Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Connie FRANCIS: 20 All Time Greats


(#188: 27 August 1977, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Who’s Sorry Now?/Stupid Cupid/My Happiness/Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool/Carolina Moon/Pretty Good Lovin’/Where The Boys Are/Robot Man/When The Boy In Your Arms (Is The Boy In Your Heart)/Mama/Lipstick On Your Collar/Among My Souvenirs/Many Tears Ago/Breakin’ In A Brand New Broken Heart/V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N/Together/Jealous Heart/You Always Hurt The One You Love/My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own/My Child

With this record, Then Play Long reaches an important milestone. In over twenty-one years of album charts, Connie Francis – albeit with the latest in the seemingly unending line of TV-advertised oldies compilations – managed to do what Doris Day, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Carole King had not, and became the first female solo artist to have a number one album in Britain. In a lot of ways she was there first; Wanda Jackson may have been hipper, and Brenda Lee, who would come on the scene a little later, was more naturally adaptable, but in terms of fifties/pre-Beatles solo girl pop, Francis carried the banner more or less single-handed; she was the first female teenager to get a British number one single – “Who’s Sorry Now?” topped our lists while she was nineteen – the first female singer of the rock era to score three US number ones (her record would not be equalled until Diana Ross in 1976), and worldwide the best-selling female vocalist of the fifties and sixties.

And yet the trailblazer has, by necessity, to be alone, and although surrounded by people, it is fair to say that Francis, though never really alone, was on her own, ready to make all the mistakes so that those who came after her wouldn’t. Her father, George Franconero, Sr, was a roofer from Newark, New Jersey, and while I am sure that he loved his daughter and probably, deep down, wanted the best for her, I am reminded of what that lynchpin of modern philosophy, Linus van Pelt, had to say on the matter: “No greater damage has been done to humanity than by people who thought they were doing the right thing.” For Francis’ father became a monster, an unwanted mash-up of Murry Wilson and Colonel Parker.

It all started innocently enough. Noting his three-year-old daughter’s interest in music, he bought her an accordion in the hope she might one day open a music school. She found she could sing, too, and from the age of four was put to work, performing at local talent shows, beauty contests, etc. and building up a reasonable local reputation. In 1953 she made it onto Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, whereupon Godfrey advised Concetta Franconero to anglicise her name and drop the accordion. Years of apprenticeship followed; she sang demo discs for the attention of other singers and got to know a young impresario named Don Kirshner. He got her work singing on advertising jingles, some of which Kirshner co-wrote with a kid from the Bronx named Walden Robert Cassotto, who later changed his name to Bobby Darin. She made some records of her own with only limited success, and by late 1957 her label MGM was ready to drop her and she was ready to go and study medicine at New York University. She had one last session, and her father insisted on recording this antediluvian song from 1923 with a “modern” arrangement, figuring it would hook both old and young listeners. Francis hated the song, and argued heatedly with her father about it, but in the end she laid it down with only a few seconds left on the reel tape (her voice noticeably rallies in the final verse as though knowing she’d only got so much time to do it).

The song, as Francis had predicted, did nothing, but then Dick Clark chanced upon the recording, raved over it and signed Francis up to perform the number on his 1958 New Year edition of American Bandstand. “Who’s Sorry Now?” took off thereafter, in the States the first of about a dozen million sellers for the singer, and in Britain her first number one. Following it up, however, was difficult; repeating the formula with “I’m Sorry I Made You Cry,” a song which dated back to 1918, proved a mistake (although it still reached #11 in the UK, it is not included in this collection). In an attempt to get her second big hit, Kirshner asked Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield to go play some of their songs for her. They mostly brought ballads, which bored Francis to tears; while playing one of them, she scribbled in her diary – Sedaka pleaded to see what she had written, but Francis was resolute that it was private (the only thing left for Sedaka to do was to go and write a song about it – “The Diary,” which helped launch his own performing career). The singer was getting impatient; didn’t they have anything uptempo? With some embarrassment, Sedaka and Greenfield pulled out a (as they saw it) dumbass rocker (which they had written with the Shepherd Sisters in mind). It was “Stupid Cupid”; Francis immediately perked up and said, “That’s my next hit.”

