The French yé-yé singer died on January 7, 2018, after an illustrious career that included collaborations with Serge Gainsbourg, Michel Berger and Elton John
Isabelle Genevieve Marie Anne “France” Gall (1947-2018) was a French yé-yé girl who quickly rose to fame after winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1965. By the following year, she was France’s #1 female pop star, performing hit songs written by Joe Dassin, Serge Gainsbourg and her father, Robert Gall. Her most popular hits of the 1960s included “Poupée de cire, Poupée de son”, “Les Sucettes”, and “Bébé requin.” Gall would release hit records nonstop throughout her career, though her collaboration with lyricist Michel Berger would push her to the height of fame.
Although Gall has been criticized by many for her commercial poppy sound and high girly voice, her music, unlike many artists of that decade, has stood the test of time. At the height of the yé-yé movement in the 1960’s, Françoise Hardy and Gall were the only yé-yé girls who released albums consistently. The term “yé-yé”, derived from the English term “yeah! yeah!,” was often used to describe a genre of music that was a combination of rock and traditional pop. The rise in the popularity of yé-yé singers left the old guard pop stars, such as Sheila and Sylvie Vartan, to see them as fierce competition. Gall would go on to release eleven studio albums and draw teen audiences from her debut in 1964 into the late 1980s. She remains a cult figure to this day.
Born on October 9, 1947 in Paris, Gall came from a musical background. Her father Robert wrote songs for Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour, and her mother, Cecile, was also a popular singer as well as being the daughter of Paul Berthier, renowned co-founder of the boys’ choir “Les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois” (The Little Singers of Paris.) Gall learned to play the guitar and piano at an early age, and by the time she was a teenager, her father encouraged her to record songs. In 1963, due to her father’s prominence in the music industry, she was able to send demos to music publisher Denis Bourgeois, who eventually asked her to audition for him at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Upon hearing her perform, Borgeois signed her to the Philips record label.
At 16, Gall released her first single, “Ne sois pas si bête” (Don’t Be So Stupid”). The track was a major hit in France, selling 20,000 copies. In 1964, Gall left school to pursue her music career. That same year, Borgeois introduced Gall to songwriter Serge Gainsbourg who would go on to compose numerous hits for her. Gall’s second single, “N’écoute pas les idoles” (“Don’t Listen to the Idols”), was penned by Gainsbourg and proved to be a chart topper. The track remained at the top of the charts for three weeks. Within the year, Gall would go on to play her first concert, opening for French singer Sacha Distel in Belgium.
By the end of 1964, Gall’s managers were pressuring her to record a children’s song. Her father wrote the song “Sacré Charlemagne”, which became wildly popular. Upon the song’s release in 1965, the EP sold two million copies, shooting to number one on the French singles charts. That year, Gall represented Luxembourg in the Eurovision song contest, performing the Gainsbourg-penned tune “Poupée de cire, poupée de son”(“Wax doll, Rag doll”). Despite her weak performance, she won the contest, and “Poupée de cire, poupée de son” became a major hit in her native France.In 1966, Gall recorded the singles “Les Sucettes”(“Lollipops”) and “Les Leçons Particulières” (“Private Lessons”). These songs were deemed disreputable by critics and fans, who quickly picked up on the double entendres. When looking at the translated lyrics to a song like “Les Sucettes” (written by Gainsbourg) it’s a wonder how these songs received any airplay at all. The first verse of the song loosely translates to:
Annie loves lollipops
Lollipops with anise
Lollipops with anise
Give to his kisses
An animal taste
The barley sugar
Scented with anise
Flowing in Annie’s throat
She is in paradise
In more recent years, journalists asked Gall if she was aware that she was singing songs with suggestive lyrics. According to journalist Lea Chalmont, “When she (Gall) came to understand the erotically suggestive lyrics, about a girl sucking lollipops, she didn’t talk to Gainsbourg again right up until he died in 1991.” Although it is difficult to fathom how 19-year-old Gall wasn’t aware of the sexual overtones in Gainsbourg’s songs (after all, she wasn’t a nun), we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. Despite the releases of these controversial songs, Gall was voted France’s #1 female pop star for 1966.
The following year, Gall released her seventh album, entitled 1968, considered by many fans and critics to be her finest work of the decade. The album included the track “Bébé Requin” (“Baby Shark”), which became a massive hit, “Nefertiti” and yet another Gainsbourg tune “Teenie Weenie Boppie” a peculiar song about a deadly LSD trip that involves Mick Jagger. While the songs on this album proved to be successful, it was the song “La Petite” that received the most attention, as the song is about a young girl who is yearned for by a friend of her father. It was perhaps the controversy over this song that contributed to the popularity of this album.
After the release of 1968, Gall decided to take a break from the music scene, though her relationships with 1960s’ idol Claude François and singer Julien Clerc meant that she was constantly in the public eye. When she returned to the music scene in the 1970s, she was no longer a teenager and found it difficult to produce new material. In 1974, she met French singer / songwriter Michel Berger who reestablished her career. With the help of Berger, she released a massive comeback single entitled “La Déclaration”, followed by her first album in years, France Gall. During this time, Berger and Gall became very close, and the following year they were married.
In 1977, Berger wrote the rock opera Starmania, in which Gall was cast as the lead role of Cristal. The film version proved to be a huge success in France, and Berger’s score for the opera reached the top of the French charts. Throughout the 1980s, Gall would record three more albums, her most well-received single being “Donner pour Donner” (“Give to Give”), which was co-written by Berger and Elton John. In 1992, she collaborated with Berger on the album Double Jeu (“Double Dealing”). Unfortunately, this would be their last collaboration, as Berger died in August of that year. Three years later, she released the album France, which was dedicated to Berger’s memory.
In 2001, the documentary film France Gall par France Gall was aired on French television, drawing millions of viewers. Five years later, she publicly endorsed a campaign to combat violence against women and became the champion of “Coeur de femmes”, an organization to aid victims of domestic violence. In later years, she made several television appearances, and in 2007 held a television tribute to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Berger’s passing.
On January 7, 2018, France Gall died from an infection after two years of battling cancer. Gall had previously been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993, though it was successfully treated then. The doctors did not disclose the type of cancer that caused her death. The former yé-yé girl died at the American Hospital of Paris in Neuilly-sur-Seine. She was 70 years old.
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