20 April 2006

Connie Francis, Part One

Jealous Heart

My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own
Connie Francis Swings The Nashville Sound
by Donny Jacobs
By December 1959, Connie Francis was indisputably a major star. Since her November 1957 debut on the national charts as the duet partner of Country and Western singer Marvin Rainwater, she’d scored thirteen hit records in North America, and three more in the United Kingdom. She’d been awarded Gold Records for her recordings of “Who’s Sorry Now?”, “My Happiness,” “Among My Souvenirs,” and the double A-side “Lipstick On Your Collar” b/w “Frankie.” She’d been voted Best Female Vocalist by the American Jukebox Operators, the Music Operators of America and the Automatic Music Industry of America. Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” poll, Billboard's and Cashbox's Disc Jockey polls and England’s New Musical Express poll had voted her either Most Popular or Most Promising Female Vocalist. With the Association of Record Dealers, she was the unqualified favorite . . . they named her Best Vocalist of 1959, hands down.

Within barely two years, she became one of the hottest musical attractions of the 1950s. Her Rhythm and Blues-tinged remakes of Tin Pan Alley classics, coupled with rockin’ originals penned by Howard Greenfield, Neil Sedaka and others was a winning combination that propelled her name up Pop music surveys around the world. Without a doubt, Connie was the Queen of Rock’n’Roll in its early years.

At that time, however, the music industry believed Rock’n’Roll to be a fad. George Franconero, Connie’s father and chief advisor, felt the same way. He didn’t believe his daughter could maintain her star status unless she expanded her audience. Mr. Franconero was adamant: She must overcome the public’s perception of her as “just” a Rock’n’Roll singer! Before 1958 was out, he’d convinced her to diversify her catalog.

No encouragement was needed for Connie to record her albums of Jazz and Pop standards, The Exciting Connie Francis and My Thanks To You; she'd always loved singing that kind of music. She also loved singing classic Italian tunes from her cultural heritage, though it took much prodding from Papa to convince her that recording Connie Francis Sings Italian Favorites was a smart commercial move. However, when she first began making records in 1955, Concetta Franconero was absolutely hostile to the idea of cutting songs in the Country and Western vein. She hated the music so much, she‘d turn off a radio rather than listen to it! It took the combined urging of her father and Rockabilly singing duo The Everly Brothers to change her mind.

As Connie tells the story, she met Phil and Don Everly on a promotional tour. When they learned of her distaste for their favorite sound, the boys trapped her inside the listening booth of a Cleveland record store and gave her a crash course in Country music connoisseur-ship. “In a little while, I got the message,” Connie later recalled to interviewer George Christy. “I fell in love with the swing of the music, and the lyrics. Where else can you find words with such special meaning? Just listen to lyrics like I’m gonna wash ‘I love you’ from the blackboard of my heart, and you can’t help but be 'sent' . . . I love the music now with all my heart.”

That music lesson took place in 1957, just before her string of hits began. Just in time, as it turned out! Her first chart single, “The Majesty Of Love” was a Pop/Country tune, and the flipside of her first million-seller, “Who’s Sorry Now?” was the Kitty Wells-styled “You Were Only Foolin'(While I Was Fallin‘ In Love).” From those modest beginnings, Connie Francis would mature into one of the greatest vocal exponents of the Nashville Sound.

Some musicologists claim that Country music is a “pure” song form that came to Tennessee's Appalachian Mountains with immigrants from the British Isles. At the Pop Culture Cantina, we take exception to that definition! Any music that incorporates African banjos, Hawaiian steel guitars and Gypsy tambourines is far from pure! We believe Country Music was born when Scotch/Irish balladry met up and started keeping company with rural Gospel hymns, 19th century minstrel show novelties, old saloon songs, Dixieland instrumentals, ragtime piano tunes, cowboy ballads, traditional Mexican music (itself influenced by French, Spanish and German styles) and increasingly through the 20th century, Afro-American Blues. In other words, it’s a mix of early American music styles, and the mixing was mostly done by working class White people from the South. When Country songs are recorded with Adult-Contemporary instrumentation and Gospel vocal backing, they’re said to have The Nashville Sound. This style was invented in the 1950s by Music City session players like Anita Kerr, Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer and Boots Randolph, and it’s the style Connie recorded in most often.

As Blues turned into Rhythm & Blues in late 1940s and early ’50s, Nashville’s traditionalists resisted absorbing its influence; however, they couldn’t stop younger musicians from playing Country music in a more brash and energetic way. By necessity, this style spun off into a new genre called Rockabilly, and with Elvis Presley at its vanguard, it set the world on fire for a few years. Soon renamed Rock‘n‘Roll, it went mainstream but after traveling North, it gradually became deracinated.

Lynyrd Skynyrd, Creedence Clearwater Revival and other Southern Rock bands reclaimed the music's roots in the early 1970s. By the 1990s, Rockabilly had been fully absorbed into commercial Country Music, drawing many original Rock’n’Roll fans into its fan base. In the days when Rockabilly/Rock‘n’Roll was regarded as Nashville’s redheaded stepchild, Connie Francis recorded numerous songs in the style; among them are her big hits “Stupid Cupid”, “Fallin’” and “Lipstick On Your Collar.” Today, they’d be called Country rockers. However, to earn her Country credentials in the 1950s and ‘60s, La Franconero first took the traditional route.

