French singer Sheila enjoyed a fairy-tale rise to fame. She quickly became the most successful of France’s yé-yé girls of the 1960s, and went on to enjoy further success in the 1970s, including with disco outfit B Devotion. She is estimated to have sold more than 80 million records over the course of her career.
Sheila was born Annie Chancel on 16 August 1945 in Créteil, in the suburbs of Paris. Her father was a shopkeeper and her mother worked in the local market.
Her mother encouraged young Annie to sing and she took lessons in piano and dance. In her teens, she earned a name for herself locally for singing as she helped her mother out on the market stalls.
The practice stood her in good stead. In September 1962, she auditioned for record producer Claude Carrère, with backing from Les Guitar Brothers, in a disused cinema in Paris. Carrère returned the following day with Jacques Plait, artistic director at the Philips record label. Neither was interested in the group, but both saw potential in the nervous singer.
She was offered a contract and within two weeks she found herself in the studio cutting her first record, a cover of American singer Tommy Roe’s Sheila. With it, the 17-year-old earned a new stage name.
Over the years, Carrère would prove a marketing genius, but he was still learning his métier at this stage. This debut release carried none of the traits that would make Sheila’s subsequent records such huge hits. In particular, with no picture of Sheila on the sleeve, record buyers couldn’t identify with the singer, and she lost out to a rival version of the song by Lucky Blondo.
Carrère had learned his lesson in time for the follow up. He wanted to create a singer that girls could identify with and that boys wouldn’t be intimidated by.
For this, Sheila was ideal – she was a competent singer, but not an exceptional one, and she was attractive, but not beautiful.
Perhaps his coup de grâce, though, was to have Sheila handwrite a message that would be printed on the sleeve of each new release. This helped forge a bond between the girl-next-door singer and her fans.
Released in spring 1963, the original composition L’école est finie topped the French charts for eight weeks and would go on to sell over 700,000 copies. (The EP also contained a great version of The Orlons’ Don’t hang up, Ne raccroche pas – see our yé-yé tribute to the US girl groups.)
Pendant les vacances, a cover of The Everly Brothers’ All I have to do is dream, was issued as the follow up that summer. It began a process of communicating with fans through the songs. “I’ve made this especially for you, so that we’re still together during the holidays,” Sheila explained on the sleeve.
That autumn, Le sifflet des copains gave fans a song to whistle to as they met up again in schoolyards up and down the country. The sleeve, meanwhile, became an opportunity for Sheila to announce a forthcoming tour.
It was precisely this marketing of Sheila as a product that divided the nation. The singer became the Marmite of music – loved and loathed in equal measure.
Whatever Carrère’s motives, Sheila’s sincerity shone through and by the end of 1963, she was voted the most popular female French singer among those aged 15 and under.
Her trademark ponytails became de rigueur among France’s teenage girls and, to cash in on their appetite for her stage outfits, a Boutique de Sheila shop was opened in 1964. With her father in charge, the shop became a chain of over 40 stores spread throughout France and neighbouring Belgium and Switzerland.
Further hits ensued in the form of Hello petite fille (a version of The Fourmost’s Hello little girl) and Chaque instant de chaque jour (Bacharach and David’s Any old time of day, cut originally by Dionne Warwick).
1964 also saw the launch of Sheila’s fan club. The singer, however, rejected the word ‘fan’ in favour of ‘copain’ (friend). So few were surprised by the release shortly afterwards of Vous les copains, je ne vous oublierai jamais, a version of The Exciters’ Do wah diddy diddy. This ode to the singer’s ‘friends’ quickly topped the French charts.
Toujours des beaux jours and C’est toi que j’aime kept Sheila in the public eye in 1965. A duet with Carrère protégé Akim, Devant le juke-box (a version of Gene Pitney’s If I didn’t have a dime), and the huge hit Le folklore américain – a song Sheila has since admitted she cared little for – rounded off the year.
All four songs were included on her fourth LP, Tous les deux. The album was an eclectic mix of French originals and covers of international hits. Highlights include the Jean-Jacques Debout composition Je ris et je pleure, a take on Skeeter Davis’ camp Sunglasses (Dans la glace) and the Sonny Bono-penned Laugh at me (À la même heure). However, none of these was new – all had appeared previously on EPs. Indeed, it was on EPs that Philips focused, as they were more affordable for Sheila’s young fans.
Signalling what lay in store for Sheila’s career, the singer’s first release of 1966 was the song Le cinéma. “Like all girls, I’d like to make a film,” the lyrics confided.
Duly, then, Bang-bang was released in cinemas in 1967. In it, Sheila played a young woman who inherits a private detective agency, and in advance of its release, she also topped the charts with the title track, a cover of the Cher song.
Two determinedly upbeat songs, L’heure de la sortie, also taken from the film soundtrack, and La famille, provided further hits.
However, the release of the film Bang-bang posed the biggest threat to Sheila’s image to date: she was rumoured to be having an affair with her on-screen partner, Brett Halsey. The problem was that he was married (to German singer Heidi Brühl). Typically, Claude Carrère opted to rescue the singer’s reputation through the medium of song. Adios amor, issued in June 1967, was a big ballad in which Sheila said goodbye to a married lover. “It’s better that we don’t see each other anymore,” she sobbed. “I could never be happy with the idea that, through a fault of mine, I was causing another woman unhappiness.”
The song spent the summer at the top of the French charts, selling over 800,000 copies, and was included on a fifth album, Dans une heure. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the lushly orchestrated title track, another emotional ballad, wasn’t issued as the lead on an EP – instead it was relegated to the flip of the cheesy Le kilt.
With Sheila’s standing restored, readers of Salut les copains voted her their favourite female singer of the year. However, further trouble lay just around the corner.
1968 started well enough with the release of the Quand une fille aime un garçon EP. The release also featured the popular Dalila, a version of Tom Jones’s Delilah, and sold well. But as home-grown singer-songwriters began to enjoy success in France, the days of the yé-yé girls began to look numbered.
Matters were helped little by the release of Petite fille de Français moyen in June 1968. Just weeks after the protests in Paris, here was Sheila showing herself to be out of touch with the popular mood. (Sheila dismissed these suggestions. Her music was not based on profound messages, she has since said, but instead on jolly tunes that people could whistle along to.)
Keen to recapture her public, she avoided politics from then on. Top songwriters André Popp, Pierre Cour and Jacques Monty were brought in to help pen material for the singer, and the EPs La vamp, Arlekin, Love, maestro, please and Oncle Jo saw out the decade.
An attempt to launch the singer in Germany and Italy in 1970 – with Eine Stunde (a version of Dans une heure) and an Italian take on Adios amor respectively – fell flat. Perhaps Sheila’s highly accented delivery and the fact that these releases were translations of material that was some three years old disappointed potential buyers.
However, she remained the darling of the French record-buying public. In 1971, she enjoyed one of the biggest hits of her career with Les rois mages, a cover of Scottish group Middle of the Road’s Tweedle dee, Tweedle dum. Further biblical hits followed in the form of 1972’s Samson et Delila and 1973’s Adam et Eve.
A high-profile wedding to fellow singer Ringo in 1973 heralded the release of the massive-selling duet Les gondoles. The marriage itself, however, would prove short-lived.
In the late 1970s, Sheila turned to disco and started singing in English. With backing dancers B. Devotion, she scored huge international successes with Singin’ in the rain and Spacer.