Like many of the subjects of this blog, Dalida’s is not a name which springs readily to Anglo-Saxon minds. But to attempt to document the history of ‘chanson’ and its relationship with immigration without including the 30-year career of this Egyptian-born French-Italian diva would be a grave omission. Despite acquiring French citizenship in 1961 Dalida recorded and performed in more than eleven languages including Arabic, Italian, Greek, German, French, English, Japanese, Hebrew, Dutch and Spanish. She was one of the few European performers to conquer the Arab world; and has been ranked one of the biggest seven singers of all time. Unfortunately this global superstardom was not matched by her personal life: a catalogue of heartbreak, frustration, disaster, disappointment and despair which finally caused her to take her own life.
Yolanda Cristina Gigliotti was born in Cairo on17 January 1933 to respectable middle class Italian immigrant parents. Her father Pietro was first violinist at Cairo Opera House, and her mother Giuseppina was a seamstress. They were devout Catholics who sent their daughter to the local church school in Choubra, a Cairo suburb where Arabs and Westerners lived together harmoniously. It was a happy environment to grow up in; but Yolanda was plagued with eye problems, and developed a complex about her appearance, as she thought wearing glasses made her look ugly. At age 13 she threw them out of the window, and joined the school drama club where she soon proved to be exceptionally talented. By 1951 she had morphed from bespectacled ugly duckling to a beautiful young woman, and, much to her parents’ horror, secretly entered and won a local beauty contest.
It was, as the French say, le declic – the turning-point – for it ignited in Yolanda a life-long love of glamour. In 1954 she jacked in beckoning secretarial college and entered another beauty contest, becoming crowned Miss Egypt and gaining entry to the Cairo film industry. Cast in sultry vamp roles, Yolanda, at this time still a brunette, changed her name to the more glamorous-sounding Dalida, and was soon noticed by French film director Marc de Gastyne, thus prompting dreams of a career in Paris. Again, much to her parents’ disgust.
Lonely, cold, and poverty-stricken, Dalida struggled in her adopted city. ‘La galere’ (misery), as they say over there. But she was determined, took singing lessons, and within a few months had landed two professional engagements. As luck would have it, her big break lay just around the corner.
Bruno Coquatrix, the impresario now best known for his friendship with Edith Piaf, had just purchased a down-at-the-heel cinema with the aim of turning it into a music-hall, and was on the look-out for talent. Hence Dalida’s appearance at what would one day become France’s most celebrated showbiz venue: the Olympia. Two giants of the music industry were impressed. Lucien Morisse, artistic director of the rising young radio station Europe 1, became her manager; and Eddie Barclay, founder of the eponymous record label, offered her her first recording contract.
Relentlessly plugged by Lucien, her second single for Eddie, Bambino, rocketed to the top of the French charts, securing the stardom Dalida so longed for, and, in 1956, the role of supporting act for Charles Aznavour at the Olympia. This was greeted with thunderous applause and clamour for more. Later in the year she repeated the exercise, as thousands of fans jostled at the door for a glimpse of her; and sales of Bambino topped 300,000; netting her her first ever gold disc. By this time, she and Lucien were lovers. After a second smash hit, Gondolier (1957) she toured extensively, eventually returning to her roots and playing a series of dates in Italy. These were an enormous hit and led to her fame spreading throughout Europe.
Lucien Morisse and Dalida
After an unexpectedly disappointing tour of the United States, Dalida received a royal welcome in her native Egypt where the press dubbed her Voice of the Century. Eventually she headed back to Paris where she resumed her stormy relationship with Lucien Morisse as together they churned out hit after hit. After months of hesitation, the couple eventually married. But it was to be short-lived. Scarcely was the ink dry on the contract than Dalida was off on tour, where, at a concert in Cannes, she fell for Jean Sobieski. Depite her awareness of the enormous debt she owed to Morisse, Dalida was adamant in demanding her freedom. She got her way. Nevertheless, the pair remained on amicable terms. But in 1970 Morisse shot himself; thus becoming a part of what would prove to be the relentlessly grim pattern of the singer’s private life.
With Dalida, career always came first. In 1961, as the ye-ye (French rock’n’roll) craze hit, she stuck to her guns with a triumphant series of concerts at the Olympia. People were turned away at the doors. She followed this with a tour which took in Hong Kong and Vietnam, cementing her status as a global star. In 1962 she topped the charts with Petit Gonzales: a catchy, upbeat tune which garnered her a whole new generation of fans. In December 1968, she was awarded the Médaille de la Présidence de la République by General Charles de Gaulle, and remains the only musician to have received it.
