When Québécois singer France Joli decided to record a dance-music version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, she was in the midst of singing it at her father’s funeral. While she belted the song a cappella, Joli felt a higher power was urging her to slap some bass on Cohen’s sombre classic and give it a full-on mirror-ball makeover. “I’m not religious, and I know this sounds crazy, but I was called on to do this,” the 49 year old says via phone from her home in Montreal. “I didn’t care about what any of the music purists had to say. I felt like my father was telling me to take [Cohen’s] music and put a beat to its beautiful melody. It was destiny that made me give this song to the dance floor.”
To fulfil that destiny, Joli—who had a bout of mainstream success as a disco diva in the late ’70s—released a six-track remix EP for Hallelujah this past January. She debuted her house-music version of Hallelujah on an all-gay party cruise to Haiti. “The first night the ship set sail, I sang Hallelujah at midnight in front of 5,000 dancing gay men. I think there were two women on the boat,” she says wistfully. “It was just like old times.”
And what times they were. Joli’s 1979 Billboard top 10 hit Come to Me was such a massive success for her that she was frequently invited to perform at Studio 54 (“Liza Minnelli used to come backstage to congratulate me”) and got to work with legendary Italian electronic music producer Giorgio Moroder, the talent behind Donna Summer’s best work and the man credited with creating era-defining soundtrack hits for films such as Flashdance and Top Gun.
After disco’s popularity dropped, Joli was still able to keep her calendar booked with nostalgic party events and French-language telethons (Céline Dion was once billed as her opening act). But her star never rose as high again, even though Joli shared management with a team that represented Michael Jackson (“He sang Come to Me in my ear on the set for the Beat It video. I dreamed I was marrying him for the next three years!”) and Madonna, who Joli says came to see her every time she played at the ’80s New York City club the Funhouse: “When I met her, I thought she was a snob, but her producer told me she was just star-struck.”
Joli’s new release mines a vein that has been lucrative for her. Her first big gig was a show on New York’s Fire Island, then the party hot spot for gay men. Donna Summer was set to headline but ended up pulling out, so Joli—who was only 15—was asked to fill in. Unlike Summer, Joli only had one song to her name, the lush, string-laden Come to Me, which was getting play at some of the cooler New York and Montreal discotheques. Less than two months after the show, the song was at the top of the Billboard dance charts.
Toronto’s Jamie Kastner, director of the upcoming documentary The Secret Disco Revolution, says the ties Joli made with the gay community in the ’70s are still crucial today. “With the advent of gay Pride events, many promoters hire divas from that time—disco singers who are gay-friendly and have an easily identifiable hit. So people like France Joli and Thelma Houston have been able to literally live off one song and one type of event.”
It’s just as true that Joli has had to live off one song. After Come to Me hit the charts, she turned out six studio albums, hoping to repeat her success. “None of my albums really represented me,” she says. Now Joli has put the finishing touches on new covers of Love to Love You Baby and This Time I Know It’s for Real for a Donna Summer tribute album slated for release in the spring. Michael Chernow, the album’s producer, says Joli’s vocals are simply better suited to the boogie. “She has a smokiness to her voice that puts her up there with dance-music legends like Linda Clifford and Gloria Gaynor,” he says. “The kind of soul she can deliver is the reason why people will never forget about the power of disco.”