The old Bobino music hall in the Rue de la Gaite, Montparnasse, was one of my favourite rendezvous in the Sixties and Seventies. Georges Brassens was one of its most regular and popular stars of the chanson: in 1964 he had a three-month season there which attracted over 120,000 fans. It was also a platform for many young and promising unknowns, who were always encouraged by Brassens. One night I found he had invited to occupy the first part of his programme a beautiful Moroccan girl, Frida Boccara, who had already begun to make a name for herself through an impresario with the improbable name of Buck Ram.
Her charismatic presence on the stage reminded me of another of my idols, the Egyptian enchantress Dalida, a few years older. Both had beautiful voices, of wide range, deep and thrilling, high and surprisingly sweet, and both seemed to sing as if every song was sheer poetry. Indeed, they made even the most trivial and sentimental ditties sound like true poems, and those often banal words and emotions used to move me to tears in a way that few real poems in English ever do. Dalida had been born in Egypt of Italian parents who loved opera. Frida Boccara began studying classical music and taking les-sons in operatic singing as soon as she left secondary school.
She started a vocal and instrumental trio with her brother and sister in Casablanca, with some success. But she knew she would have to try her chance in Paris, where she was taken on by the celebrated teacher of chanson singing and composition, Mireille, who in 1954 had founded her Petit Conservatoire de la Chanson in the rue de l'Universite, where she used her unique training methods to help talented youngsters discover their true musical abilities and personalities.
Through Mireille, Frida soon began making music-hall appearances and recordings, and was launched on an international career, for at first she appeared mainly outside France, in tours of Eastern Europe, and performed in jazz festivals like the one in Sofia in 1967. She also travelled to Australia, Canada and Central and South America, where several of her hit numbers became successful: "Cent mille chansons" ("One Hundred Thousand Songs"), and "Les Moulins de mon coeur" ("The Windmills of my Heart"), written and composed especially for her warm, intimate, caressing voice by Eddy Marnay and Emile Stern, her permanent parolier and composer.
One of the very few really memorable songs of the deplorable Eurovision Song Contest (Grand Prix, 1969) was "Un Jour un enfant", and in those days, when a triumph on television truly mattered, it shot Boccara to even greater fame. She won the prestigious Prix de l'Academie Charles Cros, and was also honoured with a number of golden discs.
She never forgot her classical roots, and some of her later songs were set to music by Telemann and other great classics, always by her parolier Eddy Marnay.
Today, despite the continued popularity of stars like Charles Trenet, Aznavour, Enrico Macias, Jean Ferrat, Sacha Distel and the unsinkable Georges Guetary, and the daily afternoon programmes on France Television conducted by the inimitable Pascal Sevran with his admirably eclectic tastes, true chanson singing is in sad decline in Europe, and even in France. Frida Boccara took up the art just a little too later, and then rock-and-roll swept it away almost for good and all.
She retired from performing in the cruel Seventies, but left behind her a collection of superb recordings and the memory of one of my most enchanted evenings at the old Bobino, where Georges Brassens invited her to sing with him "Au Bois de mon coeur".
Frida Boccara, singer and music-hall artist: born Casablanca 1940; died Paris 1 August 1996.
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