25 April 2007

Connie Francis (Part Three)

Connie at Freedomland

In September of 1962, songwriter Colin Cooper placed a novelty tune with Connie Francis. In the lyric, a teenage beauty warns her crabby boyfriend to treat her better or else! Watch your step, she tells him, 'Cause, honey, if you treat me mean/The only time you see me is gonna be/From the very last row in the balcony/When I'm a famous, featured/Groovy movie queen!

No, it wasn't such a great song, and Connie wasted no time filing it among her cache of unreleased tapes. Why did she record it at all? Probably because she could relate to the title. She was the only female Pop star of the early '60s to break successfully into movie roles. In December of 1960, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios had released Where The Boys Are to theatres, and the film had become an international box office smash; Connie had both played a featured role and sung Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield's hit theme song over the opening credits. Now, even as she was recording "Groovy Movie Queen," she was wrapping up post-production on her second M-G-M film, Follow The Boys. She'd go before Hollywood's cameras twice more, for 1964's Looking For Love and 1965's When The Boys Meet The Girls (a remake of the 1943 Judy Garland vehicle Girl Crazy) before turning her full attention back to musical pursuits.

Connie Francis's relationship with movie music started before Where The Boys Are, though. As a regular on New York's "Startime Kids" TV series in the early 1950s, Concetta Franconero had performed showtunes along with other members of the cast; and long before an October 1957 recording of "Who's Sorry Now" had vaulted her to stardom, she'd logged movie soundtrack recording dates. A teenage Connie dubbed vocal tracks for Tuesday Weld's "performances" in the 1956 movie musical Rock, Rock, Rock, and she recorded duets with Paul Carr for Warner Brothers' 1957 Rockabilly film Jamboree. A few months later, she ghosted Jayne Mansfield singing "Valley Of Love" in the 1958 western comedy Sheriff Of Fractured Jaw.

She was also cutting songs taken from movies and stage shows by this time; her first was "I Leaned On A Man", heard in The Big Land, a 1957 western starring Alan Ladd. Her second was none other than her first hit, "Who's Sorry Now?" Although written in 1923, the tune had been revived for the 1950 movie Three Little Words. Her third was "I'll Get By", featured in the 1948 film You Were Meant For Me. Included on her Who's Sorry Now? album, it later became a hit single in England. There'd be many more to come. Like her idol, Al Jolson, Connie Francis starred in lead roles and recorded original songs for movies, but her extensive catalog of vintage Hollywood soundtrack and Broadway showtune covers are arguably what most qualify her as a . . .

Never On Sunday

Groovy Movie Queen
Connie Francis On Broadway and In Hollywood
A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Production
Screenplay by Donny Jacobs
August of 1959 found Connie at London's Abbey Road Studios, cutting twelve tracks with producers Ray Ellis and Norman Newell. She was accompanied by Cyril Ornadel and his orchestra. The collection, tentatively titled One For The Boys, was to be a theme album; Connie covered signature hits by Frank Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole, Frankie Laine, Bing Crosby and other male vocal stars. Over half the tracks were songs that had either been introduced or revived in movies. Slated for a November 1959 release, the album was never issued. Connie shelved the project, feeling that Ray Ellis' lush arrangements had overshadowed her singing. She may have planned to cut new backing tracks, but that never happened. Instead, three of the intended LP cuts surfaced on her Valentino EP in the Spring of 1960.

Her covers of Jolson's "You Made Me Love You" and Sinatra's "Young At Heart" were outstanding, but they would've sounded far better in their stereo album mixes. Over three decades passed before Connie's fans could enjoy these performances (plus her pensive version of Johnny Mathis' "It's Not For Me To Say", her exciting, Latin Jazz remake of Perry Como's "Temptation," and her earliest attempt to capture Pat Boone's "April Love") in their full panoramic glory. To date, Bear Family Records' White Sox, Pink Lipstick And Stupid Cupid CD box set is the only place you can find them.

In 1961, M-G-M Records released Connie's first LP collection of motion-picture themes. Waxed at Nashville's Bradley Film and Recording Studios under the supervision of Jim Vienneau, Connie Francis Sings Never On Sunday featured arrangements by Cliff Parman and backing vocals by Millie Kirkham and The Jordanaires. Although it suffers from a low-fidelity sound mix, the music is nothing less than exquisite; Connie's emotional style of singing is a perfect match for the stuttering piano licks, church choirloft harmonies and light-as-a-cloud string sections typical of the Nashville sound.

The title track, a studio take of the Academy Award-winning song she'd performed live at the 1961 Oscars, skips along to an infectious habanera rhythm. By now firmly established as an international artist, Connie tosses a few lines of Greek into her girlishly innocent reading of this sassy prostitute's theme. Her version of "Never On Sunday" became so popular, many of her fans still mistake it for one of her hit singles. She completely transforms the theme from Anna ("El Negro Zumbón"), substituting a brisk merengue beat for its orignal Brazilian baião rhythm and delivering it in flawless Spanish; she handles this hip-shaking number like an Italian-American Celia Cruz! Her actor's approach to the High Noon theme ("Do Not Forsake Me") gives Tex Ritter's original recording a strong run for its money; vocally, Connie submerges herself in the doomed sheriff's role and enhances the song's drama with some compelling introductory narration.