Francis attacks “Stupid Cupid” with some gusto and not a little resentment (“I’d like to clip your wings so you can’t fly”), and in places sounds like a female Jerry Lee Lewis (“I like it fi-i-i-iiii-yiiii-ne!,” licking her lips). In the USA it got her back onto the Top 20; here it was a double A-side with the old school ballad “Carolina Moon” and promptly became her second UK #1. This more or less set the pace for her bisected pop career, alternating between brisk proto-bubblegum for the kids and ancient weepies for their parents, though on “Carolina Moon,” as on some of her other ballad performances, there is an uncommon purity and clarity in her tone and delivery which puts me directly in mind of Linda Ronstadt (if only Francis had made her own Heart Like A Wheel or Mad Love) and despite the seemingly cut-and-pasted harmonica it’s not a bad reading.

The pattern continued. “My Happiness” was her biggest US hit thus far, peaking at #2, and her third UK top ten single. The song dated from 1948, and Francis holds her own against a baffling backdrop of jaded tenor saxophone and whirring strings. Then came “Lipstick On Your Collar” and it is apparent to me that, even when singing of childish things in a time now as remote as that of the Corn Laws (“record hop,” “soda pop”), Francis is always addressing matters from an adult perspective. Thus there is a mixture of real hurt and pretend petulance, as well as a conflict between staying a teenager forever (“Mine was baby pink” – read into that whatever metaphor you will) and facing the less certain and clearcut world of adulthood; Francis even wrestles with her own perspective, following “boy” with “man” in the fadeout. In the follow-up “Plenty Good Lovin’,” she sounds the most happy and carefree she ever sounded; her downward helter skelter slides on “lovin’” and “kissin’” are a direct precedent of Belinda Carlisle, and she effortlessly negotiates two key changes (“and I must repe-HE-eat!”).

Then it was back to the ballads – “Among My Souvenirs,” the first of two tracks here which originally hit for Paul Whiteman back in 1928, is impeded by a dreadful cocktail bar organ. But then, in 1960, there came another double A-side which spelled out Francis’ internal conflict. One side was “Mama,” an Italian song dating from 1941 – my mother bought, and still has, the 78 of Luciano Tajoli’s recording of the original (then called “Mamma Son Tanto Felice”) – which had been a UK Top 20 hit for David Whitfield in 1955. Francis came to the Abbey Road Studios to record the song, under the direction of Tony Osborne, for an album entitled Connie Francis Sings Italian Favourites, and it is one of her deepest performances; as someone of Italian descent for whom English is not, strictly speaking, a first language, I automatically emphasise when I hear other Italians, or Italian-Americans, sing in their native tongue; they seem to reach a deeper emotional truth than when they switch back to English (Francis’ reading is bilingual, but principally Italian). And although the original song title translates as “Mother, I Am So Happy,” there is little if any happiness to be sought here; Francis’ performance is desolate, bereaved, pained.

Meanwhile, on the other side, there was “Robot Man” with its distended introduction and insane backing singers, in which Francis loudly declares goodbye to love (do you see who else might have grown up listening to her?) and expresses her preference for a machine which won’t let her down, betray her, or worse; in a creepy way, this is a precedent, not just to Dee D Jackson’s “Automatic Lover,” but even unto Bananarama’s “Robert de Niro’s Waiting.” Its subtext should have been “To Hell With All Men.”

With “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” she finally made it to number one in the States, and it’s a perky enough pseudo-rocker in the “Love Makes The World Go Round” mode, hampered by the chirps of holiday camp organ and the booms of sub-Mitch Miller backing singers. To her second US number one, I will return towards the end of this piece (her third US number one, 1962’s “Don’t Break The Heart That Loves You,” only made #39 in the UK and is absent from this record, where you will also search for “Frankie,” “If I Didn’t Care,” “Baby Roo,” “Second Hand Love,” “Fallin,” and many others in vain).

