03 August 2010

Connie Francis (Part Seven)

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

Vacation
(Connie Francis, Hank Hunter, Gary Weston)
The summertime hit of 1962, "Vacation" was the kind of rousing, rollicking Pop rocker you might imagine Nat "King" Cole singing. Then again, who else but Connie Francis could lay down such an exuberant vocal track? She cut it in Nashville during sessions for the album Country Music, Connie Style. Both the album and single versions rock out, but methinks the 45 RPM mono mix packs a wee bit more punch! Material with such broad market appeal let Connie split the difference between Teen and Adult Pop crossover.

My First Real Love
(Bobby Darin, Don Kirshner, George Scheck)
There aren't a lot of songs out there which list the late Don Kirshner as co-writer. You won't find too many female vocalist sides with Bobby Darin's overdubbed voice in the background, either. Connie's 1956 foray into Doo-Wop territory shares both distinctions, though. Her Gospel-tinged vocalizing on this and other early singles yanks the rug right out from under critics of her supposedly "whitebread" singing style.

Baby Roo
(Howie Greenfield, Neil Sedaka)
Connie is a natural comedienne, and the deadpan way she sings over this tuba-infested track is just hilarious. Droll Pop novelties like "Baby Roo" are the type of song snooty Rock historians like to pretend never existed. Never mind that even Elvis cut them sometimes(as anybody who's heard "Do The Clam" surely knows)!

Edge Of Forgiveness
(Ritchie Cordell, Sal Trimachi)
People who only associate the names Cordell and Trimachi with late '60s Bubblegum tunes might be surprised to learn that this sophisticated beat ballad is one of their compositions. It's perfect for Connie, and would've made an excellent single.

If I Didn't Care
(Jack Lawrence)
Ray Ellis's update of this vintage 1939 soaper is quite over-the-top, to say the least! The anonymous bass singer comes on like a cross between Paul Robeson and Big Daddy from Tennessee Williams' play Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. You can easily imagine teenage boys rolling their eyes at his hammy ad-libs and jeering every time Connie's remake played on the radio. She does manage to cut through the histrionics, though. Her fiery performance of "If I Didn't Care" just missed Billboard's Top Twenty in the Spring of 1959. To this day, it remains the definitive Rock'n'Roll treatment of the Ink Spots classic.

Whatever Happened To Rose Marie?
(Hank Hunter, Stan Vincent)
Connie brought a sassy Country girl sensibility to urban Girl Group rockers like this one, and the combination was always pure dynamite.

Saturday Night Knight
(Rod McKuen)
Rod McKuen's career as a songwriter has been wide-ranging, encompassing movie themes like the one he composed for The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, ambitious concept albums, and rare Pop singles like Jeff Barry's 1960 Decca single "Why Does The Feeling Go Away?". Connie sampled McKuen's songbook around the same time Jeff did, and found this twistable tune to wrap her Scarlett O'Hara singing voice around. First made available in South Africa, it has yet to gain worldwide release.

Send For My Baby
(Hy Heath, Fred Rose)
Connie claims she learned how to belt R & B from one-time boyfriend Bobby Darin, who coached her in Blues phrasing. However, long before meeting Darin, she was a teenage Jazz and Blues singer, paying her dues in nightclubs. Early singles like "Send For My Baby" gave her the chance to show off her formidable Red Hot Mama chops. Concettina once lamented that she couldn't sing R & B like LaVern Baker, the great Atlantic Records star of the '50s. I beg to differ, and so would anybody else who's ever heard this performance!

I Won't Be Home To You!
(Eddie Curtis)
Nobody would ever accuse Connie Francis of acting like a Mississippi Delta Black woman trapped in the body of a White Jersey girl! That isn't her style at all. However, listening to records like "I Won't Be Home To You" will make you wonder: Could there be an African-American strain in her Italian-American bloodline? Where does she get those Blues diva mannerisms from? The way she roars don't even call me on the phone! halfway through this cut evokes Big Mama "Hound Dog" Thornton at her most ferocious.

Lock Up Your Heart
(Ted Gary, Bernie Lowe, Kal Mann)
People who flipped over Connie's second hit single, "I'm Sorry I Made You Cry" found a track that made the topside sound positively lightweight in comparison. Tony Mottola's seriously soulful guitar licks combine with Connie's smouldering vocals to raise the temperature of this steamy Blues ballad up to fever pitch.  A stereo alternate take exists, but stick with the mono master: It's steamier!

