Cloclo, French king of kitsch

30th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

You may be perplexed at the sight and sound, seemingly everywhere in France just now, of a blond-haired king of kitsch with a high voice. Hugh Schofield recalls the late, lamented Claude François.


Forget Iraq. This week the French are escaping the awfulness of the moment by recalling simpler days and a certain blond-haired, lame-suited, sing-and-dance prodigy who died exactly 25 years ago: the legendary Claude François.

The man best known abroad for penning the song that became Frank Sinatra's signature tune My Way, François has never gone out of fashion in France, despite — or perhaps as a result of — embodying a camp showbiz style that is not exactly rock'n'roll and reeks of the early 70s.

But his death, they say, was one of the defining moments of the decade.

A quarter of a century on France is wallowing in one of its regular bouts of nostalgia. "Is it really 25 years already?" asked, mournfully; Le Parisien newspaper on its front page.

The singer's youthful face and silky hair stare out from the magazine covers; television is showing a series of recordings and retrospectives; yet another greatest hits album is out; and a film and stage-show based on his life are both in production.

François, universally known by his nickname Cloclo, died in tragic circumstances on March 11, 1978 when he tried to adjust a light-socket while in his bath at his flat in central Paris, leaving behind millions of grieving fans and a back-catalogue of nearly 300 songs.

Born in 1939 in Egypt, where his father was a shipping controller on the Suez Canal, François came to southern France with his family after the Suez crisis of 1956 and very soon after began his career singing at hotels and clubs on the Côte D'Azur.

In 1961 he moved to Paris, which was in the grip of the music craze known as "yeye," from the English "yeah-yeah," the Gallic progeny of rock'n'roll spawned by singers such as Johnny Hallyday and Eddie Mitchell.

His first hit was in 1962 with Belles, Belles, Belles, a cover of the Everly Brothers tune Girls Girls Girls, and soon after that he was an established star, his innocent good looks and dapper suits ensuring a particular following among the female sex.

Many of his best-known records were French versions of English language singles - like the Beatles' I want to hold your hand, the Four Tops' It's the same old song and Winchester Cathedral by the New Vaudeville Band.

But François hit back in 1968 when he wrote Comme d'habitude about his split-up with singer France Gall. The song was reworked as My Way by English performer Paul Anka and went on to become Sinatra's classic. Another François hit Ces soirees-là became Oh what a night! by the Four Seasons.

By the mid-1970s François was riding the disco wave. Himself an indefatigable and accomplished dancer, he never appeared on stage without his heavily-permed and hot-panted four-woman troupe, known as Les Clodettes, who today are almost as much an icon as he is.

Modish interest in retro-music does something to explain François' continuing popularity, but more important is the sheer conservatism of French tastes, according to rock critic Christophe Conte of Les Inrockuptibles magazine.

"What you have to remember is that the same people who were friends of François 30 years ago are still in control of French radio and television, so they cannot help putting out the same old stuff," he said.

François had an eventful emotional life, with a succession of wives and girlfrields, and produced two sons.

He also survived an assassination attempt in 1977 which came two years after he was caught in an IRA bomb attack in the Hilton hotel in London.

He is buried at the village of Danemois, 30 miles (50 kilometres) southeast of Paris, where he lived in a converted mill from 1964 and where thousands of people make a regular pilgrimage.

"This is Graceland à la française," commented the house's current owner, Julien Lescure.

March 2003


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