Friday, September 5, 2008

Who Is That French Girl?

Vinyl alert: My friends at Boardwalk Books in Duluth, Minnesota are selling off the used vinyl in their store. They are doing so only on weekends, so if you are within driving distance and you want to fill out your collection really fast for very little money, this is your opportunity. This is not an advertisement, just a note to the vinyl collectors out there. They're located on Superior Street near the casino. Now, the post:

Version en français:

When vinyl was all there was, something that was lacking to me was a good way to buy imported recordings. At least in my Midwestern world, record stores just didn’t send buyers to the UK or Namibia to get the trendy tunes of the day. I did find a West German guy who had an ad in a music magazine, and he would sell you European records if you sent him the proper form of money order. I can’t even remember what he called the things, but I couldn’t get a bank to create one for me, so ol’ Norbert never got any of my money, and I never got any of his vinyl.

In one particular case, I heard a song I really liked, but there was no way I could have acquired it, even if I had the transaction system down cold. I owe both the song and my inability to buy it to my high-school French teacher, Mrs. Callender.

I don’t believe I’ve mentioned this aspect of my being, but I have an affinity for languages. Thanks to my French, Spanish and German classes at Merrillville High School, the rest of my education didn’t strike me as particularly onerous. I spent half my time learning something I loved, so the rest didn’t bother me.

Mrs. Callender was the only French teacher at the high school, so she taught me for three years. Starting with my sophomore year, on days that she ran out of stuff to do, she sometimes pulled out a tape of French songs she kept at the language lab console. A man said, “Chanson numéro un,” and Song Number One played. No title, no artist. The tape held perhaps ten songs. One of them was “Les Champs-Élysées” by Joe Dassin, which was the class favorite. (I figured out the artist via an internet search years later.) I liked a different song from the tape better, but, as was my way then, I didn’t militate to have it played more often.

During those years, we could buy subscriptions to Salut!, which was a French equivalent to the teen magazine Tiger Beat, or something like that. In its pages, I learned a lot about French musicians. Among them was the singer Claude François, who wrote “Comme d’habitude,” the original song that became “My Way.” He electrocuted himself during my senior year by trying to change a light bulb while he was standing in a bathtub full of water. Our entire French 4 class was in shock when that news reached us.

Other big names were Johnny Hallyday, another crooner, and Sylvie Vartan, a Bulgarian-Hungarian songstress whose parents fled to Paris when she was about eight. I followed the progress of their hits in the charts listed in the magazine, which tended to arrive about two months after its French publication date.

The song I liked so much was a gentle ballad with a sparse instrumental arrangement and an opening that featured what sounded like a large choir. Once, Mrs. Callender speculated that it might be Sylvie who was singing, but after she finally got hold of a Sylvie Vartan tune, we could hear that she was not the singer of “C’est toi que j’aime” (Philips 437079). There was no way I could think of to get more information about the song. I graduated from high school, wandered off to college and all that, and waited for the internet to be invented so I could dig up details on this song.

At last, the late, lamented CDNow provided me with a bit of information when I looked up the title. A singer whom I remembered from her prominent presence in the magazine had recorded a version of the song. Her name? Sheila. Was it the right version? I bought a CD that included the song. It was a live CD, and the song was included as a snippet in a medley. Drat.

I tried again and got a 2-CD greatest hits package. I played the song. And I had it, twenty years after I had last heard it.

All of this means that the song was not part of my collection of childhood 45s, but like some 1970s summer songs that I could not buy because I was at camp, this one would have been a quick purchase, had it been available.

Sheila, known by one name, as a precursor to Prince, was born Annie Chancel in Créteil, a Paris suburb. She began to record at age 17, when her longtime producer, Claude Carrère, discovered her. What followed was a string of hits in the francophone world, many of them previous English-language hits translated by Carrère with no regard for the original lyrics. “All I Have to Do Is Dream” became “Pendant les Vacances” (“During (Summer) Vacation”). “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” became “Vous les Copains” (“You, My Friends”). And “Shaddup You Face” by Joe Dolce morphed into “Et ne le ramène pas” (“Don’t Bring It Back”).

Carrère used the Bible as an inspiration for a number of song titles, including “The Magi,” “Samson and Delilah,” “Adam and Eve,” and “Noah’s Ark” (titles all translated to English for the blog). These songs were not about Biblical themes; the names were given as metaphors for some aspect of French romance.

The lighthearted approach to both lyrics and arrangements was known in the 1960s as “yé-yé,” a French phenomenon that went unnoticed in American pop, thanks perhaps to the Beatles’ omnipresence. Or, perhaps even without the Beatles, the vastly superior quality of American pop would have kept yé-yé off the charts here.

In 1977, Sheila turned to English to broaden her audience. It sort of worked; I heard her version of “Singin’ in the Rain” in Mexico. She recorded “Spacer,” written and produced by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers (Chic). She was billed as Sheila & B. Devotion for that one. Late in 1981, she reached the US Hot 100 for the only time with “Little Darlin’,” which peaked at #49.

Still active but not so successful, Sheila stands as one of the top female French pop singers of the 1960s and 1970s. That description contains a lot of narrowing down, but it’s not meant to. Charts in the United States tend not to welcome singers who don’t switch to English; if you can quickly name a song truly sung in French, apart from “Dominique,” that hit the U.S. Top 40, then you know your stuff.

Claude Carrère, whose career really took off after he started producing Sheila’s work, also produced Claude François. Carrère has gone on to produce a number of French-language films. His co-writers on “C’est toi que j’aime” were André Salvet (1918-2006), who contributed to a number of Sheila recordings, and Jacques Plante (1920-2003), also a prolific songwriter.

Once I found this song and the Joe Dassin recording, I gave up on trying to remember any of the other songs on Mrs. Callender’s tape. I suppose I could ask her if she kept it, but I would have to go to Indiana to do that, and I’m busy this week. I’ll console myself by posting a Sheila videofest, including her first single, which shows that she had an effortlessly large vocal range as a teen.

Next time, I’ll bring you a legitimate caithiseach cutout 45, sung by a Southern politician who once punched out Jerry Lee Lewis. See you Wednesday!

Sheila, C’est toi que j’aime


coates said...

Congratulations. Really complete but Singing in The Rain was billed to "SB Devotion" and there was no picture of Sheila on the cover, just to see the reactions of the French people. Later on when they saw Sheila singing it, the 2nd record was billed to Sheila & B Devotion. "B" being for Black.(her dancers).

caithiseach said...

Coates, thanks for the clarification. I had not seen the cover, and the sources I was reading were unclear about when the name changes occurred. I appreciate the accurate information, as well as the kind comment.