03 August 2010

Connie Francis (Part Five)

Connie Smiling

Lipstick On Your Collar
. . . and 59 More Reasons Why Connie Francis Belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
by Donny Jacobs

Lipstick on your collar/Told a tale on you
Lipstick on your collar/Said you were untrue
Bet your bottom dollar/You and I are through
'Cause lipstick on your collar/Told a tale on you*
*Copyright 1959 Anne-Rachel Music(ASCAP), administered by Chappell and Company.

When you think about the stars of early Rock'n'Roll, women's names don't immediately spring to mind. Instead, you remember male stars like Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and, of course, Elvis. There were plenty of women on the scene, though. You had femme songwriters like Deborah Chessler, Dorothy La Bostrie and Beverly Ross. You had femme members of otherwise male vocal groups like Rosalie Hamlin of Rosie and The Originals, Janet Vogel of The Skyliners and Zola Taylor of The Platters. You had non-Rock women who dabbled in the new sound, like Sarah Vaughn, Kay Starr and Patsy Cline. You had dozens of R & B female vocal stars like Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker and Faye Adams. You had youngsters like The Teen Queens, The Bobbettes, and The Chantels, setting the stage for a Girl Group explosion in the early '60s. You had up-and-coming talents like Jackie DeShannon, Jo-Ann Campbell and Brenda Lee, who flew under the radar in the beginning; and you had a smattering of successful Rock'n' Roll women like Connie Francis.

From the time she first began recording in 1955 until her first big Italian-language hit in 1960, Connie was a Rock act. She cut Rock'n'Roll singles and performed them at Rock'n'Roll venues. Then she shifted gears. The public's overwhelmingly positive reception to "Mama" and, following in rapid succession, the Country-flavored "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" and "My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own" prompted her to concentrate on the Adult-Contemporary market. She correctly perceived a stronger fan base among Adults, and decided to cultivate it.

Contrary to what you may have heard, though, this Brooklyn-born Jersey girl never stopped cutting Rock tunes; she just didn't do it as often! At one of her last sessions for M-G-M Records, she covered "Reuben James", the 1969 hit for Kenny Rogers and The First Edition. A few months earlier, she'd seriously considered recording "Angel Of The Morning", which later charted for Merrilee Rush and The Turnabouts. Rock'n'Roll remained on the menu of music styles Connie Francis offered up to her fans, along with Country, Jazz, Latin, Pop standards, showtunes, children's songs and International repertoire.

True, albums that concentrated on Rock material were few and far between after 1959; but through the 1960s, Connie featured many Rock tunes on albums and singles that were released both inside and outside the United States. Here's a CD box set's worth of those tunes for your consideration:

Mister Twister
(John Berry, Don Covay, Mark Lewis)
Co-written by Soul legend Don Covay, "Mister Twister" is arguably Connie Francis's finest Rock'n'Roll record: it's a whole lot bluesy and a little bit spicy, with a bitchin' cha-cha beat that won't quit! Like Petula Clark's French chart-topper "Ya Ya Twist", it's one of the best Chubby Checker-inspired songs you've probably never heard. A Black male vocal group accompanies Connie on this side, but unlike when other White acts of the period harmonized with Black singers, her voice doesn't stick out like a sore thumb. The brothers are in the groove, and Sister Francis is right up in there groovin' with them! Connie was as much at home with Black musicians as she was with the decidedly whitebread Mitchell Ayres Orchestra, with whom she cut tunes for Armed Forces radio.

The Tiger And The Mouse
(Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman)
The 1950s was the golden era of Rockabilly, and several of Connie's hits fall into that category: Certainly "Stupid Cupid" and "Lipstick On Your Collar" do. Here's one slice of blue-eyed R & B that got away. "The Tiger And The Mouse" was cut as a possible follow-up to "Lipstick" but never released; Connie had no trouble nailing the song, but something about it didn't suit her. A pair of takes were completed at two separate sessions, but neither met with her satisfaction. If only she had decided to bear down on this Pomus/Shuman number instead of on "No One"(more about which will be said later).

Looking For Love
(Hank Hunter, Stan Vincent)
One of the few bad recordings Connie made during her M-G-M tenure was the 45 RPM version of "Looking For Love". The theme of her third movie was a highlight of the film soundtrack: Featuring Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and other assembled backing voices, it was a funky boogaloo with a wild sax solo. Klaus Ogermann's swingin' arrangement was recycled when she re-cut the song for the soundtrack album. For some unknown reason, she and producer Danny Davis decided to wax a third version .  After an aborted attempt in Nashville, New York arranger Alan Lorber came up with a new orchestration they liked; but the lugubrious march-time master they completed was just awful.  It wasn't Rock'n'Roll, either (Ace Records' inexplicable decision to include it on a recent Connie Francis Rock retrospective notwithstanding), but somehow it got pressed up as a single. The public's response was decidedly lukewarm. When executive producer Bill Levenson forced me to accept this dog of a track on Connie's Souvenirs box set in 1996, it left a very bad taste in my mouth. Now it pleases me to call your attention to the cut I wanted programmed in its place; the movie version of "Lookin' For Love" is one of the best '60s Pop/Rock album cuts you'll ever want to hear.

