Recently, I discovered Easy Living, an album that Ella Fitzgerald recorded when she was almost 70. I’d never heard this older version of her voice, and I was moved by the fact that while she seemed limited to her lower register, she still sang with the purity of tone and controlled vibrato that made her a legend. I started a little study of my favorite singers after this, tracing the changes in their range, timbre, and resonance as they aged. One morning I heard Connie Francis’s voice in my head: the big, booming sound of her belting “Malagueña” in her chest voice. I wondered if she could still let it rip like that, but when I went looking, I couldn’t find any recordings past 1969. Why had Francis stopped recording?
In 1974, when she was 34, Francis was attacked and raped by a stranger at a Howard Johnson’s hotel in Long Island. The perpetrator got into her room through a sliding glass door that didn’t lock properly. He raped her at knifepoint, beat her and tied her to a chair. Then he tipped the chair onto the ground and piled two mattresses on top of her before fleeing. Francis got out from under the mattresses, reached the phone, survived. But she couldn’t perform for some time. Once a bit recovered, she tried and failed to mount a comeback. One of her final performances was at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco in 2007. She’s still alive, but not singing for us anymore.
Should the violent attack and rape of a famous woman in her mid-thirties provide the frame with which we view her entire life? Probably not—she’s 85 today. I think it’s fair, though, to look at Connie Francis’s career in its historical context and see a woman performer constantly contending with male authority. Fair too, to look at her talent and take stock of what was lost as a result of the assault.
Connie Francis was born Concetta Franconero in 1937. More so than her manager or the many male songwriters she worked with, it was her father, George Franconero, who directed her musical career. He had her singing and taking accordion lessons at three years old. (The accordion was big in Italy and among Italian Americans). In her memoir Who’s Sorry Now, Connie jokes that the instrument encouraged celibacy: “it was second only to the bassoon as the most asexual instrument known to man.” Behind it she was, she writes, “Strapped! And trapped!”
She hated the accordion but she played it anyway because her father said so and then it brought her success. (This would be the pattern of her career). Young Connie’s singing-with-accordion act landed her a spot on Star Time Kids, a daytime children’s variety show that aired on NBC. She’d stay on the show until she was 17.
A year later she fell in love with Bobby Darin and the two were planning to get married. George so strongly disapproved that he showed up at a studio rehearsal with a gun and threatened to kill Darin. Connie was singing at the time and all she remembers is hearing someone yell, “Run, Bobby, run!” He did as he was told and never returned. In interviews, Francis jokes about the incident and her father’s possessiveness. "Italian girls either leave home in a wedding gown or a casket. There’s nothing in between," she says. That ghoulish appeal to culture does a lot of work, doesn’t it? Lets her father off the hook, for one. Still some rage leaks out in her memoir. She writes of driving through the Lincoln Tunnel with George when, years later, she learned of Darin’s marriage to Sandra Dee. In that moment, she “wished that somehow God would cause the Hudson River to come gushing in and entrap us in that tunnel; that one gigantic tidal wave…would swallow up the car, me, and last—but certainly not least—my father.”
When Connie ditched the accordion and finally started recording her own music, Mr. Franconero picked many of the songs, including the one that made her famous: “Who’s Sorry Now.” Francis hated it, thought it old-fashioned, but George calculated that re-recording a 1920’s hit would attract teenagers while also appealing to their parents’ sense of nostalgia. He was right. Dick Clark played “Who’s Sorry Now” on American Bandstand every day until it sold a million records. Thanks to her father’s canny marketing sense, Connie Francis became a teen idol.
