Gilbert Bécaud

Born : 24/10/1927 in Toulon (France)
Dead : 18/12/2001 in Paris (France)
Country : France
Language : French
Category : Composer / Male Artist / Songwriter
Style of music : Chanson

Gilbert Bécaud - the legendary "Monsieur 100,000 volts" of the French music world - rose to fame in the 50s and enjoyed a successful career spanning more than 40 years before he passed away in December 2001. One of the most popular music French stars of all time, Bécaud performed at the Olympia music hall in Paris no less than 33 times!

Gilbert Bécaud - the legendary "Monsieur 100,000 volts" of the French music world - rose to fame in the 50s and enjoyed a successful career spanning more than 40 years before he passed away in December 2001. One of the most popular music French stars of all time, Bécaud performed at the Olympia music hall in Paris no less than 33 times!

François Silly, better known to French music fans as Gilbert Bécaud, was born in Toulon, a lively port on the Mediterranean coast on 24 October 1927. François had a relatively happy upbringing, despite the fact that his father abandoned the family while François was still in early childhood. Madame Silly’s new partner, Louis Bécaud, raised François, Jean and Odette as his own children, although he was never able to marry their mother (her first husband steadfastly refusing to consent to a divorce).

François developed a great passion for music at an early age and soon proved to be something of a child prodigy on the piano. By the age of 9 the talented youngster had earn himself a place at the Nice Conservatoire where he would continue his studies right up until 1942 when his family left Toulon because of the war. François’s mother, better known to her family as Mamico, was particularly encouraging about her youngest son’s musical career, not hesitating to give up her own projects so that François could study in the best possible conditions. In 1943 François’s elder brother Jean, who was involved in the Resistance movement in the Vercors region, encouraged his family to move to Albertville in Savoie. Shortly after moving to the region François joined his brother in his Resistance work.

When the war was over the family settled in Paris and François, who had just turned 20, soon found work on the local bar and cabaret circuit as a pianist. It was around this time that François also began writing music for films under the pseudonym François Bécaud. He officially registered his name with the SACEM (the French Copyright Association of Songwriters and Composers) for the first time in 1947. The young pianist would gradually become involved with the world of French chanson after his encounter with the songwriter Maurice Vidalin.

Then in 1948 François began writing material for the French singer Marie Bizet who introduced him to another young songwriter by the name of Pierre Delanoë. Vidalin, Delanoë and Bécaud went on to become extremely close friends and the young trio soon became one of the most successful songwriting teams of the day, penning countless hits in the late 40’s/ early 50’s.

He meets Edith Piaf

In 1950 Marie Bizet introduced Bécaud to Jacques Pills, a well-known singing star of the day. The pair hit it off immediately and Pills invited Bécaud to tour with him as his pianist. Bécaud accepted and accompanied Pills on a long series of successful international tours, many of which took him to the U.S.A. It was on one of Pills’s American tours that Bécaud would get to meet the French star Edith Piaf, a singer whom both Bécaud and Pills longed to write for. The pair thus put their heads together and came up with "Je t'ai dans la peau", a song which Piaf immediately fell in love with and made into a huge international hit. Shortly after this fateful encounter, Edith Piaf and Jacques Pills got married. Bécaud’s collaboration with Pills came to an end, but the pair’s friendship was not to be broken so easily - Bécaud would go on to become Edith Piaf’s manager instead of her husband’s pianist.

In 1952 François officially adopted his new stage name, Gilbert Bécaud. It was also around this time that the singer began to forge his legendary image, sporting the famous spotted tie which would appear around his neck at every single concert throughout the rest of his career.

Later that same year Bécaud would meet Louis Amade (who went on to become one of the singer’s most loyal songwriters, alongside Vidalin and Delanoë). Amade, a high-ranking official in the French civil service, would divide his time between his official duties and his passion for music. Bécaud made another important encounter in 1952, meeting a young singer/songwriter who, like himself, was just starting out on his career. That young man’s name was Charles Aznavour. Edith Piaf had just helped Aznavour launch his career in America, just as she had done for Bécaud, and the two young singer/songwriters found they shared a lot more in common too. Bécaud and Aznavour went on to work together and their early songwriting collaboration would result in a lifelong friendship, the pair meeting up several times in the course of their successful careers to sit down at the piano and compose together.

