Claude François was born in the city of Ismaïlia, in north-east Egypt, on 1 February 1939. His father, Aimé, worked as a shipping trafic controller on the Suez Canal, but in 1951 Aimé was transferred from Ismaïlia to Port Tawfik. Aimé and his wife Lucie (who was of Italian origin) thus set up a new home on the shores of the Red Sea where Claude and his sister Josette spent much of their childhood. However, the family's tranquil lifestyle was disrupted by Egyptian politics in 1956 when President Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, provoking the famous Suez Crisis in October of that year.
The François family were repatriated to France, but Claude's father, Aimé, never quite recovered from this brutal 'uprooting'. The François family would eventually begin a new life in a small flat in Monte Carlo, but Aimé fell violently ill shortly after his return from Egypt. With his father unfit to work, young Claude thus found himself responsible for the family finances.
Claude immediately went out to work, finding a temporary job as a local bank clerk. However, the ambitious young teenager soon began to dream of abandoning his position behind the bank counter and launching a career in the music world. Claude was an enterprising young fellow and, after his daily shift at the bank, he began to hunt around for work with the orchestras which played in Monaco's luxury hotels.
Claude already had a solid musical training behind him. His parents had arranged for him to take violin and piano lessons at an early age, and he had also developed a passionate interest in percussion. And it would be this precious skill which opened the doors of the show-biz world for young Claude.
Claude Makes His Début
In 1957 Claude began performing with Louis Frozio's orchestra who provided the in-house entertainment at the prestigious International Sporting Club. Aimé strongly disapproved of his son's new choice of career and, after several violent rows, he and Claude fell out. (The pair never made up their quarrel and remained on bad terms right up until Aimé's death).
In spite of his father's ongoing resistance and an extremely meagre monthly wage, Claude stuck at his new career, determined to make a name for himself in the French music world. The ambitious teenager soon decided it was time to move out of the percussion shadows and try his hand at singing, but the band leader at the Sporting Club refused to give him a chance. Claude promptly walked out of his job and got himself another engagement, singing at the Hôtel Provençal in the chic Mediterranean resort of Juan-les-Pins. His set went down well with the audience and, gradually gaining confidence and stage presence, the young singer soon went on to perform on the Côte d'Azur's extensive night-club circuit. It was during the early days of his career - in 1959, to be precise - that Claude met his first wife, an English dancer by the name of Janet Woolcoot.
Claude soon grew tired of performing on the local night club circuit, however. The young singer harboured greater ambitions and at the end of 1961 he packed his bags and moved to Paris, taking his wife and family with him.
The French music scene was undergoing a radical upheaval in the early 60's, following the invasion of American rock'n'roll. French teenagers spent their nights dancing the twist and jiving along to yéyé (the French version of rock'n'roll). This was also the era of "Salut les Copains", the famous French radio show which rapidly attracted a cult following of teenage music fans.
Claude's arrival in Paris coincided with the onslaught of rock'n'roll. The young singer began hustling for work in the capital and soon found himself a job with Olivier Despax's group Les Gamblers. However, Claude's financial situation remained as precarious as ever. The young singer was paid relatively little for his work and he still harboured a burning ambition to take centre stage.
Claude soon decided the only way forward was to launch a solo career. He thus set about finding himself a recording deal. Then, adopting the pseudonym Koko, he went straight into the studio to record his first solo single entitled "Nabout Twist". Unfortunately, Koko's Oriental version of the twist failed to catch on with the public - indeed, Claude François's first single proved to be a resounding flop !
Claude's Luck Changes - At Last !
In spite of this early setback, Claude soldiered on, determined to make a name for himself. Sadly, his father, Aimé, died in March 1962 so he was not around to hear his son's first hit "Belles Belles Belles" a few months later. "Belles Belles Belles" (Claude's French adaptation of an Everly Brothers' song) rocketed into the charts in the summer of '62, launching the young singer's career.
Claude's records were soon picked up by the cult teenage radio show "Salut les Copains" - and a new French star was born! The impresario Paul Lederman stepped in to take charge of the rising young star's career and Claude François began to make a major impact on the French music scene. The singer started off as a support act, accompanying Les Chaussettes Noires on their national tour in 1963. But Claude's hyper-energetic stage performances and his larger than life personality stole the show and he soon became a star in his own right.
Claude went on to record a whole string of hit singles, rocketing to the top of the charts with songs such as "Marche tout droit" and "Dis-lui". Meanwhile, Claude's fan club soon reached staggering proportions. Indeed, it was not unusual to find hordes of screaming teenage girls pressed up against the stage at Claude's early shows. The singer's well-groomed look - all slicked-back blond hair and dapper suits - and his sentimental songs were guaranteed to find favour with female audiences. In October 1963 Claude shot straight to the top of the charts once again with another French adaptation - "Si j'avais un marteau" (modelled on Trini Lopez's "If I Had a Hammer").
