25 April 2007

Connie Francis (Part Four)

Movie Greats Of The '60s

Groovy Movie Queen
Connie Francis On Broadway and In Hollywood
A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Production
Screenplay by Donny Jacobs
For her final showtune album project, Concetta turned her attention closer to home: Broadway, and great tunes culled from great shows like Man Of La Mancha, Sweet Charity, Fiddler On The Roof and Cabaret. In the late '60s, these songs were all over Pop radio airwaves. Happiness: Connie Francis On Broadway Today was her musical tribute to the Great White Way. In the Spring of 1967, she and Bob Morgan (arguably the best producer she ever worked with at M-G-M Records) put veteran arrangers Joe Sherman and Frank Hunter together with her touring music director Joe Mazzu and assigned each man four songs to orchestrate.

The most exciting arrangements ended up coming from Hunter's pen. His hard-swinging charts for "Hallelujah, Baby", "Sherry," ""If My Friends Could See Me Now" and the theme from Cabaret lit a fire under Connie's dormant Jazz instincts. She belts these numbers out like Sophie Tucker reincarnated, and has a ball doing it. Sherman, co-producer of her chart-topping 1960 hits "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" and "My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own", predictably turned in more Pop-oriented charts. His beautiful waltz-time backing for "My Cup Runneth Over" (widely remembered as a hit single for Ed Ames, but originally heard in the musical I Do! I Do!) rivals every track from Connie's highly-regarded 1963 Great American Waltzes collection. Also, his Dixieland-flavored arrangement for "Walkin' Happy" surrounds Concetta with the kind of vintage music ambiance she always thrived in.

Surprisingly, Joe Mazzu's contributions mostly disappoint. His musical backing for Connie's versions of the Fiddler On The Roof theme and "My Best Beau" from Mame is unremarkable, and his listless chart for "Happiness" (from You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown) makes you wish this song hadn't been chosen as the album's title track. The exception (and how!) is Mazzu's majestic orchestration for "The Impossible Dream." As soon as Connie finished laying on one of her angst-ridden vocal performances, this legendary Broadway standard became an essential part of her catalogue; just to hear her sing this number alone was, and is, worth the price of the entire album.

The handful of limp arrangements notwithstanding, Connie's Broadway album deserved to be bought in large quantities. However, it suffered the same poor commercial reception as its predecessor, Movie Greats Of The '60s. There could be no doubt now that this genre of music just wasn't selling for her anymore. Yet her studio love affair with show music continued. In the summer of 1968, she and Don Costa booked New York's A & R Studios where they produced her much-loved album of hit songs from the 1930s, Connie and Clyde. They managed to sneak six numbers from movies and musical revues onto the album, and these selections number among Connie's most popular recordings. Her (very) light Jazz renditions of " You Oughta Be In Pictures", "With Plenty Of Money And You" and "We're In The Money" treated Connie Francis fans to a virtual sip of bootleg hooch, and they loved the taste. (They still do; to date, Connie and Clyde is one of the artist's most reissued LPs).

However, Concetta didn't make any serious musical statements on this album until she removed the tongue from her cheek and got down to some soulful singing. That's what distinguishes her work on "Am I Blue?", the Fats Waller classic "Ain't Misbehavin'", and Yip Harburg's Great Depression anthem "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?" Her bravura performance on the latter song in particular packs an unforgettable emotional wallop. So ended Connie's album excursions into the world of stage and screen music. From a strictly commercial standpoint, La Franconero may have failed to make consistently successful showtune recordings, but from an artistic point of view, she triumphed and then some!

Of course, the movie music Connie Francis is best known for comes from her own films. Her biggest movie hit was "Where The Boys Are," and considering how popular both the song and the film were, it's unfathomable why M-G-M Records would fail to market a soundtrack album. They didn't even release the original version of the song! Producer Jesse Kaye cut the movie version of "Where The Boys Are" in Hollywood with arranger Pete Rugulo, while Ray Ellis and Arnold Maxin cut the single version mainly in New York City with Stan Applebaum's orchestra(dispatched to Hollywood, Joe Sherman worked on the vocal tracks).

It took nearly forty years, but the actual soundtrack recordings were finally issued on a Rhino Records compilation called (what else?) Where The Boys Are: Connie Francis In Hollywood. Not only were movie music buffs able to enjoy to an extended stereo version of the theme with its exotic Hawaiian instrumentation, they also took home a crisp stereo take of "Turn On The Sunshine", the other Greenfield/Sedaka tune Connie performed in the film. Both are excellent performances. There's not a Connie Francis fan alive who doesn't think letting these fine tracks gather dust in the vaults was a criminal offense!