1952 was also an extremely important year in Gilbert Bécaud’s personal life, for it was the year that he married his wife Monique Nicolas. Meanwhile, Bécaud stood poised for success in his professional life. Bécaud’s own musical talent combined with that of his exceptional team of songwriters and the excellent live experience which he had acquired on tour with Jacques Pills, were to stand him in good stead for international stardom. Which was a good job - for success lay just around the corner!

1953 proved to be an extremely eventful year in Bécaud’s professional and personal life. On 2 February the singer went into the studio to record his first two singles "Mes mains" (written by Pierre Delanoë) and "Les Croix" (written by Louis Amade). On the very same day Monique went into hospital and gave birth to the couple’s first child ( a son named Gaya).

"Monsieur 100,000 volts" brings the house down - literally!

The following year saw the re-opening of L’Olympia, the music venue which was destined to become the most famous Paris concert hall of all time. L’Olympia had stood empty and abandoned for over 25 years and its owner, Bruno Coquatrix, was looking around for an all-star line-up to celebrate its re-opening. Coquatrix offered Bécaud the chance of appearing at L’Olympia on the night of its inauguration in February 1954 but at that point in his career Gilbert Bécaud was still a support act. When he returned to L’Olympia on 17 February 1955, however, Bécaud was a star in his own right and his performance would, quite literally, bring the house down. Bécaud gave a legendary matinée show to a capacity crowd, 4,000 French teenagers leaping up and down and singing along to his songs. Carried away by Bécaud’s own energetic performance on stage the crowd soon got over-excited themselves and began ripping out seats and destroying L’Olympia’s brand new decor. This kind of behaviour at a concert was totally out of the ordinary in the 50’s and the French press had an absolute field day over the affair. Numerous papers and magazines ran stories on Bécaud’s explosive concert, dubbing the young singer "Monsieur Dynamite", "The Atomic Bomb" and, most famously of all, "Monsieur 100,000 volts".

This legendary concert catapulted Bécaud to overnight stardom on the French music scene. The young singer would never forget his enthusiastic reception at L’Olympia - indeed, he would remain loyal to the venue during the rest of his career, performing at L’Olympia no less than 30 times between 1954 and 1997 (a record which no other artist ever managed to beat !)

Marathon tours

Bécaud’s youthful high spirits, his Mediterranean charm and his sheer energy would make the young singer an instant favourite with audiences all over the world. In 1955 Bécaud began to devote all his time and energy to his live concerts, embarking upon extensive tours which took him all over Europe. The indefatigable Bécaud would then travel on to perform in North America and the Maghreb. Bécaud’s annual international tours would feature up to 250 concerts - a remarkable feat by anybody’s standards. Meanwhile, Bécaud still found time to continue his songwriting career, working with his loyal trio of songwriters (Vidalin, Delanoë and Amade). The singer also took time off from his hectic touring schedule to maintain the rhythm of his recording career, releasing a string of hits in the late 50’s. ("La corrida" in 1956 was followed by "Les marchés de Provence" in 1957 and Bécaud’s classic "C'est merveilleux l'amour" in 1958).

In 1956 Bécaud also found time to launch an acting career, starring in Marcel Carné’s film "Le pays d'où je viens". The multi-talented Bécaud was also responsible for writing the film’s soundtrack. In spite of the evident enjoyment Bécaud found in his film work, his acting career would always remain secondary to his singing career.

1957 produced another happy event in Bécaud’s personal life, his wife Monique giving birth to the couple’s second child, a son named Philippe. But the following year brought only tragic news, Bécaud’s real father and his step-father dying within two weeks of each other.

Meanwhile Bécaud’s singing career continued to go from strength to strength. By 1960 he was one of the most popular stars on the international music scene, thousands of people around the world flocking to his concerts. Bécaud was also a major star in his homeland and in 1960 French critics paid tribute to his singing and songwriting talent, awarding him the prestigious Grand Prix du Disque. Later that same year Bécaud, who was constantly looking to experiment with new ideas, composed a Christmas Cantata entitled "L'Enfant à l'étoile". The Cantata was performed in Paris, in the Eglise Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois, on Christmas Eve 1960 and enjoyed by tens of thousands of viewers during its special live broadcast on French television.

