Writing Music for the Movies: A Conversation with Carol Connors
From singing on a number one hit to cowriting the theme from Rocky, Carol Connors has done it all. What keeps her going 8 decades later?
Carol Connors is the Forrest Gump of popular music in the second half of the 20th century. If you look close enough at many major events and figures, she is there. Sang on a Billboard Hot 100 number one hit? Check. Collaborated with Phil Spector? Check. Dated Elvis? Check. Co-wrote multiple hit songs, including the theme from Rocky? Check. Paved the way for contemporary female songwriters? Check.
I spoke with Ms. Connors for about an hour a few weeks ago. We covered her illustrious career, and how she is still making music in her 80s. If you want access to the full conversation, consider signing up for a paid subscription.
A Conversation with Carol Connors
Your first foray into the music industry was in 1958. You were in Phil Specter’s first group The Teddy Bears. You sang lead vocal on The Teddy Bears’ song “To Know Him is To Love Him”, which later topped the charts. It is a classic of the era. How did that song come to be?
I was in junior high. My best friend Donna was dating Phil. He was in high school at the time. He used to come pick her up. I was Donna’s best friend and lookout. When her and Phil were smooching in the car, I would be standing guard in case her parents showed up. Sometimes while I was standing there, I would be singing.
One day Phil said to me, “Annette - that’s my birth name - I love your voice. I’m going to write a song for you to sing. Do you have $10?” I said, “Phil, I don’t have 10 cents let alone $10.” He told me that if I could get $10 for a recording session then I could be in his group and he would write me that song.
He drove a hard bargain.
[Laughs] Always. Anyway, I went to my parents and asked for $10. But we were quite poor, so my mother just told me to go do my homework. My father was a jockey, though. He wasn’t a gambling man, but jockeys live close to the edge. He always took chances. So, he asked what I wanted it for. I told him, and they got the money together.
I gave Phil the $10, and we went into the recording studio to cut the flip side of “To Know Him is To Love Him”. My voice kept cutting through mix. Phil told me, “Annette, I don’t just like your voice. I love your voice. I’m really going to write you that song.” This is the first thing Phil ever did, by the way.
About two weeks later, he called me up on the phone, and he played it for me over the phone. [Imitating Specter] “To know, know, know him -” He had a terrible singing voice. He said, “What do you think?” I went, “It’s okay.” He said, “We gotta go to the studio to cut this. Be there tomorrow.”
We went to Gold Star Recording, which went on to become a big studio in southern California. We recorded it in two takes. One for balance. One for real. I did it all the way through, and that was it. Sandy Nelson, who went on to play “Teen Beat”, played drums on that.
Yeah. Phil was a genius. He knew exactly what he wanted. He knew my voice was the right voice. He knew what the drums should do. He knew what the piano should do. He knew what the guitar should do. It only took us 20 minutes, and it went on to be the number one record in the world.
What’s weird is it wasn’t supposed to be the A side. A disc jockey in Minneapolis named Lou Riegert on KDWB flipped it by mistake very late at night and the whole board lit up with calls. People were going nuts with it. They got an order out of Minneapolis for 100 records. Then it was 300, 500, 1000, 10000, and the 20000. And that’s how it started.
After that, you were ostensibly a pop star. But The Teddy Bears weren’t long lived. Did you immediately start pursuing a music career? Did you finish up high school? What did you do in those ensuing years?
Phil was wonderful in those days. He was brilliant, funny, and innovative. But there were other things going on. Phil’s father committed suicide when he was growing up. Actually, “To Know Him is To Love Him” was inspired by his father. The epitaph on his grave was “To Know Him Was To Love Him”. Phil turned that into a teenage lament.
After his father died, Phil’s mother moved the family from New York to California. Shirley, Phil’s sister, became our manager after the song went big. And Shirley hated me. I have no idea why. I was just a kid. I was still in school. She made my life miserable. I knew The Teddy Bears were going to be short lived, and Phil was going to do other things. But there was another issue.
What was that?
I was involved in a terrible car accident. I went off a cliff in a car that I’d bought with some of the money from “To Know Him is To Love Him”. I fell 180 feet. It took four operations to put my nose back on my face. After I recovered, I enrolled at UCLA. One day, I was walking around campus and just thinking what I really wanted to do with myself. I decided that I wanted to be back in music.
Is that when you became Carol Connors?
Then your next big success was writing the hit “Hey Little Cobra” for The Rip Chords in 1963.
Not exactly. That was a few years away.
So, what happened in those couple years between leaving college and writing “Hey Little Cobra”?
I got a manager, and I kept trying to break through in the industry. I do believe that Phil did not want me in the music industry. Almost everything he touched, he destroyed. The Ronettes are the prime example.
But you persevered through that.
I did. All I’ve ever known is writing and performing.
So, how did you eventually come to write “Hey Little Cobra”?
Well, after Elvis and I broke up -
Wait, you dated Elvis?