Norman Connors’ enduring 50-year career spanns music genres from jazz to R&B, and was born in the creative firmament of Philadelphia’s legacy jazz scene. His endeavors as a musician, composer, arranger, and producer have been heralded by reviewers such as The Second Disc, who called Connors “one of the most significant artists to flourish at the crossroads of jazz and soul.”
Today, the 70-something-year-old marvels at the path his life took from living in tenement housing doors away from famed comic Bill Cosby to headlining across the globe alongside jazz, R&B, and soul music legends.
“I always look at myself. I didn’t do too bad for a guy from the Richard Allen Projects, although there was quite a bit of talent,” said Connors. His North Philly childhood neighborhood served as a pre-fame rehearsal space for visitors such as dancer/singer Lola Falana, drummer Lex Humphries, trumpeter Lee Morgan, bassist Spánky De Brest, and pianist McCoy Tyner.
“I had a pretty nice little history in Philly,” recalled Connors, who once sat in for drummer Elvin Jones at a John Coltrane performance he attended while in middle school.
“I was playing with (soul singer) Billy Paul when I was 15. I also played with an organ player by the name of Rufus Randolph and a guitar player and violinist Johnny Stiles. We had a group together called Randolph, Stiles & Connors and we had a gig at Count Basie’s for a couple of weeks and used to play in different places in the Midwest. I used to hang in Rittenhouse Square with all the different artists, painters, and poets, so I was on that scene because a lot of music was going on there. There was a place called ‘The Last Way Out’ right across the street from Rittenhouse Square, and me and guys like (pianist) Alfie Pollitt and (saxophonist) Sonny Fortune and eventually (saxophonist/flutist) Byard Lancaster and some other people joined us and we used to throw things every weekend and collect the door.”
Connors not only embraced jazz early but also started honing a fashionable look that at age 13 allowed him to first meet Miles Davis, his music and style idol, in 1960. At age 17, the drummer relocated to New York City, attended the Juilliard School, and played with Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders before launching his first record as a bandleader in 1972.
Connors’ signature mix of jazz, soul, and R&B introduced a new generation of balladeers such as Michael Henderson, Jean Carne, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Glenn Lewis, and Phyllis Hyman. The series of guest vocalists were the perfect recipe for a string of standout hits, including “Valentine Love,” his first #10 R&B chart success in 1975, followed by “You Are My Starship” (#4 R&B, #27 Pop) in 1976.
The musical collaborations the jazz drummer presented ushered in a new chapter in music history and helped to lay the foundation for the radio format called the Quiet Storm, which emerged in the second half of the Seventies and focused on slow ballads, some instrumentals, and deep album cuts. Connors’ smoothed-out music continues to be a mainstay of the format decades after its initial release.
“I knew I was gonna sell, but I had no idea it was gonna sell like that,” said Connors. “And I sold over 300,000 records just in New York alone with (legendary radio DJ) Frankie Crocker at the helm helping me promote it. And then it broke out everywhere, in Europe and Japan. ‘You Are My Starship’ had such an impact, but it’s not my favorite album. My favorite album is ‘This Is Your Life.'”
Connors, who calls NYC his primary home, is currently writing a memoir and often reflects on the electric time that nurtured his start—and particularly laments the scarcity of performance venues.
“I don’t see what I used to see when I was coming up,” notes Connors. “Of course, there’s still a lot of talent there, but it’s not like the talent of John Coltrane, McCoy, the Heath Brothers, Philly Joe Jones—and I could just go on. Now it’s nothing like that. When I came up there were many clubs and a lot of ways to get a lot of experience in different clubs. But the people coming up now, there’s no place for them to work.”
“When I came up there were many clubs and a lot of ways to get a lot of experience in different clubs. But the people coming up now, there’s no place for them to work.”
Connors continues to tour with the Starship Orchestra and Jean Carne, Lonnie Liston Smith, Jr., Bobby Lyle, and Marva King, entertaining a global cadre of fans with his urban contemporary and smooth jazz.
“All my dreams came true because everything I always wanted to do, I eventually did it,” shared Connors. “No matter how hard it might be and no matter what other people might say, whatever is in your heart and soul, just do it and stick with it.
“I didn’t do too bad for a guy from the Richard Allen Projects, although there was quite a bit of talent”