Becaud scores a smash hit with his single "Et maintenant"

In 1961 Bécaud rocketed to the top of the French charts once again with his enormously successful hit single "Et maintenant". "Et maintenant", written by Pierre Delanoë, would prove to be one of the most famous songs of Gilbert Bécaud’s entire career. The song would be covered more than 150 times by a host of French stars and the English version of "Et maintenant", entitled "What now my love", would go on to become an international hit in its own right.

Encouraged by the success of his Christmas Cantata in 1960, Bécaud set himself an even greater challenge in 1962, setting out to stage his first opera. Bécaud had been working on the score of his opera for several years by this point, so the singer/composer was delighted to see his work finally come to fruition on 25 October 1962 when "L'Opéra d'Aran" premièred at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. The orchestra, under the baton of the famous French conductor Georges Prêtre, gave a brilliant performance of Bécaud’s work and "L'Opéra d'Aran" went on to prove a huge critical and commercial success. Indeed, international performances of Bécaud’s opera are still frequently staged today.

Yet the French public were reluctant to give up their new singing idol and, despite his new-found success as a composer, Bécaud soon turned his attention to his singing career once more. In 1963 he set off upon a new series of extensive international tours which, this time, would take him as far afield as Japan. Bécaud also returned to the studio later that year to record a new string of hit singles which included the classic "Un Dimanche à Orly" ("Sunday at Orly") - a humourous allusion to the singer’s frequent visits to the Paris airport.

Bécaud continued to enjoy great popularity in France but in the early 60’s his status as one of the nation’s favourite singers was seriously challenged by the arrival of the "Yéyé" craze. The young singers in the "Yéyé" movement basically adapted American rock'n'roll for the French market and soon built up a huge following of screaming teenage fans. The older generation of French chanson singers such as Bécaud and Aznavour risked appearing decidedly unfashionable when set next to emerging "Yéyé" stars such as Johnny Hallyday. But, rather than being threatened by the arrival of this new generation of young talent, Bécaud moved with the times and began writing for a number of young "Yéyé" stars including Richard Anthony and Hervé Vilard. (Another young "Yéyé" star by the name of Eddy Mitchell would cover Bécaud’s classic "Et maintenant" and Bécaud’s "Age tendre et tête de bois" would go on to become the theme tune of a famous teenage television programme).

In October 1963 the whole nation was shocked to learn of the deaths of Edith Piaf and Jean Cocteau, two of the most popular French stars of all time who managed to die on the same day, within several hours of each other. Bécaud was saddened by the news of Piaf's death, but the loss of Cocteau was a far greater shock to him, for Cocteau had been one of Bécaud's closest friends and one of the first people to encourage him in the early days of his singing career.

Nathalie

The following year Bécaud returned to the studio to record a new single entitled "Nathalie". This single proved phenomenally successful, selling thousands of copies within months of its release. Indeed, "Nathalie" would go on to become one of the most famous hits of B's entire career. Later that same year Bécaud would perform "Nathalie" live on stage at the Olympia, during his tenth concert performance at the legendary Paris music hall. As soon as he had finished his run at the Olympia, the indefatigable Bécaud was back on the road again, taking his "Opéra d'Aran" on an extensive tour of France and Europe. In 1965 Bécaud embarked upon a new French tour, then flew out to the USSR on 24 April for a special series of concerts. Later that year Bécaud, who had by now become one of the most popular stars on the French music scene, scored two more hits with "Quand il est mort le poète" and the highly controversial "Tu le regretteras", dedicated to General de Gaulle. (This single would cause a huge outcry in the French press, released as it was in the midst of the presidential elections, and Bécaud would always avoid performing it at his later concerts).

By this stage in his career Bécaud was not only one of the most prominent figures on the French music scene, he was also a huge international star. In the spring of 1966 B set off on a six-week tour of Germany. On his return the singer began preparing a special concert for his U.S. fans, which was broadcast live on American TV on 22 April 1966. After his triumph in North America, Bécaud set out to conquer the south of the continent, performing an extensive tour of Latin America. On 8 October Bécaud staged another production of his "Opéra d'Aran", in Belgium this time. Later that year the singer would organise a more modern recording of his famous opera, assuming one of the lead roles himself for the first time.