Francis’ 1961 proceeded. “Where The Boys Are,” one of those Sedaka/Greenfield ballads, was the title song from a movie; other movies in which she appeared included Follow The Boys, Looking For Love, When The Boys Meet The Girls, When The Girls Meet The Boys, Boys! Boys! Boys!, and Enough Of The Boys Already. A transatlantic top five hit, it’s one of Francis’ best and most controlled ballad performances; she flies around the song like a worried robin, her voice swooping down, then up (“I’ll climb the highest steeple”); swooning as though blowing in the wind, and it is here, as well as in her US-only single later the same year “When The Boy In Your Arms” (its gender promptly changed by Cliff Richard for his own hit version) with her shivering descent of “day-and-night” – and despite the cappuccino guitar and accordion (the latter perhaps a nod to Francis’ own past) – that we see where Karen Carpenter found and got “it.” Before either song, there was “Many Tears Ago,” whose arrangement suggests a possible broadening out of her style in order to reach the country market (in spite of a hugely incongruous whistle which materialises near the song’s end); note that she seems to be clenching her teeth and hissing the line “But I am only foolin’ myself.” “Breakin’ In A Brand New Broken Heart” suggests one further step towards Nashville with its slightly out-of-place lead guitar which appears to be getting ready to emigrate to Brian Hyland’s “Sealed With A Kiss”; Francis’ last “heart” is half-sobbed.

“V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N,” whose title and performance both explicitly look forward to the Go-Go’s and their song of the same name – one last, powerful flaring up of the light (“AND I CAN’T WAIT TO GO! GO! GO!” Francis virtually shrieks) and her last top ten hit in either Britain or the States. Thereafter, the Beatles happened and wiped most of their pop predecessors off the face of the Earth. But there are five songs to go on this record, and I cannot believe that their placing and ordering are not deliberate.

The key is Bobby Darin. They met up in the fifties while doing commercial work, argued like tigers and inevitably then fell in love. Knowing about Francis’ father, and the prescription drugs to which she was already addicted, he proposed they elope and marry. But George Snr got wind of the plan and came backstage at one of his daughter’s rehearsals, waving a gun and ordering Darin to vacate himself from her life forever. Rather than calling the police or doing what Sinatra, an earlier escapee from the Italian-American ghettos of New Jersey, would have done in the same situation, he ran off; but then he knew, with his unreliable heart, that he might give out any day, and thus, not wanting undue pressure in his life, sought a quieter life with Sandra Dee. I do not believe Francis ever properly recovered from this; none of her subsequent four marriages worked.

With the last five songs on this record, Francis appears to look her predicament square in the face. “Together,” from 1961, was her second hit recycled from Paul Whiteman’s 1928 bandbook, and almost immediately – including her chilling talkover – it is easy to see how her records might have reached Sweden, for she sounds exactly like Agnetha Faltskog. It is a stately waltz but they are parting (dancing while the music plays on, indeed). “Darling,” she speaks, “Wherever you are…we’ll always be…” but it’s the way that she speaks it; a quite terrifying, robotic blankness, as though she were Stephen Hawking come early. A mind numbed by circumstance, cowardice and tradition. “You Always Hurt The One You Love” comes from 1958, and her reading is unusually intense, even for her; towards the end, she even sounds like Bobby Darin. Her second US number one, “My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own,” is second last here, and she sees, with terrible clarity, the corner into which she has been painted: “No matter how hard I try, I just can’t turn the other way,” and, worse, “I’m just a puppet.” There is an ironic swirl of pedal steel at the end.

In the USA she had no Top 40 hits after 1964 (her last being “Be Anything (But Be Mine),” a song from 1952) but in Britain she enjoyed a minor comeback in the age of Britbeat, and it is these two songs I have saved until last. One, “Jealous Heart,” was her very last British hit, from early 1966, and in it she finally points the damning accusatory finger at her father. “You have driven him away forever,” she cries, over a bombastic orchestra and chorus, and though she supposedly blames herself, there is no mistaking the real target of her anger – and she is angry here. All was good, and then you had to come in with your stupid gun and your stupid lontano history of is he from the right family/is he the right religion/buona sera then ya bastard (apologies to James Kelman and his imagining of the chip shop family in A Disaffection) and he pissed off to Sandra Dee and where have you left ME with NOTHING you BASTARD…

But it’s “My Child,” the closing track here, and her almost entirely forgotten British Top 30 hit from 1965, that cuts the deepest, and not just because the “child” whom she is addressing was never born. She already sounds at the end of her tether as she lists, with quiet fury, the advantages any child of hers will have – “I will build a better life for my child,” “No man will ever make her cry,” “She won’t make the same mistakes as I.” Meanwhile the orchestra, which has been unobtrusively building up behind her, abruptly roars to an apocalyptic coda where the world is drowned and everything, including percussion, is shaken to pieces – the Wall being demolished for good.

