A Confusion of Connies: How to Tell Francis from Stevens

This post is manifestly NOT for Baby Boomers, who ostensibly will not require it and will probably find it laughable. But I am of Generation X, and grew up during that bewildering age (the 1970s) when all of the sudden old pop stars and performers of the the ’50s and ’60s were being trotted out again, appearing on television and in movies, and some of them even achieved new hit records. For people younger than 25, it was not nostalgia, but a history lesson, which was fine…but more often than not it was more like history without the lesson, i.e., the star being presented without any explanation. Hence, I have always had these two ladies completely merged and mixed up in my head: Connie Francis and Connie Stevens. Again, older folks will laugh, they do have their differences (after all, look at them, they don’t look anything alike), but they also have their similarities. They’re both Italian girls from Brooklyn named Concetta born within eight months of each other who became popular singers and actresses in the 1950s. That’s a lot in common! In broad strokes: Connie Francis was more successful as a singer, and was the more consciously Italianate (and sexy) of the two; Connie Stevens was more successful as an actress, and had more of an Anglo, blonde, “wholesome” image akin to Tuesday Weld and Sandra Dee. Oh, and Connie Francis had a thing with Bobby Darin, whereas Connie Stevens was married to Eddie Fisher. Here’s more on both (oh, and if you additionally mix them up with Kay Francis and Stella Stevens here are posts on the former and the latter) :

Connie Francis (Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero, b. 1937) spent some of her young life in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, but most of it in Newark and Belleville, NJ (where she was class salutatorian). From age four she was performing at local festivals, talent shows, pageants, and the like, singing to her own accordion accompaniment. This led to performances on TV shows like NBC’s Startime Kids and Arthur Godrey’s Talent Scouts. Her father heavily promoted her career from earliest childhood; at this stage (circa 1955) he had demo records made that got her first recording contract with MGM. In 1956 she provided Tuesday Weld’s singing voice in the movie Rock! Rock! Rock! The she did the same for Freda Holloway for the film Jamboree (1957) and for Jayne Mansfield in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958).

After several disappointing chart showings, Francis scored her first major hit record in 1957 with the old Kalmar-Ruby tin pan alley standard Who’s Sorry Now? There followed eight years of heavy chart action. Many of these songs will be familiar to people of my age because they were all including on a “Best Of” LP that was sold on TV in the 1970s! Her subsequent hit singles included “Stupid Cupid” (1958), “My Happiness” (1958), the old Ink Spots tune “If I Didn’t Care?” (1959), “Lipstick on Your Collar” (1959), “Among My Souvenirs” (1959), “Mama” (1960), “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own” (1960), “Many Tears Ago” (1960), “Where the Boys Are” (1961), “Together” (1961), “Breakin’ in a Brand New Broken Heart” (1961), “When the Boy in Your Arms (Is the Boy in Your Heart)” (1961), “Don’t Break the Heart That Loves You” (1962), “Second Hand Love” (1962), “Vacation” (1962), “I Was Such a Fool (To Fall in Love With You” (1962), “I’m Gonna Be Warm THis Winter” (1962), “Follow the Boys” (1963), “If My Pillow Could Talk” and “Be Anything But MIne” (1964)”. Though a couple of these songs were humorous, her signature style was weepy melodrama, dripping with strings, not worlds away from Tony Bennett’s early style, although she was mostly associated with rock and roll.

Naturally she plugged her records on TV variety shows like Ed Sullivan, Kraft Music Hall, American Bandstand, The Joey Bishop Show, and the rest. In addition to singing the theme songs, she also appeared in the films Where the Boys Are (1960), Follow the Boys (1963), Looking for Love (1964), and When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965). The fact that Herman’s Hermits shared the spotlight in the latter film is indicative of a new wind that blew both her singing and actress careers out of the running. Francis’s appeal was old-fashioned, she really had nothing to bring to a pop culture dominated by countercultural voices. She continued to be very prolific recording specialty albums: kids records, country albums, records aimed at Italian and Jewish audiences and so forth. She countined to appear on TV talk shows, and live audiences of die-hard fans around the world continued to embrace her. But she was no long a top ten mainstream artist.

Francis attempted several comebacks, but was hampered by a series of setbacks and tragedies. She was raped and nearly killed after her engagement at the Westbury Music Fair in 1974. From 1977 to 1981 she underwent a series of operations to recover her diminished vocal function. In 1981, her brother George Franconero Jr was killed in a mafia hit for cooperating with authorities in an investigation. Francis attempted to take her own life in 1984. Nonetheless she contined to record, and to perform live, into the 1990s, and wrote two autobiographies, Who’s Sorry Now? (1984) and Among My Souvenirs (2017).

Connie Stevens (Concetta Rosalie Ann Ingolia, b. 1938) was the daughter of musician Peter Ingolia, who billed himself as Teddy Stevens, hence her professional surname. She lived her first 12 years in Brooklyn; by 16 she was in the Los Angeles area, attending a show biz professional school and acting in local theatre. She was briefly a part of the vical group that became The Lettermen. In 1957 she was cast in two low budget teen exploitation films, Young and Dangerous and Eighteen and Anxious. This was followed the next year by Dragstrip Riot, an appearance on The Bob Cummings Show, her first record album Concetta, culminating with big roles in two Paramount films: Rock-a-Bye Baby with Jerry Lewis, and The Party Crashers.

Stevens is probably best remembered as a TV star: she was part of the casts of 77 Sunset Strip (1958-1960) and the similar The Hawaiian Eye (1959-63). It was then that she had her first high profile record, the novelty number “Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)” with Edd “Kookie” Byrnes. Her only bona fide hit single on her own was “Sixteen Reasons” which went to #3 in 1960. She performed on a lot of the same TV variety shows Connie Francis did. From 1964 to 1965 she co-starred with George Burns on Wendy and Me, his first project after the passing of his long-time partner and wife Gracie Allen. (An obvious point of interest for readers of this blog, I should hope!)

Stevens managed to star in films through the mid ’60s as well: Parrish (1961), Susan Slade (1962), Palm Springs Weekend (1963), William Conrad’s Castle-esque Two on a Guillotine (1965), and Jerry Lewis’s Way…Way Out (1966). After this, her career was on a different plane, though she has continued to work down to the present day (with the occasional dry patch). She’s been in loads of made-for TV movies and mini-series. There were the expected nostalgia projects like Sha Na Na (1979), Grease 2 (1982), Back to the Beach (1987, with Frankie and Annette), and Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis (1988). And the requisite guest shots on Love American Style, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Murder She Wrote, etc. Her most recent credit is the 2019 horror movie By the Rivers of Babylon (2019) with Crispin Glover!

To learn more about variety entertainment, including television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.