1966 also produced another happy event in Bécaud's personal life, for this was the year that his third child, Anne, was born.

Bob Dylan, James Brown and Nina Simone

Meanwhile Bécaud's international career continued to go from strength to strength, and a host of international stars were soon queuing up to record English-language versions of his songs. The phenomenal success of "What Now My Love" (the English adaptation of Bécaud's classic "Et maintenant") was followed in 1967 by Bécaud's international smash "Let It Be Me" (the English version of the singer's 1955 hit "Je t'appartiens"). All the top stars of the day including Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Sonny and Cher and James Brown would go on to record their own versions of "Let It Be Me". Bécaud soon followed this international smash hit with another classic song, "L'important c'est la rose", which absolutely brought the house down when he performed it on stage for the first time at the Olympia on 17 November 1967. (This concert would be Bécaud's twelfth show at the legendary Paris music hall).

While many other 60's stars were falling by the wayside, the famously energetic Bécaud carried on his career throughout the 70's, remaining as popular as ever with French music fans old and new. In the early 70's Bécaud soared back to the top of the French charts with the beautiful ballad "La solitude ça n'existe pas" (which the singer co-wrote with his loyal friend Pierre Delanoë). But Bécaud's personal favourite of the 1970's was a hit written by Maurice Vidalin, entitled "La vente aux enchères". On the whole Bécaud devoted less time to his recording career in the 70's, his hectic schedule filled with numerous national and international tour dates. In spite of the fact that Bécaud was by now in his late 40's, the singer's concerts remained as explosively energetic as ever. Audiences loved to watch Bécaud perform live - indeed, when Bécaud appeared at the Olympia in February 1972 he was called back on stage for no less than 19 encore!

At the end of 1972 Bécaud's record company paid tribute to one of France's most popular stars, releasing six triple albums retracing the whole of the singer's career. Meanwhile, Bécaud had decided to take a short break from the music scene in order to resume his acting career. At the end of 1972 he would begin working on Roberto Muller's film "Un homme libre" (produced by the legendary French film director Claude Lelouch). The following year Bécaud was back in front of the cameras once again, starring in Lelouch's own film "Toute une vie". After these two film roles, Bécaud would turn his attention back to his singing career, staging his sixteenth show at the Olympia in October 1973. This hectic schedule soon began to take its toll on Bécaud's health, however, and the singer soon found himself suffering from over-exhaustion. Bécaud's habit of smoking like a chimney in between shows was also beginning to place serious strain on his voice.

Decorated with the Légion d'honneur

This did not stop the indefatigable Bécaud from carrying on with his career however. On 24 December 1973 Bécaud's Christmas Cantata was broadcast on television for a second time, going out to an international audience this time round. Three weeks later Bécaud was back on stage at the Olympia, ready to perform a new series of shows. It was at the Olympia on 14 January 1974 that Bécaud received the ultimate accolade of his career when his old songwriting partner Louis Amade (who was also a high-ranking French official) came up on stage to make him a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur.

Most of 1974 and 1975 were taken up with Bécaud's extensive international tours, but in 1976 the singer found time to return to the recording studio where he began working with a young songwriter by the name of Pierre Grosz. (Grosz would pen Bécaud a number of hits including the legendary "Mais où sont-ils les jours heureux ?").

Meanwhile Bécaud's personal life was also extremely busy. In 1976 he married Kitty St John, a young American woman who would give birth to a baby daughter, Emily, in 1972. (Emily would be Bécaud's fifth child - the singer was already a father to Gaya, Philippe and Anne. He had also had a child with Janet Woollacoot, their daughter Jennifer being born in the late 60's). After his marriage to Kitty St John Bécaud bought a huge farm in the Poitou region, which would become a general meeting-point for the singer's extended family.

After a short break from the music scene Bécaud returned centre stage once again on Christmas Eve 1976, giving a live performance of "La première cathédrale" (a song he had written with the young French songwriter Franck Thomas). Bécaud's spectacular concert staged in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral was broadcast live on French television to launch France's festive season.