At this time, Dalida bought her famous chateau in Montmartre: a lookalike Sleeping Beauty’s Castle complete with turrets. Perched behind the Sacre Coeur, and with a commanding view of Paris, this became the singer’s refuge throughout the rest of her troubled life. She broke with Sobieski and underwent a radical change of image: from sultry brunette to blonde bombshell, with hairstyle to match. She adopted a new, more sophisticated musical style, and set out on a course of self-improvement by immersing herself in art, literature and philosophy.
In September 1964, having successfully surfed the ye-ye wave, Dalida returned in triumph to the Olympia. By now the most popular French female singer, in 1965 she scored another phenomenal hit with La Danse de Zorba, based on the soundtrack of the film Zorba the Greek. But, for all her wordly success, Dalida was a deeply unhappy woman. The things she secretly longed for, marriage and children, consistently eluded her. After each round of recording sessions and gala performances, the singer returned home to her Montmartre eyrie, alone.
Things were not helped by her affair with a talented young Italian songwriter, Luigi Tenco, with whom, in 1966, she performed at that year’s San Remo music festival. In a blaze of publicity, the pair announced their engagement; only to find that neither was placed among the prizewinners at the festival. Fuelled by alcohol and tranquillisers, Luigi sank into an uncontrollable rage, and stalked off to his hotel room. Later, he was found, having shot himself in the head. This triggered Dalida’s own first suicide attempt. Later, having become pregnant by a 22-year-old Italian student, her decision to have an abortion left her infertile.
This sparked off a period of intense soul-searching, bordering on mysticism. Dalida read voraciously; became a passionate follower of Freud; devoted an increasing amount of time to yoga and meditation; and transformed her stage appearance once again: robed in a long white dress and re-inventing herelf as a kind of madonna. As always, however, her career came first; and in 1970 she appeared on television with anarchist poet-singer Leo Ferre; going on to record a version of his melancholy classic, Avec le temps. Accordingly, she remodelled her repertoire to focus on darker, more poetic material, to the discomfiture of Bruno Coquatrix, who now hesitated to book her for the Olympia. In 1971, with some trepidation, the singer herself hired the legendary venue her and triumphed, being greeted with thunderous applause each night in what turned out to be a phenomenally successful three-week run.
This triggered a phase of new-found serenity where, among other things, she linked up with screen star Alain Delon for a French adaptation of a well-known Italian song, Paroles, paroles. Released as a single in 1973, it shot to the top of charts in France and Japan – where Delon was a major star.
The early seventies proved spectacularly successful for Dalida; fanned, as so often, by the flames of a new passion. Richard Chanfray, who liked, somewhat doubtfully, to be known as the Count of St Germain, and proved an enormous boost to the singer’s confidence – giving her a new lease of life. The quest for spirituality was forgotten as her stage image underwent yet another transformation and she morphed from ‘madonna’ to ‘Monroe’: the very essence of mythical Hollywood glamour.
In 1973 a young French songwriter called Pascal Sevran, later a celebrated television presenter, wrote a song for her called Il venait d’avoir 18 ans (He’d just turned 18). Without much enthusiasm Dalida recorded it, and it shot to the top in 9 different countries – especially Germany, where it sold three and a half million copies. In 1974 she returned to the Olympia with a brand new song, Gigi l’amoroso, which mixed vocals with spoken lyrics, lasted seven and a half minutes, and and topped the charts in 12 countries. Indeed, it was destined to become the most famous hit of her entire career.
She embarked on concert tours of Japan, Quebec and Germany before returning to France where, in 1975, she was honoured with the prestigious Prix de l’Academie du Disque Francais; before scoring another huge success with her cover of the 1938 hit ‘J’attendrai’ – which she had listened to as a young girl growing up in Egypt. The following year she released an entire album of cover versions – adding her own unmistakeable touch to classics such as Edith Piaf’s La vie en rose. It was the heyday of television variety shows, and Dalida took full advantage of it: appearing practically non-stop in France and all over the world. Meanwhile her personal malaise deepened. She confided to the British artist Petula Clark how much she envied her her home and children.
Meanwhile, the fact that she had been born in Cairo meant that she became one of the few European artists to connect with an Arab public. She toured Egypt on several occasions and spent a great deal of time in Lebanon, eventually deciding to record in Arabic. In 1978 she recorded a traditional Egyptian folk song about homesickness, Salma Ya Salama, which became one of the first Ethnic fusion hits and proved such a spectacular success throughout France and the Middle East that she ended up recording it in seven different languages.