Country and Western Golden Hits

Taped at New York’s Metropolitan Recording Studio in the summer of 1959, Connie Francis Sings Country and Western Golden Hits was produced by Ray Ellis under Connie‘s supervision(per her highly unusual contract with M-G-M Records, she was executive producer on all her recording dates after 1957). Connie’s first long-playing Country music collection was heavy on Nashville standards, but did mix in some recent Country crossover hits like Marty Robbins’ “Singing’ The Blues,“ Bobby Helms‘ “My Special Angel,” Sonny James‘ “Young Love” and The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love.”

This album and its predecessor, Connie Francis Sings Rock ’n’ Roll Million Sellers were waxed at the same time, and both LPs contain tracks that are interchangeable in terms of genre. Elvis Presley‘s “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Don’t Be Cruel” were in the Pop and Country Top Ten lists concurrently, and the Rock’n’Roll ballads “I Almost Lost My Mind,” “Sincerely,” “Ain’t That A Shame,” “I’m Walkin’” and “It’s Only Make-Believe” would all score as remakes on the Country charts in later years. “Hearts Of Stone” was the kind of song nobody knew for sure about; was it Country, Pop or R & B? Versions of it appeared on all three charts! This musical identity crisis underscores how closely linked the genres are, and explains why early Rock and R & B stars like Ray Charles, Jack Scott, Gene Pitney, Del Shannon and Connie felt comfortable recording in the Country idiom.

For someone who just two years earlier didn’t know anything about Country music, Connie acquitted herself surprisingly well. Her essays of “Your Cheatin’ Heart,“ “Half As Much” and “Cold, Cold Heart,“ hits from the catalog of erstwhile M-G-M labelmate Hank Williams, are respectable if not outstanding. At this stage of her career, she sounds most authentic singing Country ballads, and her readings of the Patti Page/Pee Wee King crossover smash “Tennessee Waltz” and Hank Snow‘s 1955 Country chart-topper “Let Me Go, Lover,” are exceptionally poignant. Without question, the highlight of the set is her stunning version of the Thomas A. Dorsey Gospel favorite “Peace In The Valley.” Country and Western Golden Hits didn’t chart upon initial release, but sold well enough to merit a reissue in 1962. This wasn’t the kind of impact Connie had hoped to make with a Country music release, though. A single rather than an album would generate the response she wanted.

That single was, of course, 1960’s “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” a song she personally commissioned from Brill Building scribes Howard Greenfield and Jack Keller. At Manhattan’s Olmstead Studios on 14 June, she painstakingly oversaw the Joe Sherman/Arnold Maxin-produced recording session. The success of this release fulfilled several goals for Connie: It proved to her record company that female vocalists could score Pop hits with Country material; it furthered the goal of broadening her audience past teenage fans; it gave her a crossover Country hit(landing in the Top Thirty); it gave her father great satisfaction, since he’d been begging her for years to cut a Country single; it carved a niche for her in foreign markets like Germany(and initiated her much-noted practice of cutting songs in several different languages); and it gave her the #1 Pop platter she’d been craving since “My Happiness“ had stalled one position short.

My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own

While the iron was still hot, Connie struck gold again with her follow-up single, also penned by Greenfield and Keller: The exquisite “My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own.” Set to a habanera beat and featuring mariachi-style horns, this Joe Sherman/Arnold Maxin/Jesse Kaye production was recorded on both the West and East Coasts; there are numerous surviving takes and actually two different mixes available on 45. No matter which mix got played, the track's Tex Mex appeal proved irresistible to Pop music lovers. While “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” is the most successful Connie Francis record from an international standpoint, “My Heart” remains her all-time best-selling North American A-side.

Two years later, Connie achieved her goal of bagging a smash hit Country album. She was recording in Nashville by then, so Country Music, Connie Style was tracked at producer Owen Bradley's recording studio (later renamed Columbia) in the summer of ‘62; Jim Vienneau and Danny Davis manned the controls, and Elvis Presley’s backing group The Jordanaires joined Concetta in the vocalist’s booth. There were no Hank Williams tunes this time, but a host of classy compositions from the pens of Johnny Cash, Don Robertson, Don Gibson and Harlan Howard decorated her music stand. These men were the cream of Nashville songwriting talent in the ‘60s. The cream of Music City sessionmen were also on hand: Floyd Cramer playing his trademark slip-note piano, Boots Randolph blowin’ his "yakety" sax, Bob Moore on bass, Jerry Kennedy and Harold Bradley pickin’ guitar, and conductor Bill McElhiney serving up the same kind of whipped cream string arrangements he created for Brenda Lee’s records.

La Franconero proved herself worthy of their best efforts, pouring heart and soul into renditions of “I Fall To Pieces,” “I Don’t Hurt Anymore,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Someday, You‘ll Want Me To Want You.” Hearing the way she packs emotion into these numbers leaves no doubt as to why Country ballads are called “heart songs.” She distinguished herself on up tempo fare as well, clearly relishing the chance to sing Don Gibson‘s “Oh! Lonesome Me,” Ray Price‘s “Heartaches By The Number” (the song that inspired “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool”) and Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On.” Snow couldn’t have been anything but pleased with the spunky update she gives his 1950 freight train ode; she closes her remake with a cheeky ciao ciao bambino ad-lib. “I’m Movin’ On” begged to be released on 45, but the surprise hit single from this album turned out to be Connie’s re-gendered version of George Jones ‘s recent chart-topper “She Thinks I Still Care.”

