Sylvie Vartan

Born : 15/8 /1944 in Iskretz (Bulgaria)
Country : France
Language : French
Category : Female Artist
Style of music : Chanson

Sylvie Vartan - the 60s "yé-yé" idol who turned American-style show-woman in the 70s - has attained the status of national icon in France where she is known simply as Sylvie. Renowned for her slick stage shows, her sequinned costumes and her sheer professionalism, Ms. Vartan has carved out a career for herself as both a singer and an actress.

Sylvie Vartan - the 60s "yé-yé" idol who turned American-style show-woman in the 70s - has attained the status of national icon in France where she is known simply as Sylvie. Renowned for her slick stage shows, her sequinned costumes and her sheer professionalism, Ms. Vartan has carved out a career for herself as both a singer and an actress.

Sylvie Vartan was born on August 15th 1944 in Iskretz in Bulgaria. Seven years earlier, her mother, Illona, had given birth to a boy named Eddy. Her father, Georges was an attaché at the French embassy in Sofia. In 1952, hoping to find better living conditions abroad, the Vartans emigrated to France.

After a three-day train journey, they arrived in Paris in the middle of Christmas festivities and were dumbfounded by the abundance of fine food on sale. Georges Vartan got a job as a night porter and the family stayed in a hotel - where they went on living for several years cramped in a single room. The children, who could not speak a word of French, found it difficult to adapt. Nevertheless, through sheer hard work, Sylvie managed to pass her entry exam to the Lycée Victor Hugo.

In 1960, the Vartans moved into an apartment. Sylvie entered the Hélène Boucher Lycée for Girls. Her mother advised her to specialise in foreign languages, for which she seemed gifted. Around this time, she began to take an interest in rock and roll (Bill Haley and Elvis Presley) and also jazz - her bother had become a professional trumpeter).

Anecdotes

Against his parent’s wishes, Eddy gave up his law studies for a job as artistic director at RCA records. He also became adviser to a young singer, Frankie Jordan, who was paying his way through dentistry school by singing. In 1961, as the latter was about to record a duet version in French of "Out of gas", his female partner backed out at the last minute. Eddy Vartan immediately persuaded his sister to sing with Frankie Jordan on "Panne d’essence", released as the flip side of a hit single.

In July, Sylvie gave up her Baccalaureat studies to go on tour with Gilbert Becaud and signed a solo recording contract with RCA records. Her career was beginning to take off and by the end of 61, her first single, "Quand le film est triste" had been released. Paralysed by stage fright, she managed to walk out on stage at L’Olympia in Paris on December 27th.

A second single, "Est-ce que tu le sais?", came out in early 62. Again, the frail and timid young singer appeared at L’Olympia, this time as support act for rock singer Vince Taylor. Backstage, she met a friend of his, Johnny Hallyday. Although she didn’t succumb to the young man’s charms straight away, it was to be the starting point of a long romance. Still under the managerial wing of brother Eddy, she went on a tour with Richard Anthony. In the autumn, she released "Le Locomotion" and then "Tous mes copains", written by a young songwriter, Jean-Jacques Debout, which went straight to the top of the charts.

Sylvie’s popularity was growing by the day. In 63, she was voted top French singer in the first pole on the TV programme "Salut les copains" - her idyll with Johnny Hallyday, with whom she had gone on tour at the beginning of the year, certainly had something to do with this. In June, teenage fans thronged to applaud them singing side by side at a birthday concert of the "Salut des Copains" programme, broadcast live from the Place de la Nation in Paris. The concert was so successful it almost turned into a riot. At the time, Johnny Hallyday was shooting the film "D’où viens-tu Johnny ?" in the Camargue region of France, in which Sylvie had a small role. In August, the young couple became officially engaged in Montreux.

"La Plus belle pour aller danser"

At the end of the year, the couple flew to the United States where, in Nashville, with Elvis Presley’s backing singers, Sylvie recorded several songs including "Si je chante" and, above all, the huge hit, "La Plus belle pour aller danser". In January 64, on their return to France, she appeared at L’Olympia with Trini "If I had a hammer" Lopez and above all the Beatles, then at the very beginning of their career. More and more, she was becoming a role model for teenage girls nation-wide. Their parents thought she was awkward and clumsy - the yéyé stars were a far cry from the singer-songwriters of the Left Bank! Furthermore, the yéyé stars were nearly always very young. The generation gap was growing.

