I didn’t know my grandparents well, so I’m constantly barraging my parents for more information. Awhile back I pressed my mom for her families’ musical preferences, and she said her Italian mother liked Dean Martin and his ilk, including 1950’s bombshell Connie Francis. This inevitably began my three-week plus obsession with everything Connie, during which I got my first-ever LA library card. Of COURSE the Burbank library has a copy of Connie’s 80’s-era autobiography, Who’s Sorry Now? and of COURSE it was the first book I took out – could you resist that cover?
The book came out in 1984, and based on the writing style, had few-to-zero ghostwriters. It’s pretty “light” in content, considering throughout her lifetime Connie was: a child star prodigy, manic depressive, nearly rendered mute as the result of a botched nose job, the victim of an unsolved rape, and the sister of a gunned-down mobster. Connie spends only a few sentences glossing over these dark details but stretches through pages with an “everything’s ok” mentality. For example, one line reads, “then in the middle of a busy intersection I stopped abruptly…and shouted, ‘I can sing! I can really sing!’” I get it, Connie, bummer books didn’t sell well in the 80s.
What the book does give is a comprehensive overview of Connie’s rise to fame, starting in Newark, NJ. Born Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero (Jesus Mary & Joseph), Connie’s FOB Italian parents encouraged her to play the accordion and sing for relatives and at street festivals. From age 4 to high school, Connie lugged her huge instrument across NYC to talent shows and auditions. An undoubtedly hilarious sight: Connie hiding behind the accordion while the other talent acted and shimmied across the stage. As she went from gig to gig, she focused more on singing and over time was encouraged to drop the accordion completely, which her strict father George wasn’t too stoked about. What better way to keep your beauty away from grabby teenage boys than by shielding her with a gigantic, unsexy instrument like the accordion? Here’s a video of one of her regular singing performances on NBC’s “Startime Kids”, evidently a nightmare of a babyboomer babies show (Connie’s at the end).
I laughed many times through the chapters describing Connie’s pre-fame life. I could be biased though, considering we’re both from Northern NJ and descendants of righteous old-school Italian Americans. I laughed especially hard when Connie reflected on body image: during her first brushes with fame she just couldn’t understand why her hearty appetite was frowned upon. When Connie describes her many auditions, she talks about –no joke, hands down my favorite part of the book– downing two salami sandwiches during lunch breaks while the other waif showbiz wannabes picked at salads.
Connie transitioned from auditions to singing demo recordings and mimicking popular singers of the time. Her knowledge of music made her great for the job, but didn’t do much for her portfolio. She couldn’t cut a single of her own because everyone said her sound was too generic. She released flop after flop until finally she put out a reworked version of the song, “Who’s Sorry Now”, which debuted on American Bandstand. Her career flourished, then careened up and down for years: there were countless hit singles interspersed with a failed romance with Bobby Darin (her father hated the ‘beatnik’ and chased him out of the house with a gun), a diet pill addiction, and family drama for days (look it up, I don’t have enough space for all this mess ya’ll).
Despite the behind-the-scenes chaos, Connie managed to be one of the most chameleonic pop stars of all time without any formal training. She could tackle goofy teenage pop songs like “Lipstick on Your Collar” (once I almost killed my boyfriend listening to this song on repeat for a month), “Silhouettes”, and her version of “Stupid Cupid”. She handled movie soundtracks well too, singing for Rock Rock Rock and Jamboree. She also turned out a brilliantly chirpy voice for Jayne Janye Mansfield’s character in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (below). But Connie didn’t mess around: her pipes are STRONG, almost as if she were trained for opera. She’s sung in over 9 languages, including countless Italian and Spanish-language albums. Listen to her versions of “Mama” or “Malagueña” (that ECHO!) and tell me you don’t bawl like a peasant girl who just sailed in to Ellis Island.
Despite the pipes, as I’ve (redundantly) alluded to, all never ends well in Hollywood. Poor Connie went through a never-ending emotional rollercoaster in the 60s and 70s, filled with many events including but not limited to: electric shock therapy treatments, attempted overdoses, lithium on the regular, AND a nose job (oh Connie, one must never feel shame for their Roman snub nose). Her voice was totally ruined and it took several operations to restore it, though I don’t think her chords ever really recovered. She continued to perform throughout the 90s and still gets on stage from time to time today, though looking a little worse for the wear. Plastic surgery, WHY.
Like the Sinatras, Connie was cultivated to appeal, above all, to the Italian American masses of the 50s and 60s. It’s no wonder my New Jerseyite grandma liked her – Connie’s music likely reminded her of the songs her parents used to play. Not to mention they shared European facial features and nest-like Mediterranean coifs. I wonder if my grandma knew of these similarities or if she just liked the records? Did she suspect that Connie’s ‘ethnic’ qualities were carefully planned, groomed, and enhanced during record label meetings? And what did she think of Connie’s dismantling in the 70s and 80s, or worse – what if she could see Connie now? Or am I the only one who thinks about this nonsense?
Photo credit: Salami for Two by Ben Sanders, top photo of Connie from this website (ew), black and white from – orange from Tumblr, Golden Hits album cover from Audio Preservation Fund, “Never on Sunday” cover from Tumblr, Italian 45 cover from 45cat.
INSETCategories: music, old | Tags: ben sanders, connie francis, FOB, grandma, italian, mid century, new jersey, newark, salami | 2 comments