17 January 2010


“Smile, though your heart is breaking,” Charlie Chaplin wrote, in his most memorable song, the anthem of every sad clown. Dalida was not exactly that, yet she’s remarkable in her ability to convey so much happiness, while suffering so deeply.

These qualities made an icon of the French singer, born in Cairo to Italian parents. Though she’s little-known in the English-speaking world, she was a superstar almost everywhere else, cannily navigating a course from early success in Italianate novelty numbers (in French) to disco, combining glamorous physical beauty (she was Miss Egypt, in 1954) with a nearly over-the-top emotionalism and a husky, belting alto. A generation after her suicide, she remains one of the most revered performers in France.

My Neighbor
The singer’s grave, in the Montmartre Cemetery

Her early hits, for Barclay Records, are simultaneously pure and guilty pleasure: they’re kitsch of the best kind. Capitalizing on her accent, she dove headlong into the wave of Italianate pop culture that swept through so much of postwar Europe and America, from restaurants to record stores to Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida — whose look Dalida mimicked, at first.

Her first big hit, and only her third recording, was “Bambino,” in 1956, an old Neapolitan song in which she addresses a little boy who pines for a hardhearted little girl. “Love and jealousy aren’t child’s play,” she sings, “and you have your whole life to suffer as grownups do.” This is incredibly catchy, and she sings with an audible smile:
“So gratta, gratta [strum] on your mandolino
Mon petit Bambino.
Your music is prettier
Than all the sky of Italy.
And canta, canta in your cuddly voice
Mon petit Bambino.
You can sing as much as you want,
But she doesn’t take you seriously.”
The raw power of her emotionalism went on display early, too, as in “Ciao, Ciao, Bambina,” a breakup song that features an instrumental break, during which she wails (and does not sing) “Bambina!” at the top of her lungs. Try it some time, and you’ll feel better.

As Europe became ever-more united, Dalida was ahead of the curve, adding to her Franco-Italian repertory songs from Germany, Spain, and Greece (the French version of “Never on Sunday,” for example). “Hava Nagila” was an early hit, and she covered American songs, too: Pat Boone’s “Speedy Gonzales,” Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, The Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me,” Sonny and Cher’s “Bang Bang,” and, memorably, “Itsi Bitsi Petit Bikini.” (She leaves out the yellow polka dots, but it’s “tout petit-petit.”)

Success in America eluded her, and she may have been thinking of her own experience when she sang “Gigi l’Amoroso,” about a small-town Italian boy who goes to Hollywood to become “the best-looking Caruso of all” — and comes home disappointed. Consoling him, she scoffs, “The Americans! What do they understand but le rock and le twist?”

Seeking more serious material in the late ’60s and early ’70s, she tried her hand at the melancholy, ruminative, intellectual sort of French song, but the style was at odds with her inherent brio. French philosophy sounds better when growled, not à pleine voix, and she was never a diseuse.

In 1974, for example, she recorded “Il vient d’avoir 18 ans” (He just turned 18), which owes more to Brel than to Bambino. This time, the boy has grown up — a little — and by now, he “laughs at words of love.” Unnervingly, she finds him attractive and sleeps with him anyway. Serge Lama’s “Je suis malade” becomes explosive, operatic, in Dalida’s hands — though it works, somehow. Perhaps because we sensed that she was telling the truth.

In 1976, she turned next to disco, with immense success, beginning with a thumpa-thumpa cover of the Rina Ketty standard from the 1930s, “J’attendrai”; more hits followed, and Dalida traded in her sequined evening gown for rhinestone jumpsuits, while her backup dancers (never butch) donned motorcycle caps and leather gear instead of tuxedoes. Her gay following — already devout — became a permanent fixture at this time.

And along the way, she became a pioneer of ethnic fusion, with “Salma Ya Salama,” an irresistible Egyptian song she performed in Arabic, French, Spanish, and English. No boundaries existed for her: she sang “Besame Mucho” in Japan.

But as the years went by, she was increasingly unhappy. One of her later hits was “Mourir sur Scène” (To die onstage), and while Shirley Bassey lately refashioned it as “I Was Born to Sing,” that’s not the same thing at all. Really, Dalida makes the song a variation on Hamlet: “To be performing, or not to be.” She’s warning us of what’s about to come.

Though Dalida was clearly depressive, she also had rotten luck. She seems to have been a magnet for suicidal men, and no fewer than three of her lovers killed themselves. A surgical procedure in the 1960s left her unable to have children, and in time even the adulation of the public was no longer enough to soothe her troubled soul.

In 1987, she took an overdose of barbiturates, leaving a note that read, “Life is unbearable to me.”

I prefer to remember her as she was in the beginning, when happiness still seemed possible for her, in the abundance that she offered every day to others. Dalida, come prima: “Tu me donnes tant de joie, que personne ne me donne comme toi."

As in the beginning,
You give me so much joy,
Which nobody gives me
The way you do.


William V. Madison said...

UPDATE: The clip of Dalida’s “Come Prima” has been removed from YouTube, so I’ve taken down the embedding. However, you’re encouraged — vivement — to troll around and watch and listen other of her clips.

SammiKat said...

This is a wonderful blog! Thank you so much for posting this. I'm planning to write a thesis about Dalida & her impact on French Gay Culture and am looking around like crazy for all the info I can on her.

Have you heard of the operetta based on Gigi L'amoroso? I remember reading something about it on the web years ago but alas, google searches yield nothing. Can you point me in the right direction?

Thanks again for this!

William V. Madison said...

Thanks so much, SammiKat, for your generous comments. Unfortunately, I don't know anything about a "Gigi l'Amoroso" operetta -- though heaven knows it's a ripe subject for such treatment!

Jia Wen said...

Best tribute to Dalida that I have ever read. It has been 25 years since she left the world, but her music lives with me every day. Thanks for sharing. RIP.Dalida.

AbdalRahman ElGendy said...

Thank you !

Anonymous said...

Great post! Dalida is truly n iconic figure in the international scene. I was wondering if you have a post about the greatest Italian singer of all time, MINA (Mina Mazzini).
Many of her hits were sung by Dalida, and it would be interesting to see what you would write about her.