At the end of 64, Johnny left to do his military service and Sylvie hired Carlos, the son of psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto, as her private secretary. After a few minor roles in films (including one in a Bulgarian film, "Sous le joug", when she was only six), Sylvie ambition now was to play more substantial roles, such as in "Patate", an adaptation of a stage play by Marcel Achard. Other members of the cast and critics agreed she had definite acting talent, but the film did not achieve the box office success hoped for. However, her singing career soon took the upper hand again and she continued to tour.

She went to New York to record an album in English, "A gift wrapped from Paris", which was released in Argentina, Germany, Japan and of course the United States. Still unknown in America, she nevertheless made several TV appearances, including one on the famous Ed Sullivan show.

White lace and media scrum

After a hectic world tour, she was back in the limelight again in 65 when she married Johnny on April 12th in Loconville. It was the media event of the year, with 180 photographers and several hundred fans thronging at the church door. At the end of the year, the couple were invited by the Queen of the United Kingdom to appear at the "Royal Command Performance". On August 15th 66, Sylvie Vartan gave birth to a boy called David. She waited until October before starting work again and dedicated her next single, "Ballade pour un sourire", to her baby son. She went on tour in Turkey and notched up another hit, "Par amour par pitié".

Like many singers of her time, Sylvie Vartan tried to break into the European market. Her legendary blonde hair was a definite attraction for the Mediterranean public: in January 67, she was voted top singer in Spain and went to the top of the Italian charts, especially with "Due minuti di felicita", the Italian version of her latest French hit, "2 minutes 35 de bonheur", which she sang in duet with Carlos. But it was with Johnny that she triumphed at L’Olympia in Paris, despite their slightly different respective followings.

After a delirious South American tour during which she sang to crowds of 20.000, Sylvie returned to L’Olympia on April 8th 68 for a special Musicorama (a live concert broadcast by the Europe 1 radio station). Certain stylistic changes were noticeable, costume and choreography in particular now playing an important role (heralding her American-style shows she was to stage a few years later).

The trials of life

On April 11th Sylvie Vartan had a serious car accident in which her passenger, a friend, died. She came out of this trauma in a seriously depressed state but, with the aid of her family, she managed to piece herself together again before her first live engagement at L’Olympia. A series of hits followed: "Comme un garçon", "l’Oiseau", "Et c’est beaucoup mieux comme ça" and "Jolie poupée". She also recorded "la Maritza", an evocative, nostalgic song about her home country, Bulgaria. She had began to build a more personal repertoire and leave yéyé behind her.

In the spring of 69 she went on an African tour with Carlos, followed by an 80-date French tour. In February 70, she was in another car crash, this time with Johnny Hallyday. He came out of it unharmed but Sylvie was seriously injured. Extensive plastic surgery was necessary to re-build her face. She convalesced in New York, where she met Jojo Smith, Barbara Streisand’s dance master, who masterminded her future American-style shows.

Her first live performance after the accident was at L’Olympia at the end of the year, after which she left on a tour of Japan in May 71. The Japanese public warmly welcomed an artist who had taken the trouble to record three songs in their language. She then spent the summer travelling in America with her husband. Film director François Reischenbach shot footage of the trip and made it into a film, "Mon amie Sylvie". She returned to the cinema in "Malpertuis" by Harry Kummel, featuring Orson Welles.

She chose L’Olympia, her favourite Parisian venue, for her return to the boards in a full-blown, choreographed American-style stage show, complete with sequins and backing singers, which she had rehearsed in Los Angeles during summer 72 and which played to enthusiastic full houses for three weeks in September. She sang more rock-based material than usual but also a cover version of Jacques Brel’s "Ne me quitte pas" and "Mon père", a tribute to her father, who had died two years earlier.

1973: "J’ai un problème"

Sylvie recorded her first duet with Johnny in 73. "J’ai un problème" rapidly became a Golden Disc and versions were recorded in several languages. On the summer tour, she also sang with him, thereby putting an end to growing rumours about their imminent separation. She then returned to the Land of The Rising Sun again, where she recorded a double live album for the Japanese market.