M-G-M Records didn't drop the ball a second time. When Follow The Boys came out in February of 1963, the film and soundtrack album were released to the public simultaneously. Connie sang four songs in the movie, not enough to even fill an album side, so Side One was augmented by LeRoy Holmes' instrumental music, while Side Two featured six bonus songs. By 1963, Connie Francis was firmly established as a singer of frothy ballads; that's what her fans expected to hear her sing on screen, and that's what dominates the soundtrack LP. In addition to the big orchestra theme(naturally, another hit single for her), veteran Brill Building songwriters Benny Davis and "Ted" Murray Mencher gave her "Waiting For Billy", without a doubt one of the frothiest numbers she'd ever sing. Unfortunately, it's a tough track to listen to; Connie's performance, Danny Davis' production and the song itself are all drowning in campy sentimentality and false emotion. "Baby's First Christmas" is the only item in her catalogue that boasts a higher treacle factor than "Waiting For Billy."

On a more positive note, Davis and Mencher anticipated the mid-'60s Indian music fad by writing "Tonight's My Night," a dance number set to a jerky Hindu rhythm. Connie performs it with lots of brio, as if she were serenading a crowd of revelers at an Italian wedding reception. Since the film had a Mediterranean setting, she takes the liberty of delivering several lines in her ancestral tongue. Italian lyrics also feature prominently in her fourth soundtrack song, "Italian Lullaby"; Concetta sat down and composed this ballad herself in collaboration with lyricist Marty Panzer, and it's everything "Waiting For Billy" needed to be: Delicate, tender and heartwarming. Later re-recorded in multiple languages, "Follow The Boys", "Tonight's My Night" and "Italian Lullaby" would go on to scale the Pop charts in various foreign countries. As had been the case with Where The Boys Are, different versions were used in the film. Arranged by Ron Goodwin, conducted by Geoff Love and recorded under Norman Newell's supervision in London, these tracks have yet to be issued commercially; another criminal offense, to be sure!

The Groovy Movie Queen made her best case for sustained film stardom with Looking For Love, her third M-G-M movie. It featured her best role, dizzy nightclub singer Libby Caruso; her best comedic acting, modelled after the madcap antics of Lucille Ball; and her best soundtrack music, produced by Danny Davis and composed by three crack Brill Building teams: Hank Hunter and Stan Vincent, Benny Davis and "Ted" Murray Mencher, and Gary Geld and Pete Udell. For good measure, a pair of golden oldies was thrown into the mix: Sammy Cahn's "Be My Love," originally performed by Mario Lanza in his 1950 film Toast Of New Orleans, and Jimmy McHugh's "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me," first heard in a 1927 revue called Gay Paree. Fueled by Broadway musical-calibre arrangements from the pens of Klaus Ogermann, Leo Arnaud, Skip Martin and Joe Mazzu, Connie's performances leapt off the screen and the turntable with equal effervesence. Accompanied by the augmented Raindrops(singer/songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich), she gives Chubby Checker's Twist a shot of adrenaline with the funky theme song; crisp handclappings and a great sax solo helped make it a dance floor favorite in the Far East. (Both the Rock and Jazz versions of "Looking For Love" from the soundtrack album outshine the stiff, march-time single version, recorded in Nashville; deservedly, it stalled outside Billboard's Top Forty.)

German record-buyers responded enthusiastically to "Let's Have A Party", easily Connie's best Rock'n'Roll performance in a movie; the backing band bears down hard while she lets fly with a Blues-tinged vocal worthy of Jackie DeShannon or Brenda Lee. Ballad lovers could satisfy themselves with Geld and Udell's "Whoever You Are, I Love You", frothy like "Waiting For Billy" but far more believable and memorable. As for Jazz lovers, especially those who longed for La Franconero to brandish her Swing chops more often, they were spoiled for choice! The aforementioned oldies, plus "This Is My Happiest Moment", "When The Clock Strikes Midnight" and a wicked good Swing version of "Looking For Love" surely had their toes wiggling in ecstasy. Yet again, there's a difference between the film and album music; Looking For Love's original soundtrack recordings, conducted in Hollywood by Metro's longtime music director Georgie Stoll, remained unissued. However, four of those alternate versions appear on Rhino's Where The Boys Are compilation.

Connie's final M-G-M film, When The Boys Meet The Girls, saw her being upstaged by an army of musical co-stars, including Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, Liberace, Sam The Sham and The Pharaohs, and Herman's Hermits. Produced by Jesse Kaye, with musical direction from veteran movie arranger Fred Karger, her duets with Harve Presnell on warmed-over George Gershwin tunes like "I Got Rhythm" and "But Not For Me" sound competent and nothing more. However, Concetta rose above mediocrity with two fabulous solo numbers: Karger's frantic Country Rocker "Mail Call", which sounds like an outtake from a mid-'60s Elvis Presley movie; and the gorgeous theme song, written by Howard Greenfield and Jack Keller and conducted by the great Pop/Rock bandleader Ernie Freeman. Musically and lyrically, this latter song ranks with legendary M-G-M movie themes like "Singin' In The Rain", "The Trolley Song" and "Over The Rainbow", and Connie's magnificent rendition will go down in history as her finest soundtrack vocal. When The Boys Meet The Girls is the only true Connie Francis soundtrack album ever released; recordings in the movie are identical to the recordings on wax, although the vinyl version of "I've Got Rhythm" is severely truncated. You have to buy the Rhino CD to hear the superior six-minute stereo version.

