France Gall, Adaptable French Singing Star, Is Dead at 70
Posted January 8, 2018 7:46 p.m. EST
France Gall, a pop singer who shot to fame across Europe while still a teenager after giving the winning performance in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1965, leading to a long recording career, died Sunday in Paris. She was 70.
The cause was cancer, according to an announcement on her website posted by her agent, Geneviève Salama.
Gall had successful records in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. She began with teeny-bopper pop, but she matured into styles that appealed to an older audience, especially during her marriage to songwriter Michel Berger. Among her duet partners over the years was Elton John, with whom she recorded “Donner Pour Donner” (“Giving for Giving”), written by Berger and Bernie Taupin, in 1980.
Isabelle Gall was born on Oct. 9, 1947, in Paris. Her father, Robert, was a lyricist, and her mother, Cécile Berthier, was the daughter of a founder of the children’s choir Les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois.
Her father helped her start a recording career by the time she was 16, and her youth, fresh-scrubbed looks and brightly innocent voice made her a rising star in the genre known as yé-yé, a sort of bubble-gum pop with a young fan base. (According to Le Figaro, a producer suggested she adopt the stage name France because another Isabelle, Isabelle Aubret, had recently won the Eurovision contest.)
Robert Gall wrote the lyrics to her first big hit, “Sacré Charlemagne,” a 1964 lament about school.
In 1965 her career received a big boost when she was the winning singer in the 10th edition of the Eurovision contest, the popular televised competition seen in many European countries. It was held that year in Naples, Italy. Gall performed a song written by Serge Gainsbourg, “Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son,” variously translated as “Wax Doll, Sound Doll,” “Wax Doll, Singing Doll” or “Wax Doll, Rag Doll.”
She was actually representing Luxembourg in the competition, but the performance propelled her to a new level of fame in France and beyond. She recorded “Wax Doll” and other songs in multiple languages, including Japanese.
Gainsbourg, who died in 1991, was known for cheeky, sometimes racy double entendres, and those were employed particularly provocatively in a song Gall turned into a hit in 1965, “Les Sucettes” (“Lollipops”). It seemed to be about a girl enjoying lollipops, but the barely veiled subtext was oral sex. Gall later said she had not understood the double meaning at the time.
“I was really prudish, and sang it with sheer innocence, which I’m really proud of now,” she said, according to the 2013 book “Yé-Yé Girls of ‘60s French Pop,” by Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe. “I was sad to hear that he was in fact taking advantage of the situation to have a good laugh at me.”
As the 1960s went on, Gall broke away from her teenage persona, leaving French music behind for several years to record in Germany. But in 1974 she returned with a big French hit, “La Déclaration d’Amore,” written by Berger, whom she would marry in 1976.
Their projects together included “Starmania,” a 1978 rock opera that featured music by Berger, with Gall in a starring role.
Berger died in 1991. Their daughter, Pauline, who had cystic fibrosis, died in 1997. Gall’s survivors include their son, Raphaël.
Gall stayed largely out of the limelight after her husband’s death, although she was the subject of a documentary on French television in 2001. She became known for her humanitarian work.
Jonathyne Briggs, an associate professor at Indiana University Northwest who has written extensively about French popular music, noted Gall’s range and her longevity.
“Gall proved adept in adapting to new musical styles,” he said by email. “She was one of the few associated with yé-yé who was able to branch into other new styles with success. Yes, her later stuff was more adult-oriented (and she worked on musical theater for a spell as well), but she continued to have pop hits at the same time. She was unusual for that, and her music definitely had influence on other female singers in Europe.”
Gall herself played down her importance.
“I would never dare say that I’m an artist,” she told Paris Match in 2015. “For me, artists are the world’s pain receptors. That is why they have such a hard time living. Me, I’ve been lucky to be good at happiness.”
In the same interview, she reflected on the early deaths of her husband and daughter.
“I think we go when it’s time to go, that the departures are scheduled,” she said. “Why did they both go so soon? I have long tried to understand this great mystery.”