At the end of the year, she took part in "Je chante pour Swanee", a TV show with a genuine musical comedy scenario. It was broadcast in 33 countries and her record company, RCA, decided to release an album. From March to May 75, she appeared on Italian TV in an 8-show series, "Punto e basta". Then followed a summer tour with Jean-Jacques Debout and a concert with Johnny in Narbonne in front of a crowd of 40.000.

When it came to her stage shows, Sylvie saw things big. In October 75, against the advice of her somewhat alarmed entourage, she planned a season at the Palais de Congrès in Paris, a much larger venue than l’Olympia, and hired an American choreographer, Walter Painter, to direct an army of dancers. The most vampish of the French singers, bedecked in sequins and paste, triumphed in the show and the ensuing tour. Press and public were unanimous in their praise for its beautiful, hardworking, perfectionist – in short, professional – star

Following this marathon effort, she left to the United States for a rest with her son. She returned to France in 77, again to the Palais de Congrès for a new show, just as spectacular as the previous one, "Qu’est-ce qui fait pleurer les blondes?"

At the height of the disco wave, Sylvie’s record label, RCA, proposed that she record an album in English. She recorded "I don’t want the night to end" but it got a lukewarm reception. She compensated at the end of the year with the release of a romantic number, "Nicolas" which became a huge hit." In her private life, things were going less well: Johnny and Sylvie decided, decided mutually to divorce, thereby ending the most celebrated love story of the sixties and seventies in France.

The American years

The eighties augured better. Passionate about dance, which she practised regularly for her shows, Sylvie open a school in Paris in 81. Later, she opened two more in Japan, where she remained very popular. The same year, she met an Italian-American producer, Tony Scotti, who became her constant companion and her husband in 84. Still in 81, she recorded a new album "De choses et d’autres", and triumphed in November at the Palais des Sports in a breathtaking finely tuned stage show. At the end of the year, backed by the American dancer and singer, Gene Kelly, she performed at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. This ultimate test for the ex " yéyé girl next door" ended in a standing ovation. A year later, she was back in Paris with another successful show at the Palais de Congrès.

Between recording a duet with Michel Sardou, "la Première fois qu’on s’aimera" and the album "Dans ta vie", her multiple comings and goings between Paris and Los Angeles and her son David’s first steps as a solo artist, she also found the time to publish "Beauty Book", thereby following in the footsteps of American stars Raquel Welch and Jane Fonda. Her singing career, though, was losing speed. The albums "Made in USA" in 84 and "Virages" in 85 were only half-successes, and after problems with the promotion of the latter, Sylvie Vartan decided to quit RCA after almost 25 years with the company.

Her fans had to wait until 89 for the next album, "Confidanses". Two tracks were released as singles: "C’est fatal" and "Il pleut sur London". But it was with "Quand tu es là", a 65 hit re-arranged by one of her greatest fans, Etienne Daho, that she had her next charts success. As a gesture of friendship for Daho, she took part in the recording of the "Urgences" album in aid of AIDS victims.

On the Banks of the Maritza

In October 90, Sylvie Vartan returned to her native Bulgaria for the first time since she was eight years old. Accompanied by her brother, her husband and her son, the singer gave a moving concert in Sophia, singing "Mon père" and, with the audience joining in, "la Maritza".

Sylvie’s return to the Paris stage came in January 91, at the Palais des Sports. Urged by her husband, who longed to see her perform her old hits, and aided by Etienne Daho, who helped her choose the songs, she put together a nostalgic show entitled "Je vous salue Paris". It was not a big success, but the ensuing tour in Italy and Japan got a better response.

After the release of the "Vent d’Ouest" album in 92, on the Phonogram label, she put her singing career momentarily to one side in order to devote herself to acting: in the film "l’Ange noire" by Jean-Claude Brisseau, her performance in a genuine character role received good reviews.

Sylvie appeared briefly at Johnny Hallyday’s side again for his 50th birthday concert at the Parc des Princes on June 15th 93. In duet, they sang "Tes tendres années" in front of 60.000 fans who loved every moment of it. She was back in the studios again at the end of the year to record an unplugged album of her greatest hits. She took almost a year to prepare her show at the Casino de Paris in January 95, a far cry from the grand, American-style extravaganzas she loves so much. The concerts were more intimate, even if there were costume changes to recall other eras of her career. The Casino de Paris was sold out and the ensuing tour was a box office success.

