Bulgarian-born Sylvie Vartan was the first of France’s yé-yé girls. She enjoyed dozens of hits throughout the 1960s and subsequent decades, ratcheting up sales in excess of 40 million. Alongside her career as the queen of pop, her marriage to the king of French rock, Johnny Hallyday, kept her at the very centre of the media’s attentions.
Sylvie Vartan was born in the Bulgarian village of Iskretz on 15 August 1944. Her father had a job at the French embassy in Sofia and, when the family decided to flee the Soviet-occupied territory in 1952, it was to Paris they headed.
Eight-year-old Sylvie picked up French quickly at school and within a couple of years she could speak the language without accent.
By the time she came to study for her baccaleureat exams in her teens, her older brother, Eddie, was working for the RCA record label.
Through him, she came to record her first song, in 1961. Singer Frankie Jordan needed a female vocalist for a cover of an American duet, Out of gas. When singer Gillian Hills pulled out the night before the recording session, Eddie asked Sylvie to take her place on Panne d’essence. She was uncredited for her work, and found herself in the strange position of selling her own disc in the record shop on the Champs Élysées where she had a Saturday job.
Sylvie hadn’t intended to launch a career as a singer – she had considered the recording session a one-off favour to her brother. Instead, she harboured dreams of becoming an actress after finishing school. However, media interest in the teenager made it hard for her to continue with her studies, So, when RCA bosses approached her with the offer of a solo recording contract, she accepted.
Her first EP, Quand le film est triste, a version of US singer Sue Thompson’s Sad movies, was released in the autumn of 1961. Though it wasn’t a great success, it led to some live appearances for the young singer.
Her second solo release, Est-ce que tu le sais?, a cover of Ray Charles’s What’d I say?, issued in early 1962, became her first hit.
Further releases followed – Qui aurait dit ça (a version of Ray Charles’s Talkin’ ’bout you), Baby c’est vous (The Shirelles’ Baby it’s you) and Madison twist (Sam Cooke’s Meet me at the twistin’ place) – that year before Sylvie enjoyed another big hit: Le loco-motion, a version of the Little Eva song.
Her final hit of the year came with the original composition Tous mes copains, penned by Jean-Jacques Debout, which sold 400,000 copies and proved her biggest success to date.
An album, entitled simply Sylvie, was also issued that autumn. It brought together many of the tracks that had appeared on her EPs, highlights of which include Gong gong (The Ikettes’ I’m blue) and Ne le déçois pas (The Shirelles’ Putty in your hands). However, after it was panned by critics, Sylvie invested in some vocal lessons.
That year she realised her dream of becoming an actress, making the first of a handful of film appearances. Later, she would be offered further roles, including the lead in the film Les parapluies de Cherbourg. The part had originally been intended for former Eurovision song contest winner Isabelle Aubret until she was hospitalised following a car accident. Catherine Deneuve took the role instead and the film went on to become a classic of French cinema. When Sylvie learned that her agent had turned down the role on her behalf, she was devastated.
1962 was also significant for the singer in that she met the king of French rock, Johnny Hallyday. The pair began dating, and in so doing filled many a newspaper headline. They would marry in 1965 amid a media circus. However, their relationship was not without its ups and downs and the couple would divorce in 1980.
In 1963, Sylvie enjoyed more success with the EP Twiste et chante (The Isley Brothers’ hit Twist and shout) and an album of the same name. Highlights include Ne t’en va pas (Mel Tormé’s Comin’ home baby) and Mon ami (Little Eva’s Where do I go), both of which had been issued previously on EPs.
For the follow up, she headed off to America’s Tennessee, where she was backed by Elvis Presley’s musicians. The LP, Sylvie à Nashville, contained both French and English-language material. It spawned two huge hits, Si je chante (Brenda Lee’s My whole world is falling down) and the Charles Aznavour-penned La plus belle pour aller danser. She performed the latter in the pop film Cherchez l’idole, appearing alongside Sophie and Nancy Holloway, amongst others.