I Was Such A Fool

When you give people what they want, they will definitely turn out for it! Country Music, Connie Style was a Top Forty blockbuster, ultimately becoming Connie’s fifth best-selling LP on this side of the Atlantic. Two years later, the Rock‘n’Roll queen re-assembled that album’s production team in order to cut Connie Francis and Hank Williams, Jr. Sing Great Country Favorites. Recording with the son of Country music’s greatest icon helped cement her credibility in Nashville circles; by the same token, recording with Connie Francis gave a promotional boost to M-G-M Records’ newest rising star. Connie's duet album with the man his fans call “Bochephus” is an upbeat affair; listening to their spirited renditions of Claude King‘s “Wolverton Mountain,” Roy Acuff‘s “Wabash Cannonball“, Jimmie Rodgers‘ “Muleskinner Blues,” Don Gibson‘s “Blue, Blue Day,” Leroy Van Dyke‘s “Walk On By” and Lefty Frizzell‘s “If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got The Time” makes you feel like you’re taking a buggy ride behind a pair of high-stepping thoroughbreds. Connie and Hank's breezy remakes of “Bye Bye Love” and “Singin’ The Blues” easily outstrip the versions she cut for her 1959 Country collection.

Second Hand Love

Connie Francis Sings “Second Hand Love” and Connie Francis Sings “For Mama” both made the Billboard album charts, and the Nashville Sound undoubtedly had a lot to do with it. Neither is technically a Country music collection, but what Country performances these LPs do contain are great! In addition to the Nashville-recorded title track, Second Hand Love boasts “Don’t Break The Heart That Loves You” and “Breakin’ In A Brand New Broken Heart”, two of Connie’s biggest Country/Pop smashes. Corn-fed Pop/Rock tracks like “Someone Else’s Boy,” “Too Many Rules” and “He’s My Dreamboat” convey a strong Music City sensibility, and “Gonna Git That Man” makes for ideal barn dance music. Cut in New York City during sessions for Connie’s Dance Party album, it’s one of the best Country rockers you’ll find anywhere; the arrangement is by Sammy Lowe, leader of the house band at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. However, the sound of this record is far removed from the kind of music played at that legendary R & B show palace. Connie’s delivery on “Gonna Git That Man” is pure Nashville, there’s a sax player imitating the tarnation out of Boots Randolph, and the wicked Cajun-style guitar rhythm is tailor-made for Louisiana-style rug-cuttin’ . . . laissez les bons temps rouler!

The grooves of For Mama reverberate with the shuffle beat rhythms of prime cut Country items like “It Takes More,” “Whose Heart Are You Breakin’ Tonight?” “I Was Such A Fool” and “You’re The Only One Can Hurt Me.” A pair of Rockabilly tracks (“Playin’ Games” and “It’s Gonna Take Me Some Time”) are thrown in for good measure. These waxings sit rather incongruously beside grandiose orchestra ballads, a bossa nova rocker, two Bubblegum Pop ditties, a Broadway showtune and a number boasting a British Music Hall flavor, but if you can’t tolerate eclecticism, you have no business calling yourself a Connie Francis fan!

Record buyers didn’t respond as warmly to Connie Francis Sings Folk Song Favorites, and that’s a shame. Not every Folk record is Country and Western-oriented, but La Franconero’s preference for Dixie standards like “Oh! Suzanna,” “My Darling Clementine,” “The Boll Weevil Song”, “She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain”, “Careless Love” and “Red River Valley” ensured that hers would be. Her sentimental readings of “Beautiful Brown Eyes” and “The Ballad Of Aura Lee” stand out, as does a smouldering version of the Appalachian oldie “Every Night When The Sun Goes In.” This incandescent cut lies somewhere on the border between Country music and Jazz. Connie and M-G-M’s Nashville A & R man Jim Vienneau favored spare backgrounds for her Folk album, leaving lots of room for her to vocalize with The Jordanaires. Cliff Parman’s arrangements are appropriately rustic-sounding, with a five-string banjo prominently featured. This is a bonafide Connie Francis Bluegrass album, and it might have done better on the market had it been issued under that title.

Connie’s later Country music collections included 1965’s Jealous Heart, 1967’s My Heart Cries For You and her last for M-G-M, 1969’s The Wedding Cake. Unfortunately, none of them charted, despite high placings for their title tracks on the Adult-Contemporary charts(and despite “The Wedding Cake” giving Connie her first Country charter since “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” in 1960). However, that’s in no way a reflection of their quality; all three LPs are excellent.

The Jealous Heart album in particular shines like a priceless diamond due to the inclusion of such gorgeous waxings as “If You Ever Get Lonely,” “Do I?”, “Fair Weather Love,” remakes of Gale Storm‘s “Ivory Tower,” Connie Smith’s “Once A Day” (recorded in London with Petula Clark's producer Tony Hatch) and of course, “Jealous Heart." The latter song was originally a million-seller for Tex Ritter in 1945, but La Franconero's version is definitive. Marvelous arrangements by Don Costa, Alan Lorber, Ernie Freeman and Bill Justis add more polish to the gem. Recorded over a three-year period in New York City, Nashville, London and Hollywood(during work on the movie When The Boys Meet The Girls), this set places Connie Francis firmly in the ranks of legendary Nashville Sound artists like Patsy Cline.