All of which may help explain why, by 1974, the biggest-selling female artist of the fifties and sixties should find herself playing state fairs in out-of-town New York state and staying in the Jericho Turnpike Howard Johnson Travel Lodge. What happened? The Beatles, that’s what; the world changed overnight and suddenly the old ways didn’t work, that is except for those other Italian-American boys from the Italian Down Neck, the Four Seasons, who were smart and brave enough to move with the times rather than get caught out by them. But Connie Francis didn’t have that sort of resilience, and so as the sixties turned into the seventies, and the world turned away from what she represented, she worked for money, singing, recording and performing for whoever would have her, enrolling on humiliating sixties nostalgia tours where other pre-Merseybeat innocents – and many one-shots who briefly rose in the wake of Merseybeat - were obliged to work to scale, or for less, for blue-rinses who remembered something, even if they were no longer sure what. And so she was staying at some crummy motel, far out of New York City, when she was horribly raped and nearly killed.

Some of her did die at that point, and although she successfully sued the motel chain for inadequate security, thus providing a test case which ensured substantial upgrades in hotel and motel security across the States, there she was again – the lonely woman who had to do it first, or have it happen to her first, so that it wouldn’t happen to others who might follow her. The subsequent story is not a happy one; there is a strong case for asking whether she, at the age of just thirty-eight, was even aware that she had a number one album in Britain. At the time she underwent botched nasal surgery which led to her losing her voice and having to relearn to sing. There were breakdowns, suicide attempts. In 1981 she watched her younger brother, George Jnr, a lawyer, being gunned down in front of the family house in what looked like a professional hit. In 1983, concerned by her manic depression, her father had her sectioned in several psychiatric hospitals for the next four years, and although he remained her “financial manager” until 1990 – he lived on until 1996, aged eighty-five – the final rift between daughter and father came then, and was never mended. Although she continues to record and perform, she is still on lithium, still has her darkness.

And so the music on 20 All Time Greats, and especially “My Child,” acts as a sort of warning to those who will follow Connie Francis’ example. Madonna was born the year Francis started having hits – another Italian-American from the northern industrial belt - but while she too had problems with her father (as “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Oh Father,” etc., make explicit) she had the nerve to come through on her own terms. In many ways, the career of Madonna can be interpreted as the revenge of, or for, Connie Francis. “Don’t do what I have done,” is the message she bores on “My Child” to all her children (think of an alternative universe where Francis and Darin marry and she gives birth to – Jon Bon Jovi?), whether adhering to her own original straight line (Katy Perry) or using and exploring the chances she was never given in 1958 (Lady GaGa, a direct link in the leyline) – all of this exists because, once upon a time, one put-upon teenager was called upon to set the guidelines. How this had the potential to suffocate others seemingly stronger and more powerful, I will examine in the next entry.

2 comments:

wichita lineman said...

Strong meat. I didn't know the Darin story at all, or that she was in such grim, diminished circumstances when she was raped. Poor Connie.

I find the dual nature of her catalogue a little maddening. It has probably stopped her from being inducted into the R&R Hall of Fame, and why her role asprecursor to Madonna Gaga etc is virtually ignored (Brenda Lee is similarly overlooked in spite of her huge success in the early 60s). Connie's voice, as you say, has a depth that deserved more than endless warmed over pre-rockers.

Fallin' was a revelation to me when I heard it a few years back. In a similar, spare and sultry vein is It's Gonna Take Some Time, the b side of Vacation. Then there's No Better Off, the flip of a flop from '65, which has the 'big city' intensity of a mid 60s Carole King production. Girl Group (slightly) grown up. There's a great comp waiting to be made - sadly it isn't Ace's Rockin' Connie, and clearly it isn't 20 All Time Greats.

Robin Carmody said...

By a remarkable coincidence, the second number one album of 1977 to feature a song which gave its name to a Dennis Potter series (the other one being 'Portrait of Sinatra' - in that case, the series concerned was a lot closer than in this case).