Henri Salvador, the last of his generation of crooners in France, declared numerous times that he would never retire, and he was true to his word. The French singer, credited with inventing the bossa-nova, may have put an end his stage career with a farewell concert in December, but at the time of his death in Paris at his home of a ruptured aneurysm, Salvador was preparing to record yet another album, according to his associates at Polydor records, his recording label.
President of France Nicolas Sarkozy expressed sadness at the passing of one of France’s greatest music icons. He placed Salvador’s music “at the crossroads of jazz, song and bossa nova, of Europe and the Americas” “For more than a half-century, Henri Salvador was the incarnation of the art of song ‘a la francaise,’” Sarkozy said in a statement.
This luminary of song in France was both French and something of an import, which would later add dimension to his music. And his life was as colorful as his French songs. Born in French Guyana in 1917 to a Hispanic father and a Carib Indian mother, Salvador arrived in Paris seven years later. A cousin introduced him to jazz when Salvador was 12 years old, and he taught himself the guitar listening to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. He learned fast: at 15 he was already playing in the Paris bars of Pigalle and touring France with the American violinist Eddy South. His big break came shortly afterwards.
When top jazz guitarist’s Django Reinhardt’s piano accompanist was drafted into the French army in 1935, Salvador, too young to be soldier, got to take his place. Salvador told stories of his days with Reinhard, remembering how after they had finished playing cabarets, they would head for an all-night bar and play with visiting American musicians. “Only later did I find out they were Ellington, Lester Young, Benny Carter,” said the French musician. “Imagine – I played with my heroes and never knew.”
Later enlisting in the French Army in 1937, Salvador was stationed east of Paris, but went AWOL every night to keep playing in the cafés. He managed to cross to the Free Zone in 1941, when he joined Ray Ventura’s orchestra. Ventura, a Jew, managed to get his musicians passports out of Vichy France, and they spent the rest of the war in Brazil.
Back in France after the war, Salvador was among the biggest names in chanson français, or The French Song, and traveled to New York to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, where later, a group called The Beatles was introduced to America. Salvador returned to France in 1956 bearing news of a musical earthquake. “No, please don’t say I introduced rock and roll to France,” he is known for protesting. “Blame Michel Legrand and Boris Vian.” Those two songwriters wrote for Salvador, who recorded what is known as the very first French rock song, Rock and Roll-Mops.
Salvador gave world music an even more far-reaching gift two years later when Salvador’s song Dans Mon île was heard on the soundtrack of an Italian film. In Brazil, Antonio Carlos Jobim was so inspired by its intricate rhythms and soft vocals that he created bossa nova. Years later, the Minister for Culture of Brazil arranged for the French Henri Salvador to be given the honorary title of ambassador for Brazilian music in France. “When I recorded that little tune, Dans Mon île, holed up in my apartment in Paris, I could never have imagined it would change musical history,” said Salvador, who always credited Jobim rather than himself with inventing Bossa Nova. “For me, it was an extraordinary stroke of luck – and a great honor.”
From the time he struck out on his own after World War II, Henri Salvador began a long and prolific career that would make history in France, both for its sheer volume as well as for the pungent mix of influences from France and its former French and African colonies He introduced the rhythms of French Guyana and Martinique to the French song.
In 1947, Henri Salvador released his first single, Maladie d’Amour(Love sick), a traditional Creole song. In 1949, he received the Great Prize of the Academy Charles Cros & played at the ABC, a Parisian music-hall. There he met Jacqueline, his first wife & agent, who would prove instrumental to Salvador’s career. The same year, he released Une Chanson Douce (A sweet song) that became a classic in France and all over Europe. Helped by his close friend and French songwriter Boris Vian, with whom he teamed up in the early ‘50s Henri Salvador wrote 400 popular French songs such as “Le Blouse Du Dentiste” (the dentist’s coat) and “Faut Rigoler” (You Gotta Laugh), a West Indian beguine. In 1964, he created his own label Rigolo, with songs like Zorro Est Arrivé, Syracuse, (his best-known International song), Le Travail C’est La Sante (Work is good health) and Juanita Banana. In 1988, he was made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, highest honor in France (comparable to knighthood), at the hand then President of France François Mitterrand.
Starting in the 1960s Salvador concentrated on television work. The French singer, previously more frequently heard than seen, quickly realized the power that visual accompaniment added to a song. His inspiration was not at first television but a French jukebox. In a 2005 interview, Salvador reminisced: “There was a company, Scopitone, who put machines in every bar. For a franc you could watch a video. You’ve just had a hard day at work, you want a drink, you want to be entertained. So I made 17 films to make people laugh.” . In the 1960s Salvador had a series of novelty chart-toppers such as “Juanita Banana”, “Twist SNCF” and “Minnie Petite Souris” (Minnie the little mouse), all of them accompanied by humorous film-clips and are now easy to view on the Internet. Told that the video for Juanita Banana was now on YouTube, Salvador was delighted and said he’d watch it as soon as he got home.
The Scopitone was a “Film Jukebox” invented in France in the early 1960′s made from surplus World War II airplane parts. The films that played on, known also by the name Scopitone, as considered by many to be the precursors of today’s music videos. That is why some people credit Henri Salvador to be the father of the music video, not only in France but all over the world as the form caught on.
In the 1970s another Salvador song would sweep the planet without the French singer’s participation and introduced to the American pre-K generation to a very popular French song. Salvador’s 1968 hit Mais non mais non was chanted by the Muppets on Sesame Street as Mahna Mahna. The 70s also saw Frenchman Salvador expand his fan base in France with a spate of children’s albums, including the French-language soundtracks of Disney’s “The Aristocats” and “Robin Hood.”
Henri Salvador never quit, and his popularity in France elsewhere never waned. Chambre Avec Vu (Room with a View), his album released in France in 2001 (when Salvador was 84) after a writing hiatus of six years, featured all-new material and dominated the Victories de la Musique award ceremonies, winning an award as “best variety album of the year” and earning Salvador the title of “best male artist of the year.” The Brazilian-influenced album, full of Salvador’s signature bossa-nova rhythms, was released in North America in 2005 and introduced many new listeners to Henri Salvador and his songs of France.
In 2006, Salvador came back again with another album, Révérence. Salvador left France to make this album, which would be his last, in Brazil, with songs recorded in Rio with Brazilian legends Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil.
Salvador was deeply influenced by the women in his life. His first wife, Jacqueline, who was also his manager, died of cancer in 1976. She played an essential role in his education. “When we got married, I didn’t know anything about anything,” he said. “I had no education. She taught me everything. She knew all about French literature. She showed me what books to read.” Salvador married for the third time, in December 2001, to TV producer Catherine Costa, who survives him.
Salvador put his longevity down to an innately sunny temperament. “When you are a little baby, everything is beautiful. Luckily with me that never changed,” Henri Salvador’s last farewell concert took place in December 2007 at Paris’ Palais Des Congrès. “We must know how to leave” he said. Many in the audience did not believe him, as Salvador had already announced his final concert at Paris’ Palais Des Congrès once before…in autumn 1985.
This time, however, the velvet voice of France was true to his word. His passing is being mourned all over France and the French-speaking world, not only by those who make music, but those who loved the music of Henri Salvador over more than 70 years.
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