Gillian Hills was the first girl pop singer in Europe. Mark Sullivan looks at her short but historic career.
Fifty-five years ago this month, in June 1960, a 16-year old English girl was in a recording studio in Paris. Gillian Hills was the first female singer in Europe to record pop and rock as we know it today. Until 1960, rock & roll and other styles such as skiffle were all-male. Even in the USA there were few female pop singers in the Fifties, Brenda Lee being the best-known.
At the time that Cliff Richard was the top British star in 1958-60, the ‘New Musical Express’ readers were voting for the old-style Alma Cogan as ‘Outstanding British Female Singer’ each year. In France, singers were either in the chanson tradition (Piaf, Juliette Gréco, Barbara) or ‘Variétés’ (Line Renaud).
Johnny Hallyday has explained in this interview how he was the first rock singer in France. Gillian Hills is his female equivalent.
Gillian Hills has an exotic parentage. Her father was Denis Hills, a British adventurer and soldier with a dramatic life, as his 2004 obituary shows.
Her mother, Danila, was the daughter of Boleslaw Lesmian, a leading Polish poet (1877-1937) and part of the pre-1939 Polish intelligentsia. They escaped from Poland to the Middle East. Gillian Hills was born in Cairo on 5 June 1944 while her father was fighting in the Italian campaign. The marriage didn’t last and her mother moved with her to France. In 1958 she was attending a lycée in Nice, as the only ‘anglaise’. As the photo on her own website under ‘Bio’ shows, she looked then nearer 20 than 14 and was successfully modelling herself on Brigitte Bardot. She auditioned for and was picked by Roger Vadim for the role of Cecile de Volanges in a modern-day version of ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’.
The tabloid-press publicity led Vadim to cast her only in a smaller part, but the school regarded her as a dangerous influence and asked her to leave! She never attended school again, and in 1959 she was cast as the teenage lead in the first British rock-and-roll film, ‘Beat Girl’ alongside Adam Faith, then 18. She is prominent in the opening credits here and writes about it on her website Gillianhills.com – click on ‘Film’.
Bilingual, Gillian Hills was picked up not by a UK record company, but by the French producer Eddie Barclay. She made her first singles in 1960, starting with ‘Cha-cha stop’.
Her best early song, the recording that she is most proud of (it plays over her website) http://www.gillianhills.com is ‘Zou bisou bisou’ (1961).
The éclat of her appearance on the scene is shown in the films of her performances, which were mostly of versions of American songs. An excellent example is ‘Qui aurait dit ça’, on TV in April 1962. She reverts to the English ‘Talking about you’ at the end. A very good version is from Italian TV here.
Her website Gillianhills.com under ‘Music’ has links to her best songs, with her recollections of Eddie Barclay, Daniel Filipacci and Johnny Hallyday. She is the only Briton who worked with them all, so these are unique.
Gillian Hills’s dominance of the new pop in France did not last long. In 1961, Filipacci found a new, French, star, Sylvie Vartan, whose rise to fame is described on this blog on her 70th birthday in August 2014.
Sylvie was very similar to Gillian – blonde and good at the twist – but she followed the new American casual dress adopted by Jean Seberg in ‘A bout de souffle’ (cropped hair and slacks), not that of Bardot. And then in Autumn 1962 Françoise Hardy entered the scene, with both a music that brought together chanson and Anglophone influences, and a whole new look. Françoise pushed out the Bardot late-Fifties style that Gillian Hills had developed for herself.
Gillian did well for a bit longer: see her duet with Serge Gainsbourg in 1963, ‘Une petite tasse d’anxiété’.
‘Avec toi’, also 1963, shows her in classic yé-yé style, the clarity of her words for us Anglophones reflecting her partly English upbringing.
In 1965 showed that she could draw on the new British pop sound with ‘Rien n’est changé’ and perhaps her best song of all, ‘Rentre sans moi’. She created this from the Zombies classic ‘Leave me be’ (the original is here).
But yé-yé was now a crowded field. She probably lost out by not being in Daniel Filipacci’s ‘Salut les Copains’ stable of artists. She sought to enter the British pop scene. However, it was already dominated by well-known stars – Helen Shapiro, Cilla Black, Dusty Springfield and others left little room. Gillian Hills made just one single, with an almost-perfect self-penned song in English, ‘Tomorrow is another day’ (1965).
At just 21, she closed her pop career and turned to films full-time. Her best-known part is as one of the two girls in the famous ‘fight scene’ with David Hemmings in Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up’ made in 1966. The other girl was of course Jane Birkin. Unfortunately the blonde Gillian was made to go brunette for the film, so she was barely recognisable among the galaxy of stars in that cult production.
Gillian Hills also had a cameo part in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971), which she discusses here.
The film was withdrawn for many years by Kubrick because of criticism of its violence. She had parts in TV series and other films but was never well-known in Britain and retired in 1975. She married Stewart Thomas, who has managed several bands (including AC/DC, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Foreigner), so remains connected to the music industry. She turned for a professional career to using her artistic skills as a book illustrator.
When the American TV series ‘Mad Men’ featured ‘Zou bisou bisou’ in its fifth series in 2012, Gillian Hills was briefly in the media as the first to record it. The ‘Daily Mail’ said that she had been a ‘teen Bardot lookalike’.
Jessica Paré’s rather famous interpretation is here and her recorded track is here.
Gillian Hills’s short, mercurial career and the fact that it was divided between two countries and languages mean that that she is almost forgotten today. The 2004 obituaries of her father say nothing at all about his more famous daughter. Yet the songs and film clips offered here show that she deserves a place in British and French social history of the late Fifties and Sixties. And perhaps ‘Tomorrow is another day’ deserves a new interpretation. Could Coeur de Pirate, who like Gillian is blond, bilingual and does not sound the same in English as in French (to quote Béatrice Martin herself) revive some Gillian Hills songs? She’s a musician of today who could do justice to the legacy of one of the world’s first pop stars.
A Gillian Hills Discography is here.