My Heart Cries For You

Bob Morgan’s production of “My Heart Cries For You” suffers from an intrusive string arrangement, but that’s the worst thing you can say about the album he produced that bears the same name. Connie's intense, nuanced performances on this stellar Country ballad showcase present her voice at its broken-hearted best. You may never want to hear Gogi Grant sing “The Wayward Wind” again once you've sampled Connie’s soaring version. Likewise, her recordings of Jim Reeves’ “Four Walls” and Eddy Arnold’s “How’s The World Treating You?” all but wipe the originals from memory. Her dramatic interpretation of a second Arnold classic, “Lonely Again,” is magnificent, and she sings Jeannie Seely’s “Don’t Touch Me” and the obscure Hank Williams composition “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight” with such earnestness, you’d swear she’s singing about her own life.

The mark of a true Country diva is the ability to make you believe the words of a song; on My Heart Cries For You, Concetta meets the criterion and then some. The sensitive orchestrations (excepting the title track) by New York arrangers Herb Bernstein and Joe Sherman complement her vocals beautifully. A handful of honkytonk selections are also superbly executed, and the best of them is Connie’s remake of her own remake of yet another Eddy Arnold best-seller, “Anytime.” With Ernie Freeman’s Hollywood orchestra surging behind her, she invests the song with a full-bodied warmth that's missing from her 1959 master.

By the end of the ‘60s, Connie was back doing most of her Country music recording in New York City and Hollywood. Fortunately, her Wedding Cake album sessions occasioned one more trip to Nashville. Although cut at Columbia Studios, this LP sounds nothing like earlier records she made there. Supervised by Jeannie C. Riley’s producer Shelby Singleton, Jr, it’s more Country Rock than Nashville Sound; the songs (mostly penned by the female team of Margaret Lewis-Warrick and Myra Smith) have a vaguely feminist orientation, and their stripped-down sound and sometimes controversial lyrics ride Connie to the edge of what would soon be called “Outlaw” Country music.

Two bristling Bluegrass workouts, “Another Page” and “You Know You’re Not Forsaken” (both cut in 1966) fit right into the new mood set by edgy selections like “What Momma Used To Do,” “Bettye Jo Marshall” and the non-LP flipside “Over-The Hill, Underground.” Connie lets her hair down and sings the livin’ daylights out of these numbers; her feisty, down-home delivery on them reveals a whole new facet of her artistry. Still, her melancholy and tender treatments of Folk-flavored ballads like “The Wedding Cake” and “Gone Like The Wind” leave the strongest impression; it’s no surprise that they were tagged as singles.

In-between albums, George Franconero’s baby girl was spreading Country Music, Connie Style all over the Billboard singles charts! In addition to aforementioned Top Ten hits like “Breakin’ In A Brand New Broken Heart,” “Don’t Break The Heart That Loves You,” “I Was Such A Fool”, “Whose Heart Are You Breakin’ Tonight?” and “Jealous Heart,” there were these unforgettable sides: “Empty Chapel"(flipside of the dance rocker "It's A Different World"), “If My Pillow Could Talk,” “Drownin’ My Sorrows,” “Wishing It Was You,” “The Biggest Sin Of All”, Tony Hatch’s “Love Is Me, Love Is You,” Howard Greenfield and Neil Sedaka’s “My World Keeps Slipping Away” and a fabulous cover of Tammy Wynette’s 1967 weeper “I Don’t Wanna Play House.”

German and Italian fans enjoyed original Connie Francis Country singles in their native idioms, such as "Lass Mich Bei Dir Sein," "Gondola d'Amore," and the wonderful "Nessuno E' Solo" featuring The Jordanaires. British fans were treated to “Waiting For You,“ a patriotic Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich ballad. It was unavailable in North America until the appearance of an alternate take on 1987‘s Connie Francis Rocksides compilation. Connie believed her 1968 Nashville Sound remake of Benny Goodman’s 1942 hit “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place” would be one of her biggest successes, but it slipped through the cracks somehow . . . a major loss! Anybody who loved "Who's Sorry Now" should've loved this single, too.

Abandoned in the M-G-M tape vaults were other great Country and Country Rock performances: “The Millionaire,” also waxed by its co-writer, Barry Mann; “One Tear Too Many” from the pen of "Lipstick On Your Collar" composer George Goehring; Bob Halley's jailbreak tune “The Ballad Of Bobby Dawn”; another Greenfield-Sedaka pearl titled “On The Outside Looking In,” a missed opportunity for Top Ten airplay if ever there was such a thing; Connie's all-time favorite song “Milk And Honey,” a shimmering outtake from her Wedding Cake sessions; and an incredible steel guitar stomper called “I've Got Reason To Worry,” recorded at the same Hollywood sessions as “My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own.” It sounds like a surefire smash, but Connie probably considered it too rowdy for her audience; in 1960, girl singers were expected to be demure, and this track is anything but! The authorship of "Reason To Worry" is unknown, but its lyrics all but scream Howard Greenfield's name.

La Franconero’s last Country recording for M-G-M Records was reportedly cut in London during sessions for her Songs Of Les Reed album; Reed produced a version of “Reuben James” for her that was slated for single release, but Kenny Rogers and The First Edition's waxing started climbing the charts before it could even get to the test pressing stage. Connie didn’t stop cutting Country tunes when her M-G-M contract expired. Her best indie label effort from the 1970s is a delectable Dixieland treatment of the old Jule Styne/Frank Loesser song “I Don’t Want To Walk Without You“; she lays on a performance that’s smoother than an iced mint julep after Sunday church service. However, her most successful Country release from that era is “Should I Tie A Yellow Ribbon?” an answer song to Tony Orlando and Dawn’s chart-topping "Tie A Yellow Ribbon 'Round The Old Oak Tree" from 1973.

