Léo Ferré

Born : 24/08/1916 in Castellina-in-Chianti (Italy)
Dead : 14/07/1993 in Monaco
Country : France
Language : French
Category : Composer / Male Artist / Songwriter
Style of music : Chanson

Léo Ferré is, without doubt, one of the most important figures in French music history. Renowned for his musical compositions, Ferré is also remembered for his astonishing lyrics. Indeed, many would go so far as to call him one of the finest poets of French chanson.

 

Léo Ferré is, without doubt, one of the most important figures in French music history. Renowned for his musical compositions, Ferré is also remembered for his astonishing lyrics. Indeed, many would go so far as to call him one of the finest poets of French chanson.

 

Léo Ferré was born in Monaco on August 24 1916. His father, Joseph, was the director of a local casino; his mother, Marie, was a dressmaker who owned her own sewing business. Léo was brought up with his sister, Lucienne, who was three years older than him, but at the age of 9 he was separated from his sister and the rest of the family when his father sent him away to boarding school in Italy. Léo hated the austere atmosphere and severe discipline at the Collège Saint Charles in Bordighera which was run by French monks (Les Frères des Ecoles Chrétiennes). The young boy loathed the monks who taught him and, apart from making one close friend who introduced him to the joys of music and poetry, Léo’s time at the school was one of great boredom and loneliness. (Léo would hold a particular grudge against his father, resenting the fact that he had been torn away from home and sent to live so far away). In spite of these early problems Léo went on to pass his ‘baccalauréat’ in Rome in 1934 with flying colours. The young man, by now a passionate music fan, then asked his father if he could enroll at the Conservatoire, but his father refused to allow his son to pursue a musical career, insisting instead that he should become a French teacher at the Collège Saint Charles in Bordighera. 

In the autumn of 1935, Léo moved to Paris to study law, graduating with a degree in ‘Sciences Politiques’ in 1939. He then went on to complete his national service. After being demobilized in 1940, Léo returned to Monaco, where he got a job distributing ration coupons to local hotel keepers. In October 1943 he settled down and married his girlfriend Odette. Léo’s first contact with the music world came when he landed a job at Radio Monte-Carlo, where he soon proved himself to be a Jack-of-all-trades, working as a pianist and a sound-effects man as well as stepping in every now and then to present programmes. It was around this time that Léo began writing poetry and performing on the cabaret circuit. He soon discovered the stars of French chanson and was greatly influenced by the work of Charles Trenet. The young man even met Edith Piaf who, impressed by his talent, suggested he should start performing in Paris.

When the war was over, young Léo took Piaf’s advice and headed for the French capital. Here, he soon got a spot at the famous cabaret Le Boeuf sur le toit, where he performed in the same show as Les Frères Jacques and the renowned duo Roche-Aznavour. Despite the fact that the young man was barely scraping a living together with his cabaret work, Léo was delighted with his new life in Paris. At long last he was doing what he wanted, writing songs and performing in front of an audience.

After a rather disastrous tour in Martinique, Ferré returned to Paris and started working with Francis Claude at the Milord l'Arsouille cabaret in 1947. It was here that he performed "l'Ile Saint Louis" and "A Saint Germain des prés" (songs which would later become classics in the Ferré repertoire). Ferré also started hanging out with the music stars of the day, forming close friendships with Jean Roger Caussimon, Juliette Gréco and Renée Lebas, who was the first singer to begin performing Ferré’s material, singing "Elle tourne...la terre". 

But while Ferré’s career was slowly getting off the ground, his personal life began to show the strains of his new lifestyle. His wife Odette, unable to bear the ups and downs of performing, left him and the couple obtained a divorce in December 1950. 

Ferré gets involved into anarchism and communism

Throughout the early part of his career Ferré had kept out of politics, even during the heyday of the Front Populaire. But from the late 40’s onwards the singer found himself becoming increasingly involved with French political groups. After performing at several concerts organised by the French Anarchist Federation, Ferré decided his real sympathies lay with the French Communist Party and he became increasingly involved with their activities. (Ferré remained a committed communist right up until the end of his life).

In the early 50’s Ferré’s encounter with a young woman called Madeleine, whom he met in a Paris café, was to change the rest of his life. For not only was Madeleine to replace Odette in his life, she also took charge of his career. Shortly after meeting Madeleine, Ferré began writing his famous opera "la Vie d'Artiste", proving his talent as a musical composer. Four years later Ferré would go on to write an oratorio based on the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire’s work " La Chanson du mal-aimé", which was performed at the Monte Carlo Opera House. 