(Brad Boobis, Neil Nephew)
Connie was much too convincing as a teen sexpot caught up in a maelstrom of hormonal lust when she recorded "Eighteen", her strongest bid for radio airplay prior to the release of "Who's Sorry Now?" If the track had featured any more of her libidinous squeals, it might've been banned for suggestiveness!

Telephone Lover
(Eddie Curtis)
The best thing about this jazzy rocker from Connie's Dance Party album is the comedic monologue she opens the song with: Why don't you come over to my house and talk me more of that sweet talk, hmmm? Darling? Hel-lo? Hel-lo? Hel-lo? It's a playful nod to the Big Bopper's 1958 smash "Chantilly Lace". Iconic though it may be, JP Richardson's record actually pales in comparison: He couldn't sing R & B like Connie, and he didn't have the Apollo Theatre's music director Sammy Lowe putting his studio band though its paces. Lowe's strategic use of strings and horns on this track is very effective.

Plenty Good Lovin'
(Connie Francis)
There was such a thing as a Rock 'n' Roll orchestra in the '50s, but the group playing on "Plenty Good Lovin'" certainly isn't an example of one. It's the kind of Swing-era big band Kate Smith would've been comfortable with 20 years earlier! Despite Ray Ellis's anachronism of an arrangement, Connie's song lyrics about hotrod cars and twangy guitars are bursting with '50s Rock sensibility; she delivers them with a winking eye and a cocky swagger.

It'll Never Happen Again
(Tim Hardin)
This is the lesser of two Tim Hardin songs Connie recorded with producer Pete Spargo in the fall of 1966. Clearly aimed at the same people who bought Little Anthony and The Imperials hits, it's something of a throwback to her '50s Rock ballad style.

It Happened Last Night
(Leonard Whitcup, Earl Wilson, Slugger Wilson)
There's undoubtedly an interesting story behind this song, one that has yet to be told. Here are the facts: In 1962, gossip guru Earl Wilson helmed a popular nightlife column for The New York Post; titled "It Happened Last Night", it ran until the early 1980s. Somebody, possibly Connie's manager, may have thought she'd do well to get in his good graces. Whatever the case, she agreed to cut a song that Wilson and his son had written to capitalize on his column's notoriety. All concerned probably expected a throwaway album track, and indeed it did end up on an LP(Second Hand Love). However, the track turned out great! Don Costa wrote a swirling Rock-a-Tango arrangement, and Connie graced it with a joyfully effervescent performance.  In addition to the album exposure, M-G-M Records featured the tune on an extended play disc; in a review published on 14 July 1962, Billboard enthused that it "could give the EP the kind of action normally reserved for a single."  That didn't happen, probably because plugging "Last Night" more aggressively would've invited nasty quid pro quo accusations!  Yet even 48 years later, this wonderful waxing all but screams its hit record potential.

Connie 5

You Always Hurt The One You Love
(Doris Fisher, Allan Roberts)
A surprise UK hit, pulled from the Who's Sorry Now? album by M-G-M Record's British branch. Take note of how Connie introduces Country music phrasing as she nears the climax of this Rock ballad remake: You always break the ki-indest heart/With one hasty word you can't even re-member. If you're looking for stylistic purity, don't expect to find it on a Connie Francis album! The woman simply loved to blend styles. Her adventurous spirit never failed to confound critics with narrow concepts of what Rock'n'Roll should sound like.

Capatosta Sweet
(Leo Chiosso, Sandro Taccani)
Underneath the bubbly exterior of Connie Francis lay a dormant Punk Rock princess! Atypical songs like "Capatosta Sweet", with their raw interplay of drums and guitar, brought that secret side out in her. "Sweet" was issued in Italy on the flipside of "Aiutami A Piangere", one of La Franconero's continental hits. Rocking singles like this one, written as well as sung in a foreign language, helped spread the genre's popularity outside the English-speaking world. Connie wasn't the only recording artist who tailored product for foreign export this way, but the massive international following she commanded made a big difference in sales and airplay.

Where The Boys Are
(Howie Greenfield, Neil Sedaka)
Connie and her vocal coach Joe Sherman worked exceptionally hard on the voice tracks for "Where The Boys Are." She'd sung movie music before (in the films Rock, Rock, Rock, Jamboree, The Big Land and The Sheriff Of Fractured Jaw), but this was her first big movie theme; she wanted it to be perfect! This hit single previewed the slightly more nasal singing voice she'd start using regularly by the mid-1960s. While there's far more Pop than Rock'n'Roll influence in "Boys"(and the version cut for the movie isn't Rock-influenced at all), no retrospective of teen sounds from the early '60s would be complete without this international blockbuster. Like it or not, frothy ballads were an essential part of the early Rock scene, especially for women performers.

