as inspired you in 1979?
NC: It’s the same inspiration. I have a lot of music and creativity in me. I was born to make music. That’s what I do naturally. There are a lot of songs and new CD’s in me to come. People that I idolize are Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
JL: Music and the music industry is in a constant state of flux especially now. You’ve seen a lot of people come and go. To what do you attribute your longevity?
NC: I’ve been through similar things earlier in my career like the disco era. I wasn’t necessarily into disco. Then the rap thing came along. There’s not too much you can do about that. You have to be true to yourself and do the music that’s in your heart. It’s funny but now the rap people sample me a lot.
JL: What music does Norman Connors listen to for his personal enjoyment?
NC: I listen to a lot of the stuff I’ve always listened to. I listen to Duke Ellington, Miles, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Anita Baker. I even listen to Beyonce, Tupac! Whatever’s great. Also Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion.
JL: What would surprise people about Norman Connors if they were to read an autobiography by you?
NC: I grew up in the projects in North Philly. I lived right down the street from Bill Cosby. The way I grew up there was because my house was music house in the projects. I moved to New York when I was 17 years old and all I had was $20 in my pocket and never looked back.
I had a scholarship to Juilliard and experienced a lot of great things at an early age. Met Miles at 13, played with Coltrane at 17. In New York I played with all these great people. I’ve done at least 20 CD’s. I’m actually writing a book when I get off the road at Christmas.
JL: What was your relationship with Phyllis Hyman like? Did you foresee any of the tragedy?
NC: When she took her life it was such a shock and so tragic. I never knew her like that. I just knew she was one of the best singers that I’ve ever worked with. She was such a beautiful, nice person before she went out on her own. When I think of her, I think of all the great experiences we’ve experienced together. Like a beautiful flower.
JL: Any other fond memories of times spent with other artists?
NC: My experience with Miles Davis was going over to Broadway, to his house. Him cooking dinner. Being around a great person like that was very inspiring for me as a person and musician.
When I got to Pharoah Sanders, Stanley Clarke was already there. That was another great musical experience.
I played with John Coltrane a couple of times. I was scared to death but it was great.
JL: What do you get up to in your spare time, outside of music?
NC: I love to ride horses. I walk, going to record stores, walking on the beach. I have a 7 year old son and being with him is like watching myself grow up again. His name is Bennu. He plays piano, drums, guitar. He sings, dances. Just hanging with him. He goes to a school for the gifted in the Bronx. I currently live in the lower Bronx but after the summer I’m going to live in Westchester or White Plains.
JL: What next musically, Norman?
NC: I’ve been going back and forth to Brazil and would love to do something influenced by that music. I have a pretty booked itinerary. Me and Jean Carne did two sold out shows in Philly last week at a club called North By North West. I have tour dates in Detroit, Maryland, DC, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Virginia, Newark NJ, Montclair, Atlanta, San Francisco, Denver, Ohio, Cincinatti. Normally when I go out it about 70 dates. We’ll also do Europe and Japan this year too. I’ve got my work cut out for me.
About the Writer
Jeff Lorez has enjoyed a long and varied career in the music business. As a journalist he has written for a slew of publications and web sites including, Blues & Soul, Billboard, Yahoo.com and the Daily Telegraph and as a music publisher he has been involved in recent chart topping hits by Alexis Jordan and Cher Lloyd.