These three soundtrack LPs, along with the aforementioned quartet (quintet?) of albums encapsulate Connie Francis' showtune repertoire on vinyl, but not the complete repertoire. The bombshell from Belleville loved movie and stage music so much, she'd slip it onto an album date whenever she could. The proof is in the grooves. Check out The Exciting Connie Francis, where you'll find her incandescent version of "Time After Time"; My Thanks To You, where her unforgettable rendition of "Bells Of Saint-Mary" (sung by Bing Crosby in the film of the same title) holds forth; Songs To A Swinging Band, where she fixes you with her "Angel Eyes"; Irish Favorites, where you'll hear both "It's A Great Day For The Irish" and "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?"; A New Kind Of Connie, where she gives you "More" and a heart-rending rendition of Fanny Brice's "My Man" besides; or For Mama, where you discover a waxing of "What Kind Of Fool Am I?" that nearly puts Sammy Davis, Jr's hit single to shame(no mean feat)!

That's just the half of it.  Don't miss All-Time International Favorites, where she puts her bilingual stamp on Bobby Darin's "Mack The Knife"; Jealous Heart, where she enchants you with "My Foolish Heart"; Live At The Sahara In Las Vegas where she treats you to "Sunrise, Sunset," another jewel from the score of Fiddler On The Roof, and the future movie soundtrack smash "La Bamba"; the criminally rare Kids Next Door album, where she sings "Supercalifra . . . fra. . . fra . . ." ahem! That tongue-twister of a song from Mary Poppins; Hawaii Connie, where "Harbor Lights" flicker and the waters off "Blue Hawaii" are as blue as can be; and Connie Francis Sings Bacharach and David, where you find her covers of "Alfie", "The Look Of Love" and a pair of tunes from the musical "Promises, Promises" . . . and a true fan would surely be remiss if he didn't search out Concetta's wonderful movie music performances on 45. They include "I Never Had A Sweetheart" from Rock, Rock, Rock, "Valley Of Love" from Sheriff Of Fractured Jaw, "Born Free", "My Buddy", "When The Boy In Your Arms(Is The Boy In Your Heart)", "Al Di Là", "Never Before" and her sensational, Dixieland-flavored post-M-G-M Records release "I Don't Want To Walk Without You."

It probably wouldn't be wise to call Connie Francis a "groovy movie queen" to her face! While Ms. Franconero doesn't lack a sense of humor, she is a serious artist, after all. Nobody who knows her would deny that she's a groovy lady, though, and her many fine recordings of showtunes on screen and on wax have certainly earned her the right to be called a movie queen. Such a grand title befits the grand legacy of music she has amassed. Connie's more recent studio recordings have been Rock'n'Roll-oriented, but here at the Pop Culture Cantina, we're convinced she's got more great vocal tracks to lay on classic songs from Broadway and Hollywood. Let's all hope she does so, and with any luck, her legion of fans will get to hear them.

Connie Lavender

Vintage concert photo of Connie Francis courtesy
Mike Motta and Michael Wright.

Dedicated to the late Ron Rooks, proprietor of Kansas City's late lamented Music Exchange, who sold me most of the Connie Francis albums found in my personal collection.


Matthias said...

Check this out: http://www.amazon.de/Cocktail-Connie-Jazz-Club-Francis/dp/B002BZQHPY/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1245926007&sr=8-2


It's great that Connie's jazzy sides are starting to get more attention from reissue producers. Don't miss Part Two of this series, "Jive, Connie, Jive".

acaciadad said...

Connie Francis is large underappreciated today. She had great vocal range and amazing versatility, as well as fluency in several languages. She was far more than the teeny-bopper chanteuse that today's fans have reduced her to in retrospect. One of my favorite cuts of hers is a mariachi rendering of Buddy Holly's Tex-Mex classic "Heartbeat." Given that artists as diverse as Jerry Garcia and Santana appreciated the bespectacled Lubbock singer-songwriter, she's in good company. It would have been interesting to see her take an equally adventurous approach on Holly's other songs on her tribute album. Still, several of her performances are outstanding and prove that if the source music is of truly good quality, any great artist can put his or her signature on it in while making it a compelling piece of work.