(Hank Hunter, Stan Vincent)
By 1964, the kind of swooning Rock ballad Connie was famous for in the '50s and early '60s had fallen out of favor; few composers were even writing them anymore. However, when her staff songwriters Hunter and Vincent wrote a new song in this mold and played it for her, she couldn't resist cutting it. The vintage 1958 groove of "Tommy" all but begged for her indelible imprint. Hiring The Tokens to sing back-up, Connie produced it herself and sneaked it onto the flipside of her next single, a contemporary Pop ballad. Ironically, that ballad predated the Rock era: It was a lush update of Eddy Howard's 1952 smash "Be Anything".

Robot Man
(Sylvia Dee, George Goehring)
"Robot Man", a tune Connie despised with a passion, is typical of Rock novelties that were popular in the late 1950s; other examples include Sheb Woolley's "Purple People Eater", "Transfusion" by Nervous Norvus, and Dickie Goodman's wild science fiction send-ups. As her audience matured, she stopped cutting these kinds of records, but at the beginning of her career, she waxed no small number of them. Concetta Franconero was the kind of professional who never let personal tastes influence her choice of material, and who never gave any song less than her best efforts. Here, those efforts paid off with a British best-seller.

Toward The End Of The Day
(Leo Delibes, Ray Ellis, Al Stillman)
The only Rock ballad producer Ray Ellis is known to have written for Connie is a stone keeper: A langorous slow dance number that was guaranteed to get teenage couples necking furiously. A more staid Neapolitan version of "Toward The End Of The Day" appears on Connie's Italian Favorites album.

(Howie Greenfield, Neil Sedaka)
"Fallin" is one of the all-time great Habanera Rock songs, as well as one of the sexiest performances on record by a '50s Rock singer. Get that image of a poodle-skirted, pony-tailed Connie out of your mind! This is La Franconero coming across like Sophia Loren, oozing dark glamour and dangerous curves. Her bee-stung lips and mambo hips are extending an offer you can't refuse: "Wanna dance? The name ain't 'baby', though, it's Connie . . . Miss Francis, if you're nasty!"

Are You Satisfied?
(Homer Escamellia, Sheb Wooley)
My, what bad habits Concetta Franconera got into, performing Jazz standards on the "Startime Kids" TV show in the early '50s! That was no doubt where her downward slide into sultry Blues belting began. Underage performances in sleazy nightspots also took their toll, so it's no surprise that by 1955, she could lay down a shockingly mature vocal track like this one. Never before and seldom since has the character of a brazen hussy been conveyed so convincingly on wax! Having sunk to such melodic debauchery, it was only a matter of time before Connie added sinful songs like "Baby's First Christmas" and "Yiddishe Momme" to her repertoire . . .

Playin' Games
(Mark Barkan, Hank Hunter)
This album cut from Connie's 1965 For Mama album hails from the same sessions that produced her hit "I'm Gonna Be Warm This Winter". If both songs call to mind Del Shannon records, that's no accident: Shannon's regular music director, Bill Ramal, handled the arrangements. "Playin' Games" is one of many Connie Francis performances that could qualify as Country or Rock.

The Lovey Dovey Twist
(Eddie Curtis)
The most frantic rocker La Franconero ever recorded gathered dust in the tape vaults for three long decades. When Bear Family Records finally unearthed "Lovey Dovey Twist", inferior aural quality couldn't dull its sassy bite. There's simply no other Connie Francis record like it! When she's not reminiscing wickedly about a Twist-crazed boy named Chris who moves every-which-a-way (background singers all but hyperventilating behind her), Connie is tantalizing you with suggestive Southern belle repartée: I can Twist a while for you, honey . . . I mean to tell you, sugar. Noooo, not even for money, honey! Well, all right, then, just dig me. The overall suggestiveness of "Lovey Dovey Twist" is no doubt what nixed its release; it's obviously a Dance Party album outtake, but one that most other artists would surely have pressed up as a single.

No Better Off
(Bobby Elgin, Bert Keyes)
Connie's most ambitious Habanera Rock recording(one which might've taken Latin America by storm had anybody thought to dub a Spanish version) was hidden away on her 1965 album For Mama. She invests it with the raw passion that Latin music demands, and Bert Keye's thunderous Rock-a-Tango arrangement still packs a wallop 45 years after he wrote it.

I'll Get By
(Fred Ahlert, Roy Turk)
Like "You Always Hurt The One You Love", this cut from the Who's Sorry Now album was culled for 45 release in England, where it scored a hit. Connie's alternately lazy and aroused vocal, caressed by Tony Mottola's murmuring guitar chords, is a blessing for the ears; it's like a very satisfying cup of coffee that lasts a long time.

Connie 6

"Lipstick On Your Collar" continues with Part Two.