Etienne Roda-Gil

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The songwriter whose oeuvre arguably best defines the French nouvelle chanson, Etienne Roda-Gil was born August 1, 1941, in Montauban, France, the product of a family of Spanish Republicans forced to…
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The songwriter whose oeuvre arguably best defines the French nouvelle chanson, Etienne Roda-Gil was born August 1, 1941, in Montauban, France, the product of a family of Spanish Republicans forced to flee their homeland by the rise of Francisco Franco and his fascist death squads. His father's ardent belief in Communist values and his mother's great love of tango music proved equally formidable forces in the young Roda-Gil's development, although as a student at Paris' prestigious Henri-IV Lycée he announced his intentions to pursue a career in teaching. In 1959 he was called to serve in the Algerian conflict but refused to fight, seeking refuge in London and spending the next nine years immersing himself in the city's bohemian counterculture. Roda-Gil returned to Paris in 1968, working odd jobs and haunting a student café, L'Ecritoire, on the Place de la Sorbonne. There he met 20-year-old student and aspiring musician Julien Clerc, who asked Roda-Gil to add lyrics to one of his original melodies -- the result was "La Cavallerie," a sardonic protest song that made Clerc an overnight superstar and emerged as one of the anthems of the 1968 student rebellions. The Clerc/Roda-Gil collaboration would become one of the most successful in French pop, generating a series of classic hits including "La Californie," "Ce N'est Rien," "Si On Chantait," "Le Patineur," "This Melody," "Elle Voulait Qu'on l'Appelle Venise," "Ça Fait Pleurer le Bon Dieu," and "Utile." Such was Clerc's fame that Roda-Gil became a household name in his own right, and he soon began writing for other performers, including Mort Shuman's 1972 hit "Lac Majeur" and Claude François' "Magnolias Forever." Over time his relationship with Clerc grew strained, as the singer publicly complained that he was tired of fans asking him to explain Roda-Gil's complex, often polemical lyrics -- ultimately, they did not speak for close to two decades, until Clerc declared a truce by attending the funeral of Roda-Gil's wife Nadine in 1997. In the interim Roda-Gil authored hits including Angelo Branduardi's 1979 smash "Le Seigneur des Baux" and Richard Cocciante's 1983 effort "Sincérité" in addition to trying his hand at stage musicals, beginning with 1979's 36 Front Populaire. Off and on for about a dozen years, he also collaborated with Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters on a never-finished rock opera based on the events of the French Revolution that they intended to premiere during the landmark event's 1989 bicentennial. In 1987 Roda-Gil was asked to write for the 14-year-old ingénue Vanessa Paradis, resulting in the worldwide smash "Joe Le Taxi"; he went on to write her hits "Marilyn et John" and "Maxou." In 1989, he composed Mirador, a full-length album for Johnny Hallyday, and four years later helmed Gréco, the comeback album that revitalized the career of Juliette Gréco after a seven-year absence from the spotlight. A recluse in the final years of his life, Roda-Gil died of a stroke on May 30, 2004 -- his death was front-page news in France, where even President Jacques Chirac commemorated the passing of a "songwriting genius."