Today is Connie Francis’ 78th birthday. For those of us who really too young to remember her in her prime in the late 50’s, it is hard to appreciate how talented and popular she was.She really is the prototype for the female pop singer of today. In 1958, she earned her first million dollars, topped polls for Favorite Female Singer and received 5,000 fan letters a week. I must admit that listening to her music with today’s ear, it is high on the schmaltz scale, but she cave the people what they wanted during those years.

At the height of her chart popularity in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Francis was unique as a female recording artist, amassing record sales equal to or surpassing those of many of her male contemporaries. Ultimately, she branched into other styles of music — big band, country, ethnic, and more. She still challenges Madonna as the biggest-selling female recording artist of all time.

She was originally supposed to be born in Brooklyn, where her family lived at the time. However, her mother was visiting relatives in Newark, NJ, and attended an all-night dance when she went into labor.

Like Madonna,  Concetta Rosemarie Franconero came from an Italian-American background and a very strict family. She was not allowed to attend her high school prom by her parents but was permitted to attend her school’s weekly chaperoned “Beehive” dances.

Connie started her music career at three, playing an accordion bought for her by her contractor father, George.She was asked by him if she would rather have piano or accordion lessons. Since her father was an accordion player and often played to her, she chose the “Stomach Steinway”, a decision she said she has come to regret. Her father’s dream was not for his daughter to become a star, but for Connie to become independent of men as an adult with her own accordion school of music. .

At age ten, she was accepted on Startime, a New York City television show that featured talented child singers and performers. The show had no one else who played an accordion. Its host, legendary TV talent scout Arthur Godfrey, had difficulty pronouncing her name and suggested something “easy and Irish,” which turned into Francis. After three weeks on Startime, the show’s producer (and her’ would-be manager advised her to dump the accordion and concentrate on singing. Connie performed weekly on Startime for four years.

When she was first making demos, a New Jersey mobster approached her father and offered to place Connie’s songs in every jukebox along the East Coast. Mr. Franconero protested, stating that if his daughter was going to make it he wanted to see her do it on her own.

After being turned down by almost every record label she approached, 16-year-old Francis signed a record contract with MGM, only because one of the songs on her demo, “Freddy,” also happened to be the name of the president’s son. “Freddy” was released in June 1955 as the singer’s first single. After a series of flop singles, on October 2, 1957 she undertook what was to be her last session for MGM.

Speaking about her MGM record contract she said ” I never paid for anything. There was never any recoupment for all the sessions I did. Not one penny. I had four people I hired to work for me on letters and on foreign releases. They paid for every photograph and I kept the photos. Travel, everything, was paid for. Even if it wasn’t on MGM business, it was paid for. Gowns-bills were sent to MGM because I needed them for album covers. I bought them, and wore them. I could record where I wanted, however many songs I wanted, in whatever country, in whatever language, with whatever arranger, and then the bottom line was, if I didn’t like any of it, I didn’t have to release it. I didn’t abuse it. I tried to release even the garbage so that I wouldn’t just be recording and not releasing stuff.”

Ms. Francis had recently accepted a premed scholarship to New York University and was contemplating the end of her career as a singer. Having recorded two songs, she thanked the technicians and musicians, hoping not to have to record the third song her father had in mind, an old tune from 1923. After a false start, she sang it in one take. When Dick Clark played “Who’s Sorry Now?” on American Bandstand, he told the show’s eight million viewers that Connie Francis was “a new girl singer that is heading straight for the number one spot.”

When she first appeared on the scene she was written up in several magazines as being the new Judy Garland. Unfortunately she fell into some of the same traps that Judy did. Speaking about Hollywood trying to get her thin, she said ” I didn’t know anything about speed or diet pills, but they gave me these little red pills, like Benzedrine, that you can only buy in Mexico now.”

“Who’s Sorry Now?” was the first of Connie’s long string of worldwide hits. By 1967, she had sold 35 million worldwide, with 35 U.S. Top 40 hits and several number ones (“Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own,” “Don’t Break the Heart That Loves You,””Lipstick On Your Collar,” and “Stupid Cupid”) to her credit.Singer/songwriter Neil Sedaka was originally hesitant to offer her the song, as he thought it was much too juvenile for her.

The news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination reached her on the set of her third MGM film, Looking for Love (1964). She recorded the single “In The Summer of His Years” in honor of the fallen president and packaged it in a conservative gold sleeve with no photos. All proceeds from the song were donated to the family of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippitt, who had been shot and killed by alleged Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald..