In her hands, Jules Styne and Sammy Cahn's "Three Coins In The Fountain" is a heartbroken cry of desperation; never before and never since has it been sung better. Her forlorn rendition of the song from Moulin Rouge ("Where Is Your Heart?) is a tearjerker, too. The LP's choicest treat may be her vocals on the "Moonglow and Picnic" suite; she approaches it with a bluesy, Jazz-tinged attitude that hints at what a fine R & B vocalist she would have made. Connie actually produced this track herself, which session logs indicate was the last to be cut at the 11 August album date; Jim Vienneau apparently left the session early. Purists may wish that Cliff Parman had given it a jazzier musical background, but most Francis fans find no fault with his slow-burning Rock ballad arrangement.  Connie's enthusiasm for the lyrics of Paul Francis Webster manifests itself on stellar waxings of "April Love" and "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing"; she puts an indelible stamp on these numbers. This superb album, which stayed on Billboard's Top Pop Albums list for 34 weeks and peaked at #11, also features recordings of themes from Tammy and The Bachelor, Around The World In Eighty Days, Young At Heart and Love Me Tender.

La Franconero's second movie theme album, Connie Francis Sings Award-Winning Motion Picture Hits, was recorded in Rome with Geoff Love's orchestra and Norman Newell at the controls. Perfectionist that she is, though, she decided to scrap the backing music and have old standby LeRoy Holmes conduct spare new arrangements. This he did in a New York City studio under Danny Davis's watchful eye. Released in the summer of 1963, the album was a major disappointment chartwise, topping out at #108 in Billboard after only five weeks. Upon hearing the original recordings(which were issued in Australia and New Zealand), many fans would later pronounce the new arrangements inferior. Connie's vocal tracks are identical on both versions of the album, though, and for the most part, they're up to her usual high standards.

Both the Australian and American versions of "Lullaby Of Broadway" are delightful; Papa Franconero's baby girl swings the stuffing out of this Depression-era standard! The album's other highlights include her shimmering renditions of "When You Wish Upon A Star" from Pinocchio, "You'll Never Know" from the wartime comedy flick Four Jills and A Jeep, "The Way You Look Tonight" from the 1936 Rogers and Astaire vehicle Swing Time, "The Last Time I Saw Paris" from Lady, Be Good! and Judy Garland's immortal "Over The Rainbow" from The Wizard Of Oz.

Lyricist Paul Francis Webster is represented by "Secret Love", one of Doris Day's signature tunes; La Franconero employs her awesome vocal skills like a bow-and-arrow, shooting this subtly homoerotic declaration of devotion over the moon. Sammy Cahn's lyrics get the lion's share of attention on this set; Connie lays down memorable, if not definitive versions of the Sinatra originals "High Hopes" and "All The Way." With its pronounced Italian flavor, "Que Sera Sera" sounds tailormade for her, and she damn near steals the song from Doris Day. However, did we really need to hear a cover of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" on this album? Concetta should've saved this juvenile number for one of her children's albums. The failure of Motion Picture Hits to excite the public would've been enough to put the kibosh on most recording artists' future movie song projects; however, Connie exercised total creative control at M-G-M Records, and she wasn't ready to give up on film music yet. Biding her time for three years, she painstakingly assembled another album's worth of movie themes.

In the summer of 1966, M-G-M released Movie Greats Of The '60s, Connie's final LP-length foray into Hollywood music. Produced for the most part by the late Tom Wilson, it featured full orchestras conducted by Don Costa, Frank DeVol, Benny Golson and Larry Wilcox, men who represented the cream of New York and Hollywood arranging talent. Waiting until the mid-'60s to follow up her Motion Picture Hits collection proved to be a smart move; she was able to include most of the memorable movie themes that decade would produce. A quick scan of the sleeve notes reveals song titles drawn from such films as The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, Zorba The Greek, The Sandpiper, The Seven Capital Sins, Inside Daisy Clover, Papa's Delicate Condition, Flight Of The Phoenix and Doctor Zhivago.

Place the album on a turntable, and your ears are rewarded with impeccable versions of "I Will Wait For You," "Zorba's Theme," "The Shadow Of Your Smile", "The Good Life," "You're Gonna Hear From Me", "Call Me Irresponsible", "Senza Fine" and "Somewhere, My Love." Connie's growing maturity as a singer really shows here; no lyrical nuance escapes her, and there's nary a trace of false emotion. Her inspired rendition of "You're Gonna Hear From Me" is arguably the gem of the collection; this Dory Langdon/André Previn song was not considered a potential standard at the time she recorded it, so in choosing it for her repertoire, she demonstrated remarkable foresight. Paul Francis Webster and Sammy Cahn get two songs each on this collection, with "Call Me Irresponsible" being the standout Cahn cover, and Webster's "Somewhere, My Love" being the tune most likely to rate Pop radio acceptance. Connie actually commissioned Webster to write lyrics for the Doctor Zhivago theme, but delayed recording it until after The Ray Conniff Singers had scored the American hit. However, "Somewhere" did become a hit single for her outside the United States; Larry Wilcox's stirring string arrangement merged with Connie's understated vocal to create a solid smash in Latin-America, Scandinavia and the Far East.

Also noteworthy is the inclusion of her 1965 Adult-Contemporary hit "Forget Domani", sung by Perry Como in the M-G-M comedy The Yellow Rolls Royce; this bilingual Swing number, arranged by Don Costa, lent tempo variation to a ballad-heavy set. The same can be said of Benny Golson's whirling dervish of a chart for "Dance My Troubles Away(Theme from Zorba The Greek)"; La Franconero grabs hold of this musical bucking bronco and takes her fans on a wild ride! Despite being many of those fans' favorite Connie Francis film music collection, Movie Greats somehow failed to chart. However, sensing its potential in the ballad-loving Hispanic market, Connie and producer Bob Morgan cut Spanish-language vocal tracks for most of the album's selections a year later and M-G-M reissued it as Grandes Exitos del Cine. With Side One bookended by the smash hits "No Puedo Olvidar" ("Strangers In The Night") and "Sueño de Amor"("Somewhere, My Love"), it became a huge Latin-American best-seller.

Glamour Connie 4

"Groovy Movie Queen" concludes with Part Two.

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