The short but intense domination of French popular music by rock’n’roll lasted barely three short years from 1960 to 1963. Guitar groups came to the fore singing well-known rocking songs adapted with French lyrics. These groups and singers performed some original songs as well as many excellent musical interpretations (which contrast to what in the English-speaking world most usually end up as simple carbon-copy imitations of the ‘classics’). Here follows a quick introduction to the main singers and groups of the era remembered in French as les années 60 (‘the Sixties’).
(Jean-Philippe Smet, 1943-2017) was the first French rock’n’roll success in March 1960 with his first EP which contained the self-penned ‘laisse les filles’ (‘leave the girls’). Although from Paris he had a peculiar upbringing following his girl cousins and an American dancer Lee Halliday – a professional dance trio (later duo) – who performed all over Western Europe. After being smitten by Elvis in the French version of the film ‘Loving You’ in 1957, Smet was inspired to become a rock’n’roll singer, encouraged by Halliday – later to become his manager – who procured him many rock’n’roll singles unavailable in France. Already singing as Johnny Halliday by the later 1950s, he managed to get a contract with the Vogue label in January 1960, and became ‘Hallyday’ through a printing mistake on his first EP. Johnny Hallyday was the French Elvis, so much so that his death was accorded the national honour of a bikers motorcade down the Champs Élysées for his funeral. There’s no doubting this status and importance in his influence on spreading rock’n’roll in France but in this writer’s humble opinion his voice was weak inasmuch as Hallyday had a tendency to shout rather than to sing his rockers.
Eddy Mitchell (Claude Moine, 1942-) was also a Parisian and became friendly with Johnny Hallyday, being part of a budding teenage rock’n’roll enthusiast scene which from 1958 onwards gravitated around the Golf Drouot – ‘the birthplace of rock’n’roll in France’ – where a jukebox played American music. Having seen Hallyday’s success, Moine formed a rock’n’roll group and adopted his American stage name Eddy Mitchell before signing a contract with the Barclay label in November 1960. The first EP of Les Chaussettes Noires (‘The Black Socks’, a name conjured by a lurid marketing deal with a sock company) was out in January 1961 containing ‘be-bop-a-lula’ and ‘tant pis pour toi’ (‘too bad for you’), a French version of Gene Vincent’s ‘wildcat’.
Dick Rivers (Hervé Forneri, 1956-2019) was from Nice, on the Mediterranean coast of southern France, near to an important American naval base which brought the young Forneri into an early contact with American culture and music. Inspired primarily by Elvis in the film ‘Loving You’, the young Forneri began performing unaccompanied before getting together to form a rock’n’roll group with the Roboli brothers in 1958. Forneri had adopted the stage name Dick Rivers after Elvis’s character’s name in ‘Loving You’ Deke Rivers (French pronunciation being what it is, Dick and Deke are pronounced identically by the French and he may have regretted the choice of spelling in later years as French commentators ritually enjoyed repeating that ‘dick’ meant ‘penis’ in English). After having been unsuccessful in attempting to obtain a contract with an Italian record label at the prestigious San Remo music festival in Italy, the group piled together in a car to go to Paris in the speculative hope of obtaining a contract with a French record label. After many hardships they finally obtained a contract with the Pathé-Marconi label and their first EP came out in May 1961 containing ‘c’est le jour-j’ (‘it’s d-day’) an adaptation of Bobby Doss’s ‘I’ve got you’.
Dick Rivers left for a solo career in the summer of 1962 after barely a year and a half fronting the Chats Sauvages ; he would record 36 albums in the following 56 years, but none returned to proper rock’n’roll and he became a typical French balladeer. Likewise Eddy Mitchell finally left the Chaussettes Noires in the spring of 1963 (although this was not announced until Deceember that same year). Mitchell had in fact been drafted into military service in March 1962 – soon followed by other members which made recording quasi-impossible. The sign of things to come, he had released an EP of ballads with strings and horns under his name as early as December 1962. He has recorded 54 albums in 55 years up to the present, none of which was essentially rock’n’roll.
Johnny Hallyday, who never was eclipsed by being with a named group, like the other two although not in so striking a fashion, was becoming an evermore overproduced balladeer by the summer of 1963 (with the exception of the mid-1964 ‘Johnny, reviens ! Les Rocks les plus terribles’ (‘Johnny, come back! [adapted title of the classic ‘Johnny B Goode’] The most awesome rocking songs’). Again, like the others, he retained a soft spot for rock’n’roll without ever seriously returning to it (the same evolution can be seen in Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard and even Elvis of course). In the 53 years following 1963 he brought out some 76 albums.
Lack of success of the Chaussettes Noires and the Chats Sauvages.
The twist fashion EXPAND.