I'm Gonna Be Warm This Winter
(Mark Barkan, Hank Hunter)
One of Connie's biggest international hits, "Winter" demonstrates how she didn't always need to belt lyrics when she wanted to rock out. The little girl voice she reversed for novelties like "Pretty Little Baby" was plenty potent enough to sell this musical Popsicle.

Teddy
(Paul Anka)
Although written for Annette Funicello, and later the subject of a publishing dispute between Connie and composer Paul Anka, Connie's 1960 recording of "Teddy" is the one most people remember. It's also the only version that became a Top Twenty hit. In retrospect, it's easy to read the yearning interpretation she gave the song as a warm-up for her performance of "Where The Boys Are" a year hence.

Someone Else's Boy
(Hal Gordon, Athena Hosey)
This flipside of "Breakin' In A Brand New Broken Heart" is better known to Connie's continental fans in its hit German version, "Schöner Fremder Mann". However, the original English version shows off its Rockabilly pedigree to better effect. In search of a more authentic Country sound, La Franconero followed producer Jim Vienneau back to Nashville after they cut "Someone Else's Boy" in New York City. Her first date at Owen Bradley's famous quonset hut studio yielded her bluesy 1962 single "Hollywood" b/w "He's My Dreamboat", as well as "Pretty Little Baby".

It's A Different World
(Jimmie Crane)
Although Connie Francis's love for vintage styles of music was well-known, that didn't mean she was hopelessly tied to the Pop sounds of the past. "It's A Different World" was her quite credible bid for dominance of the mid-'60s discothèque scene. It was a stylistic departure both for Connie and her music director at the record date, Jazz legend Benny Golson. Despite being sold in a beautiful picture sleeve, the single met with massive indifference; her ballad-hungry fans just didn't want to know from a Mod dance tune! Someday, I hope a hot young independent filmmaker licenses this groovalicious track for his hot new flick, and turn it into the cult smash it was always meant to be.

Connie Greek Style

Frankie
(Howie Greenfield, Neil Sedaka)
Some '50s Rock aficionados turn their noses up at lovelorn ballads like "Frankie"; they'd have you believe that blistering rockers like "Be-Bop-A-Lula", "Peggy Sue" and "Hound Dog" tell the whole story of Rock'n'Roll's fabulous first decade. The truth is that this kind of song, with its heavy appeal to teenage girls, was a staple of Rock'n'Roll radio back then. Nobody could sing these weepers better than Connie, either.

Ich Komm'Nie Mehr Von Dir Los
(Tobby Luth, Winfield Scott)
Using the name of a 17th century American war hero, singer/songwriter Robie Kirk wrote danceable Rock tunes like "Tweedle-Dee" for LaVern Baker and "Gee Whittakers" for Pat Boone, not to mention Elvis's 1962 smash "Return To Sender". He also wrote "Many Tears Ago" for Connie, but the song had a decidedly retro feel when M-G-M Records issued it in 1960. Few people regard it as one of her Rock'n'Roll recordings. Listen to this German version, though, with its foot-stomping, floor-shaking rhythm, and you'll hear the rowdiness her American A & R men failed to bring out.

You're Gonna Miss Me
(Eddie Curtis)
Black songwriter Eddie "Memphis" Curtis was Connie's strongest connection to Rhythm and Blues; it's a shame they stopped working together so early in her career. If she had cut more of his sizzling Blues ballads after "You're Gonna Miss Me", there'd be no question at all about whether she belonged in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. The benefits of their association didn't just flow in one direction, though. Curtis must've been over the moon at having his songs invested with such depth of feeling, not to mention the financial windfall he enjoyed as a result of pulling hits with an international Pop diva.

Groovy Movie Queen
(Colin Cooper)
Sounding like an Ann-Margret outtake from the soundtrack of Bye Bye Birdie, the ludicrous "Groovy Movie Queen" is an example of what later became known as Bubblegum Rock; Connie sampled it at its earliest stage of development, and did so often, if not always willingly! Girl singers like Connie, Annette Funicello and Dodie Stevens popularized this subgenre, which was later dominated by men.

Souvenirs
(Mark Barkan, Dick Heard)
Another catchy "urban cowgirl" record from Connie, with the late Ellie Greenwich quite prominent on backing vocals. For years, it was just an obscure album cut, but in 1996 "Souvenirs" was chosen for the title track of Connie's first (and, to date, last) American CD box set. Alan Lorber is credited with its lively rhythm arrangement, but to trained ears, it sounds more like the work of Lesley Gore's music director Klaus Ogermann. Regardless of who wrote the charts, the lyrics must've struck a familiar chord with Connie: She, like the song's protagonist, was fond of socking away keepsakes to remind her of happy events. That might explain the dewy-eyed reading she bestowed on this melancholy Mark Barkan composition.

