The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Yes, That’s Right, Connie Francis
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has sparked new arguments, which is called “a win,” by including Whitney Houston among its 16 nominees for the Class of 2020.
Seeing her is a good thing, since most of the other nominees, frankly, make me yawn. God bless the fans who love them, because loving music is never a bad thing. But since long before Journey (2017), the inductee roster has been falling well below what feels like Hall of Fame quality.
For the record, this year’s nominee list is Houston, Pat Benatar, Notorious B.I.G., Judas Priest, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Thin Lizzy, the Dave Matthews Band, the Doobie Brothers, Depeche Mode, the MC5, Kraftwerk, Motorhead, T. Rex, Nine Inch Hails and Soundgarden.
Not to pick on the Doobie Brothers, who made some perfectly adequate music, but I’m curious what rock fan anywhere, ever, heard a Doobie Brothers song and thought, “Hall of Fame.”
That’s one of several other discussions, however. Right now, let’s stick with Whitney Houston.
Specifically, let’s ask whether her nomination means someone should blow the dust off the “ancient history” file and have a discussion about Connie Francis.
Connie Francis, for those who don’t remember Where the Boys Are, was the top-selling female artist in the country for six or eight years from the late ’50s to the early ’60s. She had dozens of hits like “Who’s Sorry Now,” “Lipstick on Your Collar” and “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.”
She sold more than a hundred million records and after the pop world moved on, she continued recording, in an impressive range of genres from ethnic to country and Broadway, at times in multiple languages.
She soldiered her way through several terrible personal tragedies and is still out there today. She turns 81 on December 12.
Connie Francis has been eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since it launched in 1986. Like Pat Boone, another hugely popular artist of those early years, she has never gotten any serious consideration.
Unlike Boone, who’s viewed as a bland rock ’n’ roll imposter, she’s simply not considered a rock ’n’ roller at all. And while that may be mildly arguable, it’s also mostly true.
What’s also true is that the Hall abandoned that criterion years ago.
Abba is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Any need for further discussion?
Fact is, rock ’n’ roll purity was eroding as early as 1990, when Bobby Darin was inducted. With all props to “Splish Splash,” Bobby Darin was a pop singer who sometimes worked in rock ’n’ roll. A lot like, um, Connie Francis.
Now the Hall’s incoming chairman, John Sykes, has doubled down on the big tent policy. He recently told Randy Lewis of the Los Angeles Times, “I recognize that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is no longer about a single genre of music. It’s all about the music that aspires to connect with young people . . . . It’s about the music that changed our culture.”
That last line may set the bar a little too high. If inductees have to show they changed the culture, most of the several hundred current members will be giving back their statuettes.
But the rest of Sykes’s comment neatly explains the induction of Grandmaster Flash, Joan Baez, Albert King, Nina Simone and, well, you get the idea.
In the same interview with Lewis, Sykes also remarked that “it’s no longer the artists of the ’50s and ‘60s” who are becoming eligible, so the Hall must focus now on later generations.
It wasn’t clear whether Sykes was suggesting the door has closed on the ’50s and ’60s. That would be a shame, since several glaring omissions remain. The Chantels, for starters, were a way more important part of the music than some of the second-line British Invasion and arena rock bands who have been getting catch-up inductions.
And then there’s Connie Francis. She may not have had the voice of Whitney Houston — who did? — but she compares favorably to a whole lot of inductees.
She also made records that fit seamlessly with the rock ’n’ roll of her era. Nobody who heard a Fats Domino record on the radio switched stations when “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own” came up next.
Francis had to battle strong vestiges of the music industry’s demeaning “girl singer” rules. Female artists were expected to sing what male producers told them to sing, the way they were told. They faced quotas for radio play (“never play two girls in row”). She didn’t have the production technology that helped — or, okay, sometimes didn’t help — singers of Houston’s era.
If Connie Francis didn’t change the culture, she did connect with young people, lots of them and for years. She paved paths and made music that sounds good today.
Realistically, I suspect she’s a long shot. But if incoming Chairman Sykes means what he says and the Hall checks its own induction list, it’s hard to argue that Connie Francis doesn’t deserve a fresh look.