Good fortune smiled on the former St. Boniface chanteuse Lucille Starr when her bilingual single The French Song sold an unprecedented one million copies in 1964, a time when the Beatles and Elvis ruled the pop music charts.
But it was her bad luck to have a personal life that played out like one of those classic country hurtin' songs -- her no-good, cheatin' husband made sure she never saw a cent of the proceeds of the international chart-topper, battered her continually and did his best to kill her burgeoning career.
The fact that for most of her marriage to Bob Regan the pair performed together as the Canadian Sweethearts is painfully ironic, a joke she had a hard time seeing the humour in at the time.
"He was choking the tar out of me," she says. "Some sweetheart."
Today Starr can make light of it because it was her sense of humour that saw her through the brutal years of mental, physical and financial abuse. All the highs and lows are chronicled in her musical biography, Back To You: The Life and Music of Lucille Starr, opening Thursday at Prairie Theatre Exchange in her old hometown.
Today Starr lives in Las Vegas in what she calls "damn near" a mansion with her second husband of 32 years and still occasionally hits the road, where she is always expected to use that distinctive vibrato voice to sing The French Song -- a.k.a. Quand le Soleil Dit Bonjour aux Montagnes (When the Sun Says Hello to the Mountains) -- once again. When the 72-year-old, who was known as Lucille Marie Raymonde Savoie when she used to live on rue Langevin across the Red River, considers her eventful life, she says not even marital cruelty can kill the ecstasy of being onstage in front of an audience.
"Oh, yeah, it was worth it," she says over the telephone in her feisty, forthright way. "I went through a living hell but I loved music that much. I wouldn't change anything. Well maybe I would have cut my first marriage a whole lot shorter."
Becoming a star was a raison d'etre for the French-Canadian. A teenage slight aimed at her and her beloved mother and father became an obsession that had to be proved wrong and she never forgot.
After leaving Winnipeg with her parents at the age of six, Savoie settled in the British Columbia francophone community of Millardville near Coquitlam, where she would eventually have a street named after her. At 15, her crush on a local boy went unrequited because his parents considered her the daughter of a lowly millworker from the wrong side of the tracks.
"I swore then, 'I will be somebody,'" says the woman who changed her name to Starr because that's what she intended to be. "I don't give a damn what it takes, that woman is going to take it back.
"Whenever I got hit and things were bad I would remember what Madame Beaudoin said. That would give me courage."
The French Song broke big first in Canada -- where she became the first female singer to earn a gold record -- and swept to the top of the charts in countries including The Netherlands and South Africa. The album sold five million units. Back in Millardville, Madame Beaudoin became especially friendly with Starr's folks.
"When I was inducted (as the first woman) into the Canadian Country Music Association Hall of Honour (in 1987) I stood there and thought, 'I don't know where you are, Mrs. Beaudoin, but stay the hell off my street.'"
Much of her married life to the now-deceased Regan offered proof to the old adage that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Seeing her life laid out for all to see in Back To You by Vancouver playwright Tracey Power when it premièred in 2009 in Coquitlam was not pleasant.
"It was like sneaking into somebody's backyard and looking in the house through the window," says Starr, who flew to Vancouver for the opening. "It felt like I was watching the life of somebody else. When I got home I cried for two weeks."
Although Starr was somewhat dubious when Power first approached her about dramatizing her life, she didn't hold back the truth.
"There's nothing made up," says Starr who was inducted into the Manitoba Aboriginal Hall of Fame in 2005, though she is not aboriginal. "You are going to see how wicked some of -- there's no other way to put it -- the damn things were that were done to me by my first husband."
The two started out as Bob and Lucille, playing primarily around Canada and California. One night when the MC of a Los Angeles concert forgot their names, he introduced them as the Canadian Sweethearts, a moniker they performed under from 1956 to 1967. They were signed in 1963 to the fledgling A&M Records, at a time when the label had one secretary with a typewriter, "and they owed money on that typewriter," recalls Starr, who is adamant about remaining a Canadian citizen, although she has lived in the United States since 1956. She inked a solo contract as well as a duo contract. Herb Alpert, the A in A&M, produced The French Song.
The controlling Regan was jealous of her success and kept her in line by threatening to take her son, Bob Frederickson (a guitarist who later played in a late Buffalo Springfield lineup), away from her.
As the fat record sales rolled in, Starr was kept in the dark about the size of her bank account.
"When I asked him how much money I had, he'd beat the hell out of me," she says. "He'd tell everyone it was the Canadian Sweethearts making the money. If that was true, my mother asked, why was Lucille was getting all the gold records?"
She took to drinking to dull the pain from the beatings. Starr left Regan once their son was an adult, restarted her career and now is working on her autobiography that might be called Rising Starr.
"God seems just to give me what I need."
Back To You: The Life and Music of Lucille Starr opens Thursday and runs to Nov. 28 at Prairie Theatre Exchange, third floor of Portage Place. Tickets $25-$42 at 942-5483.