Ten years later, Connie made a belated return to M-G-M (now Polydor) Records and to the Country charts with a rousing honkytonker called “There’s Still A Few Good Love Songs Left In Me.“ Co-written for her by Country singer Richard Leigh and old standby Howard Greenfield, it was waxed in Music City under the supervision of Harold Shedd; an “Entertainment Tonight” crew filmed her at the session. With head thrown back and a million-dollar smile on her face, she gave her comeback single the full Connie Francis treatment.

As recently as the year 2000, the Queen of '50s Rock'n'Roll was in Nashville cutting I Remember Buddy, a tribute album to Buddy Holly. She was joined at the session by singer/guitarist Sonny Curtis, The Jordanaires and Stuart Colman, best known as the producer of Rockabilly revivalist Shakin' Stevens' British smashes. Her deep appreciation of Southern music and musicians keeps her coming back to Music City for more. The feeling appears to be mutual, too; over the years, many Country artists have paid tribute to Connie by covering her Pop hits. Ernest Tubb’s “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” Marty Robbins’ “Among My Souvenirs,” Slim Whitman’s “My Happiness,“ Margo Smith’s “Don’t Break The Heart That Loves You,” Debbie Boone‘s “Breakin’ In A Brand New Broken Heart” and “My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own,” and “Who’s Sorry Now?” by Marie Osmond are a few of the more successful examples.

In 1993, the legendary lady dropped a minor bombshell in the lap of writer William Ruhlmann: “I do Country better than I do anything else,” she told him. How could this be? She excels at singing Jazz, Rock and Pop music in a multitude of languages and dialects. Yet the fact that all three of her #1 Pop singles in the United States are Country records supports her assessment. Universal Music (the successor to Polydor Records) seems to think the only specialty collections Connie Francis fans will buy are repackagings of her Italian-language recordings. Evidently, their catalog A & R department sees no point in marketing her Country sides. What planet are those folks living on? Country is traditional American music, and today in the 21st century, people all over the world love it more than ever before! In fact, audiences are fanatical about it, especially when it’s performed well.

“A simple, solid Country tune will always appeal to the public,” Connie informed RPM Magazine in 1984, “regardless of what’s going on with the rest of the charts." She's right! Just ask LeeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain, Reba McEntire, Gretchen Wilson, Faith Hill or Carrie Underwood. There’s plenty to like about Nashville’s current crop of female stars. How many of them, though, can compete with Concetta Franconero circa 1962 emoting over a feather-light string section, "teardrop" bass notes, a solemn vocal chorus, creamy slip-note piano licks and a shuffle beat rhythm? The Nashville Sound couldn’t possibly get any better than that!


Dedicated to Tony Benvenuto and Donnie Mesh.

Don Charles, AKA Donny Hampton Jacobs, was co-producer, annotator and liner notes writer of the 1996 
box set Connie Francis Souvenirs on Polydor Records.

10 April 2006

Gene Pitney (Part One)

Singer . . . Songwriter . . . Performer
God Bless Gene Pitney
Remembering A Rock 'n' Roll Phenomenon
by Donny Jacobs
Dim the lights of Manhattan's Brill Building . . . that hallowed hall of music just lost one of its most distinguished alumni. Gene Pitney, the international Pop star whose career heyday spanned the early to mid-1960s, passed away last week. His incredible string of hits includes "It Hurts To Be In Love," "Town Without Pity," "Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa," "Only Love Can Break A Heart," "Just One Smile," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "That Girl Belongs To Yesterday," "Looking Through The Eyes Of Love," "She's A Heartbreaker" and "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart" (which became a best-seller for him twice, the second time topping the UK charts). Gene died suddenly while on tour in England, going out like a trooper after giving his loyal British fans one final, fantastic stage show. Born in Rockford, Connecticut in February of 1941, he'd recently celebrated his 65th birthday.

He wasn't a Frankie, a Tommy, a Bobby, Jimmy or Fabian; he didn't sport one of those generic '60s teen magazine names. His handle sounded like something out of a 1930s gangster flick. Gene was good-looking, but hardly the handsomest of Rock's early teen idols. He wrote Pop songs alongside such esteemed colleagues as Neil Sedaka, Carole King, Barry Mann and Jeff Barry, but he wasn't in the same league as a songwriter. Some found his taut tenor singing voice with its razor sharp vibrato rather affected, even effeminate (though few dared say so to his face). That electric, one-of-a-kind voice, however, was his greatest gift. Sturdy as a California redwood, it could scale the same lofty heights; for proof of that, look no further than the spine-tingling falsetto finales he produced on his classic '60s recordings "Every Breath I Take," "Yesterday's Hero" and "I'm Gonna Be Strong".

Gene Pitney turned every song into a major event. Even if you didn't particularly care for the tune he was singing, his exceptional performance compelled you to stop and pay attention. He must have had tons of homosexual fans; if he didn't, he should have! He's one of the few male stars who deserved to be a Gay cult icon. He brought the kind of naked vulnerability and raw drama to heartbreak and broken relationship lyrics that you'd only expect from a Pop or Country diva like Judy Garland or Tammy Wynette. There was nothing unmasculine about his heart-on-the-sleeve emotionalism, though. Quite the contrary . . . there was something downright masterful about the way he bared his emotions in song. Gene really was a gangster of sorts, a Gangster of Angst. He was the James Cagney of Brill Building Pop. Even when singing the most tender love ballad, he had a way of bearing down hard on it. His vintage '60s recordings are some of the fiercest things around.

