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Ray Conniff: Swingin' RVer

The venerable maestro and his wife are avid motorhome travelers

An article by Jeff Hyman, published in the July 1998 edition of MotorHome, pp. 54, 114, 116, 118, 129

Whether leading his band and singers (top, in the '70s) or traveling with his wife, Ray enjoys to the fullest whatever he is doing.His current CD release, I Love Movies, is Ray Conniff's first of a three-record/five-year deal with PolyGram Latino U.S., a division of PolyGram Records Inc. It also marks the 100th album for the 82-year-old musician/arranger/conductor in a 60-year career that has been likened to Energizer Bunny because it keeps going and going and going. Ray's latest album features popular movie themes, such as Oh, Pretty Woman; La Bamba; Don't Cry for Me Argentina; and his 1967 Grammy-award-winning recording of Somewhere My Love from the film Doctor Zhivago.

The arranger king of easy listening applies his innovative trademark sound, blending voices with instruments, along with a clear, strong beat from his big-band, swing-era days. The result has been an international following and a spot on Billboard's all-time Top-10 albums list. With 10 national gold records and 20 foreign gold records, sales are at 78 million and climbing, 2 million a year for the last 10 years.

The venerable maestro, who still takes his musicians on a couple of tours each year to South America and/or Europe, even played the trombone for the recording of the I Love Movies CD when the horn player was a no-show.

Born and raised in Attleboro, Massachusetts, Ray Conniff learned the trombone from his father. When he began high school, Ray had visions of applying to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to become an engineer. But, he says, "In my junior year, some kids up the street heard me practicing the trombone and asked me to join their band." Soon after, Ray noticed a Billboard magazine on his father's desk open to a page with an ad for a "lightning arranger" that read, "learn to arrange quickly." It was a musical slide rule, costing $1.

"It was the best investment I ever made," Ray says. "I wrote my first arrangement, Sweet Georgia Brown, using this simple transposing device, and the guys in the band thought it was the greatest thing ever.

Ray played trombone and arranged musical numbers locally, then in Boston with Dan Murphy's Musical Skippers. In 1938 he went to New York, where he began his big-band career as trombonist and arranger for the Bunny Berigan Band. From there, he toured, played, recorded and arranged for the likes of Bob Crosby, Artie Shaw, Harry James, Glenn Miller, Teddy Powell and Glenn Gray.

After he had arranged music for the Armed Forces Radio Services during World War II, Ray saw big bands give way to small bands with name singers, and swing was replaced by bebop, which Ray says he "didn't feel." Dejected, he found himself digging tract-housing ditches for two years while reinventing his music, studying the elements of hit songs and teaching himself how to conduct from a book called The Grammar of Conducting.

Remotivated and back on track, he was hired as chief arranger by Columbia Records and worked with such artists as Johnny Mathis (arranging Chances Are and Wonderful, Wonderful), Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine and Guy Mitchell (Singin' the Blues). But it was during the recording of Don Cherry's big hit, Band of Gold, that Mitch Miller, Columbia's artist-and-repertory director, got excited about Ray's background sound, consisting of six voices used as instruments. Miller proposed making a single under Ray Conniff's name.

That led to Ray's career-making 1956 album, 's Wonderful, which spent nine months on the nation's pop charts and then went global.

Ray recalls, "The disk jockeys loved it, people danced to it, and Latin America went wild over it too." And 99 albums later, the Conniff sound has become a defining part of our musical culture.

Vera and Ray ConniffSo how does a living legend take a break? Traveling cross-country in a motorhome, of course. Sitting beneath the awning of their 36-foot Fleetwood Bounder, Ray and Vera, his effervescent Swiss-born wife of 29 years, enthuse about their 25 years of RV getaways.

According to Vera, "The motorhome is the most fun we have together." For example, she tells the story of the time she was walking their dog, Teddy Bear, at a KOA park in Pennsylvania and they were sprayed by a skunk. Ray made her take off all her clothes, and they wound up washing the reluctant animal in the shower, with soap, water, fur and naked bodies everywhere. The smell lingered for more than a week.

"And," Vera laughs, "there was the time [20 years ago] we took the RV back East for some home-town honors. Here's a boy who made good, coming home, and we drive up in a big motorhome, greeting the mayor and everyone. Then, after a little ceremony, we get back in the motorhome, we're waving goodbye to everyone, and Ray takes out the lamppost."

