One of the biggest stars of French music was an American Jew who remains comparatively unknown in the country of his birth. As a child of the Hollywood Blacklist and a refugee from McCarthyism, Joe Dassin traveled the opposite way to typical 20th century immigration. Fleeing political persecution in America for Europe, he went from being a Jewish kid in New York to a pop star in France.
Even now, more than 30 years after his death, Joe Dassin is a major figure in the history of French popular music. Although he was never a star in the United States, the country of his and his parents’ birth, Dassin enjoyed success in many countries around the world. Even today no French high school disco or drunken Parisian karaoke session would be complete without his 1969 smash hit “Les Champs-Élysées.”
Born in New York in 1938, Joseph Ira Dassin was the son of a classical violinist mother, Béatrice, and a father, Jules, obsessed with cinema. After a short career as an actor and an assistant to Alfred Hitchcock, Jules Dassin became a film director. As his career developed, the family relocated to Los Angeles in 1940. There, Joe grew up in a “cocoon” insulated by his parents’ love along with his two sisters, even as America was attacked at Pearl Harbor and entered World War II. But it was after the Second World War that the Dassins’ lives would be turned upside down.
After the Yalta Agreement was signed, the western world moved from world war to cold war, and turned its attentions east from Germany to the USSR. There was no longer a war between fascism and freedom; now it was communism versus capitalism. And the Dassins were accused of being on the wrong side in this battle, which consumed a postwar America in which Senator Joe McCarthy hunted suspected Communists with almost-totalitarian conviction.
Hollywood—where many liberal Jews worked, but like any other business where making money was and remains paramount—was terrified. The last thing the movie business needed was to be accused of being anti-American. So the industry employed a practice of not hiring anyone suspected—or sometimes just accused—of being a member of the American Communist Party. This became known as the Hollywood Blacklist.
One of the more prominent victims of the Hollywood Blacklist was Joe’s father Jules Dassin. He had briefly been a Communist, only to leave the party in 1939, but when the filmmakers Edward Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle named him to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, the Dassin family was forced to leave the United States in order for Jules Dassin to find work.
Joe Dassin was 12 years old when his family moved to France. While his parents moved into an apartment in Paris, Joe was sent to expensive schools in Switzerland. (Of course Swiss private schools are not often synonymous with Communism). His education was as chic as it was costly, and Dassin studied alongside a jetset crowd of European heirs and heiresses. By the age of 16, he spoke three languages fluently and graduated with top grades.
Dassin’s parents separated in 1955. In the wake of their breakup Joe decided to rediscover his American roots, returning to the United States for college. When Dassin arrived as a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Elvis Presley was popularizing rock ‘n’ roll among white Americans. But despite the rise of this new style of popular music, Dassin, who lived with two French-speaking European roommates, was more interested in French folk tunes. Armed only with a guitar and the youthful conviction that somehow this would catch on, Dassin and his French roommate performed the songs of Georges Brassens to what one suspects must have been rather chilly Michigan crowds. Although a Jew, a religion that does not proselytize, Dassin served as an unofficial student cultural attaché trying to export his adopted country’s poetry and folk music to the nation of his birth.
It’s unclear how successful Dassin was. But suffice to say, he is far better known in France than in America. After gaining both an undergraduate and Master’s degree in Michigan, Dassin returned to Europe. He worked for his father for a while, before getting his big break in 1964. When a female friend was hired as a secretary at the offices of Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in Paris’ tenth arrondissement, she introduced Dassin to a recorder who agreed to commit his work to vinyl. He was 26 and his voice was recorded to vinyl; now all he needed was someone to listen. Fortunately his girlfriend was as industrious as she was convinced of his talents and persuaded a CBS executive to listen to the recording. It worked. Joe Dassin became the first French artist signed to CBS records, indeed the first French resident signed to any American label.
Between 1965 and 1969, Dassin recorded a few albums to varying degrees of success but nothing achieved the success of his international hit “Les Champs-Élysées” in 1969 (the same year he met his hero Brassens). The song is an anthem in France, and known around the world. But there’s something almost audacious, arguably chutzpahdik, about an American writing the ultimate ode to the most famous street in France, rather like a Belorussian writing “God Bless America” (Irving Berlin). In the two-minute track, Dassin pays homage to Paris’s mist celebrated avenue, singing that, “On the Champs-Elysées, on the Champs-Elysées/ In the sun or in the rain, a midday or at midnight/ there’s everything you could want on the Champs-Elysées (Aux Champs-Elysées, aux Champs-Elysées/Au soleil, sous la pluie, à midi ou à minuit/ Il y a tout ce que vous voulez aux Champs-Elysées).”
On the back of his success with “Les Champs-Elysées,” Dassin became a fixture at the top of the French charts in the 1970s. But he was blighted by health problems, and perhaps as a result of adopting his adopted homeland’s stereotypical habit of smoking, Dassin had a series of heart attacks throughout the 70s. His fifth and final heart attack came while he was on holiday in the French Polynesian island of Tahiti in the summer of 1980, when Dassin died at the age of just 41.
It is now almost 34 years since his death, but Joe Dassin remains one of the highest-selling musicians in France. Today, the American Jew forced into exile remains a French superstar.