Claude Invests In A Country Home
Claude worked hard at his success, rushing in and out of the studio to record a series of French adaptations of English hits. Indeed, the singer's output at this stage of his career was nothing short of prodigious - although, it must be said, few Claude François adaptations went on to become 60's classics. Indeed, songs such as "Petite mèche de cheveux" and "Je veux tenir ta main" (Claude's version of the legendary Beatles' hit) quickly faded from memory.
Still, whether Claude François's hits had staying power or not, the young singer soon found himself riding a wave of success. And Claude's earlier financial problems appeared to be definitively over, as money from his first wave of chart hits began rolling into the bank. In 1964 Claude treated himself to a picturesque country residence, buying an old windmill in the Dannemois countryside (in the Ile-de-France region). Claude celebrated his move to the countryside by releasing a new single entitled "La Ferme du bonheur" (Happiness Farm) just a few weeks later.
By 1964 Claude François had become a major star in his own right. Gone were the days of struggling as a support act, Claude was now the head-lining name on the bill! 1964 saw the singer kick off his first major tour, supported by the famous French yéyé group Les Gams, Les Lionceaux and Jacques Monty. The tour did not go smoothly however - Claude soon revealed himself to be a veritable megalomaniac, lording it over his support acts and behaving badly with just about everyone involved in the tour. But nothing could stop Claude's irresistible rise to fame. And in September of that year he was invited to perform at the Olympia (the most prestigious music venues in Paris). Claude gave a memorable performance, giving a particularly emotional rendition of "J'y pense et puis j'oublie" (I Think About It For A While Then Wipe It From My Mind) - a song he had written about his recent separation from his wife Janet.
In 1965 Claude resumed his busy recording schedule, putting out a string of fifteen odd new hits (including "Les Choses de la maison" and "Même si tu revenais"). He also returned to the stage in October of that year to take part in Musicorama, a famous radio programme recorded live at the Olympia. Needless to say, the programme's Claude François special proved to be an enormous success. And the indefatigable François soon followed this triumph with another, recording his own version of "Cinderella" which was broadcast on national French television.
In 1966 Claude went on to create his famous backing group, Les Clodettes. Les Clodettes - four female dancers who leapt around in the background while Claude strutted his stuff centre-stage - injected a new zest and energy into the singer's live shows. Needless to say, Claude's summer tour proved to be an enormous hit, Claude-mania reaching dizzying new heights as crowds of teenage girls swooned into collective hysteria. At the end of the year, the singer returned to the Olympia where he brought the house down once more.
The French "My Way"
Claude was catapulted back into the media spotlight in 1967 when he began a brief affair with the famous French singer France Gall. After the relationship came to an end, Claude took up with a new girlfriend, Isabelle, who soon went on to become the mother of his children.
1967 also proved to be a decisive year in Claude's career. Nearing the end of his recording contract with Philips, the singer began to think about setting up his own production company. Later that year he took the plunge, creating his own label Disques Flèche. Enjoying full independence and artistic control for the first time in his career, Claude inaugurated Disques Flèche in 1968 with the release of a new single entitled "Jacques a dit". The singer then carried on with his successful formula of adapting English and American hits for the French market, and later that year Claude returned to the studio to record a French version of a Bee Gees' hit ("La plus belle des choses").
But, ironically, although Claude spent most of his career adapting English hits for the French market, he was also responsible for a French song which went on to become one of the most famous international hits of all time. The song "Comme d'habitude", which Claude François wrote in collaboration with Jacques Revaux (music) and Gilles Thibault (lyrics), was originally written about the singer's break-up with France Gall. But, after the lyrics had been re-worked in English by Paul Anka, "Comme d'habitude" went on to become Sinatra's legendary "My Way".
1968 also proved to be a memorable year in Claude François's personal life, for in July of that year Isabelle gave birth to a son, Claude Junior (better known to friends and family as Coco). However, the singer was eager to keep his private life to himself, avoiding any kind of media intrusion after his affair with France Gall. Fans were not disappointed for long, however. Claude and his Clodettes were soon back on the road again, performing a series of extensive international tours which included dates in Italy and Africa (where they proved a huge hit with audiences in Chad, Gabon, and the Ivory Coast).
1969 proved to another eventful year for Claude François. After the birth of his second son, Marc, the singer was invited back to perform at the Olympia. Needless to say, Claude François's series of 16 concerts proved to be another triumph - indeed, tickets for all 16 shows were sold out weeks in advance ! François gave the performance of a lifetime, his American-style extravaganza - which included four dancers, eight backing musicians plus the Olympia's full in-house orchestra ! - sending the audience into raptures. The singer's 1970 tour of Canada also proved to be a great success.
However, the first fatal cracks were beginning to appear in the Claude François success story. The singer went on to suffer a breakdown halfway through a concert in Marseille in 1971. François's manager blamed the collapse on business pressures and overwork, and the singer promptly jetted out to recover in an island retreat in the Canaries. But Claude François's run of bad luck did not end there. Shortly after his return to France, he was involved in a serious car crash. But even this did not stop the indefatigable singer from rushing back to work as soon as he could. After his broken bones had mended and the severe swelling on his face had finally gone down, Claude François embarked on yet another major tour, accompanied by Dani and C.Jérome.
