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Background information
Birth name Monique Andrée Serf
Born June 29, 1930(1930-06-29)
Origin Paris, France
Died November 24, 1997 (aged 67)
Genres Chanson, French pop
Occupations French singer-songwriter and actrice
Instruments Piano
Years active 1958 – 1996
Labels Universal Music Group

Monique Andrée Serf (June 9, 1930 – November 24, 1997), known as Barbara, was a popular French female singer. She took her stage name from her Russian grandmother, Varvara Brodsky, changing just the 'V's to 'B's.



Monique Serf, born in Paris, France, into a Jewish family, was ten years old when she had to go into hiding during the German occupation of France in World War II. After the war ended, a neighborhood professor of music heard Monique sing and took an interest in helping her develop her talents. She was given vocal lessons and taught to play the piano and eventually she enrolled at the Ecole Supérieure de Musique. However, money was a problem and she gave up her musical studies to sing at "La Fontaine des Quatre Saisons," a then popular cabaret in Paris.

A sensitive girl, she was deeply scarred by the war and her family's plight. Her inner feelings of emptiness experienced at this stage in her showed in her appearance and in her songs, particularly "Mon Enfance". It is reported by Barbara in her interrupted (assembled from notes found in her house at Precy-sur-Marne) autobiography, "Il Etait un Piano Noir", that her father sexually abused her when she was ten. He would later leave the family never to return. Barbara went to his burial in Nantes, which originated one of her most popular songs ("Nantes"), immortalizing that time in her life.

Musical development

A tall person, Serf dressed in black, accentuating her raven hair, as she sang melancholic songs of lost love. From 1950 to 1952, after running away following her father's desertion of her family, she lived in Brussels, Belgium where she became part of an active artistic community. Her painter and writer friends took over an old house, converting it into workshops and a concert hall with a piano where Monique performed the songs of Édith Piaf, Juliette Gréco and Germaine Montéro. However, her career evolved slowly and she struggled constantly to eke out a living. In October 1953, she married Claude John Luc Sluys, a Belgian law student but they separated in 1956. Later in life, she wrote about her relationships with men in a song saying: "They walk proudly, my men/ I in the front/ them just behind."

Returning to Paris, she would meet Jacques Brel and become a lifelong friend, singing many of his songs. Later, she met Georges Brassens whose songs she would eventually begin to use in her act and to record her first album. In the 1950s, she obtained singing engagements at some of the smaller clubs and began building a fan base, particularly with the young students from the Latin Quarter. In 1957 she went back to Brussels to make her first record single but it was not until 1961 that she got a real break when she was engaged to perform at the famous Bobino Music-Hall in Montparnasse. Dressed in a long black robe, she gave a haunting performance but the tough Parisian critics were not kind, saying she lacked naturalness and was stiff and formal in her presentation. She continued to perform at small clubs and two years later at the Théâtre des Capucines, she captured the imagination of the audience and critics alike with an astonishingly powerful performance with new material she had penned herself. From that point on, her career blossomed and she signed a major recording contract in 1964 with Philips Records.

Musical influences

Although influenced by songwriters Mireille and Pierre MacOrlan, she nonetheless developed her own style and the writing of her own songs transformed her image into that of a unique singer-song writer. Her intensely poetic lyrics, her dramatic on-stage performances, and the depth of emotion in her voice, all garnered her a huge following that lasted for more than thirty years. In the 1960s she wrote her landmark song, "Ma plus Belle Histoire d'Amour c'est Vous" (My most beautiful love story is you), and others for which she remains famous such as "L'Aigle noir", "Nantes", "La Solitude", "Göttingen" and "Une Petite Cantate."

Middle years

She made a triumphant return to Bobino in 1964 and returned to sold out audiences several more times. She performed at the Paris Olympia and all the important venues in France, becoming one of her country's most beloved stars. In 1965, she released the album "Barbara chante Barbara" that became an enormous critical and financial success, winning the Grand Prix du Disque of the Charles Cros Academy. At the award ceremony, an emotional Monique Serf ripped her award into several parts, giving a piece to each of her technicians as a sign of her gratitude. Having achieved fame, Monique Serf began using her money and celebrity to do charitable work in aid of impoverished children.

Acting career

In 1969, she announced that she would limit her concert singing and in 1970 she made her acting début in the stage play "Madame" that proved to be a commercial flop. In 1971 she co-starred with Jacques Brel in a film he directed titled Franz for which she wrote the theme song, "Moi, je me balance". Two years later she starred in L'Oiseau rare directed by Jean-Claude Brialy. Her final film role came in 1977 in Je suis né à Venise directed by the dancer and choreographer Maurice Béjart.

Allée Barbara in Paris

Later years

Serf's career remained extremely active in the 1970s, appearing on television variety shows with stars such as Johnny Hallyday as well as embarking on a tour of Japan, Canada, Belgium, Israel, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Through the 1980s, she continued to tour and to write songs, her album "Seule" was one of France's top grossing releases of 1981. The next year she was awarded the prestigious Grand Prix du Disque in recognition of her contribution to French culture. She developed a close working relationship with rising film star, Gérard Depardieu and his wife Élisabeth, collaborating on songs for film and records. In 1982 she went to New York City to perform on piano at the Metropolitan Opera with Mikhail Baryshnikov in a song and dance ballet presentation. She co-wrote the music for the stage play "Lily Passion" with Luc Plamondon in which she co-starred with Gérard Depardieu. This told the story of David, a killer, who murders someone each time he hears her sing. An extremely dramatic piece, she achieves her goal at the end by having him stab her so that she can die in his arms. Barbara said that she chose the name David in honour of her friend, the biographer David Bret.

In the latter part of the 1980s she became an active participant in the fight against AIDS. In 1988 the government of France awarded her the Legion of Honor. By the 1990s, the sixty year-old "Barbara" was a virtual tour de force in the French entertainment world. Health problems impeded her performing and she began to devote time to the writing of her memoirs. However, she recorded another very successful album in 1996—this sold over a million copies in just twelve hours—before respiratory problems took her life in Neuilly-sur-Seine (a suburb of Paris), on November 24, 1997. She was interred near other members of her family in the Cimetière de Bagneux in Montrouge, just south of Paris.

Considered an icon of French musical history, "Barbara" has been honored with her image on a French postage stamp. A number of books have been written about her life and her records still sell in large numbers to this day.

Musical legacy

Barbara's musical legacy is revealed in the writing of a number of singers, French speaking and otherwise. A style referred to by the recently coined buzzword 'Nouvelle Chanson', [1] or 'New Chanson', artists such as Keren Ann, Benjamin Biolay, Coralie Clement and Emilie Simon are often cited as exponents of the updated style.

One of the few English-speaking artists to cover her work is Marc Almond, whose version of "Amours Incestueuses" ("Incestuous Loves") was released on his 1996 album titled "Absinthe". The Anglo-French biographer David Bret, a close friend of Barbara, wrote at her behest "Les Hommes Bafoués", a song about AIDS prejudice. Bret also adapted three of her songs, "Ma Plus Belle Histoire D'Amour", "La Solitude", and "Precy Jardin" into English for Barbara. These were taped in 1992, but so far have never been released.

Well-known contemporary English speaking artists such as New York based Martha Wainwright (who recently reprised Barbara's song 'Dis, Quand Reviendras Tu?'[2], Regina Spektor (showing French influence in songs such as 'Apres Moi' and 'Ne Me Quitte Pas') and London-based singer-songwriter Ana Silvera[3] with her intensely poetic lyrics and classical piano style nod to the legacy of chanson artists such as Barbara.


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