In the course of a career lasting just over 30 years, Dalida earned 45 gold record awards and a pair of platinum records for her sales in Europe, the Middle East, and Japan. A superstar in France and much of the rest of Europe, Dalida enjoyed hit records in three different decades, despite an increasingly troubled personal life after the early '60s.
She was born Yolande Gigliotti, the daughter of Italian parents living in Cairo. The family lived a comfortably middle-class life until the outbreak of the Second World War; Egypt came into the war on the side of the Allies and her father, because of his Italian nationality, spent four years in an internment camp. Yolande Gigliotti attended a religious school and studied stenography, intending to lead a nondescript life as an office worker — by the time she was 17, however, she had blossomed into a beautiful young woman, and began entering talent and beauty competitions. In 1954, the same year that she won the title of Miss Egypt, she made her first screen appearance in an Egyptian production entitled Sigarah Wa Kas, directed by Niazi Mostafa. She began using the name "Dalila," owing to her resemblance to Hedy Lamarr in the costume epic Samson and Delilah, and this was later in France altered to Dalida.
She left Egypt in 1955 to pursue a screen career in Paris. Dalida was cast in the film Le Masque de Toutankhamen, directed by Marco de Gastyne, but much more important to her career was a short singing stint that she took on in Paris. She accepted an offer to sing in the intermission between acts at a club, La Villa d'Este, where she was spotted by Bruno Coquatrix, a producer at the Olympia Theater, the largest performing venue in the city, where figures such as Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf had seen some of their greatest triumphs, and also by radio producer Lucien Morisse. The two took her under their wing, Coquatrix introducing her to the French public, while Morisse later married her. Record producer Eddie Barclay, a former jazz pianist, signed Dalida to a contract with his own Barclay label, and her second single, "Bambino" — which was also later a hit for the Springfields — became a huge hit in 1956. The following year, she was awarded a gold record for a million sales of the single in Europe. Her later hits included "Gondolier" (1957), "Come Prima 'Tu Me Donnes'" (1958), "Les Gitans" (1958), "Ciao Ciao Bambina" (1959), "Les Enfants du Piree" (1960), and "La Danse de Zorba" (1965), the latter a vocal version of the dance from the movie Zorba the Greek. From 1960 onward, her brother, billed simply as Orlando, oversaw her recordings as producer, and could take some credit for securing her continued success in the 1960s and beyond.
With the advent of the rock & roll era in the early '60s, Dalida adapted successfully to the new music, her recordings making use of a band with more of a beat, as she took on new material, including French versions of songs by the Drifters ("Garde-moi La Derniere Danse" etc.), the Kingston Trio ("Que Sont Devenues Les Fleurs" etc.), and others. By 1964, she'd sold an extraordinary 30 million records worldwide, though all of those sales were in the non-English speaking world, from the Middle East to Germany. Like her contemporary Petula Clark, whose career also made the jump from the 1950s to the 1960s, Dalida went through several transitions in image — from dark hair and makeup and elegant gowns in the mid-'50s, looking like an Italian Alma Cogan, into a striking blonde in revealing outfits and shorter skirts in the 1960s and beyond, so much so that it was difficult to believe that she was the same performer. She maintained a screen career as well, appearing in over a dozen movies in France and Italy from 1955 through the end of the 1960s, ranging from spy thrillers like Rapt Aux Deuxieme Bureau (1958) to frothy sex comedies such as Menage Italian Style (1965).
Beginning in 1956, Dalida was an object of fixation for the paparazzi, who could hardly shoot an unattractive picture of the leggy, well-endowed singer/actress. Between her twin singing and movie careers, she was linked professionally, personally, and romantically in the press to a succession of men (including actor Alain Delon and Eddie Barclay) before she married Lucien Morisse, but that marriage didn't last far into the 1960s. A heavy performing schedule, coupled with an unsettled romantic life, took their toll. The singer's life took a sudden dark turn, closer to that of Edith Piaf than to Petula Clark, when her then-current lover Luigi Tenco, a singer, killed himself at the 1967 San Remo Festival after failing to qualify for a spot on the program. Dalida, who found the body, made the first of several suicide attempts soon after. Following her recovery, she restarted her career in a slightly different direction, recording more serious and thoughtful songs — among the more notable of these was "Salwa wa Sala," which translates as "Safe and Sound," which was issued to celebrate the release of Egyptian POW's from the 1973 Yom Kippur War by the state of Israel.
Although no less a figure than Norman Granz, of Verve Records fame, was interested in bringing Dalida to the United States in 1958, it took her 21 years to make her American debut. On the eve of that debut, at Carnegie Hall in New York, writer Anthony Haden-Guest described her fandom, especially in France, as cult-like in its dedication, but non-existent in the United States, where she never charted a record. Since the 1970s, when she'd adapted to the disco boom (and released the pioneering French disco hit "J'attendrai"), she'd also acquired a significant gay audience in France, which was drawn to her outsized press image and also the angst surrounding her personal life.
Her ex-husband Lucien Morisse took his own life sometime after her attempt at suicide in the wake of Tenco's death, and Haden-Guest compared her to Judy Garland, though musically she was closer to Astrud Gilberto. Dalida's later involvement marriage to a man identified as the Count of St. Germain, who turned out not to be a count and also to prefer male companionship, only added to the picture of a personal life in turmoil and seemed to make her that much more alluring to her admirers. In the midst of this, she won the Oscar Mondial du Disque (World Oscar of Recording), a French award, to be sure, for her "Gigi L'Amoroso," beating out competitors that included Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night," and recorded a peace song, "Salma ya Salama," in Arabic, on the occasion of Egyptian president Sadat's peace summit with Israel. Dalida's career in the 1980s had slowed somewhat as she entered her fifties, looking at least a decade younger but no longer doing 200 engagements a year as she had in her prime.
In 1986, she returned to her native Egypt to make a film, The Sixth Day, with director Youssef Chahine, an old friend from her early career, in which she gave what the critics felt was a superb acting performance. She continued to make Paris her home, where she remained a huge concert draw during her final decade. On May 3, 1987, Dalida was found dead of an overdose of barbiturates, an apparent suicide at the age of 54. A significant cult still surrounded her in Europe more than a decade after her death — many millions more records have sold, there are several active websites and pages, and MCA-Universal, as the owners of Polygram Records (which controlled distribution on the Barclay label), has issued a three-CD box, La Legende, in France covering her life and career. ~ Bruce Eder