Michel Polnareff

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Known for his eccentric nature, French pop songwriter Michel Polnareff created a buzz for himself in the early to mid-’60s when his debut single, “La Poupée Qui Fait Non,” rocketed to the top of the French charts, but it was his early-’70s release, Polnareff's, that cemented him a place as a legend in French pop. Polnareff was raised in Paris somewhat as a child of the arts, his mother, Simone Lane, was a dancer and his father, Leib Polnareff, a musician who played sideman under the name Léo Poll for many artists, including Edith Piaf. The two immersed young Polnareff in music, shaping his ambitions, so it is no surprise that he learned piano by the age of five and was writing music at 11. After a short stint in the French Army and a few menial jobs, Polnareff embraced his passions and busked the city streets with his guitar to moderate success. In 1965, he refused a recording contract with Barclay, a prize that he won in a songwriting contest, in one of his earliest displays of his now-famous aversion to conformity, but eventually signed to AZ under the direction of his new manager and Radio 1 musical director Lucien Morisse. “La Poupée Qui Fait Non” was released in the summer of 1966 and rocketed him up the charts not only in France, but in Germany, Britain, and Spain. The song was the first of a string of hits for Polnareff, but before long, the French press focused almost entirely on his garish stage presence. Being under the scrutiny of the conservative press didn’t seem to stop the hits, however, and Polnareff garnered praise from celebrities such as Charles Trenet, but the persistent criticisms weighed heavily on him. By 1970, his stage costumes had become more flamboyant. The French press began questioning his sexuality, and the constant controversy around the singer came to a head when he was physically assaulted while performing. Not surprisingly, Polnareff canceled the rest of his tour, and shortly afterward checked into a hospital for depression when he learned that Morisse, his manager, had committed suicide. After five months of treatment, Polnareff bounced back and resumed his hectic recording and touring schedule, but scandal soon followed when he ended up in court due to a campaign for his 1972 tour that was centered around publicity posters bearing Polnareff’s naked behind. Polnareff was found guilty of gross indecency and charged 60,000 francs. His touring continued through mid-1973 with stops in Polynesia and North America, but upon his return to France, Polnareff found his bank account had been drained by his financial advisor. Polnareff’s owed the French government was over one million francs in unpaid taxes, and with little money to his name, he fled to the United States. Unknown in a new country, he was safely out of the limelight and the reach of the French authorities. He spent more than a decade in the U.S. before he cleared up his monetary issues with the French government, and in the meantime he recorded for Atlantic and composed movie scores. Despite his absence from France, Polnareff’s new music remained present in French popular culture and continued to chart through the mid-’80s, until he removed himself entirely from the public eye and quietly returned to France to work on a new album. Kama Sutra finally appeared in the summer of 1990, and the album garnered three French hits. Polnareff remained in France for five more years before returning to the U.S. to perform at the Roxy in Los Angeles. Musical director and guitarist Dick Smith (Hampton Grease Band, Earth, Wind & Fire) executive-produced the ambitious Live at the Roxy, which achieved platinum certification in France. To mark this occasion, television channel Canal + ran a special, À la Recherche de Polnareff (“In Search of Polnareff”), in which he appeared in military uniform (thus resulting in the nickname “The Admiral”); he was interviewed in the California desert by Michel Denisot, and performed an acoustic mini-concert. Upon returning to France, he didn’t release another album for 20 years, instead choosing to spend his time becoming a father, and in relative seclusion working on various other projects. In 2004 and 2005, state television station France 3 broadcast a 90-minute documentary entitled Michel Polnareff Dévoilé. During those years, the artist’s music got a boost from unexpected sources. His tune “Voyages” was sampled for Necro’s single “Light My Fire,” as well the Shortwave Set’s “Is It Any Wonder?” In addition, Masher (L)SD sampled “Sous Quelle E’toile Suis Je Ne?” for the tune “Howards’ Thinking Clearly.” In 2014, he was the subject of another film documentary, Quand l’écran s’allume, that made the rounds of European cinemas. In December 2015, Polnareff announced that a new studio album would be forthcoming in summer 2016. To that end he issued the single “L’Homme en Rouge” as a pre-release. By the time the deadline date rolled around, Polnareff admitted the album was not yet completed. Instead, he released the concert offering, A L’Oympia 2016, followed by the compilation Polnabest. While the unfinished album continued to languish in 2017, Universal Music France issued the 23-disc Pop Rock en Stock, which contained his entire studio output balanced by a wealth of live material and rarities as a celebration of Polnareff’s 50th anniversary in music. ~ Gregory McIntosh