I don’t want to suggest that Connie had no agency in her career. On the contrary, when I think about ‘what makes Connie Connie,’ it’s her capacity to acquire power through compromise. Also: she conducted her own market research! In her twenties, George pushed her to record an album of Italian language songs in order to cross over to the adult contemporary market. They fought bitterly over it—Connie was ambivalent about bringing her Italian identity into her music. But then one day she traveled to what was then Newark’s Little Italy and started talking to members of the community about their favorite Italian songs. From the neighborhood’s list, she curated her favorites. The result was 1959’s Connie Sings Italian Favorites, the most successful album of her career. Connie went on to record albums in German, Spanish, and Yiddish following the same focus-group approach. She was one of the first American recording artists to secure an international following by putting out non-English music.
Of course, the other thing that makes Connie Connie, the main thing, is her voice. In the recordings we have, Connie’s voice is strong and confident, always resonant, and made distinct by her frequent use of vocal flips, breaks and cries. The vocal flip, a quick pivot from chest voice to head voice most famously observed in yodeling, is an emotional embellishment that adds an extra dimension of expression to a line of song. It was Connie’s hallmark.
Connie used her vocal flips in various ways. The rockabilly number “Eighteen” starts with a sexy and hypnotic guitar riff before Connie’s voice bursts in to describe what it feels like to come of age: Ooh-ooh! Got a funny feeling. That second yipping ooh! is a pure expression of non-verbal pleasure, the cry of a young girl-alien set aloft in the mysterious world of late adolescent sexuality (Ooh-ooh! It’s a kind of strangeness…).
Connie expertly uses the cry in the sad first half of “Who’s Sorry Now.” When she sings Whose heart is aching for breaking each vow the cry is all over the phrase; she adds a tremble too when singing blue and friend and of course, cried. When we reach the song’s mad second half, Connie replaces the cry with a defiant belt which she carries through to the song’s triumphant end. It’s all so literal, a kind of sing-acting, but it’s tremendously affecting.
Connie flirted with camp and humor throughout her career. “Stupid Cupid” is a teeny-bopper classic and “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” was a regular joke-track in my early twenties friend group. It perfectly embodied the cheeky approach to romantic disappointment that we all took while dating in the aughts. Then there’s the sci-fi send-up “Robot Man,” where a woman wishes for an always-available robot lover with whom she’d never fight, ‘Cause it would be impossible for him to speak! I’m a huge fan of “He’s My Dreamboat,” a swoony himbo fantasia that subverts heterosexual dynamics and optics in a gentle, minor way.
Connie became a bona fide celebrity through her star turn in the 1960 film Where the Boys Are and the rhapsodizing torch song of the same name where her belting capacities are on full display. Some say the movie created the idea of Spring Break. It was also one of the first films to portray a date rape.
For seven years after the assault, Connie became one more woman cut off from the flow of life as a result of male violence. She experienced agoraphobia, flashbacks and nightmares. She couldn’t sing anymore and didn’t make a single public appearance. She had to hire bodyguards and could no longer stay in hotels. She appears to have dealt with all of this alone, too—she didn’t enter treatment or attend a rape support group out of fear of being recognized. She sued Howard Johnson’s, alleging that the motel negligently failed to secure her room. The jury agreed, and she received a $1.5 million dollar settlement. It was one of the first so-called third party tort liability cases; it prompted many others.
Eventually Connie’s voice returned and she did some shows here and there. When she performed in San Francisco in 2007, she sang all the hits in between accepting marriage proposals, cracking jokes about her Italian childhood and bantering with fans. Finally she announced that she was about to sing the “gay national anthem.” What song would that be? “Where the Boys Are,” of course. Too on the nose, maybe, but the crowd ate it up. If nothing else, Connie always knew her audience.
Writing about the attack, Connie describes propelling herself out from under the mattresses while tied to the chair. From there, in excruciating pain, she navigated to the hotel’s rotary phone, where, still on her back and unable to see, she dialed for help. How did she manage to do all of this? She says that she did it by singing to herself. Who knows if it’s true. Maybe it’s an embellishment for the memoir. But it’s a moving image, and a powerful one. For Connie, as for many singers, the voice is a metonym for the self. Its survival is proof that survival is possible.
Connie Francis photo: "Shutterstock/Shutterstock.com"