Who's Sorry Now?
(Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Ted Snyder)
Connie's first smash hit was a Rock/Jazz hybrid, the Dixieland era updated with Country-tinged vocals and Fats Domino piano triplets. It was a foretaste of the kind of fusion music-making she'd soon specialize in: Country mixed with Rock (1959's Rock and Roll Million-Sellers and Country and Western Golden Hits), Adult-Contemporary Pop spiced with Latin flavorings (1961's Never On Sunday), Folk music crossed with the Blues (1961's Folk Song Favorites), Rock blended with Jazz (1962's Dance Party), Italian and German Pop with a Country music sensibility (1963's Mala Femmena and German Favorites), showtunes with an International flavor (1966's Movie Greats Of The '60s) and Jazz fused with Country (1968's Connie And Clyde) or Brazilian music(1968's Songs Of Bacharach and David). That's the same kind of mash-up approach to music that gave birth to Rock 'n' Roll.

However, when the musical mash-up is heavy on Adult-Contemporary content, the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame doesn't seem to like it. I suspect that's why important early contributors to Rock history like Pat Boone and Connie Francis are passed over for nomination time and time again. This is absurd! Any number of RRHOF inductees recorded a ton of Adult Pop: Dusty Springfield, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Billy Joel, Gene Pitney, The Righteous Brothers and Brenda Lee, just to name a few. And let's not even talk about those quasi-operatic ballads Elvis was fond of cutting! The amount of non-Rock material in an artist's catalogue should have no bearing whatsoever on his or her qualifications for induction. Nor should music industry marketing or public perception of genre classifications. All that should matter is an artist's record of Rock'n'Roll performances and its historical significance.

"There wasn't an original Rock'n'Roll hit before (1958) by any White girl singer," Connie observed in a 1991 interview. "Sure, there were cover versions of things by Georgia Gibbs (and others), but I don't think there were any original rockers by White girls before (I sang) 'Stupid Cupid'." Because Rock was born into an era of musical segregation, it's necessary to take note of racial distinctions like that. It's also necessary to fully acknowledge the role female performers played in popularizing Rock'n'Roll.

It's time to acknowledge Connie Francis as a member of the Rock revolution's First Wave. Her string of hits from February 1958 to October 1959 blazed a commercial trail for female Rock acts who followed in her wake. She was the undisputed Queen of the Rock'n'Roll Ballad: Her unforgettable performances of "You Always Hurt The One You Love", "You're Gonna Miss Me", "If I Didn't Care", "I'll Get By", "It Would Still Be Worth It", "Who's Sorry Now?" and "Don't Break The Heart That Loves You" set the standard for everyone else! Prolonging her career meant distancing herself from the kind of music that first brought her acclaim. However, a change in direction to more Adult-oriented fare didn't erase the essential contributions she'd already made to Rock history.

Nor did that change stop her from making new contributions, particularly in the form of fusion records. Rockabilly was all but dead by the early '60s, but Southern Fried Rock was the wave of the future. La Franconero pointed the way with down-home up tempo sides like "Hollywood", "Gonna Git That Man!", "Love Is Me, Love Is You" and "Over-The-Hill, Underground". Contrary to her reputation as a "retro" artist, Connie was very much ahead of her time in this respect, and guess what?  Girlfriend is still rocking in the country! On her most recent album, a 2000 tribute to Buddy Holly, she sings vintage Rockabilly classics saturated with Tex-Mex, Gospel and Country influences.

These reasons, in addition to the 60 recordings cited here, are more than enough to justify Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero's induction into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. Those of you out there who have the power to do it . . . what the Hell are you waiting for? Light a fire under your damn asses and git 'er done! Just like lipstick on the collar of a cheating boyfriend, your failure to honor this legendary lady will tell a tale on you!

Connie 7

In 1995, I was honored to co-produce and write liner notes for an historic box set called Connie Francis Souvenirs. From a hit singles standpoint, it remains the definitive retrospective of Miss Francis's M-G-M Records output. A definitive compilation of Connie Francis's Rock'n'Roll masters has yet to be marketed. Until one does exist, fans of her Rock recordings should seek out the following releases: Rock Sides(1957-64), Polydor Records 831698-2, released 1987; White Sox, Pink Lipstick And Stupid Cupid, Bear Family Records 15616E1 (5-CD box set), released 1993; Kissin', Twistin', Goin' Where The Boys Are, Bear Family Records 15826E1 (5-CD box set), released 1996; I Remember Buddy Holly, K-Tel Entertainment 3521, released 2000. All are highly recommended by Cantina staff.