At the beginning of 1964, Sylvie gained kudos when she shared a stage with The Beatles at the Paris Olympia. She began to accompany her songs with energetic dance routines which won her further admiration and became something of a trademark of her live shows, particularly in later decades. This all-round appeal was part of her charm, and a fashion line would also soon follow.
She rounded off the year with the release of L’homme en noir, a take on Roy Orbison’s Pretty woman.
Sylvie’s popularity wasn’t confined only to France. She had already taken Japan by storm and she also began to make a name for herself in the States. Appearances on US television won her new fans and she even recorded an album in English to satisfy demand. Gift wrapped from Paris consisted for the most part of translations of the singer’s French material (see our page on Sylvie Vartan’s English-language recordings).
At home, Sylvie continued her run of hits, thanks to a collaboration with two Englishmen, Micky Jones (later of the group Foreigner) and Tommy Brown, who would help to compose original material for the singer. Both had been part of Hallyday’s backing group and Sylvie would use them on stage too. In many respects, this mid-1960s period marked a musical highpoint in Sylvie’s career. Although she continued to enjoy success with covers (such as Quand tu es là, her terrific take on Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders’ The game of love), she was offered increasingly more original material, including her 1965 hits Cette lettre-là, Dans tes bras (je veux l’oublier) and Et pourtant je reste là.
This growing maturity was reflected in her 1966 album Il y a deux filles en moi, which she had recorded while pregnant. The title track, in particular, proved a big hit. Its success reflected a dwindling taste in France for a diet of translations of Anglo-Saxon material. As if to prove a point, Mister John B, a cover of the Beach Boys’ Sloop John B, issued on an EP that summer, sold poorly, while the French original Ballade pour une sourire returned Sylvie to the upper reaches of the charts in the autumn.
Largely, the album 2’35 de bonheur, issued in 1967, maintained the trend set by its predecessor. It contained some choice covers, including versions of The Supremes’ You keep me hangin’ on, Je n’ai pas pu résister (see our Supremes tribute special), two Four Tops hits (see our Motown males tribute special) and The Spencer Davis Group’s Gimme some lovin’, Donne moi ton amour. More notably, it spawned the huge hit Par amour, par pitié, an original composition. The title track, however, though another French original and a big hit, took her light years away from her rock ‘n’ roll roots.
There appeared no going back: the follow up LP, Comme un garçon, issued later the same year, followed this trend of alternating pop with easy listening. Recorded in one session in London, the album was Sylvie’s first to comprise all original material. Alongside some great pop tracks – among them L’enfant aux papillons, Le jour qui vient and dance floor filler L’oiseau – sat Le kid and the title track, both of which are best overlooked.
Lamentably, subsequent releases Baby Capone, La Maritza (the title track of an album released in 1968), On a toutes besoin d’un homme and Zum zum zum all took Sylvie further down this road.
That isn’t to say that they weren’t successful or that she didn’t also record some great songs during this period. The hit Irrésistiblement, for instance, is, arguably, one of the best of her career.
Sylvie’s last success of the 1960s came with Apprends-moi. By this time she had moved into the world of light entertainment, and recorded a TV special with Sacha Distel, the Sacha-Sylvie show, which attracted viewers in their millions.
The new decade started disastrously for the singer. A car crash left her with horrific facial injuries that required extensive cosmetic surgery. The death of both her father and grandmother also affected Sylvie badly.
Back on her feet, she enjoyed big hits throughout the 1970s and beyond and became known for her ever-more ambitious stage shows, which included a run in Las Vegas.
She married American film producer Tony Scotti in the 1980s. After the collapse of communism in eastern Europe at the end of the decade, she set up a charity to help provide medical equipment for hospitals and orphanages in Bulgaria.
In 2006, she was awarded France’s National order of merit as an ambassador of French music and elegance.