Ms. Francis had an affinity for languages and was one of the first pop singers to record her songs in other languages; 1961’s title song from the movie Where the Boys Are was recorded in six languages. She starred in four (nondescript) films, sang voice-overs in movies for actresses who could not sing, and was a guest star on innumerable TV shows. She had appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show”) a total of 26 times.

One of the guests shown on the episode of This Is Your Life  spotlighting Connie was her fourth-grade teacher. Connie said that she always appreciated her support over the years, as the teacher she had the year previous told her that she’d never make it.

When show host Perry Como wanted her to sing the Italian song “Mama” on Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall (1948), she was very hesitant as she didn’t want to be labeled an ethnic singer. The performance gained such a positive response that she released several records in Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese and a number of other languages.

“Overseas, especially in England, I was an adult star before I was an adult star in America. But here, they didn’t take me seriously until that night on Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall. I remember it was a Wednesday night, and I had a concert at Carnegie Hall the following Sunday and only 200 seats had been sold. Within 24 hours after doing “The Perry Como Show” they were scalping tickets to get into my show at Carnegie Hall.

Regarding her version of “God Bless America”,  In an interview published in the September 1991 issue of DISCoveries Magazine, Connie tells ‘Jerry Osborne’: Irving Berlin had a fit when he found out I was doing it. He called my manager and said, “If that teenybopper louses up my beautiful ‘God Bless America’ the way she did poor Harry Ruby’s ‘Who’s Sorry Now’, I’m going to have a stroke”. My manager said, “Please, Irving, relax. You’ll be the first to hear it.” “I just don’t want it loused up with any of that ‘Stupid Cupid’ crap!”, said Irving. Then when the record came out, my manager sent it directly to him and he said, “She did it just the way I thought she’d do it. It stinks! It’s worse than that.” I can’t even tell you what he said. So, when it made the Top 10 in Variety, Irving called my manager and says, “George, do you think she can do ‘God Bless America’ on Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall?”

Elvis Presley attended one of her concerts and had to leave for emotional reasons once he heard her sing the song “Mama” as his mother had just recently died. The next day Elvis sent Connie two dozen yellow roses with a note apologizing for his abrupt exit.

Music critics who didn’t take kindly to her pop music years were eventually won over by her versatility. Her Italian and Jewish albums transformed Francis from a teenage idol to a mature performer at leading nightspots around the world. She has also had a long history being a composer’s first choice to interpret songs that went on to become major hits for other artists, including “Somewhere My Love,” “Strangers in the Night,” “Angel in the Morning,” and “When Will the Apples Fall.”

where-the-boys-are On the set of “Where the Boys Are”

While the recording of “Who’s Sorry Now?” in 1957 was planned to be her final session for MGM, she actually ended that relationship in 1969, choosing not to renew her contract when MGM was taken over by Polydor. She opted instead for domestic life with her third husband. Francis didn’t return to the recording studio until 1973 when the writers of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” longtime friends, wrote “The Answer” especially for her.

connie-dusty

 Connie Francis & Dusty Springfield during the “Big Hair” days

In 1974, her husband encouraged her to return to the stage, with disastrous consequences. After her third performance, at the Westbury Music Fair in New York, she was raped at knifepoint at the Howard Johnson Motel where she was staying. She subsequently sued the hotel chain for failing to provide adequate security when she learned that a year after the rape occurred, the broken lock to her former room had never been repaired. She was awarded a reported $3 million..

She was on the comeback trail in 1981 when her brother, George, was brutally murdered.  “He had the greatest sense of humor in the world. When he heard that I was getting married for the third time, he said, “Let me ask you a question”, he said. “Don’t you think it would be a good idea if you bought a drip-dry wedding dress?” I said, “Don’t get cute, Georgie”. Then he said, “Is Anita going to be my best friend? Is Anita going to be your Matron of Honor again?” I said, “Yes”. He said, “It is a nice thing you keep doing for Anita. Everybody needs a steady job.”

Connie Francis has been married and divorced four times. (I guess she was “sorry now” quite often!) She previously dated singer Bobby Darin, who quickly ended the relationship once her father ran him off from one of her shows with a pistol.

She finally made her return to the stage and recording in 1989, and Connie Francis has continued to sing to sold-out audiences into the new millennium. She has recorded more than 70 LPs.

connie-today

Connie Francis is still performing these days.

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