By 1953, Léo Ferré’s singing career was going from strength to strength. He was invited to perform as a support act for the American star Josephine Baker, when she performed at the prestigious Paris music-hall, L’Olympia. Ferré then went on to land a recording deal with the Odéon label who soon released his version of "Paris Canaille" (the song which had been a hit for Catherine Sauvage the previous year). Ferré’s personal life was also looking up. The singer moved into a flat on Boulevard Pershing with Madeleine and the daughter from her previous marriage, whom Ferré brought up as his own child. Despite the fact that the couple existed on very little money, this was a particularly happy time in Ferré’s life. The door was always open to friends and the flat on Boulevard Pershing was always filled with visitors. Singer Catherine Sauvage, the actor Pierre Brasseur, Les Frères Jacques and many other stars from the music and theatre world were all regular visitors to Ferré’s home.

Following the immense success of the single "Paris Canaille", Ferré could afford to buy a big house in the country. In March 1955 he returned to the Olympia, but this time as the headlining star. It was on this memorable occasion that the singer performed "l'Homme", "Monsieur William", and "Graine d'Ananar" (all songs which went on to become absolute classics of the Ferré repertoire). At the end of the year Ferré went back into the studio to record eight new songs including the famous "Pauvre Ruteboeuf" and "Le Guinche". He was not surrounded by a group of musicians in the studio, preferring to accompany himself instead on the piano, and the organ.

Ferré's new album also contained the song "l'Amour" - a track which would greatly impress the famous Surrealist poet André Breton. Ferré and Breton went on to become close friends but this relationship came to an abrupt end when, in 1956, Ferré presented Breton with a copy of his work "Poètes...vos papiers". In this collection of poetry and song lyrics (77 texts in all) Ferré took a strong stand against the automatic writing techniques which the Surrealists had employed in their poetry. Breton was most unhappy with Ferré’s stance and, declaring that he did not share the same poetic views as the singer, refused to write a preface to the collection. This argument brought an abrupt end to Breton and Ferré’s friendship, and the pair were not on speaking terms when Breton died in 1966.

In 1956 Ferré devoted all his time and energy to composing "La Nuit", a modern ballet created for choreographer Roland Petit and his troupe, which included spoken texts and songs. Unfortunately, when the ballet was performed at the Théâtre de Paris it was slammed by the critics and the show came to a grinding halt after only four performances.

Ferré's concert debut at Bobino

The following year Ferré began work on a new poetry project, recording "‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ chanté par Léo Ferré", an album featuring adaptations of the 19th century French poet Baudelaire’s work. At the start of the following year the singer performed at the Bobino for the first time (in January 1958), a venue to which he would remain loyal throughout the rest of his career. By April Ferré was back in the studio, recording a new album on the Odéon label. The album, entitled "Encore du Léo Ferré" ("More Léo Ferré") included the classic "Le Temps du Tango" (written by Jean Roger Caussimon) as well as "l'Eté s'en fout" and "Mon Camarade". 

Profits from Ferré’s record sales were now pouring in and the singer decided to enjoy his new-found wealth, buying himself an island in Brittany (l'Ile du Guesclin). In 1961, Ferré began work on a new ‘poetry’ album, this time recorded on the Barclay label. "Les Chansons d'Aragon" was in a similar vein to Ferré’s Baudelaire tribute, the singer choosing ten poems by Aragon and setting them to music. Ferré’s incredible vocal performances of "L'Affiche Rouge", "l'Etrangère", "d'Elsa" and "Est-ce ainsi que les hommes vivent ?", added a whole new dimension to Aragon’s work. Aragon was greatly impressed by Ferré’s adaptations and the poet and the singer soon developed a close friendship.

Ferré continued his prodigious output over the following months, recording the hit single "Paname" and giving an immensely successful concert at the Théâtre du Vieux Colombier (where he performed his new "Merde à Vauban", "les Rupins" and "Thank you Satan"). Showered with rave reviews by the critics, Ferré then went on to perform at the famous Alhambra music hall.  

Thanks to Ferré’s exceptional songwriting talent and the unstinting work of his wife, Madeleine, the 45-year-old singer was by now at the height of his career. At the end of 62/ start of 63 Ferré gave a triumphant show at another famous Paris music-hall, the ABC, where he performed a collection of songs which he had just recorded on his latest album - including "Langue française", "T'es chouette" and "T'es rock, Coco". Later that year the Ferré family moved from their flat on the Boulevard Pershing to settle in the French countryside in Perdrigal (in the Lot region), taking Pépée the pet monkey, the latest addition to the family, with them.

