The untold story of the French charts, the long, and oh so, winding road.
Today, November 4th, 2019, the French charts are celebrating their 35th birthday. It is indeed on that date in 1984, that the first ever French chart program, named “Top 50”, aired on the then newly-born Canal + TV channel to gain immediate interest and an ever-growing mainstream audience. And this date is still regarded today as the birth date of the French charts. However, a handful of die-hard chart fans, digging deeper into the past, unearthed a completely different story.
One among them, Dominic Durand, author of the infodisc.fr database, brought to my knowledge several years ago that Snep, the French music trade body, had produced various charts in the period running from October 1968 to November 1977 and provided me with the paper copies of the magazines these charts were published in. Contacted several months ago, Snep spokesperson, Patricia Sarrant, commented that there were none of Snep’s 60s and 70s staff still active and that current staff were not aware of that period’s events, even more, alas, as all their archives had been lost in a fire incident that took place several years ago.
Tracing even more back the origin of those charts, with the help of other chart fans, it appeared to me that they had been set up following an insisting request from none other than… Billboard magazine itself, who had been urging Snep back then to produce official charts, and that the magazine had been, until then, producing its own best-seller French chart, ever since… 1961!
This is the untold story of the French charts, an unprecedented look-back on a hectic story that started 56 years ago, a tale that required long and thorough researches in Billboard archives, data compilation and information cross-checking.
Once upon a time…
On April 10, 1961, Billboard magazine, then named Billboard Music Week (BMW), launched a column named ‘Hits Of The World’ featuring numerous music charts from around the world.
At that time, France, in spite of being one of the largest international music markets, did not have a proper, official chart.
This is why the magazine asked their correspondent in France, Edward ‘Eddie’ Adamis, to compile a weekly chart of the best-selling records in the country.
How Adamis exactly compiled his chart is not documented in any of the Billboard articles of that period and is probably lost to history. However, what can be said is that the charts he produced can be considered as fairly accurate and very likely once you compare them with other data available elsewhere.
The charts focused on the 10 best-selling weekly EPs in France (SPs were not popular before 1968) with a formula that evolved from time to time, counting different acts performing the same song as one entry (the original versions had at that time many covers and local adaptations). At other times, the chart featured in the same entry an EP and its follow-up by the same act, combined together.
In the very first French chart published by Billboard in its issue dated June 5th, 1961, Edith Piaf holds the top spot with her EP featuring the hit “Non, je ne regrette rien”, on Columbia.
The longest-running Number One of that period is “Let’s Twist Again” and its numerous covers and domestic versions. All of these, combined, held the top spot for 17 weeks.
The first US act to top the French charts were the String-A-Longs and their instrumental ‘Wheels’ on London. And the first UK act to do so was Johnnie Spence and his Orchestra, with that very same “Wheels”, on Odeon.
In May 1964, Adamis resigned and the French charts in Billboard’s columns stopped being featured. In its issue dated June 13th, 1967, Billboard stated that Adamis’ successor will “also supervise the preparation of what will be the most reputable hit list of the top-selling records in France”. And that successor eventually was Mike Hennessey.
Hennessey updated the tally to modern criteria, one entry being henceforward equal to one unique EP.
It is in that period that the first Single Plays started being marketed. Hennessey would include them in his tally, although it looks today as if he had down-weighed them with respect to EPs, probably to reflect their price difference (SPs would sell for 6 French francs, EPs for 10), as many available data today conclude jointly to higher sales figures than what the Billboard charts had suggested.
This however did not prevent Procol Harum’s ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’, on Deram, to become the very first SP to hit number one and, what’s more, the very first record to go straight in at the top of the tally. ‘Shade’ would go on to spend 9 weeks at the summit, tying Petula Clark’s ‘C’est ma chanson’ on Vogue and Mireille Mathieu’s ‘La dernière valse’ on Barclay for the longest-running number one of that period.
It is in that same period that French songstress Sheila set the outstanding record for the most number ones, having led 16 of her records all the way to the summit.
In May and June 1968, France became the scene of massive strikes and a deep political crisis. It is in that context that Mike Hennessey produced some of the last charts of a three-and-a-half-years long series of very valuable weekly tallies.
In its issue dated November 2, 1968, Billboard wrote: “The prolonged efforts to produce a French industry sales chart, the original moves toward which were initiated by Billboard several months ago, achieved fruition this week with the publication of the first National Hit-Parade by the Centre d’Information et de Documentation du Disque (CIDD) […] The chart will be used by Billboard in the Hits Around The World section”.
Some months earlier, Billboard had explained this move and had written : “What is particularly significant about the chart operation is that for the first time the main record companies are cooperating in an effort to produce a reliable sales chart which will serve the industry. Up to now, cooperation in the French industry has been limited because companies such as Barclay, Vogue and Festival are not members of the SNICOP (Snep’s former name)”.
From then on, various charts began being produced by the CIDD: singles, albums, classical with varying formulas (foreign + domestic acts together, then separated, then combined again) and frequencies (monthly, bimonthly).
These charts, the first official home-made ones in France, quickly gained media coverage thanks to Jacques Masson-Forestier, head of CIDD. By late 1971, they were published in numerous magazines in France, to an estimated total of 4.5 million readers, and they were featured in the music programs of 17 radio stations across France, Canada, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. However, they never gained as strong a mainstream popularity as the “Top 50” would be able to achieve a decade later.
In November 1977, following endless disputes between record companies, Pathé-Marconi, CBS and Phonogram decided to withdraw from the ‘Hit-Parade National’, leaving the remaining 15 record companies to cope with the remnants of the 8-year-old Hit-Parade. It would not outlive this crisis. And industry and chart fans would have to wait for another 7 years till a brand new chart, believed to be the first ever, sees the day.
The longest-running number one single of that era was Dimitri Dourakine’s ‘Casatschok’ on Philips, reigning for 3 months and a half, early 1969.
Johnny Hallyday was the act with the most number ones in that period (9 number ones) while Sheila added yet another 6 number ones to her career, totalling a still unbroken record of 22 number ones in all.