He may not have been one of the all-time great composers, but he was unquestionably a commercial songwriter, a fact underscored by memorable million-sellers he penned for The Crystals ("He's A Rebel"), Rick Nelson ("Hello, Mary Lou") and Bobby Vee ("Rubber Ball"). Gene could easily have composed most or all of his own releases just like Del Shannon, another of Rock 'n' Roll's pioneer singer/songwriters. Instead, he wrote just a handful, which tended to appear on the flipsides of singles. Recording his own tunes exclusively would seem to have made better business sense, but not doing so was the smarter move. The effervescent Pop/Rock ditties he specialized at writing simply weren't challenging enough for an vocalist of his ability. Gene knew in his gut that he was good enough to sing the finest songs the music industry had to offer, so he actively sought them out. His tastes proved to be very discriminating, and his choice of material would later be seen to have helped bring such legendary songwriters as Burt Bacharach, Ellie Greenwich, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Al Kooper and Randy Newman to prominence.

Just as important as the pedigree of the songs he chose was what happened once he applied his impeccable vocal artistry to them. Gene Pitney scored hits, and not just flash-in-the-pan Top Forty novelties, either. His hits had staying power. He understood that each song required its own unique interpretation, performed in a style that was uniquely his own. Gene's interpretive skills were on a par with those of Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney or Dusty Springfield; he always sounded credible. It didn't matter if he was belting out a honky tonk number like "I'm Gonna Listen To Me," a Merseybeat item like "I'm Gonna Find Myself A Girl," a fiery San Remo Song Festival winner like "Nessuno Mi Puo'Giudicare," a Bubblegum trifle like "Playing Games Of Love," a driving Soul rocker like "Baby, You're My Kinda Woman," a gospel-powered R & B ballad like "Cradle Of My Arms," a Habanera Rock tidbit like "Princess In Rags" or a classic showtune like "Tonight" from West Side Story. His vocal never failed to do justice to the genre. The man simply thrived on eclecticism. He'll be remembered as a Rock 'n' Roll singer, there's no question about that; but anyone who even scratches the surface of his recorded legacy will discover that he defies easy classification.

If Connie Francis had a male equivalent in the '60s, it was definitely Gene Pitney. Like the redoubtable Ms. Franconero, he excelled at singing many different styles of music; his foreign-language recordings (particularly in Italian) were exceptionally fine; he moved aggressively to carve a niche for himself in Great Britain and other overseas markets; he took control of his record production at a time when few artists did so; and he had a record label (Musicor) that gave him carte blanche to spread his artistry over dozens of theme albums: Blue Gene, Gene Pitney Meets The Fair Young Ladies Of Folkland, Looking Through The Eyes Of Love and Young, Warm And Wonderful (both collections of Pop standards), Gene Pitney Sings The Golden Hits Of The Platters, Gene Pitney Sings Golden Greats, Gene Pitney Sings Burt Bacharach, The Country Side Of Gene Pitney, Gene Pitney Italiano and Gene Pitney Español. Those finely-crafted LPs and others he completed form a proud body of work. Judging by statements he made to interviewers, Gene was indeed proud of his catalog. He was fully aware of the quality of his material and musicianship, and he wanted to be remembered as more than a footnote in popular music history. He will be, if his millions of international fans have anything to say about it.

The same goes for his Brill Building colleagues. "Gene Pitney was always an inspiration to me," states Pop songwriter Neil Brian Goldberg. "Everything he did was superb! His voice was unique and beautiful, as well as the way he used it. My favorite of his fine recordings was (the first orchestra ballad he cut for Musicor Records) 'Take Me Tonight'." Goldberg believes he was a role model in more ways than one. "Gene was also a devoted family man (who) spoke about his children with love and concern, and he exhibited no low behavior." He offers the most respectful tribute one songwriter can give to another when he says: "I'm glad he was still performing and being remembered and appreciated . . . farewell, Gene. Your music moved me forward." Would that his recordings had moved the entire music industry forward, but that didn't happen. Neither Gene's craftsmanship nor that of his contemporaries became the industry norm, and as the 1960s faded into history, that fact became increasingly clear. Artists who maintained a comparable standard of excellence were few and far between, and that's still the case. Yet, once excellent music has been made, it can always be made again. Exceptional Gene Pitney waxings like "(In The) Cold Light Of Day," "The Boss's Daughter," "Backstage" and "Nobody Needs Your Love" provide the best possible templates. It's up to current and future generations of musicians to use them. Will they? Let's hope so.

What a shock to lose Gene so unexpectedly, and how sad to think we'll never again hear his crisp New England accent or enjoy his good-natured Yankee sense of humor. However, we mustn't grieve too hard for him. Sixty-five years is an average life span for a man, after all, and he filled those years in the best possible way. He lived well. He saw his sons grow up to become fine young men. He found opportunities to showcase his musical talents and took full advantage of them. He kept his career going strong long after American radio had lost interest in his records, and that gave Gene great satisfaction. He reaped numerous awards and rewards in his lifetime, and more will surely come posthumously. He earned the admiration and respect of peers who were (often unjustifiably) more famous than he was. His most amazing feat of all was somehow overcoming the wall of indifference that bars most performers of his era from membership in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame; the year before he was inducted (2001), he assured a skeptical National Public Radio host that he would be. "I'm gettin' in!" he promised. And he did! Sometimes the good guy does come out on top after all.

