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NOT SORRY NOW <br> CONNIE FRANCIS HAS COME BACK STRONG AFTER COMING TO TERMS WITH HER LIFE'S UPS AND DOWNS

Connie Francis looks at Gloria Estefan and sees a reflection of herself. The two singers from different generations are collaborating on a film of Francis' life. Estefan will play the lead role.

"I like Gloria; she's enthusiastic, works hard and won't let anything stop her from singing," said Francis, who will appear at Shea's Performing Arts Center on Wednesday in a benefit for the Variety Club.

Francis' life story is a cautionary show business tale that begins with a young girl with a domineering father and relentless determination to sing.

Along the way, she has endured fame, four marriages, rape, addiction to prescription drugs and manic depression. Not to mention a doomed love affair with Bobby Darin, the murder of her brother and a severe case of stage fright.

Francis, now in her mid-60s, was a pioneering female performer at the dawn of rock 'n' roll. She has sold tens of millions of records in a career that spans almost six decades. Francis was the first major white female singing star of the rock era. "Who's Sorry Now" hit the Top 10 in 1958, and was her breakthrough.

"That's the song that opened the door for me but I didn't want to do it," Francis said in a telephone interview. "I didn't think it would do anything, but my father made me sing it."

Dick Clark played the record on "American Bandstand," and 19-year old Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero became the country's first teen queen. Then came a series of hits: "Stupid Cupid," "Lipstick on Your Collar," "Everybody's Somebody's Fool," and "My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own."

Francis also starred in one of the first major studio, big-budget teen movies, "Where the Boys Are" (1960). The plot was about the adventures of three college girls in Florida during spring break.

Her father, the late George Franconero, urged Francis to record an Italian song called "Mama." It became an international hit and even captured the heart of Elvis Presley.

"I was playing Las Vegas and Elvis came to a show and sat at a front table," Francis said. "When I sang "Mama,' he started to cry and got up and left. The next day I received two dozen roses with a note from Elvis. He thanked me for singing the song and said it made him think of his (late) mother."

Francis' father influenced more than her music. He couldn't stand Bobby Darin, who was just as big a star as Francis during the late 1950s. Darin, who died in 1973, grew weary of battling Francis' father and eventually married actress Sandra Dee.

"Bobby was the love of my life," Francis said. "He was a good soul, but he wouldn't take any garbage from anyone. I still miss him."

Francis exudes an aura of vulnerability. It's a part of her personality both on and off stage.

"She's been through so much tragedy in her life you can't help but feel for her," said Dan McBride, longtime local radio personality who currently hosts a weekend program on WWOL-AM 1300. McBride used to work for the old Town Casino in the early '60s and would drive Francis around Buffalo when she played here.

"Geez, it was a zillion years ago when I played the Town Casino," Francis said. "But Buffalo has always been a great place for me. It's a big ethnic area and there are a lot of Italians up there."

"Connie was always cheerful and upbeat in those days," McBride said. "Her father would be with her and he took care of everything. The thing about Connie is, that no matter what happens, she always keeps her chin up and keeps going."

Francis needed all the inner strength she could muster to survive a 1974 rape and robbery in a Long Island hotel room. Afterward, she was afraid to go on stage or even talk about the incident.

"For seven years after that happened, I couldn't even bring myself to say the word "rape,' " Francis said. In 1981, she returned to the stage and made a national television appearance on a Dick Clark special.

"That was an amazing night, I owe so much to Dick," Francis said. "Without Dick Clark, I wouldn't have a career."

In the mid-'80s, Francis faced more problems after her brother, George was brutally murdered. She was institutionalized for erratic behavior and manic depression. She also admitted an addiction to prescription medications.

One of the turning points came when Clark visited her.

"Dick was so sympathetic and he cared," Francis said. "That meant so much to me." Clark has described Francis this way: "She is a survivor."

Francis made another comeback in the 1990s, and appears to be in her best health and state of mind in years. "I'm feeling great," she said, "I've come to terms with a lot of things."

There is little left for Francis to accomplish in her career, but for some reason she has been ignored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Although she possesses a historic musical standing and has sold more records than most of her female contemporaries who are in the hall, Francis has yet to be selected.

"I want her in the hall of fame," Estefan has said, and others also have lobbied for Francis. "A lot of it is politics and it's not a big issue with me," Francis said. "I don't know the reason I'm not in the hall of fame, but I'm not going to worry about it."

On stage, Francis' dynamic presence remains. Her live show combines old songs, film clips and newer tunes. Like Judy Garland, who was an influence for her, Francis offers a fragile yet powerful performing style.

"She can still connect with an audience," McBride said. "Connie has always been an emotional, straight-forward performer. She just has a way to getting to people. You look back at what she's been through, and it's amazing she's still going out there."

Francis has no choice.

"I have to perform because I get so much from the people who come to see me," she said. "That's what keeps me going."

aviolanti@buffnews.com