Did you know that Alys Robi’s 100thth birthday will be celebrated very soon? Born on February 3, 1923 in the working-class neighborhood of Saint-Sauveur, in Quebec, the singer had a flamboyant destiny, punctuated with successes as well as dramas. This anniversary is a great opportunity to remember the defining moments of the one who was also called Lady Alys.
Place D' Youville, Old Quebec, winter 1943. We see the Capitol (which, at the time, was written without the final “e”), the Saint-Jean gate and a tramway.
Little Alice Robitaille quickly fell in love with the performing arts. If her mother sang in the parish choir, it was alongside her father that she made her debut as an artist around the age of 4. The latter having taken her to see a show at the Princess Theatre, she sneaks onto the stage and improvises a Charleston there, which earns her the applause of the public and… her first “contract” as an artist!
She also sings during the interludes of wrestling matches in which her father participates, and participates in several amateur competitions, including the Catelli Young Talents which takes place live on the radio.
Even before she was 10 years old, she was a regular guest at CHRC and appeared on the boards of various performance halls in Quebec, including the Imperial and the Capitol Theater. His fees, managed by his father, are used to support his family and to pay for his lessons in tap dancing, music theory, diction and singing.
Heading for the metropolis< /h3>A warm smile, an engaging attitude and a sparkling look: Alys Robi knows how to make friends and win many hearts!
Knowing that the metropolis offers more professional possibilities and having been promised a place in the variety show of Rose Ouellet (La Poune), the young girl was only 12 years old when she packed her suitcase to move to Montreal.
The one who now calls herself Alys Robi rubs shoulders with the big names of the Quebec cultural scene, including Jean Grimaldi, Olivier Guimond son (who becomes her lover), Juliette Petrie, Gratien Gélinas and many others.
< p>From 1935 to 1942, she toured throughout Quebec with them. Deep bonds of friendship would bind her all her life to this artistic “family”.
And suddenly, success
Alys Robi at the recording of the “Tourbillon de la Gaieté” radio broadcast at CKAC on November 19, 1943.
In 1939, when the Second World War broke out, Alys Robi signed a contract to regularly participate in the radio program La Veillée duSaturday Soir. His radio successes earned him engagements in the most popular nightclubs in the metropolis. It was in this context that she met the conductor Lucio Agostini, who created her musical arrangements and became her companion.
Alys Robi during the radio program “Revoir Paris”, April 19, 1945.
Alys Robi was not yet 20 when her play Tico-Tico(recorded in 1942) propelled her to stardom in popular song. The young star goes on radio shows (including Revoir Paris), recording sessions and shows. Critics praise his voice, his dynamism and his charisma.
An international artist
Alys Robi in the 1940s.
In the Quebec of the 1940s, it was rare for female artists to work internationally: those best known to the public here had an essentially local reputation. If we have had a few lyrical artists who have distinguished themselves elsewhere (think in particular of the singer Emma Albani), no popular singer has yet really won over American and European audiences. Alys Robi must therefore “invent” his own international career, without having a model. Also fluent in English and Spanish, the artist translates her songs herself.
The LaFlèche trophy received in 1944 by Alys Robi.
Thanks to Lucio Agostini's many contacts, she travels a lot and performs in cabarets in France, England, Mexico, Brazil and the United States. In 1944, she won two LaFlèche trophies, awarded to the most popular singer of the English channel CBC and the most popular singer of the French channel Radio-Canada.
From radio to TV
From the BBC studios in London, Alys Robi took part in the very first program broadcast worldwide by British television in 1947.
Alys Robi is an artist perfectly in tune with her time. If radio is the medium that propels her, both in French and English Canada, she does not hesitate to take the television turn that takes place from the 1930s and 1940s, especially in Europe. Remember that the first television station in Quebec, the Société Radio-Canada, did not go on the air until September 6, 1952.
Back to basics
“Alys Robi received by the mayor”, L'Action catholique, Tuesday, February 4, 1947, p.8.
Despite his immense success, both internationally and on the radio, Alys Robi never forgets his origins. The singer is happy to return regularly to Quebec.
In February 1947, while performing at the Capitol Theater, she was received with great fanfare at City Hall. Several dignitaries and public figures are present, as well as people close to the artist. In the photo above, we can see (from left to right): Henri-Paul Drouin, MP for Québec-Est; J. Matte, alderman; F.-E. DeRouin, manager of Alys; A. Drolet, alderman; Mayor Lucien Borne; Alys Robi; Napoleon Robitaille, father of Alys; the Honorable Pierre Bertrand; Odilon LeChasseur, jeweler and organizer of the Jewelers of Canada Congress; R. Beaulieu, Chief of the Quebec Fire Department; Paul Vallière, manager of the Capitol; Théo Genest, director of the Palais Montcalm.