In September 96, encouraged by the show’s reception, she brought out the "Toutes les femmes ont un secret" album, with numbers by songwriters as varied as Luc Plamondon, Richard Cocciante, Jean-Louis Murat, Marc Morgan and Yves Simon. Fans and the music press appreciated this "mature" album. In November, she sang at L’Olympia, the legendary venue of the yéyé stars including Sylvie. It was a nostalgic night, with Sylvie for the occasion wearing the same Yves Saint-Laurent dress she wore for her début on the same stage in 1970. She sang her old hits, including those of the sixties, beginning the show with "la Plus belle pour aller danser".

By this stage of her career Sylvie was dividing her time between her homes in France and the USA. The singer was also spending an increasing amount of time looking after her two young daughters, Ilona and Emma. In 1997, however, Sylvie returned to the studio to record an album of children's songs, following this up with a second children's compilation in 1998.

In May '98, the Vartan family also welcomed a new member when Sylvie adopted a young Bulgarian girl called Darina. The singer dedicated a special song to Darina on her new album, "Sensible", which was released in October of that year. On her new album Sylvie enlisted the aid of her faithful songwriting team - Cocciante, Barbelivien ("Sensible", "Darina") and Murat, who set a famous Baudelaire poem to music ("Réversibilité"). But the singer also brought a number of new talents on board, working with Michel Jouveaux ("l'Autre amour"), Jay Alanski ("Odessa") and the duo Marc Lavoine/Aboulker ("J'aime un homme marié"). Sylvie's son David also penned material for his mother's new album.

Later that year Sylvie Vartan received official recognition for her amazingly long and successful career when the President of the Republic awarded her with the coveted 'Légion d'honneur' on 24 November 1998.

Sylvie returned to the live circuit in 1999, embarking on an extensive French tour - for which the stage set was designed by Walter Painter and the costumes by French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. Sylvie's tour, which included a popular stint at the Olympia in Paris (26 October - 14 November), paid tribute to the legendary French music-hall star Mistinguett, including covers of songs from the 30s and 40s. Much to the delight of fans in the audience, Sylvie also performed covers of her (numerous) greatest hits.

As she had just began the shootage of a new television drama entitled "Mausolée pour une garce", her brother Eddy, who had helped her at the onset of her career, died on June 19th 2001.

Even if she might consider coming back to singing, Sylvie wants to go further with acting and put a lot in this field which is still quite new to her.

Birthday

Sylvie Vartan celebrated her 60th birthday in style in 2004, publishing her autobiography, Entre ombre et lumière and releasing a brand new album, simply entitled "Sylvie". The album, produced in collaboration with her loyal band of songwriters and composers was classic Vartan at her pop diva best. Besides featuring contributions from Sylvie's faithful sidekicks, Didier Barbelivien, Michel Mallory and her son, David Hallyday, the album also included offerings from up-and-coming stars on the French music scene such as Daran and Florent Marchet. 

To mark Sylvie’s comeback, "Les années RCA 1961-1984" (a double greatest hits album featuring a massive 49 tracks) hit record stores in September of that year. The album included Vartan classics such as "La plus belle pour aller danser" and "Panne d'essence" as well as a number of more exclusive bonus tracks, the highlight of these being a trio with Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. Fans were then treated to a sumptuous boxed-set retrospective of seven live albums, known as the "Intégrale live RCA." Sylvie could have been content to lie back on her laurels at this point and survey the glories of her past career. But the indefatigable showgirl got back up on stage again later that year for a series of shows at the Palais des Congrès, in Paris (28 September - 10 October 2004). After that, she embarked upon another extensive tour which included dates in Geneva, Brussels and Tokyo.

Meanwhile, the Paris fashion museum Musée Galliera paid its own tribute to the famously well-dressed star, organising an exhibition of Sylvie’s extravagant stage costumes. The exhibition, which ran from 16 October 2004 to 27 February 2005, offered an in-depth wardrobe retrospective, featuring no less than eighty stage costumes and personal outfits from the singer’s wardrobe from her ‘yé-yé’ period right up to the present day. The outfits were spectacularly lit on this occasion by Jacques Rouveyrollis (the lighting director who masterminds Sylvie’s stage shows).

