The formidable singer Colette Magny was one of the most remarkable artists to emerge from France in the Sixties. Her commitment to political causes followed the ups and downs of that turbulent decade while her militancy and dedication gave its full meaning to the expression chanteuse engagee.
Born in Paris in 1926, Magny was the daughter of a grocery salesman and a mother who eventually took up acting at the age of 57. Magny herself was a late developer as an artist and worked as a bilingual secretary and translator at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) from 1948 to 1962. Her knowledge of English gave her valuable insight into the music of blues performers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Ella Fitzgerald. She started to perform blues standards and her own compositions around Paris, having been taught to play banjo and guitar by the French jazzman Claude Luter.
In 1962, following a stint at the Contrescarpe cabaret (where Graeme Allwright was also discovered), Magny came to the attention of Mireille, the composer and perennial promoter of new talent (who died at the end of last year), who promptly booked the singer on her televised show Le Petit Conservatoire de la Chanson. The day after Magny's first appearance, the Paris-Presse newspaper raved about her version of "Saint James Infirmary" and ran the headline: "France has found her own Ella Fitzgerald".
Indeed, the French singer had not only a physique but also a voice similar to that of the jazz legend. She could swoop, scream, quaver and really move the audience. In 1963, when appearing at the Olympia Theatre in Paris on the same bill as the teen sensations Claude Francois and Sylvie Vartan, Magny even silenced and impressed the crowds of screaming fans.
Having given up her civil service job, she signed to the French arm of CBS records and released the single "Melocoton" which made it into the hit parade. Magny then quickly moved away from the mainstream. She set French poems (for instance "Tuileries" by Victor Hugo and works by Aragon and Rimbaud) and translations of foreign writers (Lewis Carroll, Pablo Neruda) to music, she built songs around famous quotations (from the Bible, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Lenin, Einstein) and wrote lyrics inspired by paintings, while still covering blues standards and singing her own material.
Her political conscience had been awakened by the last rumblings of the Algerian war at the end of the Fifties and she now became France's first bona fide protest singer with "Le Mal de Vivre", which was instantly banned by the state-controlled broadcasters ORTF. Censorship would be a permanent thorn in her side (and later inspired her album Repression).
From 1964, Magny's records were released on Le Chant du Monde, a record label backed by the French Communist Party. With titles like Frappe Ton Coeur ("Strike Your Own Heart") and Vietnam 67, her albums proved to be harbingers of les evenements. May 1968 came and Magny was in her element, supporting the students and the workers, taking part in meetings, sit- ins, benefit concerts. She was pro-Cuba, pro-Black Panthers, pro-women's lib, against war in Vietnam, and cared about immigrant workers. She wrote "Les Militants" for the protesters.
Magny's muse was as diverse as her political conviction was intense. She dabbled in free jazz, progressive rock, contemporary music and, in 1973, with Feu et Rythme, she won the Grand Prix du Disque from the Academie Charles Cros (the French equivalent and forerunner of the Mercury Music Prize). Along with Leo Ferre, she broke the mould of the traditional French chanson and forged her own direction.
In the late Seventies, Magny's left-wing beliefs began to seem redundant and, following Francois Mitterrand's election in 1981, her work became less dogmatic. She moved to the Aveyron area, in the south-west of France. She was still a charismatic, primal, visceral performer but seemed happier, perhaps because she had come to terms with her own sexuality. She even mellowed sufficiently to sing "My Heart Belongs To Daddy" and later recorded Kevork, a curious album in which she sung the praises of the turkey (on the grounds that a turkey, once domesticated, if released, can revert to its wild condition).
Over the last few years, she suffered from a chronic spinal disease and was often confined to her bed or a wheelchair. Still she railed against "the bastards who pretend I'm already dead. I want to prove to them that I'm still alive, still creating."
Colette Magny's was a unique voice in France and never made any compromises. Yet, in the dozen albums she recorded, she also brought her own brand of blues, poetry and politics to a wider audience, and made French chanson an instrument for social change. Her unparalleled talent and commitment were documented in Sylvie Vadureau's fine biography Colette Magny, Citoyenne- Blues.
Colette Magny, singer, songwriter, guitarist, translator: born Paris 31 October 1926; died Villefranche-de-Rouerge, France 12 June 1997.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies