French singer France Gall’s untrained vocals and girl-next-door sex appeal helped to turn her into one of France’s biggest stars of the 1960s. Huge hits, such as Sacré Charlemagne, Poupée de cire, poupée de son and the controversial Les sucettes, kept her in demand at home and abroad. After a fall from grace, she made a comeback in the mid-1970s and enjoyed a renewed popularity.
She was born Isabelle Gall in Paris on 9 October 1947. Hers was a musical family – her mother was a singer, her father a songwriter for such greats as Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf. As a child, Isabelle learned to play the piano and the guitar.
Using her father’s connections, she landed an audition with Philips at the age of 15. Label bosses signed her up, but insisted she take a stage name. Isabelle Gall was a bit of a mouthful, they argued, and wouldn’t work internationally. The France-Galles rugby match was big news at the time, and it was decided that the singer should become France Gall, a name she hated.
Ne sois pas si bête was issued as her debut release and received its first radio airplay on the day of her 16th birthday, in the autumn of 1963. The song, a version of US girl group The Laurie Sisters’ Stand a little closer – one of her few covers – became a big hit, selling over 200,000 copies.
The follow up, N’écoute pas les idoles, topped the charts in March 1964 and was included on her first LP.
The La cloche EP followed that summer, though the release has become better known for two of its other tracks, Jazz à gogo and Mes premières vraies vacances.
The singer’s gaucheness endeared her to the record-buying public and her untrained voice gave teenagers a star they could identify with.
Plus, while many of her contemporaries were left to perform cover versions of British or American hits, France had a team of top songwriters penning original material for her. Among them was Serge Gainsbourg, and his Laisse tomber les filles gave her another big hit in the autumn of 1964.
Then, against her better judgement, France recorded Sacré Charlemagne, a song aimed at children. Despite her pleas for Philips not to release the song, it became the lead track on an EP issued at the end of the year and went on to sell over two million copies worldwide. A second album consolidated her position as one of the country’s biggest stars.
In 1965, she was invited to represent neighbouring Luxembourg at the Eurovision song contest in Naples, Italy. (She took a lot of flak for it from the French media, who accused her of “deserting” her homeland.) Of the dozen songs she was offered, she chose the Gainsbourg composition Poupée de cire, poupée de son. She won the contest, pushing British pre-contest favourite Kathy Kirby into second place.
However, France’s delight at her win was marred when her lover, Claude François, broke up with her that very evening. (The pair would resume their relationship shortly afterwards for another couple of years.)
Her winning song proved a major international success, and France recorded versions in several other languages, including German, Italian and Japanese. It also spawned a host of covers throughout Europe, including one by Twinkle in the UK, Karina in both Spain and Portugal, Ritva Palukka in Finland and Denmark’s Gitte in Sweden.
The follow up, another Gainsbourg composition, Attends ou va-t’en, was a hit back in France, as was the subsequent L’Amérique.
1966 began well for young France, as she scored another success with Gainsbourg’s Baby pop. The song also became the title track of her fourth album, which, like most of her LPs, brought together many of the tracks that had appeared previously on EPs.
The choice of Les sucettes for her next release, however, caused a scandal. Gainsbourg was well known for the erotic subtexts of his songs, and his composition, ostensibly a song about a girl who enjoyed sucking lollipops, was a masterpiece of double entendre that was clear to everyone – except France Gall, that is. She went into hiding when she realised her mistake. The fact that the disc sold over a million copies only added to her sense of humiliation.
Things deteriorated further for her with Bonsoir John John, a song, dedicated to the son of assassinated US president John F Kennedy. Issued in September 1966, the release saw her accused of demonstrating poor taste.
A duet with Maurice Biraud, La petite, about a man who lusts after his friend’s daughter, didn’t help matters.
France swore she would have a greater say over what she recorded in future, but the damage was done and it would be a long time before her career really recovered. A string of successes in Germany gave her some comfort, however.
Back at home, 1967’s Bébé requin provided a temporary return to the charts. However, follow ups Teenie weenie boppie – a Gainsbourg composition about LSD – and Toi que je veux flopped badly. (All three songs appeared on 1968, one of France’s best albums to date.)
Subsequent releases Dady da da and 24/36 sold poorly and, in late 1968, France left the Philips label.
With a new contract at La compagnie, she relaunched herself at the 1969 San Remo song festival in Italy. The practice at the time was to have two singers – one national and one foreign – perform each entry. Thus, both she and Gigliola Cinquetti sang La pioggia. However, her translated version of the song, L’orage, sold poorly in France, as did her later cover of Brit girl Barbara Ruskin’s failed A song for Europe submission Gentlemen, please (Les années folles).
After a few years out of favour, she made a triumphant return in 1974 with La déclaration d’amour, composed by singer-songwriter Michel Berger as a declaration of his love for her. The pair would go on to marry a couple of years later.
The singer remained one of France’s top stars throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Résiste, Il jouait du piano debout and Ella, elle l’a are among her greatest successes of the period.
The husband-and-wife team released a hit album of duets in 1992 before Berger died suddenly. France subsequently moved to Los Angeles, and, in 1995, recorded a tribute album.
However, when her 19-year-old daughter died in 1997, she withdrew from show business altogether and maintained a low profile, with only the occasional TV appearance.
She died in Paris on 7 January 2018, following a two-year battle with cancer.
Follow the links to hear other singers’ versions of France Gall songs
Dady da da
The Satin Bells: Da-di-da-da
Poupée de cire, poupée de son
Karina: Muñeca de cera
Twinkle: A lonely singing doll
Our pick of the pops
Avant la bagarre
Poupée de cire, poupée de son
On t'avait prévenue
Laisse tomber les filles
Made in France
Dady da da
Tu n'as pas le droit
Poupée de son
France Gall in German
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