At the end of 1971 Claude François decided to diversify his business interests, buying up the teenage magazine Podium (which would soon go on to outstrip its rivals, attracting the same cult following as "Salut les Copains" once had). The following year the singer flew out to the States to record another French adaptation of an American hit ("C'est la même chanson"), working in the legendary Tamla Motown studios in Detroit. On his return to France, Claude François turned his attention to his production work, signing a new collection of artists including Patrick Topaloff and Alain Chamfort to his label Disques Flèches.
The Clodettes' Famous Dance Routine
In 1972 Claude, who was always on the look-out for new talents, discovered the up-and-coming young songwriter and composer Patrick Juvet. It was Juvet who would go on to write François's smash hit of the year : "le Lundi au soleil". The single catapulted Claude François straight back to the top of the charts - indeed, "le Lundi au soleil" became so popular that the special dance routine Claude and his Clodettes had invented to accompany the song was soon copied in school playgrounds all over France!
Claude François was invited to perform another show at the Olympia at the end of 1972, but the singer declined, preferring to set off on a mini-tour of Paris with a circus Big Top (capable of seating 4,000 fans!) The mini-tour proved a great success - which was fortunate for François, as tax inspectors came to call at the end of the year, declaring the singer owed the State 2 million francs.
This visit provided Claude François with more than enough incentive to keep on working. Luckily, 1973 proved to be a profitable year and a string of new singles (including "Je viens dîner ce soir", "Chanson populaire" and the smash hit "Ça s'en va et ça revient") kept François at the top of the charts. Later that year, however, the Claude François curse struck again. The singer's windmill in Dannemois was ravaged by fire in June. Then, in July, as François was performing to a capacity crowd of 10,000 fans in Marseille, an over-zealous fan accidentally head-butted him, leaving the singer nursing a headache and a massive black eye !
1974 was, on the whole, a much happier year. "Le Mal Aimé" proved to be another phenomenal hit with French music fans and, soon afterwards, Claude François scored a huge smash with his new single "le Téléphone pleure" (which went on to sell over two million copies!) The singer's business interests were also in good shape and later that year François acquired his own modelling agency, Girls Models. In 1973 François had already branched out in this direction, buying the magazine Absolu (renowned for its female nudes) and turning his hand to photography on this occasion !
Meanwhile, Claude François's recording career continued at a hectic pace. The singer returned to the studio to work on a new series of singles, which continued to do well in the French charts (even if, in the mid-70's, Claude François hits sold considerably less than in previous years). François's flamboyant live shows remained as popular as ever, attracting impressive audiences. 20,000 fans turned out to watch Claude François perform at the Porte de Pantin in Paris (on 1 July 1974), when the singer organised a fund-raising concert for "Perce-Neige" (the charity for handicapped children set up by François's friend Lino Ventura). In 1975 the French journalist Yves Mourousi organised another massive Claude François concert in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris and all proceeds were donated to medical research. The Tuileries concert would go down in music history as Claude François's very last performance in Paris.
The 70's were a busy decade for François who continued to live life at an increasingly hectic pace, embarking on major tours to the French Antilles (April 1976) and Africa (winter 76), appearing on incessant French TV shows and throwing himself into a tumultuous love affair with a Finnish girl called Sofia, before finally settling down with his last girlfriend Kathaleen.
Claude François also continued to work hard in the studio, recording a series of new albums. These quite frequently proved to be a nightmare for all involved, as the singer had earned himself a reputation for being intransigent and over-perfectionist. The 70's also marked the return of the Claude François curse. In 1975 the singer narrowly escaped death when an IRA bomb exploded in London. (François somehow managed to survive the blast with nothing more serious than a burst eardrum). Then in 1977 a gunman shot at him when he was driving alone in his car - once again, François somehow managed to escape unhurt.
The Final Curtain
Claude François always maintained that he had to sing the same songs throughout his career to please his fans, but in fact, the singer proved himself more than capable of moving with the times. And when the disco craze swept through French discotheques in the late 70's, Claude rocketed back to the top of the charts with his disco smash "Magnolias for ever" (in 1977) and his legendary hit "Alexandrie Alexandra" (written by Julien Clerc's famous songwriter Etienne Roda-Gil in 1978).
Then on 11 March 1978 tragedy struck, bringing an end to Claude François's career. The singer died electrocuted in his bathtub in Paris and French music fans plunged into a period of collective mourning, which at times reached almost hysterical proportions.
Claude, who had always denigrated his physique and dismissed his voice as mediocre, had nevertheless been driven by a burning ambition to succeed on the French music scene. The singer's enterprising personality and his undeniable charisma had kept him at the top of the charts for almost twenty years. But François's tragic death in 1978 guaranteed him an eternal place in French music legend. On March 11th 2000, exactly 20 years after François's death, a square was named after the singer in Paris at the foot of his old apartment building. Hundreds of music fans turned out on March 11th to inaugurate the Place Claude-François.
The survey carried out for the 25th anniversary of the singer’s death revealed "Belles, Belles, Belles" as the favourite song of the French. It overtook "Comme d’habitude" and "Alexandrie, Alexandra".