The following year Bécaud returned to the studio to record "L'indifférence". This song, co-written with Maurice Vidalin, would earn the singer the prestigious "Oscar de la meilleure chanson française". After this new triumph Bécaud would take a break from his hectic touring and recording schedule.

Bécaud rocketed back to the forefront of the French music scene in 1980, however, with the release of a brand new album. The singer then set off on another series of extensive tours which would take him as far afield as Canada and Japan. In the autumn of 1980 Bécaud returned to the Olympia for another successful five-week stint, much to the delight of his French fans. Two years later Bécaud was back at the top of the French charts with another best-selling single, "Désirée". Later that same year the SACEM (the French association of Songwriters and Composers) would pay tribute to Bécaud, awarding him one of their prestigious gold medals for the outstanding contribution he had made to French music.

The following year Bécaud celebrated the 30th anniversary of his recording career, kicking off another successful series of shows at the Olympia on 30 September. The following year Bécaud was back in the media spotlight once again with his new single "Mustapha Dupont", a song about France's immigrant community (rather a sensitive issue in France in the early 80's!)

Madame Roza

In 1986 Bécaud scored another personal triumph when his stage musical "Madame Roza" premièred in the United States. Bécaud had actually finished writing his musical (based on a famous novel by Emile Ajar) in 1983, but when he tried to stage "Madame Roza" in France he had encountered all kinds of problems. When the show opened in America in 1986, however, "Madame Roza" proved to be an enormous hit, attracting capacity audiences in Baltimore and Los Angeles before hitting Broadway on 1 October 1987. (In spite of the fact that "Madame Roza" was a great success on Broadway, it would take several more years before Bécaud was able to stage his musical in Paris).

The following year Bécaud was back on stage at the Olympia, giving his 22nd performance at the legendary music-hall. Bécaud's 1988 run at the Olympia turned out to be a special treat for music fans, for the singer organised not just one concert but two, performing his 'red' show and 'blue' show on alternate nights.

1988 was also the year that Bécaud parted company from his record company EMI. The singer went on to sign a new deal with BMG, a company which promptly bought most of Bécaud's back catalogue. Bécaud would return to the studio the following year to record his first album on BMG's Ariola label, entitled "Fais-moi signe". This album featured outstanding tracks written by Bécaud's long-term collaborators Pierre Delanoë and Louis Amade, as well as material from new songwriters such as Claude Lemesle ("Quand la musique s'arrète") and Didier Barbelivien ("Après toi c'est la mer").

In 1991 Bécaud lost his mother, Mamico (who had managed to live to the ripe old age of 100). After his mother's death Bécaud threw himself into an even more hectic round of concerts, playing 249 dates worldwide and returning to his favourite venue, L'Olympia, between 1 and 20 October 1991. Later that year, still grieving over his mother's death and deeply upset by the loss of his old friend Yves Montand in November, Bécaud announced that he was on the verge of retiring from the music scene.

Becaud's autobiographical album recounts his life in song

Much to everyone's relief, Bécaud bounced back the following year, returning to the studio to record a third version of his "Opéra d'Aran", which was produced by his son Gaya. Bécaud also set to work with his long-term songwriting partner Pierre Delanoë, writing 16 tracks for a new album. Recorded in the United States with the American producer Mick Lanaro, the autobiographical album "Une vie comme un roman" recounted Bécaud's lifestory from his birth in Toulon to his 22nd performance at the Olympia. This highly accomplished album would be released on 2 February 1993, just a few months after the death of Bécaud's old songwriting friend Louis Amade. At the end 1992 the indefatigable Bécaud turned his attention to his live shows once more, bringing the house down in Paris at the Palais des Congrès (2 - 24 October).

After this successful series of concerts, Bécaud took an extended sabbatical, intending to get his health back in order. (Bécaud's heavy smoking habit was still placing a great strain on his voice). Bécaud took a long break from the French music scene, relaxing in his country homes in Corsica and Poitou as well as spending time with his wife in the couple's new houseboat moored on the river Seine in Paris. Yet, Bécaud proved incapable of lying around doing nothing all day and several weeks into his sabbatical he was busy working on new material with his loyal team of songwriters (Pierre Delanoë, Claude Lemesle, Pierre Grosz, Franck Thomas and Jean-Michel Bériat). There was also talk of staging a Paris production of B's Broadway musical "Madame Roza", and Becaud began imagining the French singer Annie Cordy in the lead role. (In fact work on the French production of "Madame Roza" would not get underway until 1996, when the writer Didier van Cauwelaert began working on an adaptation which was eventually staged by the famous French theatre director Jérôme Savary).

