Disco legend France Joli exploded onto the music scene in 1979 at the age of 16 with her worldwide smash hit “Come to Me” which sold 3 million copies and has become a disco classic. The Montrealer was a young teen when her hometown’s famed disco scene produced many disco stars during its 1970s heyday. The scene’s epicentre was Montreal’s fabled Lime Light disco – which rivaled Studio 54 in New York City – on Stanley Street above where Chez Paree stands today.
Then on July 7, 1979, after Donna Summer cancelled, Joli became an “overnight success” when she performed at a legendary beach concert on Fire Island for 5,000 gay men now famously known as Beach ’79. Joli sang her signature song “Come to Me” which would chart at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart – then at No. 1 on the disco chart – and to this day the song is widely-known as “the definitive Fire Island dance classic.”
While Joli has never stopped performing for audiences the world over, her most recent Montreal concert was the packed “Québec Électrique: Montréal Discoville” event at the Paradoxe Theatre as part of the 2016 Red Bull Music Academy conference. Joli has continued to record over the years, and has just released her dance cover of “Heart of Stone” – the power ballad from the hit Broadway and West End musical Six – reimagined by Billboard Top Ten Club charting producer Joel Dickinson who has done official remixes for Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, Nile Rodgers, Kristine W. and C+C Music Factory.
Call it fate: the Minneapolis-based Dickinson was not only born the year Joli exploded onto the global music scene, but on the very day (July 7) she debuted “Come to Me” at Beach ’79 on Fire Island!
“The minute I was inspired to do a dance remix of this stunning ballad, I could think of one voice and one voice only to bring it to its full potential,” says Dickinson.
“I’m so thrilled France responded so strongly to my initial vision.”
I recently sat down with France for a candid Q&A about her storied career.
How did your cover of “Heart of Stone” come about?
Joel Dickinson fell in love with the song “Heart of Stone” when he saw the musical Six. Then Joel – who had done an extended mix of “Hallelujah” when I recorded it – reached out to me and said, “The only voice I hear for this song is yours.” This was during the COVID-19 pandemic, so Joel and I put our work in Dropbox and exchanged emails. I went to the studio to lay down my vocal right here in Montreal, then went to his home studio in Minneapolis where we sat down and exchanged ideas. He had a strong vision which I love and respect, and he had 100 per cent trust in my doing the vocals artistically the way I wanted to do them. We did the strings together, we co-produced the song, and it’s been released by Matt Consola’s Swishcraft Music dance label. I’m very happy with our new song!
You were just 12 in 1975 when you signed with your first manager, legendary musician and songwriter Lee Gagnon who now lives in New York.
Lee was one of most important persons in my life and is largely responsible for who I am today. He molded me. He didn’t just do extraordinary things for my career, he did extraordinary things for me as a human being. He taught me to walk in high heels, how to project myself, put me in singing and piano lessons. He did a lot of commercials back then and brought me into the studio where I did some commercials and learned a lot. He’s the one that brought me to New York for the first time because he wanted to record a song – I remember recording next to Peter Frampton at Electric Lady Studios. Lee was my mentor. He was always respectful and such a gentlemen. He was very important in my life and I’ve been thinking about him alot these days.
You then auditioned for producer Tony Green when you were 15.
I sang Barbara Streisand’s “Evergreen” and “Hopelessly Devoted To You” by Olivia Newton-John. I guess I impressed him because three days later “Come to Me” was written for me.
That classic No. 1 disco song was recorded in November 1978. What were the recording sessions like?
Tony Green allowed me to be in the studio when he was doing the drums and the guitar and the strings and the horns. I remember being totally amazed as the song was building. I thought, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this song was written for me and all these musicians are playing for me!” It was overwhelming. I also remember being in a very specific spirit when I recorded my vocal which I think shows on the record today. But what I remember most is the smiling. It was all a dream come true. I was there for the whole production and I really am grateful for that. The fact that I’m a producer today is because of that.
You famously debuted “Come to Me” at Beach ’79 on Fire Island. What do you remember about that weekend?
Again, I remember being overwhelmed because it was my first American performance and I was extremely nervous. I also remember being in awe of the gay community. It was my first time being exposed to the community and their incredible beauty – all these gay men free to be themselves, hugging and kissing. You didn’t see this much in the streets of New York, but you saw it on Fire Island. I felt a connection with the gay community right then and there.
Today “Come to Me” is known as THE Fire Island classic and you perform at Pride celebrations throughout North America. How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel special. Every year somebody calls me from Fire Island to do a show, and sometimes we can make it happen. I feel very privileged to be loved by the LGBTQ community. It’s been more than 40 years now!
In 2019 you returned to Fire Island where you were a featured panelist talking about and celebrating the 40th anniversary of Beach ’79 and the debut of your song.
It was great because I got to hear all of these wonderful stories about the creation of the event and I was able to share my stories too. Every time that something happens in relation to Beach ‘79 they always call me. It’s a history moment for them, and I’m part of their history. I felt really special that they invited me.
What does Pride mean to you?
It is a day of remembrance, protest and celebration. We’ve come a long way but there is still a lot of discrimination against LGBTQ people around the world. It’s important for me to be part of the solution, to help get more people involved and enact laws that better protect the LGBTQ community. It’s important to me. You know, I fell in love with that community. They are my family.
I cannot believe you have never performed at Montreal Pride. I fervently hope you will be invited to perform at Montreal Pride!
I hope so too. I’m sure it will happen one day. I’ll be there for the community if they want me.
Montréal’s Lime Light was a popular hangout for visiting celebrities like Alice Cooper, Rick James, Freddie Mercury, Kraftwerk, Elton John, David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Performers at the club included Gloria Gaynor, Grace Jones, Donna Summer, The Trammps, James Brown. You also headlined the Lime Light twice. What was it like to play there?
It was freaking awesome! I have a very vivid memory of the Lime Light when “Gonna Get Over You” came out in 1981, there was a lineup outside and the place was so full that people were hanging from the ceiling, on top of the speakers, from the railings, and the fire department came the place was so full! People were holding my records up in the air, they were dancing and screaming and I could feel the floor bounce, I thought it was going to collapse! In its heyday the Lime Light was THE place to be.
What is it like to headline disco revues with other disco legends?
We’re performers from the 70s and 80s who have survived all this time and still make a living from what we love to do. There is community and camaraderie. I’m doubly-excited when it’s a multi-act show because I get to see my peers and my friends. We exchange phone numbers and we take care of each other.
Why do you think disco remains important today?
It was about dancing and meeting people. It was a “Get down and boogie” kind of thing. The music still empowers you to be your authentic self. Disco is positive and joyous and uplifting. Even rockers appreciate disco music today!
How much do you love your hometown of Montreal?
I’ve had many opportunities to live in California, New York and Paris. But I adore Montreal. This city is my roots, the place to be, and I’ve never left.
You are a living legend and forever Montreal’s Queen of Disco.
It’s nice to be called a legend and I appreciate it, but for me, I just did my job. And I still do it the best that I can.
INFOS | France Joli’s “Heart of Stone” (Swishcraft Music) is available for worldwide download on Spotify, Apple Music, Qobuz, Beatport, and Amazon.