Over Vera's laughter, Ray adds: "You know, the motorhome was new to me. I misjudged the space around the curb, and I caught a parking sign and ripped it down. It was pretty embarrassing because while we were leaving, the mayor and his group were asking me, 'Isn't this thing difficult to drive?' And I said, 'No, no; you get used to it. In fact, it's great. You can see everything. Goodbye.' And then, 'Bam! ' But the mayor saved the day. He said, 'Mr. Conniff, don't feel bad. I'm going to leave that sign the way it is and put up another sign that will say: RAY CONNIFF KNOCKED THIS PARKING SIGN DOWN.' "

There also are memories of family and friends, all-terrain vehicles in the desert and campfire songs under star-filled skies. At least once a year, Ray and Vera like to spend a month going cross-country with their two dogs and two cats.

"We're so busy now, it seems we hardly have time for each other at home [in the Hollywood Hills]," says Vera, "but when we're in the motor- home, we do have our time together. Trip season [in late fall] is one time when we both refuse to book anything."

"We like to go to Freeport, Maine, where there are a lot of factory outlets," adds Ray, "and we have a lot of fun stopping along the way."

Of course, Ray and Vera have their favorite campgrounds, restaurants and scenic spots. At the top of their list: Pennsylvania's Amish country (where their 25-year-old daughter, Tamara, joined them for four days on their last trip); Williamsburg, Virginia; and New England in fall foliage season.

The Conniffs, who put 20,000 miles a year on their motorhome, get a new one every three or four years. They always buy Fleetwoods because John and Donna Crean, the company's founder and his wife, are the Conniffs' friends. The Creans used to lend the Conniffs a motorhome, and the two Couples would go on trips together. Ray and Vera grew to like the RV life so much, they progressed from borrowing to leasing and then to owning a coach. And they love their present Bounder.

"We usually go skiing in it a couple of times a year, and it's got terrific storage space," says Ray. "I've got sleds in the garage, and we load them up along with the skis."

VTwo dogs and two cats accompany the Conniffs on the RV trips, so they took the carpeting out of their motorhome to make it easier to keep things clean.era says, "We love the layout, with the bedroom in back; we don't care for walk-through bathrooms. We've looked at bigger RVs, but they're harder to park. And we've seen plush motorhomes, but that wouldn't work for us because we always take the animals with us. In fact, I took the carpeting out to make it easier to sweep."

Ray adds, "We've got a television in front and a TV/VCR in back, so we can always watch what we want. And when we crank up the antenna, the reception is great. We hardly ever have to hook up the TV cables."

For three years, there was an electric piano in the motorhome, but, Ray says, "I got into a routine where I had to play it a couple of hours each day, and I never did get very proficient at it. And it took up too much space." Now the motorhome offers a true interlude from music. Rather than listen to the radio, Ray prefers to talk with truckers on his CB radio to get road condition information and updated speed-trap locations to supplement his fuzz-buster warning system.

Ray loves to drive and says he prefers the motorhome to a car because "it rides smoother and you can see more." His responsibilities with the coach include everything that has to do with the driving and maintenance. He says he likes to "tinker."

"When I was 10 years old," Ray recalls, "I overhauled my father's Model-T that was laid up in the garage for the winter. Now, I really like to stay on top of the maintenance because I don't want to be stuck with my family in the desert in 110-degree heat with a broken generator."

Although he takes the motorhome in for major repairs, when it comes to small things, he says, "I always like to do the work myself."

Vera keeps the motorhome clean and handles breakfast. They eat out for most of their other meals, sometimes taking a two-day drive to a favorite restaurant.

Although she doesn't like to drive, Vera loves to catch up on her reading while sitting next to Ray. And when they're trying to make time, she prepares sandwiches for her husband, who amazes her that he can drive for such long periods of time.

Motorhome getaways are perfect for the Conniffs. Ray is relaxed driving and Vera is relaxed away from ringing telephones. Plus, they let each other do whatever they want. While Vera is shopping - sometimes all day at a factory outlet - Ray is napping, tinkering or visiting a Black and Decker store or an antique-car museum.

"She does all her Christmas shopping on the road," Ray says. "The motorhome always weighs a good 500 pounds more on the way back home. The bed lifts up, and Vera puts all her stuff under the bed."

Vera explains, "I have a lot of relatives in Switzerland."

Sometimes Ray will stop the coach on old Route 66 and look up and down the road, reminiscing about the one-night jobs he had along the same road. He thinks he might have gotten the idea for the voices that he uses in his arrangements from hearing his band members sing the instrumental parts to the popular big-band songs of the day as they rode the bus between gigs.

Sometimes the Conniffs meet Ray's son, Jimmy, along the road. Jimmy, who has been a disk jockey and a musical engineer, now drives an 18-wheel semi. Patti, Ray's daughter, has come along with them on several trips.

Currently, Ray is considering doing another Christmas album; he hasn't done one since 1965. And the Conniffs are considering another trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, because it was so beautiful the last time they were there.

It's been a long journey for Ray Conniff in his musical career and a lot of long journeys in motorhomes. He keeps going in both - and keeps on swingin'!