The album of maturity

The album "Ferré 64", released the following year, proved that Ferré was not only at the height of his career but also at the height of his artistic inspiration. This extremely mature album (which includes the famous "Franco la muerte", "Sans façon" and "Mon piano") expressed the soul of a lifelong rebel, combining subtle poetry with fervently anarchic lyrics. (Although Ferré certainly recognised the comforts that his new-found wealth could buy, he never lost the communist/anarchist leanings of his early days).

1965 and 1966 were devoted to live performances. Ferré embarked upon two extensive tours of Canada, also giving countless radio and television interviews during this period. Later in the year he returned to one of his favourite Paris venues, the Bobino, where he paid tribute to the work of the 19th century French poet Rimbaud. The singer’s magnificent renditions of Rimbaud’s texts, which had no musical backing other than Ferré’s simple piano accompaniment, were extremely moving.

Ferré’s next album, released during the summer of 67, proved the singer could not only write impressive adaptations of the great French poets but also write his own original material. Ferré’s powerful lyrics were poetic, but also extremely incisive and tuned in to the issues of the day. The new album included "Salut Beatnick" (a reference to the up-and-coming hippie movement), "C'est un air", "On n'est pas des saints" and "Le Lit". The album should also have contained another track, a tribute to the late great Piaf entitled "A une chanteuse morte" ("To A Dead Singer"). However the song included such a virulent attack on Mireille Mathieu (hailed by many critics as the new Piaf) that record company director Eddy Barclay decided to censor it at the last minute.

In September Ferré returned to the Bobino for another month of successful concerts. Meanwhile his relationship with his wife Madeleine was becoming increasingly strained. When the couple were not in Paris for professional reasons they had a tendency to live as social recluses, shutting themselves up in their château in the French countryside with a veritable menagerie of pet animals and a whole family of chimpanzees (which the Ferrés brought up as if they were their own children). This eccentric lifestyle was one of the things which finally drove the couple apart and at the start of 1968 the couple finally underwent a painful divorce.  

Protest Singer

Later that year Ferré was to be caught up in the revolutionary fervour of May 68. Indeed, on May 10th the singer performed at the famous Gala de la Mutualité, organised by the Anarchist federation. Ferré the protest singer became the public symbol of revolutionary zeal and anarchic student demonstrations (although he continued to keep his distance from actual political involvement).

Following a disastrous tour of North Africa in October 68, Ferré went back into the studio at the start of 69 to record a new album inspired by the revolutionary events of May 68. (The album featured the classic tracks "Comme une fille", "L'été 68" and "Les Anarchistes"). In January and February 69 Ferré returned to the Bobino where he brought the house down with the song "C'est extra" (which went on to become a phenomenal hit). The frenetic ambience of these concerts was captured on Ferré’s double live album released later that year.

On January 6 1969 Ferré was invited to take part in a famous interview with two other legendary stars of French chanson, Jacques Brel et Georges Brassens. At this informal kind of round table, organised by RTL radio and the French music magazine Rock & Folk, the three singers debated pet subjects and exchanged their opinions on a wide number of issues including, of course, music.

Meanwhile, Ferré’s personal life was looking up. By this time the singer had moved in with Marie-Christine, whom he had already met before his painful separation with Madeleine. The couple soon settled in Tuscany, buying a house near Florence and in May 1970, Marie Christine gave birth to a son, Mathieu. 1970 also proved to be a momentous year in Ferré’s professional life for the singer went on to record a double album "Amour Anarchie" ("Anarchy Love") - which many consider to be the finest album of his entire career. "Amour Anarchie" contained a whole string of Ferré classics ("Le Chien", "The Nana", "Paris je ne t'aime plus" and "la Mémoire et la mer").  

Ferré tours with the group Zoo

The early 70’s proved to be a major turning-point in Ferré’s career. In spite of the obvious influences of traditional French chanson in his work, the singer continued to be very much in touch with the modern music of the day. Having discovered the value of good pop tunes through the work of The Beatles and The Moody Blues, Ferré, weary of performing and recording alone, began to envisage the idea of working with a group. That group was to be the ‘progressive French rock group Zoo. Ferré was greatly enthused by "this new way of creating music tuned into a young, liberated philosophy". After releasing the famous single "Avec le temps" in October 1970, Ferré went into the studio with Zoo to record the album "Solitude". Ferré’s work with the group was to attract a whole new generation of teenage fans.  

