[11 January 2012]
Connie Stevens was always more of a cypher than a star in the early ‘60s. She played the smart-dumb blonde in a series of television appearances (most notably as photographer/singer Cricket Blake in the hit show Hawaiian Eye, 1959-1963), Hollywood movies, and Broadway productions. Sure, she was eye candy, but there was always something more than just that to her performances.
This was especially true on her records. Stevens’ complete Warner Brothers singles from 1959 to 1966 have just been compiled and released, mostly in their original glorious mono. The three dozen sides include everything, even the ridiculous—such as top ten hit “Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me your Comb)”, in which she and Hawaiian Eye co-star Edd Byrnes make hipster talk over a campy cool instrumental accompaniment. But the collection also contains the more sublime, such as the four Gerry Goffin / Carole King compositions “Why’d You Wanna Make Me Cry”, “I Couldn’t Say No”, “They’re Jealous of Me”, and “Don’t You Want to Love Me”. Evoking distaff romantic angst with an edge is Petula Clark’s dramatic “Now That You’ve Gone” and the dreamy Tim Hardin composition “It Will Never Happen Again.” And then there’s everything in between, such as two German releases (sung in Deutsch), “La Le Lu” and “Man Soll Sich So Schnell Nicht Verlieben”, some Hank Williams’ covers (“Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Nobody’s Lonesome For Me”), and other odds and ends.
However evocative or strange or goofy or even transcendent the aforementioned titles may be, this anthology seems much more interesting as an artifact than as art. The songs provide a glimpse into that transitional era between the conservative ‘50s and the turbulent ‘60s—when everything was changing. Although Stevens was in her 20s, she had a fresh and innocent look and pandered to the teen audience on songs like “Sixteen Reasons” (which was her biggest hit, peaking at number three on the charts), “A Little Kiss is A Kiss is a Kiss”, “Why Do I Cry for Joey”, “Make Believe Lover”, and other fluff from the era. She sang about desire in nonphysical terms, as if love began and ended with just a kiss. Some of this is code. As Peter, Paul, and Mary once noted, “If you really say it / the radio won’t play it”, and the implications of a song like “I Couldn’t Say No” are clear, even if Stevens just mentions giving away her kiss to someone she just met.
Stevens’ material didn’t change much in topic, even as the teen world did—especially after the British Invasion. That’s probably why her later material failed to chart. While the go-go rhythms of “How Bitter the Taste of Love” and the Bacharach-style horns on “All My Life” from 1966 reveal a more sophisticated songstress, she’s still the girl longing for her true love. With the benefit of time, songs like these sound like should have been hits, but compared to radio fare of the time, such as the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black”, Beach Boys “Good Vibrations”, Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman”, and “Buffalo Springfield’s “For What it’s Worth”, Stevens sounds immature, even to teenagers.
Stevens career as a singer declined, but her work as an actor continues into the present day. In fact, in 2005, she was voted elected secretary-treasurer of the Screen Actors’ Guild, the union’s second highest position. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and, like Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds, was once married and divorced from Eddie Fisher. But the songs on this disc predate her marriage. They reflect the dreams of a younger girl when getting married was the final step of a woman’s initiation into the adult’s world. She didn’t want to be a child anymore. While being a big girl might not seem especially liberated to modern ears, it was considered so by her young teen fans at the time before The Beatles came and changed everything.