Norman Connors loves to tell people about the great artists he’s discovered.
Currently celebrating his 40th anniversary as a recording artist, the drummer, producer, composer and all-around soul man has given a lot of artists a chance to shine – mostly in the Starship Orchestra, the band that’s been backing up the Philadelphia-born Connors since 1976, after his single “You Are My Starship” became a career-defining, pop/R&B hit.
“You know, they come in and go and become stars and whatever,” says the 60-something Brown, on the phone from New York.
Michael Henderson (who sang lead vocals on “Starship”), Jean Carn, Norman Brown, Phyllis Hyman – all have been under Connors’ tutelage. “They’ve all been a part of the Starship Orchestra at one time – and they always can come back.”
Throughout the ’70s, Connors, who began his career playing with jazz greats Archie Shepp, Sam Rivers and Pharoah Sanders, became a well-known player in the soul/jazz fusion genre. Other renowned jazz fusion practitioners, including Herbie Hancock, Gary Bartz and Lee Ritenour, also collaborated with him on his albums.
“I help a lot of people,” he says. “I take people from being no-names to big names, and that’s what I’ve been doing all my life.”
Friday evening he’ll be in Durham with a new Starship Orchestra lineup at the Hayti Heritage Center. He says the band will also include a Raleigh resident: Elmer Gibson, a jazz pianist and fellow Philadelphian who collaborated with Connors back in the day.
As for Connors, the man appears to have no regrets. “Oh, it’s been beautiful,” he says. “I mean, I moved to New York when I was 17, got a full scholarship to Juilliard and worked with who’s who in New York and started recording in 1972 and did about 20-something albums on my own, and I produced about 150 albums on everybody else, and I’m still going. It’s been great.”
Connors continues to record; his latest album “Star Power” was released in 2009. He corralled many artists to join him, including Henderson, Peabo Bryson, Howard Hewitt and Ray Parker Jr.
“I always wanted to work with Peabo, and we did about seven or eight albums together,” he says. “He’s like one of my favorite R&B singers. And I’ve always wanted to work with Howard Hewitt. So, it’s just a matter of getting together with people I’ve always wanted to work with and then putting something together and having a concept.”
Connors, who also has an autobiography in the works, is working on a 40th anniversary album scheduled to come out this year. Needless to say, the album will feature lots of guest stars.