This month the focus is on the woman who, after she hit the big time in 1958, became the most popular female singer during the golden years of rock’n’roll. She is the best-selling female singer of all time, in terms of records sold. Her story is an epic one, which includes mega stardom as well as enormous personal tragedies.
Her name is Connie Francis and on 15th October we celebrated her contribution to rock’n’roll with a concert at the Esse Jazz Café in Moscow. I organised the Event and booked the Marshmallows to perform for us. Regular readers of this column will know about them; they are a terrific group whose style of music is authentic 1950s’ rock’n’roll. They comprise 3 female singers, Juli, Masha and Viktoria, all beautiful and all great performers on stage. There was therefore no better choice for us to celebrate the great Connie Francis. It was a great concert and included a free jive dance class, run by yours truly.
Connie Francis was born into a poor Italian-American family in New Jersey. Her father George was a working class labourer, who instilled his love of music into her. In fact that is a bit of an understatement. From the time she was a little girl, her father pushed her really hard to perform at music events and had a huge impact on her musical career. He was a forceful individual, who would later also have a significant influence on her social life. The family was a very close-knit one and she was especially close to her brother George. And her early musical performances were basically the result of her father’s forcefulness in pushing her into a musical career. In 1955 he raised enough money to get some songs recorded in her name, hoping to interest a big record company. And it worked. The famous MGM company signed her to record some singles. But the songs were not a commercial success and in 1958 MGM officially advised her that after the last single (there was only one left to be recorded and released) they would discontinue her contract.
But guess what, that last single was the iconic “Who’s Sorry Now ?” It sold over a million copies, made number one in the UK hit parade (as well as number four in America) and catapulted her to stardom. Later she co-operated with the famous Neil Sedaka on some more recordings, one of which, like “Who’s Sorry Now?” would become a legendary song in pop history. It was “Stupid Cupid” and as well as being a huge hit in the States, made it to number one in the UK. More mega hits followed and dear Readers, I’m sure their titles will be familiar to many of you; numbers such as “Lipstick on your Collar”, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool”, “Among my Souvenirs” and “My Happiness”. Seeing clips of her performing, it’s not difficult to see why she became such a huge star. She had everything – she was young, beautiful and charismatic. She was a great performer on stage, along with her great singing voice.
She was now a super star. But life was rarely smooth for Connie Francis. Before mega-stardom arrived in 1958, she had met and become romantically involved with Bobby Darin. He of course was, like Connie, soon to become a huge singing star too. But during the time of their romance, fame had still to arrive for either of them. They had been brought together to co-operate on writing and performing songs and the two initially disliked each other. This wasn’t helped by Francis’ reputation for being impatient and bad tempered. And Darin’s own reputation was one of being known for brashness, insensitivity and egotism. But over time they both fell deeply in love with each other. Unfortunately for Francis, her overbearing Dad hated Darin and on one occasion chased him away at gunpoint, when he realised his daughter was considering running away from home with Darin.
The affair culminated one night when Connie and Bobby returned to her family house after an evening out together. Her furious Dad, on discovering she had gone out with Darin, had packed all her bags with her belongings and left them outside the house on their return from their date. Darin used this as the pretext to propose to Connie that the two take the bags and run away and elope together. Connie was genuinely scared of what her father might think or do, if she was to elope. Darin asked her to marry him, saying it had to be either that evening or the next day. She cried her eyes out and in fear of what her Dad might do, instead of running away with Darin, ran into the house. Before she did so, Bobby told her it was now or never – if she wouldn’t run away with him that evening, the affair was over. And so it was to be. Apart from two chance encounters later on in their musical careers, they never saw or contacted each other again. Connie Francis always believed and openly admitted, that not marrying Bobby was the worst decision of her life; Stupid Cupid indeed. For a long time afterwards, she still harboured hopes that they would be re-united. But driving home in a car in December 1960, the radio news announced that Bobby Darin and the actress Sandra Dee had just got married. Connie describes that as one of the worst moments in her life.
Inevitably as the golden years of rock’n’roll waned, Francis’ huge stardom waned with it. But she continued to perform during the 1960s and could still command huge crowds at her concerts. After so many years of performing and touring, she took a break for three years starting in 1970 and only performed at an occasional events. She began recording and doing concerts in earnest again from 1973.
A year later came a horrific event, which she barely recovered from. She was appearing in a New York music festival and booked into a local motel during the event. It was there in November 1974 that an intruder broke into her motel room in the early hours and raped her. She was raped at knife point, the perpetrator telling her he would kill her if she screamed. It was particularly violent, involving repeated hitting by the assailant. At the end she was almost suffocated to death by having two large mattresses pressed on top of her. Before he left, the man collected and stole all her valuables. Her black rapist was never caught.
A further crisis occurred in 1977, when following nasal surgery she lost her voice. Fortunately her singing career resumed a year later and she recorded several albums. Then in 1981, a tragedy occurred within the close knit family she had grown up with. Her brother George had become a lawyer. Unfortunately he had used some of these talents for work with some rather shady clients within the Underworld. As an Italian-American lawyer, his legal work got him involved with members of organised crime families. His activities for one Mafia Family had clearly made him enemies with another and in 1981 he was murdered by Mafia hitmen. Connie took this very badly, since as already mentioned she had been very, very close to her brother. Shortly after this, things got even worse for her. She was diagnosed with “manic depression” and her musical career came to a stop again. She was admitted to many hospitals and said later she was close to committing suicide at this time. But by the end of the 1980s she had bounced back, recording, performing and even writing her autobiography.
So despite her huge success, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s, her life was certainly not a bed of roses. She had four marriages, the longest of which lasted only five years. She has one child, a son named Joey (this after a few miscarriages during her life). Overall, it’s a story of a woman who was born into a poor family who nonetheless fought her way to the top, but discovered that at the top there were still mountains to climb. Despite this, she proved herself a real survivor. Thankyou Connie, for all those great records !