I’ve always thought it was pretty funny that one of the most popular singers in the French yé-yé genre during the sixties and seventies wasn’t even French. Sylvie Vartan, born in Bulgaria in 1944, rose to fame during the early sixties for her sweet girly, innocent look.
As a preteen, Sylvie’s family moved to Paris, where Sylvie completed her schooling and, in 1959, both her and her brother Eddie took steps toward musical careers. With Eddie working with artists like Frankie Jordan writing songs and arranging music, a fluke chance had Sylvie put in the recording studio lending her vocals to a track with Jordan entitled “Panne d’Essence,” which became a hit. The song provided enough exposure for Sylvie that Decca offered her a recording contract and the press dubbed her La lycéenne du twist – the twisting schoolgirl – for how Sylvie danced while performing.
In December 1961, her EP was released, along with the single “Quand le film est triste,” a cover of the song “Sad Movies (Make Me Cry)” which was a hit in the US. Vartan’s version was also a hit, and her followup single “Est-ce que tu le sais?” a cover of Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say” was another success. In July 1962 she went on tour of France with Gilbert Bécaud. In the fall, she released more singles, covers of the songs “The Locomotion,” Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Breaking Up is Hard to do.” By 1963, Sylvie began recording songs that were mostly originals. One of her biggest hits, “La Plus Belle Pour Aller Danser,” was a result of a trip to Nashville late that year. Few months later, Sylvie met Johnny Hallyday – known as the French Elvis – and together they went on tour and filmed the movie “D'où viens-tu, Johnny?” before announcing their engagement before the year’s end.
By now, Sylvie was a very big celebrity in France – a star of the yé-yé movement and one-half of France’s favorite couples, she was loved by the public. Sylvie’s vocals differed from her yé-yé contemporaries – whereas they all shared the sweet girlish look, Sylvie had a comparatively deeper and bluesier voice than France Gall and Françoise Hardy. Because of her voice, she was perceived by the public to have more of an edge than the other girls, and this image as being ‘the bad of the good girls’ helped differentiate Sylvie from all the other girl singers. In 1964, she performed at the Paris Olympia as the main attraction (last act) at a concert featuring Trini Lopez and The Beatles. She also went on an international tour that took her to North America, South America, and Tokyo, and performed on several US programs including the Ed Sullivan Show.
In April 1965, Sylvie married Johnny Hallyday in a lavish ceremony attended by over 2000 guests. Sylvie and Johnny became France’s “golden couple” and in August 1966 they welcomed a son, David. The marriage wasn’t without troubles, as Johnny often went out with friends instead of staying home with his family. In April 1968, they were in a car accident, but neither were seriously injured. She went on a tour that August, where Sylvie introduced a new look – consisting of Barbarella-style boots and short skirts – and sound that had a cabaret-style of dance and singing. For the next year, she continued to produce top-five hits on the French and Italian charts, and she performed top-selling concerts at the Paris Olympia.
In early 1970, she and Johnny were in another car accident, though this time they weren’t as lucky as they had been two years prior. Though Johnny survived the crash unharmed, Sylvie was injured to the extent that she required major plastic surgery to reconstruct her face. Despite her accident, Sylvie continued to record and perform her music. She continued her music career successfully throughout the seventies, adopting a disco sound, and the eighties until she temporarily retired in 1984. In late 1980 she and Johnny divorced, and Sylvie then married actor and film producer Tony Scotti (of “Valley of the Dolls” fame) in 1984, together adopting a daughter from Bulgaria. Sylvie continues to be a big star in France, and is still performing today, primarily performing a jazz show in French countries and Japan.