Drinks are on the house tonight, folks. Belly up to the bar, and l
et's all raise a toast to the memory of Gene Pitney. He was truly a contender. He was a champ! Time after time, he reached for goals and achieved them. We'll never know if immortality was one of his goals, but if so, he achieved that one, too. Gene was immortal long before his life came to a peaceful end in a Cardiff hotel room on April 5. His music will never be forgotten. The staff of the Pop Culture Cantina extends heartfelt condolences to all his loved ones.

Special thanks to Neil Brian Goldberg

01 April 2006

Mad Hot Book Review #2

Song Of The Loon

Before "Brokeback Mountain" There Was . . .
Song Of The Loon
by Richard Amory
(Arsenal Pulp Press, 2005)
book review by Donny Jacobs
Over thirty years before E. Annie Proulx won national acclaim for her 1997 short story "Brokeback Mountain," and nearly forty years before that story was turned into an Oscar-winning motion picture, a book written by an obscure pulp fiction author took the paperback publishing world by storm. The most successful Gay fiction novel of the 1960s, Song Of The Loon is reputed to have sold over 100,000 copies. It was the underground equivalent of a New York Times bestseller in its day. Its popularity among homosexual and enlightened heterosexual readers was so immense that it spawned two sequels, a not-bad parody (Fruit Of The Loon) and an independent "art house" film.

Editor and critic Michael Bronski stresses the book's historical significance and groundbreaking nature. He calls it "a completely original and dazzling novel that marked a turning point in the evolution of Gay literature . . . it was a cultural milestone (that) retains its resonance and power today." At a time when love between men was criminalized and widely considered a pathological disorder, Song of The Loon conveyed a strong message to the contrary. That message, in Bronski's words, was that "only by loving oneself, essentially accepting the fact that (being) Gay is good, can one ever love other people and be at peace with the world."

Novels with homosexual main characters have been available in the United States at least since the 1920s. Written mostly by heterosexual authors, their tone was more often than not tragic. Lesbians and Gay men were portrayed as doomed, haunted figures, invariably fated to loneliness, unhappiness, depravity, blackmail, mental illness and/or death. The Well Of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall’s controversial 1928 classic is probably the best example of this dreary tradition. You can also find doomed homosexual types in theatrical works like The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman (1936) and Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer(1958).

Slowly but surely, the tragic tone of Gay fiction began to change, helped along by progressive Gay writers like Gore Vidal and Mary Renault(though ironically, the success of “Brokeback Mountain” may spark a revival of the tragic Gay love story). By the early 1960s, such books were more likely to be published in paperback than hardback, and their sexual content was far more explicit than had previously been allowed. The stage was set for the revolutionary concept of same-gender love that Song Of The Loon presented. Agitated by a burgeoning Civil Rights movement and the spirit of social protest in the air, homosexual men were ready for it.

Richard Wallace Love wrote paperback fiction under the pen name Richard Amory. A homosexual man himself, Love hated the kinds of sensational Gay novels that proliferated in the 1950s and '60s; they sported lurid titles like Hot Pants Homo, Warped Women, Cocksure and Train Station Sex. He felt that stories about Lesbians and Gay men could and should reach for a higher standard. The mores of the day ensured that paperback books with homosexual protagonists would be marketed as pornographic titles; there was nothing he could do about that. His editor demanded lots of sexual content, and there was nothing he could do about that, either. Even so, he was determined to write Song Of The Loon in such a way that it could not be dismissed as pornography.

The sexual content would serve a purpose other than prurience, and the story itself would have real literary merit. Love structured his first novel in the style of Spanish pastoral novels of the 16th century; in particular, he was influenced by an erotic narrative written by Gaspar Gil Polo called La Diana Enamorada. Proceeding at a leisurely pace, he wrote his masterwork in 1964 and 1965 while working as a graduate teaching assistant at San Francisco State University. The first of his three Loon books was published by San Diego-based Greenleaf Press in 1966.

Song Of The Loon chronicles the amorous adventures of a young man named Ephraim McIver as he explores the mountainous countryside of 19th century Oregon. The novel's other major characters include fur trapper Cyrus Wheelright, the man destined to become Ephraim's life companion; an elderly Indian guide named Ixtlil Cuauhtli; Ephraim's abusive ex-lover Clarence Montgomery; and a Conservative Christian missionary known only as Mr. Calvin. During his trek, Ephraim meets members of the Loon Society, a secret Native American brotherhood of homosexual men. Non-native men may join the Society, too, and he will eventually be inducted into its ranks by the enigmatic leader of the brotherhood, Bear-Who-Dreams. The narrative contains much description of the beautiful Oregon countryside, and it pauses frequently for romantic poetry interludes.

Despite the heavily romantic tone, no women characters appear or are discussed in Song Of The Loon. Certain scurrilous biographers of Richard Wallace Love have used this fact to suggest that he was a misogynist. Not true! Love supported the Feminist movement and was definitely not a woman-hater. In a 1970 interview, he explained that the exclusion of female characters allowed him an economy of storytelling he wouldn't have had otherwise. One can argue that the integration of women characters might have added an interesting dynamic to Song Of The Loon. On the other hand, the all-male setting spared readers from having to read about men cheating on or otherwise abusing their wives, as happens in "Brokeback Mountain."

