French Music Icons


Johnny Hallyday

Considered France’s number one singer. His 40-year career includes a staggering 400 tours and albums that still make the French Top 10. Despite this, Hallyday is still relatively unknown outside of France. Born Jean-Phillippe Smet in Paris on 15 June 1943 he is heavily influenced by his idol Elvis Presley. “Johnny” as he is affectionately called by fans, first became famous in the 1960s for singing rock’n’roll in French. Hallyday was invited to appear with Connie Francis on the Ed Sullivan show in 1962, which was televised direct, from the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Hallyday is said to have developed into a greater performer over the years, making 68 albums, 18 of which have gone platinum. He has also made five films. Hallyday has had a tumultuous love life married four times with two children, one of which David, is a singer in his right. Most recently, Hallyday married model Laetitia Boudou and they have adopted a child from Vietnam, making him popular with France’s celebrity magazines. Hallyday has also had a tumultuous relationship with his record company Universal. In 2006 he moved to Switzerland after complaining that he was paying 72% of his income in tax. A public supporter of the UMP party (France’s equivalent of the Conservatives in the UK), he has said he will move back to France when the taxes are lowered.

Edith Piaf

Born Edith Giovanna Gassion on December 19th, 1915 Edith Piaf was probably the most loved singer that France produced but much of her life is shrouded in mystery and rumour. Her part Italian mother was a café singer and her father was a street acrobat but both abandoned Piaf who lived with her maternal grandmother for some years. She was eventually returned to her mother who by this time was running a brothel in Normandy. Between the ages of three to seven she is said to have been blind due to conjunctivitis. From eight to 14, she was said to have been deaf. Piaf became a street singer in Paris’s notorious Pigalle district when she was 16 but fell in love with a delivery boy called Louis Dupont. She had a daughter Marcelle who tragically died in infancy of meningitis. In 1935 Piaf was discovered by Louis Leplée who owned a prestigious Paris nightclub. It was Louis who nicknamed her La Mome Piaf (The Little Sparrow) because of her extreme nerves and short size (she was just 142cm tall). Not long afterwards Leplée was murdered and although Piaf was accused of being an accessory she was acquitted. As her career progressed, she became friends with many famous people including actor Maurice Chevalier and the poet Jacques Borgeat. She was the lover of actor, Yves Montand who became part of her act. During the middle of the German occupation of Paris in World War II she wrote her signature tune La vie en rose’. It was well known that she supported the French resistance, and many owe their lives to her. Piaf toured Europe and the USA after the war and even appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, no less than eight times. A good friend of Charles Aznavour she helped him at the debut of his career. During the fifties Piaf had a serious morphine addiction, the result of a car accident in 1951. The big love of her life was boxer Marcel Cerdan but he died in a plane crash in 1949. In the years that followed she was married twice, once to singer Jacques Pills in 1952 divorcing in 1962, and then to the much younger, twenty six year old hairdresser Théo Sarapo, till her death. In the last years of her life she suffered from cancer. She died at Plascassier on the French Riviera on October 10th 1963. Renowned for her most famous song ‘Non, je regrette rien’ in 1960 she made numerous records and films, and is still one of France’s most enduring icons.

Serge Gainsbourg

Born Lucien Ginzburg in Paris, Gainsbourg was the son of Jewish Russian parent, who fled to France after the 1917 Bolshevik uprising. He began his musical career as a jazz pianist in the 1950s and spanned several eras of French popular music including reggae, new wave, rock, disco, pop, even flirting with hip hop. In his music he had a unique sense of black humour, laden with sex and scatology, gaining a remarkable following in the English-speaking world. He is without doubt a French cult figure, a veritable musical poet, who had a great influence on many French singers and musicians, writing many well-known hits over the decades. He had a daughter, Charlotte, with English singer and actress Jane Birkin, with whom he sang his controversial hit ‘Je t’aime in 1969, probably his most famous song in the English speaking word, which simulated sounds of female orgasm. It was considered too hot in many countries – the Vatican made a public statement citing the song as offensive – but its notoriety led it to reach No.1 in the UK singles charts. Gainsbourg had many huge successes composing the scores for 40 films, directing four of them. In the 1980s he became a more regular figure on French TV but he often showed up drunk and unshaven. But when he died of a heart attack on March 2, 1991, he was still an icon of the French music scene.

Michel Petrucciani

Michel Petrucciani born in 1963 died age 36 – but in his short life became one of the world’s best-known jazz pianists. Born with ‘osteogenesis imperfecta’ a genetic condition that causes brittle bones and short stature, despite the associated pulmonary problems, learned the piano. His Italian father, Tony, played guitar and Petrucciani’s brother Louis was a keen bass player so many evenings were spent making music in the sitting room. Petrucciani trained as a classical pianist but his real love was jazz – in particular Duke Ellington – and by the time he was 13 Michel had performed at his first concert, although his health was quite fragile and he had to be carried to the piano. Although his arms were of normal length but his legs were short and he needed aids to reach the piano’s pedals. Petrucciani had formed a successful trio by the time he was 18 and played all over France and parts of Europe. In 1981 he was a big sensation when he performed at the Paris Jazz Festival, and a new jazz star was born. In the early eighties he moved to the USA to further his musical career, becoming known as the French wonder boy. In 1986 he became the first French musician to have ever signed a contract with the Blue Note label. By now he had met and played with the best in the business including Wayne Shorter, Roy Haynes, Charlie Haydn, Stanley Clarke, Gerry Mulligan and Dizzy Gillespie. Petrucciani once said that he was the “Pavorotti of jazz”, recording thirty albums during his short life. In 1994 he was granted a Legion d’honneur in Paris. He died from a pulmonary infection on 6th January 1999.

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