What is it that the Soviet workers’ paradise lacks that the capitalist proletariat has? At least in the mind of Melodiya—the Soviet state recording agency—it apparently is the sing-along quality of U.S. pop music with its big beat, heavy brass arrangements and massed singers “do-doing” and “boo-booing” in the universal language of choral accompaniment.
Corny? Maybe. But the Russians have nothing like it. And so Melodiya went to the fountainhead, 58-year-old American composer-arranger Ray Conniff, nine of whose 55 albums, beginning with S’Wonderful back in 1956, have been best-sellers.
As Conniff tells it, the Russians sent him two dozen popular Soviet songs and asked him to choose 11—and then to come over and record them. “I didn’t know which were most popular, so I had to go by instinct,” he says. “There were ballads, up-tempo stuff—what I would call contemporary music—and a couple kazaki songs, you know, the down-on-the-floor, kick-the-heels kind of thing.” He graded them A+ to E-, took three weeks to arrange his choices—and then in a burst of enthusiasm wrote a twelfth song himself.
Melodiya wanted Conniff, but not his orchestra or chorus, although they did invite his 30-year-old Swiss-born third wife, Vera, and their daughter, Tamara, 2½ “Normally I wouldn’t do this without my orchestra and singers. But, since this is special, I agreed.”
The Russians provided him with 16 singers and 18 musicians, plus a swarm of recording technicians. “In the beginning,” Conniff recalls, “I was reminded of my first recording session in 1956. No one understood what I was trying to do.” Not the least of his problems was the recording studio—a former Protestant church where resident pigeons cooed during breaks.
But the Russian engineers quickly caught on to Conniff’s echo-chamber techniques, and the singers responded to his (translated) exhortation: “More life—more rhythm!” Says Conniff, “I don’t think they ever worked so hard before.” He is obviously pleased with the results, which will be issued this month as an LP album selling in Soviet department and music stores for $3.50. “My engineer, Viktor, came closer to duplicating the rhythm sound I got on my old records,” Conniff brags, “than some of the guys I’m working with in the U.S.”