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Francis, Connie (12 December 1937-Present)

Vocalist from Newark, New Jersey, who began performing at four years of age when her father urged her onto the stage at Olympic Amusement Park, where she sang “Anchors Aweigh” and played accordion.  She spent a year on Marie Moser’s Starlets, which was broadcast from her home town.  At ten years of age, she had graduated to the Ted Mack Amateur Hour at Newark’s Mosque Theater, accordion still in tow, and sang “St. Louis Blues”.  Then she clinched a spot on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, where the host encouraged her to change her surname from Franconero to Francis, and to drop the accordion.  She aced an audition for an NBC television program entitled The Startime Kids, a steady employ that she enjoyed for four years.

After turning fourteen years of age, she started recording demos for music publishing houses, at ten dollars a pop.  The Mafia made overtures to ink her to a record deal, but her father interceded and insisted that his daughter was going to pave her own way, without any favors.  As it turned out, Connie already had publisher Lou Levy and Startime Kids producer George Scheck in her corner, and they ponied up six thousand dollars for a recording session.  After being turned down by every other label, Connie was finally signed by MGM exec Harry Meyerson, whose nephew Freddy bore the namesake of one of Connie’s songs.  “Freddy” was a flop, as were nine subsequent releases.

In 1956, Bobby Darin’s manager introduced his client to Connie in hopes that she would record some of his songs.  Although Connie wasn’t exactly enamoured of the material, she became very enamoured of Bobby, and the feelings were mutual.  The two began a relationship less professional than romantic, much to the chagrin Connie’s father, who kept his daughter on a short leash when it came to boys.  He did everything he could to undermine the young lovers, eventually threatening Bobby at gunpoint and telling him to stay away.  He did.  One day, Connie and her father were traveling through the Lincoln Tunnel with the radio on and the announcer proclaimed that Bobby Darrin had wed Sandra Dee.  Her father made a snarky remark about Bobby at last being out of the Francises’ lives, and Connie said she wished the Hudson River would engulf the tunnel and kill them both.

Life went on, however, even though Connie’s career was pretty much going the way of her love life.  Her latest venture had been overdubbing Freda Holloway’s singing voice in the Warner Brothers film, Jamboree.  She did one more recording session in 1957, with every intention of calling it quits.

Again, her father stepped in.  He encouraged her to cover the 1923 standard, “Who’s Sorry Now?” in a modern idiom that would appeal to teenagers.  Neither Connie nor MGM was enthralled by the idea.  MGM said her father should stick to his area of expertise, roofing.  Connie had visions of being laughed off the stage of American Bandstand.  Her father boldly predicted if she didn’t record the song, she would never get on American Bandstand unless she sat atop the television.  Connie eventually caved in and spent the waning minutes of her recording session to record the song.  It was released in the fall of 1957 and, just like all the singles that preceded it, flopped.  Enter Dick Clark, host of American Bandstand.  On 1st January 1958, he played “Who’s Sorry Now?” repeatedly, igniting a sales frenzy that would result in the record achieving platinum status by the middle of the year.  The song went to #1 in the U.K. and #1 in the U.S. in April 1958.  In one fell swoop, Connie had gone from utter obscurity to international fame.  She was named the #1 female singer by Billboard, Cashbox, and the Jukebox Operators of America.

The only problem was, the record was so huge, it was difficult to follow up.  Case in point:  “I’m Sorry I Made You Cry” peaked at #36, a result with which Connie would have been thrilled just months earlier, but the bar had been raised.  Connie would have to be very selective in her material, as expectations were so high.

Then she met Howard Greenfield and Neil Sedaka, who serenaded her with several songs they had penned with her in mind.  So disaffected was Connie with their impromptu concert, she spent much of the time making entries in her diary.  After they had finished, she offered them her candid opinion, that the songs were just too intellectual for her demographic.  Howard egged Neil on to sing one of their songs they had just written for a girl group.  Neil balked, insisting that it would be insulting to her intelligence.  Howard won this argument, figuring she couldn’t hate it any more than their other songs.  So Neil sang “Stupid Cupid”.  After he was done, Connie told him that it was going to be her newest hit song.  She couldn’t have been more on the mark:  It shot to #14 on the pop chart.  The otherwise inauspicious meeting inspired another song, as well.  Neil cavalierly asked her if he could read her diary.  Naturally, she said no, but it did inspire him to write and record his first hit song, “The Diary”.

In 1959, Connie released Italian Favorites, which quickly became her biggest selling album in the U.S.  This was followed by a Jewish album and a Spanish album, and all three would spend the better part of a year on the charts.  It had long been Connie’s dream to expose American pop music to the rest of the world, and she had a multi-lingual arsenal from which to draw.  In 1960, she was the number one female recording artist in Australia, England, Germany, Italy, and Japan.

It was a banner year, as she was wooed by Joe Pasternak to appear in and sing the title song of Where the Boys Are, a teenage beach flick, based on a controversial novel, that predated Beach Blanket Bingo by four years.  Again, her father objected.  He didn’t want his daughter involved in a movie (or song, for that matter) about a young woman on the prowl for beefcake on the beaches of Fort Lauderdale.  Ironically, Connie said that Fort Lauderdale was utterly bereft of masculine scenery and that she would have better chances on the Jersey Shore.  That all changed after the movie, however, which glamorized the location enough to inspire collegians to make it their spring break haven for decades to come.