With the rise of each new musical craze, Dalida showed herself to be a true survivor, adapting to each new trend, and clinging on to her international stardom. The Americans, in particular, were impressed by her long career and Hollywood-style glamour; and, finally, in 1978, she was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall. She brought the house down with an updated version of The Lambeth Walk, whereupon the crowd broke into thunderous applause. The American press showered her show with rave reviews, hailing it as a masterpiece.
By summer 1979 she was back at the top of the French charts with Monday Tuesday, which, once again, bought into the disco vogue. Upon her return to Egypt where, for the first time, she performed in her mother tongue, thousands lined the streets to welcome her, and she was greeted by President Sadat himself.
Now at the very height of her fame, in 1980 Dalida tweaked her career yet again and entered the world of dance with a Broadway-style spectacular at Paris’s enormous Palais des Sports, choreographed by none other than Lester Wilson, of John Travolta/Saturday Night Fever fame. This mega-concert, in which she appeared in a haze of sequins and feathers, flanked by 11 dancers and 13 musicians, required 12 complete costume changes and lasted two hours. Audiences went wild as she performed to capacity audiences each night.
However, as Dalida’s career scaled ever more vertiginous heights, her personal life spiralled inexorably downwards. Following yet another painful break-up, this time with Richard Chanfray, she hurled herself even more frenziedly into her work. In 1981 she adapted the Palais des Sports spectacular and took it to the Olympia where, on the evening of the premiere, she became the first person ever to receive the ultimate accolade of the music industry: a diamond disc; thus outstripping Madonna. It marked the 86 million albums sold in the course of her career, during which the singer had already garnered 55 gold discs for work in seven different languages.
In 1982 a new perspective opened up for Dalida as she began to show public support for the new French president, Francois Mitterand, much to the exasperation of the press, who threatened to turn the whole affair into a scandal. In order to distance herself from this, she embarked on yet another world tour and did not return for six months. When finally she returned to Paris, it was to head straight for the studio where she recorded two of her best-known classics: Mourir Sur Scene and Lucas. The whispering had died down and Dalida’s popularity was as great as ever; but the ‘Mitterand affair’ had left a scar. She felt wounded and betrayed.
Just as she was recovering from this, she suffered yet another blow, in tragic keeping with the disastrous pattern of her personal life so far. On 20 July 1983 news reached her of Richard Chanfray’s suicide in St Tropez. Devastated, she lost all desire to work, and sank into lethargy; accompanied by a severe crisis of confidence and bouts of memory loss.
Nevertheless, she set off on tour once more in 1984; no doubt goaded by her fans, who complained about the fall in the number of her live performances. However, after a series of concerts in Saudi Arabia she was forced to put her career on hold as she underwent two major eye operations.
In yet another unexpected turn, in 1986 an eminent Egyptian film director called Youssef Chahine offered her the leading part in his new film, Le Sixieme Jour. Only ever having played minor film roles up to this point, Dalida rather relished this opportunity of showing her acting talent (it had, after all, been her initial choice of career); particularly as she was beginning to tire of singing. Shooting proved long and arduous; but Dalida, a true professional, gave her all. The film was released to highly flattering reviews as critics raved about her performance as a young grandmother and predicted that she would go on to become one of Egypt’s greatest screen actresses. The singer was immensely touched at this reassurance that it was possible to change direction.
In her private life, however, nothing changed. After a secret affair with a doctor, she seemed this time incapable of overcoming her heartache and climbing out of depression. On May 3rd 1987, she took an overdose of barbiturates in her Montmartre castle, and left a note. “Forgive me, life has become unbearable”.
In 1997, the corner of the rue Girardon and rue de l’Abreuvoir in Montmartre was inaugurated as Place Dalida, decorated with a large bust of the singer. Thus Dalida became one of only three women in France to have a statue erected to her memory, alongside Sarah Bernhardt and Joan of Arc. She is buried in Montmartre Cemetery.
“Si je me suis battue debout contre les ombres
Et cachée dans la nuit pour étouffer ma voix,
Des bravos et des larmes seront ma récompense.
Pour un rideau qui tombe, un autre qui se lève,
Demain et dans mille ans
If I have fought against the shadows
And hidden in the night to smother my voice,
Cheers and tears will be my reward.
For every curtain that falls, another rises;
Tomorrow and in a thousand years
I will start again.