In the fertile musical culture of the early sixties, the music and image of Connie Francis dominated popular culture in a way unseen until Madonna began her reign in the early eighties. No other female vocalist of her era could match both the heights of her chart popularity and the enigmatic sensuality of her voice. In her finest recordings -- "Who's Sorry Now" (MGM 1958), "Mama" (1960), "Where The Boys Are" (1961) -- she achieved a kind of evocative intimacy that, while delicate and lilting, is based on a strong physical foundation. Through dramatic musical arrangements, which employed the subtle organ artistry of Gerald Wiggins and the compositions of Don Costa and Paul Anka, her delicate enunciation and dramatic fluency contribute to a strong and rewarding discography.
Born Concetta Rosa Maria Francoero on December 12, 1938 in Newark, New Jersey -- home to fellow musical poets Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990), Paul Simon (1941-), Frankie Valli (1937-), and Amiri Baraka (1934-) -- her early musical experiences were tailored by the painstaking career work of her father. Unlike other head-for-the-sky parents who exhibit a patriarchal influence over the lives of their promising children, her father sought a performance career for his daughter that would embrace her considerable choreographic and musical talent while granting her independence from the influence of males.
A Star on Startime
Her first talent: the accordion. However misguided the notion of giving over one's daughter to dirty show business in the interest of feminist autonomy--by way of accordion playing--may be, her irresistibility and talent as a performer was however unmistakable. In 1948, at the age of 10, she was cast on Startime a New York City show which, while abounding with similarly cute child actors and singers, lacked a good accordion-player. After three weeks, she was asked to drop the accordion obsession, and focus on singing. The show's host, Arthur Godfrey (1903-1983) -- famous for having discovered Marion Marlowe, Pat Boone, Julius La Rosa, and for hosting the immensely popular Arthur Godfrey Show (1948-1959) -- had trouble pronouncing her name and called for something "easy and Irish", thus "Francis", go figure.
The removal of the Italian last name speaks also to the era's prejudice, among many others, towards Italian-Americans. Many popular culture icons were asked to cloak their identities behind white-washed names: Dean Martin (b. Dino Crocetti, 1917), Tony Bennett (b. Antonio Benedetto, 1926), Bobby Vee (b. Roberto Velline, 1943), and Dion (b. Dion Di Mucci, 1939), for example.
Early Platters Flopped
Regardless she remained on the show for four years until dropping out to focus on high school. When she reached 16, she began an unsuccessful campaign to woo a recording contract. In 1955, she signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, apparently only because the name of one of her demo's tunes ("Freddy") matched the name of the label president's son. After a trio of lackluster productions flopped on the pop charts--culminating in "The Majesty of Love" (1957, #97), a duet with Marvin Rainwater--she began work on what everyone thought would be her terminating single with the label.
Revival Of A 1920's Gem
A focused student, she had been accepted to New York University with a pre-medical scholarship. Her father demanded she sing "Who's Sorry Now" (released 1958); it was remembered at the time for the three #1 versions recorded in 1923. Though she had tossed it off in a single take, the song propelled her near the top of the Billboard charts (#4). Produced by top-flight MGM arranger Harry Myerson, it became ranked yet higher on the Italian and British hit parades where it remained at #1 for six weeks.
During the early sixties, within the context of a rigorous and successful recording and concert schedule, she starred in several Hollywood feature films; these included: Where The Boys Are (1960, as Angie), Follow The Boys (1963, Bonnie Pulaski), Looking for Love (1964, Libby Caruso), and When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965, Ginger Gray). Her earliest film is no doubt the most watchable in a series of mediocre teenage romance-drama flicks. The narrative involves a group of preppy adolescents taking off for spring break to a Technicolor Ft. Lauderdale, Florida -- where the boys are.
The film, silly pop fare, pales in comparison to the song of the same title. The luxurious arrangement by Joe Pasterna, bathes the listener in an envelope of strings and chorus, used sparingly for a touch of the ethereal. The rich production, at no point, however, overshadows the magnificent height that Francis attains in her reading. The lyric itself evokes the sense of craving experienced when a loved one is in a far-off place.
Where The Boys Are
"Where The Boys Are" seems to point implicitly to separation due to war, an emotional element which must have resonated strongly in the post-World War II cultural imagination. Like Patsy Cline's "I Fall To Pieces" (Decca 1961, C&W #1) and Brenda Lee's "I Want To Be Wanted" (1960, Pop #1), "Where The Boys Are" is one of the great female pop ballads. These cool masterpieces derive their potency by conveying emotion with a carefully balanced mixture of strength and delicacy; it is music best enjoyed in the late hours of the night, when the sun is down and the moon is high; they are equally powerful when played on a slow dance as they are cruising down endless noctural highways.
Her recordings of the 1960's are notable for her exploration of traditional Italian, Jewish, German, and Irish and even Japanese balladery. While curious listeners should focus primarily on her Brill Building pop records and a few of her Italian sides, these 'international' records are interesting from a historical perspective. They mark the first instance in which a popular music icon has had commercial success recording -- with clear and precise diction and tasteful humor -- non-English language recordings for a mainstream audience. While Nat King Cole's "Cole Espanol & More" (1958) album of a slightly earlier vintage is severely dated on the basis of its unfortunate pronunciation and mocking Spanish-lite arrangements, Francis celebrates her material with a strong sense of excitement and close attention to detail.
A Problematic Comeback
While a detailed account of her rather negative 1970's comeback experiences is beyond the scope of this text, a few issues deserve mentioning. Though in 1973 she announced her retirement from recording and performing, her husband suggested a return in 1974. After her third performance in Westbury, New York, she became the victim of a violent crime in her hotel room. She made a difficult recovery, and in the process helped to enact security requirements for all hotels in terms of locks and monitoring.
She has since then contributed a series of celebrated performances to sold-out audiences. Her legacy remains in her extraordinary body of recordings, which are presently receiving the close critical exploration that they deserve.
Lipstick On Your Collar / Frankie -- 1959 (Pop #5) -- MGM 12793
Among My Souvenirs / God Bless America -- 1959 (#7) -- MGM 12824
Mama / Teddy -- 1960 (#8) -- MGM 12878
Everybody's Somebody's Fool / Jealous Of You -- 1960 (#1-2 weeks) -- MGM 12899
My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own / Malaguena -- 1960 (#1-2) -- MGM 12923
Many Tears Ago / Senza Mamma -- 1960 (#7) -- MGM 12964
Where The Boys Are / No One -- 1961 (#4) -- MGM 12971
Breakin' In A Brand New Heart -- 1961 (#7) -- MGM 12995
Don't Break The Heart That Loves You -- 1962 (#1) -- MGM 13074
A discography, complete with the ever-elusive singles discography, features a photo gallery of her cover art and performance pictures. It can be found here: www.12mb.com/connie
Francis, Connie. Who's Sorry Now. New York: St Martins, 1985.
Whitman, Joel. Top Pop Singles: 1955-1999. Menomonee Falls: Record Research, 2000.