Gélou was France’s premier purveyor of twist. She gained popularity in 1961 and enjoyed some success for a couple of years. At the point when she could have segued into a second career as a yé-yé girl, she opted to take a break from music. It proved a move from which she would never really recover. Even a comeback as Geneviève Cognet couldn’t recapture her former glory.
Gélou was born Geneviève Cognet in Lille, northern France, on 10 August 1937.
As a teenager, after passing her baccalaureate, she went on to study at the local theatrical conservatory, where she was considered a first-rate student.
After graduating, she quit Lille for the bright lights of Paris, where she entered a talent contest on a whim – and won. Her success led to a recording contract with the Barclay label, in 1957. Two initial releases, the EPs Œil de verre, jambe de bois and Java partout, were cut in a light, variété style. The singer has since said she cared little for them, and neither set the charts alight.
Disappointed, she quit the label.
By 1961, a French take on American rock ‘n’ roll had begun to prove popular, and singers such as Johnny Hallyday had become overnight stars.
When Hédika and Nicole Paquin found favour too, record labels in Paris knew they had found the next big thing. Each threw its efforts into finding other singers who could fit this style.
At BAM, label bosses were impressed by a now-platinum blonde Gélou. Sensing that the singer could be their ticket aboard the rock ‘n’ roll express, the company wasted little time in getting her into the studio. Dubbed Rockin’ Gélou, she cut a take on the Boris Vian and Henri Salvador-penned Donne, donne, donne, backed by an orchestra led by Claude Delon.
The singer was invited to promote the release on TV, and after a second EP, Salomé, she found herself touring with Les Chaussettes Noires and British star Vince Taylor.
For these performances she was joined by a group of backing musicians, becoming Gélou et son Machiavel Rock. These live appearances helped the song to become a hit and it remains her best-known work to this day.
Her third EP, issued in January 1962, proved something of a departure. Recorded live, the release oozed sexuality. It led with Viens twister, which opened with the heavily accented invitation, “Hey boy, com and danse ze twist now.” The release also included fan favourites C’est toi qui m’as appris l’amour and Ils croient à leur danse.
Given her love of acting, she eagerly accepted roles in the plays Deux pieds dans la tombe and, later, Pas d’usufruit pour tante Caroline. Fortunately, neither interfered with her music career in any significant way.
On the music front, after being awarded a prize by the almost-inevitably short-lived Rock and Twist Academy, Gélou appeared at Paris’ prestigious Olympia venue. There, again teamed with her Machiavel Rock, she performed on the same bill as stars such as Dany Logan and Danyel Gérard.
The EP Délivre-moi – a take on Ray Charles’s Unchain my heart – was issued to coincide with the performances. By this time, translations of American hits were becoming increasingly popular, and the release was the singer’s first to include four covers of international hits. Among the others were Le 3e homme (a take on The Harry Lime theme) and the bilingual Baby it’s you (The Shirelles’ song of the same name).
In June, Gélou headed off to Italy for a national tour and, upon her return, married nightclub owner Jacques Maheux.
A part in the film C’est pas moi, c’est l’autre, which premiered in French cinemas in November 1962, cemented the singer’s popularity. In it, she performed two songs, Notre amour renaitra and the Charles Aznavour-penned Demain. Both titles were included on an EP, released to coincide with the film’s cinema run.
The release proved an artistic highpoint, but also something of a last hurrah for Gélou. By 1963, French tastes had shifted from twist to yé-yé. Sylvie Vartan’s success could – and, arguably, should – have provided a template for Gélou’s transition to yé-yé, but instead the singer opted to take a career break.
A full two years later, in 1965, she returned to the studios. Now signed to the Vogue label, she was ready to cut her own material. Prevented from her using her old stage name, she was obliged to use a different moniker, and opted for her own name, Geneviève Cognet. As if to underline her new identity, she had swapped her blond crop for a brunette bob.
Because of the legal issue around her stage name, her first release, the EP Oublie ton chagrin, made no mention of her previous incarnation. The songs were in a vastly different style too – more variété than those from her time at BAM. The title track and Tu peux rire de moi proved the highlights of the release.
A second EP, Michaël attends-moi, again comprising four of the singer’s own compositions, was issued in 1966. However, it was met with resounding indifference.
She quit the label with no real plan for what to do next.
After a period of inaction, her agent suggested that she should enter the 1967 Paul Fort song contest, which was open to singer-songwriters. There, Geneviève triumphed with Mer du nord, and her prize included a one-record deal with the Epic label. Issued on an EP with three other tracks – of which M’aimeras-tu encore au printemps is considered the best – the song reignited interest in the singer.
However, in 1968, few in the industry were surprised when Geneviève announced that she was packing in her recording career to focus on writing material for other singers. She had already penned songs for Mick Micheyl (Tu m’as volé, 1964) and Caroline Rami (Faites-moi donc faire du cinéma, 1965) and new recipients of her song-writing efforts included Liz Sarian (La route qui mène au retour, 1967).
The move proved an inglorious end to her career. Fans who had hoped that she would seek to make the transition from singer to actress were disappointed when she slipped from view altogether.