Christine Lebail had it all – a nice voice, a pretty face and a satchelful of great songs. The only thing missing was her rightful place at the top of the class of French singers of the 1960s.
She was born in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, a suburb to the south of Paris. There is some debate as to whether this was in 1947 or 1948.
She began singing from an early age, and later became part of the local church choir. As a teenager, she spent her weekends performing with the group Les Swingers at dances in the area.
She was discovered in 1964 after taking part in a radio talent show and was offered a contract with the AZ record label.
The charmingly naïve Johnny S.P. 69.603/11 – an ode to the king of French rock ‘n’ roll, Johnny Hallyday, who had just begun his military service – became the lead track of her first release, issued later that year. The four-track EP also included Pourquoi pas moi, a great version of British singer Glenda Collins’ If you gotta pick a baby, which had been penned by legendary producer Joe Meek.
However, Christine is best known for her second EP, released the following year. The lead track, L’an prochain sur la plage, was co-written by Charles Aznavour, and Glenda Collins’ back catalogue was raided a second time for another Meek composition, Nice wasn’t it, which was translated as Deux jours avec toi. But it is the terrific Les livres d’école that gets a gold star from even the hardest of musical markers. In it, she suggests that school would be more interesting if love were on the curriculum, and the song has drawn comparisons with Chantal Kelly’s equally scholastic-tastic Notre prof’ d’anglais.
In a bid to raise her profile, she was signed up for the 1965 Rose d’or song festival, appearing alongside Alice Dona, Evy and Tiny Yong, amongst others. Perhaps surprisingly, her entry, Tout changera, wasn’t included on her next EP, Ils font pleurer les filles. However, Jean-Jacques Debout – the man behind some of Sylvie Vartan and Chantal Goya’s best material – was brought in to provide the fabulous La permission de minuit. The song found Christine arranging a secret rendezvous with her boyfriend after being punished by her parents for staying out late. Nevertheless, the release failed to sell in the quantities that the young singer hoped for.
The lead track of her 1966 EP, Des petits riens, is often mistakenly cited as a cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s Ces petits riens. It is in fact an adaptation of American singer Kay Starr’s snappily titled I know that you know that we know that they know.
The release also included Ce n’est pas la peine, a version of Billy Joe Royal’s top ten US hit Down in the boondocks.
It was around this time that Christine began spreading her wings artistically. She appeared alongside France Gall in the 1966 TV film Viva morandi, playing Purity to Gall’s Grace. Both singers performed a section of Gall’s controversial hit Les sucettes. And a year later, Christine took up song writing, surprising fans by co-writing À qui for Dalida and Juste quelques mots for Junior.
However, she took no part in writing any of the tracks on her 1967 release Les roses de Turquie or on 1968’s La mistinguett. (The latter was actually another Debout composition.)
Her innocent – and fans would argue, best – period was well and truly over by the time of the release of Le temps du boa in 1969. The song was styled after Sylvie Vartan’s hugely successful (but, frankly, dreadful) flapper-esque 2’35” de bonheur. However, the EP continues to sell well, largely because of the inclusion of two further Debout tracks, Tu ressembles à Gavroche and L’Amérique à Paris, though neither ranks among his best.
After taking a break from recording for a couple of years, she enjoyed a small comeback in 1971 with Bel enfant noir, her take on a Nina Simone original.
A handful of further releases followed, and in 1972, she found herself at the Rose d’or festival again, this time performing Une rose en papier bleu.
She made only occasional visits to the recording studio after that – in 1973, for example, she provided the song Qu’elle est jolie la vie for the soundtrack of the Gérard Blain film Le pelican, and in 1977 she teamed up with Jeff Barnel for the release of Les boeufs on the Philips label.
She retired from the music business altogether in the late 1970s.
Follow the links to hear other singers’ versions of Christine Lebail songs
Pourquoi pas moi
Glenda Collins: If you gotta pick a baby
Our pick of the pops
Les livres d’école
La permission de minuit
Pourquoi pas moi
Des petits riens
L'an prochain sur la plage
Un morceau de ma dentelle
Ils font pleurer les filles
Ce n'est pas la peine
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