Bécaud finally returned from his extended sabbatical in 1996, going back into the studio to begin work on a new album "Ensemble". Released on 15 November 1996 the album featured material Bécaud had written during his long absence from the music scene as well as a song by his late friend Louis Amade.

In 1997 Bécaud celebrated his 70th birthday with a special series of concerts at the Olympia (13 - 23 November). The legendary Paris music-hall had just re-opened to the public after many years' silence, so Bécaud's birthday concerts were all the more exceptional as they marked the inauguration of the new-look Olympia. After his triumph in Paris, the singer set off on another tour of France, then embarked upon another extensive world tour which included a memorable series of concerts in Japan in January 98.

After touring extensively in Europe, Bécaud's "Opéra d'Aran" made a major comeback to the French stage in October '98, a talented cast reviving the opera at the Grand Théâtre in Tours. Bécaud's opera, which is set in Ireland, requires an extensive line-up including 11 soloists, a 40-strong choir and an orchestra of some 50 musicians!

Refusing to slip quietly into retirement, Bécaud returned to the media spotlight in 1999, releasing a new album entitled "Faut faire avec…". Co-produced by Alain Manoukian (Liane Foly's former mentor) and Jean Mareska (famous for his work with Jean-Jacques Goldman), "Faut faire avec…" was a highly acoustic work recorded with a small group of musicians. The lyrics for Bécaud's new album were penned by Pierre Delanoé - who wrote six songs including the outstanding "Dieu est mort" - and Didier Barbelivien, who contributed two songs. Bécaud's daughter, Emily, also joined him in the studio to record the duet "la Fille au tableau" (written by Luc Plamondon). "Faut faire avec…" was a concerted attempt on Bécaud's part to make an album for the modern world!

Bécaud made a live comeback in November '99 performing at the legendary Olympia music hall in Paris - for the 33rd time! Despite the fact that the singer was suffering from cancer, he nevertheless managed to pull out all the stops, giving a series of vibrant, energetic shows which went down extremely well with his fans. He performed the very last concert of his career in Fribourg, Switzerland, on 15 July 2000. The following year he went into the studio to record his final album, "Le Cap". The singer died peacefully at home on his houseboat, "Aran" (moored on the Seine near Paris), on 18 December 2001. Tributes flooded in from around the world and international artists turned out in force to pay their last respects at Bécaud's funeral, held at La Madeleine church in Paris on Friday 21 December.

His last album was released on March 19th 2002. Untitled, it featured a selection by his son Gaya of about thirty songs. Gaya was very careful of respecting his father’s memory, and chose eleven songs dealing on the themes of death and God, which endowed the record with a strong farewell undertone. The album also offered a duet with Serge Lama entitled "Le Train d’Amour" and two extracts from "Madame Roza", the musical performed by Annie Cordy.

In 2005, Gaya Bécaud released "Suite", comprising 10 of his father’s tracks from throughout his career, some of them unknown. His goal was to introduce younger generations to an artist that seemed to be in the process of being forgotten.

Bécaud admirers had to wait until 2011, the ten year anniversary of his death, for EMI to release “Bécaud, le coffret essentiel”, a collection of 267 songs in twelve CDs, including original albums, rare singles, 28 songs recorded during his 13 performances at the Olympia and 32 titles released on CD for the first time.

A compilation of cover versions of Gilbert Bécaud’s songs also came out at the same time, entitled “Et maintenant”. It featured some of the artist’s contemporaries, like
Johnny Hallyday ("Et maintenant"), Serge Lama ("La rivière") and Eddy Mitchell ("Je t'appartiens") as well as young talents Olivia Ruiz ("Les tantes Jeanne") and Renan Luce ("Dimanche à Orly"). Anggun provided his version of "Let it be me".

December 2011

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