In October 2006, dressed in an elegant black suit and dark glasses, Sylvie Vartan stepped centre stage once again to receive the Ordre National du Mérite. The honour was presented to the singer by the French minister of Culture and Communications, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, who hailed her as "one of the most prestigious ambassadresses of French chanson and French chic" and as a "woman with a big heart who has used her international fame to spearhead her campaign against poverty and misery in the world, notably in Bulgaria." In fact, throughout her career the singer has remained deeply attached to her homeland. In 1992, she set up the Sylvie Vartan Association for Bulgaria, providing valuable aid to children in need via donations and the provision of medical equipment for pediatric hospitals.

On 26 June 2007, the singer’s mother, Illona, died at the age of 93. Putting aside her personal grief at this difficult time, Sylvie stepped up her campaign to free the five Bulgarian nurses who had been imprisoned and sentenced to death in Libya eight years earlier. Relentlessly pursuing a series of petitions, appeals to the French president and appearances in the French media, the singer played a high-profile role in the campaign organised by ‘Lawyers without Borders.’ And she publicly announced her satisfaction and personal joy when the nurses were released and returned home to Bulgaria in July 2007.

2007: "Nouvelle vague"

Meanwhile, at the beginning of that summer, a new Sylvie Vartan album had hit record stores. "Nouvelle vague" was an album of cover versions featuring Sylvie’s reworkings of ‘60s classics such as The Rolling Stones’ "Ruby Tuesday", The Beatles’ "Drive my Car" (both in English) and Françoise Hardy’s "Le temps de l'amour." "Nouvelle vague" also featured French adaptations of Leonard Cohen’s "Suzanne" and the Bob Dylan classic "Blowin’ in the Wind." The songs, all set to simple, basic arrangements, emphasized the rich, deep timbre of Sylvie’s voice and her own personal interpretation of the lyrics.

The indefatigable French show-woman returned to the live circuit at the beginning of 2008, taking to the stage at the Palais des Congrès, in Paris (5 - 9 February.) Sylvie then went on to perform another 20 concerts across France and also jetted out to Japan for a brief stint at Bunkamura Hall, in Tokyo (28 - 30 March.)

Ms. Vartan made a comeback on the recording front in September 2009 with a new album entitled "Toutes peines confondues." The first single release from the album was a song written by France's First Lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy ("Je chante le blues.") "Toutes peines confondues" contained other surprises, too, including lyrics by Marc Lavoine, Brice Homs, French author Nathalie Rheims and Didier Barbelivien. Alain Lanty, Jannick Top and Frédéric Botton contributed music and, for the first time in her career, Sylvie assured the composition of two tracks on her album herself. "Toutes peines confondues", which found Sylvie asserting her freedom and her musical identity after years as the blonde pop "poupée", included a tongue-in-cheek cover of the Serge Lama classic "La Chanteuse a vingt ans" and a cover photo by the contemporary art duo Pierre & Gilles.

Sylvie kicked off another major French tour with three dates at the legendary Olympia, in Paris (18 - 20 September.) Much to fans' delight, Johnny Hallyday joined his ex-wife on stage for two emotionally charged duets during the show.

2010: "Soleil bleu"

Sylvie immediately got going on a new album. Upon the advice of her friend, Etienne Daho, she met up with Keren Ann and the singer Doriand, who wrote two songs for her, “J’fais la moue” and “Je me détacherai”, and produced her album “Soleil bleu”, released in November 2010. All the young faces of French chanson were invited to take part in the album. The title song is written and interpreted in a duet with Julien Doré, Sylvie does a surprising duet with Arthur H on a cover of a Benjamin Biolay title (“La vanité“), and sings made-to-measure lyrics by Daho, La Grande Sophie, Frédéric Botton and her son David Hallyday.

To celebrate the release of “Soleil bleu”, Sylvie Vartin did a one-off performance on 5 December 2010 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. All of her hits were on the programme, but also the new songs, including her duets with Julien Doré and Arthur H, who came to join her on stage. She then embarked on a tour to present her new songs live.

February 2011

© RFI Musique
Any reproduction of this website - either whole or partial - is strictly prohibited without the agreement of the authors.

Close