A fascinating and superbly-written sequence describing an Indian spirit quest proves pivotal to later events. By the end of the novel, the lives of several major characters are transformed. Ephraim McIver's mountain journey ends up being about self-acceptance, and about overcoming the fear and confusion he feels since fleeing Clarence Montgomery's drunken rages. It's not a journey for prudes, though! Ephraim becomes physically intimate with nearly every man he encounters. However, true to his literary intentions, Richard Wallace Love wasn't just trying to make his readers drool over steamy copulation scenes. He wanted to begin a dialogue about the nature of true love, and about the possibility of loving several people at once.

A key passage appears right after Ephraim's first erotic encounter with an Indian named Singing Heron. Alarmed when the Indian reveals that he already has a lover, he worries that the man will seek revenge on them. Singing Heron responds: "You suffer from the White man's disease . . . it is called jealousy, but sometimes I think it is called selfishness. If I love one man, can I not love another at the same time? If one man has filled my heart with love, can I not share it with another? If I make love to you, that does not mean that I love another less. I do not want to own you as I would a puppy . . . that isn't love, Ephraim." Song Of The Loon is filled with provocative socio-political messages like this. Given what took place in years subsequent to its publication, these messages would appear to have resonated strongly with Gay male readers.

Richard Wallace Love's unique portrayals of homosexual relationships in 1966 presaged several important developments in what would later come to be called "Gay Culture." For example, the formation of a community of men who openly identified as Gay; the freewheeling sexuality that came to characterize that community; the widespread belief that Gay men really were men, not male perverts or women trapped in male bodies; the phenomenon of "Clones," large groups of rugged, masculine-identified Gay men who rejected effeminate behavior; the rise of a rural-based "Radical Faerie" movement that emphasized country living and the creation of homoerotic art, music and poetry; the spread of "Bear Culture," whose portly adherents decried the worship of "perfect" male bodies; and the growth of a "Longhaired Men" enclave within both Radical Faerie and Bear Culture, whose members promoted and embraced romantic male imagery. Precedents for all of these societal changes can be found to a greater or lesser extent in the pages of Love's first novel.

The fantasy world depicted in Song Of The Loon where Gay men celebrate same-gender love pretty much came to life in San Francisco, New York City and other large metropolitan areas during the 1970s. To be sure, it was a world far different from the secretive one Richard Wallace Love came of age in; between 1957 and 1969, he lived the double life of a married father of three who had homosexual affairs on the side. He belonged to an earlier generation of Gay men who saw their sexuality as something that should be hidden away; yet, he was a visionary.

Regardless of how influential Love may or may not have been in the evolution of a positive Gay identity, there can be no doubt that his work had a powerful impact. The book he's remembered for, as well as a writer's circle he founded called The Renaissance Group did much to legitimize the Gay fiction genre. His Loon Society sequels, Aaron's Song and Listen! The Loon Sings were published by Greenleaf Press in 1968 and 1969, respectively. Other "Richard Amory" novels include Longhorn Drive, A Handsome Young Man With Class, Naked On Main Street (all published in 1969), Frost (1971) and Willow Song(1974). He died, reportedly in San José, California, in 1981.

Historians hail Song Of The Loon as a milestone in the Gay Liberation movement, and that‘s understandable. However, Richard Wallace Love's novel is so finely-crafted, and so compelling, its appeal need not be limited to homosexual men. When the book was excerpted in Michael Bronski’s fiction anthology Pulp Friction(St. Martin’s Press, 2003), popular demand prompted its reissue by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2005. (At this writing, it’s still selling briskly on amazon.com.)

The existence of the aforementioned film adaptation provides further evidence of its broad appeal. Slapped with an "X" rating by the Motion Picture Assocation, Song Of The Loon opened at various “specialty” houses in the summer of 1970. It starred Morgan Royce as Ephraim McIver and was directed by Andrew Herbert, who would later work as a film editor on such mainstream Hollywood movies as Up The Academy(1980). Even with male frontal nudity on display the film didn‘t make much money, but that’s probably because it wasn’t faithful to the story or the characters. Ephraim's character died at the end of the movie(he doesn‘t in the novel), and all the Native American roles were played by White actors! What’s more, the supposedly racy man-on-man sex scenes were even tamer than the one between Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall in last year's major studio adaptation of "Brokeback Mountain." Still, interest in this film has remained high enough to justify its release on video a few years back, and copies of it have become much-sought-after collector’s items.

Song Of The Loon deserves to be rediscovered by contemporary erotic fiction fans, and without question, it should be re-filmed someday. Done properly, it would make an excellent “chick flick!” Unfortunately, the American filmgoing public isn’t even close to being ready for Richard Wallace Love's radical visions yet; the crass Gay cowboy jokes that have multiplied in the wake of Brokeback Mountain’s success indicate as much. The typical audience at a suburban multiplex cinema would surely find a Song Of The Loon movie hard to digest; a big screen version of TV's “Will And Grace” would probably be more to its taste. It's easy to predict what kind of reaction religious right wing elements would have . . . just imagine what Pat Robertson might feel forced to say! (On second thought, let's not imagine that.)

Even if released in today's tolerant climate, it's not inconceivable that such a film would still be rated "X." Maybe in our children’s or grandchildren’s lifetimes, serious same-gender love stories will not seem so threatening. Until then, this remarkable Gay western novel from the 1960s will remain a major media event waiting to happen.