It was a year of firsts for Connie, as well.  She became the youngest performer to enjoy top billing in Las Vegas, made her first appearance at the Copacabana in New York City, and was the first female vocalist to top the charts twice in one year, with “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” and “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own”.  As a bonus, she was crowned Miss Coca Cola, and became a spokeswoman for the soft drink, appearing on radio and TV ads.

She opened the new year with another first by becoming the first female vocalist to top the Adult Contemporary chart with a song called “Together”.  It was a high-profile time for her, as she hosted her own special on ABC-TV and was tapped to sing “Never on Sunday” at the Oscars.

In 1962, she inked a sweet deal with MGM which resulted in her becoming a co-producer of her next trio of film projects.  She was also on the bookshelves with an autobiography, For Every Young Heart, and hit the Billboard top ten with “Vacation”.

In 1963, she was invited to perform for the Queen at the Alhambra Theatre, which is located in Glasgow, Scotland.  She also recorded “In the Summer of His Years”, dedicated to the late President Kennedy, and all of the proceeds went to the families of policemen who were killed on the day of his assassination.

On 15th August 1964, she tied the knot with Dick Kanellis but divorced him shortly thereafter on grounds of domestic violence.

As musical tastes changed, her hits became scarce, although she still acted in films and on TV, portraying Ginger Gray in When the Boys Meet the Girls, Libby Caruso in Looking for Love, and Sister Mary Clare on an episode of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre entitled “The Sister and the Savage”.

In 1967, she had cosmetic surgery and its aftereffects precluded her from performing in air-conditioned clubs or concert halls.  The highlight of her year was performing for U.S. troops in Vietnam, where she said she never felt more needed.

In 1969, she went into semi-retirement and decided to not renew her MGM contract, ending a business relationship that had lasted a dozen years.  She was not entirely done performing, however.  In March 1970, she wowed concertgoers at the Golden Stag Festival in Brasov, Romania, by performing in their native language.  This led to an appointment by the U.S. State Department to represent in the U.S. in Romania, a move to defuse the two countries’ tension-fraught relations.

On 16th January 1971, she wed Izadore “Izzy” Marion but they divorced a year later.  She married Joseph Garzilli in September 1973 and they tried to have a baby but Connie miscarried and it left her in a terrible depression.  He encouraged her to start performing again, and soon she was booked at the Westbury Music Fair in Long Island, New York.

On 8th November 1974, while staying at a Howard Johnson’s Lodge at Jericho Turnpike, she was savagely beaten and brutally raped at knifepoint.  The rapist escaped and has never been found.  This horrific event crippled her emotionally to the point that she completely withdrew from performing for seven years.  She sued Howard Johnson’s for inadequate security and was awarded three million dollars.  In December, she and her husband decided to adopt a five-month old boy named Joey, but their marriage could not withstand the emotional aftermath of that traumatic week in November.

In 1975, Connie had to have nasal surgery, a procedure that destroyed her voice, and she had to have additional surgery in 1977 to undo the damage of the first operation.  The damage could not be undone, however, and it would take three more operations before her voice was intact.

She was unable to perform until 1981, and just as she was poised for a comeback, her brother was murdered by the Mob.  Her brother’s death moved her to become an activist for victims’ rights.  She organized a task force and successfully changed or passed a number of laws such as the Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights, Proposition 8, and the Victims’ Omnibus Bill.  In July 1983, she was so emotionally and mentally exhausted, her father committed her to a mental health institution, where she was diagnosed as a manic depressive.  Writing must have been therapeutic, because she issued another autobiography, Who’s Sorry Now?, in 1984, and it became a bestseller on the New York Times list.

In 1985, she wed Bob Parkinson, but their marriage lasted only eighty-one days.

It would be four years before she started performing again, but it was an inauspicious comeback.  At a concert in London, England, at the Palladium, her speech was slurred and the British tabloids reported that she was drunk.  She had a similar unfortunate incident on American television in 1991, and collapsed from lithium toxicity.  By this time, she had been committed to mental hospitals in five states, seventeen times, in nine years.  It is not clear exactly what her real diagnosis was—the jury is still out on the manic depressive verdict—but what is clear is that she had been taking too much lithium, for too long.

She cut back—way back—on the drug, and re-emerged in 1993 with an appearance at Carnegie Hall, a new recording deal with Sony, and a surprising hit, a re-issued of 1959’s “Lipstick on Your Collar”, the theme song of the British TV show of the same name.  In 1996, Connie released a pair of albums, Connie Francis, Live at Trump’s Castle and The Swinging Connie Francis, a compendium of jazz standards of the 1930s.  Interest in the one-time “Princess of Rock & Roll” was now piqued, and Pendulum Entertainment Group began re-releasing some of her MGM albums on compact disc in 1997.  The Best of Connie Francis:  20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection hit the shelves in 1999.

December 2004 marked her triumphant return to Las Vegas, after a sixteen-year hiatus.  In 2007, she entertained sold-out audiences at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, California, and was enshrined in the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.  Since then, she has been honoured with her own weekend by The Belleville Board of Education in Belleville, New Jersey, which included having a street named after her, in October 2009.

In May 2010, her comeback was in full swing, as she teamed up with Dionne Warwick for a number of performances at the Las Vegas Hilton, and began work on a new recording of “Where the Boys Are”, in tandem with Rob Fusari.

Connie Francis recordings
Adeste Fidelis (Frederick Oakeley/John Francis Wade)
Polygram HMCD 3001 (Christmas with Connie Francis)
Conductor – Geoff Love

Here she is singing her “Lipstick on Your Collar”…