Hard to please everyone
Alys Robi in full glory in the mid-1940s.
Even at the height of glory, Alys Robi is not unanimous. Some criticize him for favoring the English-speaking and especially Spanish-speaking repertoire to the detriment of plays in French. It is true that she forsakes the French chansonnette a little to interpret dynamic pieces drawn from the Latin American repertoire, such as Amor amor, Besame mucho, Chica chica boom chic, Brazilianand many more.
Reviews from the late 1940s even claim that she is a bit too American to still be truly Canadian… Apparently some things don't change!
Descent into Hell
Advertisement in Catholic Action, Tuesday, November 18, 1952, p. 12.
In 1948, Alys Robi's career came to an abrupt end. While she is in the United States and has just signed with Metro Goldwyn-Mayer to play in a musical, a car accident inflicts a concussion on her, which is soon doubled by a severe depression. After being hospitalized for some time in Los Angeles, she returned to Quebec.
She was admitted to the Saint-Michel-Archange hospital, a psychiatric asylum in the region of Quebec, where she notably received electroshocks and a lobotomy… “treatments” which are surprising today, but which are then part of the psychiatric arsenal of the time.
After almost five years away from the stages, Alys Robi misses the public. She attempted a live performance in 1952, but suffered from confusion and memory problems, forgetting the words to her songs (even her greatest hits) or not singing the same piece as the orchestra. The singer must endure the astonished looks or, even worse, the mockery of certain critics.
In addition, her songs have gone out of fashion. If she perseveres, learning a new repertoire and getting back on stage, she will not however regain her former glory. The old star is reduced to performing in sponsored events…
Like the reed of the fable, it bends, but does not break
Performance by Alys Robi as part of the “Nuits de Montréal” at Club Soda, December 18, 1984. The singer holds two maracas in her right hand, revealing that the piece performed is undoubtedly one of her hits with a Latin flavor. American.
With tenacity and determination, Alys Robi pursues the path she has chosen. She participates in various recitals, performs at social events and manages to be remembered. In 1985, she was awarded the Medal of the Order of Malta. The one to whom we will now address by using the name of “lady Alys” returned to the studio and, in 1989, launched the album Let me still sing.
Her course rich in twists and turns also inspires creators and arouses praise. In 1979, Diane Dufresne sang Alys in cinemascope, while a play, Souriez, mademoiselle Roby, was created at the end of the 1980s.
Alys Robi herself recounted her tumultuous life twice, first in her autobiography Un long cri dans la nuit. 5 years in the asylum published in 1990, then in a second biography, Fleur d'Alys, written by Jean Beaunoyer and published in 1994.
Plaque presented by Editions Edimag to Lady Alys Robi on February 5, 1991 for the success of her book “Un long cri dans la nuit. 5 years in the asylum”, listed among the best sellers in bookstores in Quebec.
New generations are rediscovering it, somewhat reviving the old glory of yesteryear. His life also inspired a television series presented on TVA in 1995, the film Ma vie en cinemascopein 2004, then a musical review in 2005.
For his contribution to the influence of the French language, Alys Robi was named Chevalier de La Pléiade during a ceremony at the Château Frontenac on April 21, 2005.
A rich cultural and artistic legacy
Mantis by Alys Robi, around 1978.
Alys Robi left us on May 28, 2011, at the age of 88, leaving behind the artistic colony and many admirers of all ages. What legacy did she leave? A commemorative plaque has been installed on his childhood home in Quebec City and two parks, one in Montreal, the other in Quebec City, have been named in his honor.
Various objects having belonged were donated to the Musée de la civilisation. A new biography, signed Chantal Ringuet, was published by Éditions Québec Amérique in the fall of 2021.
130 m² fresco on one of the exterior walls of the Cabaret Lion d'Or, in Montreal, created by Rupert Bottenberg and William Daniel Buller.
With her marketing savvy, Alys Robi would certainly have taken advantage of popular platforms like Instagram and TikTok! She will be in the spotlight next summer, as part of the 6th Rendez-vous d'histoire de Québec, when her 100th birthday will be celebrated with the brilliance it deserves.
A text prepared by Catherine Ferland, historian, for the Rendez-vous d'histoire de Québec.
- The 6< /strong>e Rendez-vous d'histoire de Québec will be back from August 9 to 13, 2023! Until then, discover or rediscover the hundred or so conferences from previous editions for free on our YouTube channel and follow us on Facebook. More info at rvhqc.com.