In 1972 Ferré returned to the Olympia for a successful 3-week run. The singer’s style had undergone a dramatic transformation since the 60’s when he was renowned for his passionate performances and emotionally-charged lyrics. Ferré’s style in the 70’s was much more sober, his performances pared down to the absolute essential. During his 3-week run at the Olympia Ferré performed a collection of new material written by himself and by Jean-Roger Caussimon (who wrote the lyrics to the moving "Ne chantez pas la mort"). These exceptional concerts at the Olympia were captured on Ferré’s double live album released in May 1973.

Ferré’s next studio album, "Il n'y a plus rien" ("There’s Nothing Left"), was a tortured poetic work, its nihilistic songs frequently lapsing into a dark, foreboding monologue. As soon as the singer had put the finishing touches to this album, he set off on tour with the Quebecois singer Robert Charlebois. Later that year Ferré was devastated to learn of his father’s death (in spite of the fact that their relationship had often been a troubled one).

In 1974 Ferré surprised fans and music critics by performing at the Opéra Comique, a venue traditionally reserved for classical musicians. The singer presented a selection of his new material, but also gave an extremely moving reading of Apollinaire’s poem "La Chanson du Mal-aimé". He also read a prose piece, entitled "Et basta" which he had written himself. This text, a passionate declaration of his personal ideals and beliefs, met with rapturous applause.

Symphony orchestra

1975 marked yet another turning-point in Ferré’s career, when the singer/songwriter decided to try his hand at conducting a symphony orchestra. He began working with the Montreux Symphony Orchestra in Switzerland, then in the autumn flew to Belgium with the orchestra to give a concert performance there. Ferré then conducted the same orchestra at the Palais des Congrès in Paris. However, classical music critics were absolutely horrified at the idea of a singer conducting Ravel and Beethoven and they wrote damning which greatly upset Ferré.  

Later that same year, following a series of disputes, Ferré quit his record label Barclay. He then signed to CBS who released his next album entitled "Ferré muet dirige Ravel et Ferré". This album included recordings of Ferré conducting various symphony orchestras. ( "Le Concerto pour la main gauche" was performed by the Milan Symphonic Orchestra; "Muss es sein ? Es muss sein", "Love" and "Requiem" by the Orchestre de Liège). 

Between 1976 and 1990 Ferré hopped from one record company to another, going from CBS to RCA before finally settling with EPM. The singer’s prodigious output did not abate in the slightest. (Over the next few years he recorded "Ma vie est un slalom" in 1979, "La Violence et l'ennui" in 1980, "les Loubards" in 1985, "On n'est pas sérieux quand on a dix sept ans" in 1986, and "Les Vieux copains" in 1990).  

By this time Ferré was happily settled in Tuscany with his new wife Marie-Christine, who would give birth to two more children (Marie-Cécile in July 1974 and Manuella in January 1978). Ferré, who had finally recovered from his painful separation from Madeleine, was now able to relax and enjoy the new-found contentment of his family life.

Ferré, who had certainly mellowed with age, had by no means renounced his role of protest singer and champion of the under-class. (The singer continued to perform at concerts organised by the Anarchist Federation - despite the fact that his quiet family life in the Tuscan countryside could scarcely be termed anarchic!) Ferré had lost none of his immense popularity and thousands of fans continued to flock to his concerts in Paris at the Olympia and the TLP Dejazet. In spite of his advancing age the singer also continued to perform extensive provincial and international tours.

Ferré, who placed great importance on his live performances, continued his concerts right up until the end of his life. But unfortunately, ill health would prevent the singer from making his planned comeback at the Grand Rex in Paris in 1992. Despite the fact that he rarely complained to anyone, his long illness was slowly weakening him and it would finally get the better of him. Ferré would die on July 14 1993 at the age of 77.

Beyond The Grave

Towards the end of the 90's, Léo Ferré's son, Mathieu, took over the running of "la Mémoire et la Mer'' (the recording, publishing and music copyright company which his parents had set up in 1992). Mathieu would help keep the Ferré myth alive, re-releasing albums of his father's greatest hits as well as putting out new copies of songs which his father had not released before his death.

In March 2000 a posthumous album entitled "Métamec" appeared on the French music scene, featuring a selection of songs Ferré had worked on before his death but which the public had never heard in his lifetime. Mathieu was responsible for bringing nine of these songs to light on "Métamec". The album caused a major stir amongst committed Ferré fans (and plans are currently underway to release further posthumous compilations), but several critics have pointed out that the songs Ferré wrote in the last years of his life are not up to his early classics. In November 2000 Mathieu Ferré re-released the last three CD albums his father had recorded while he was still alive.

This truly exceptional singer, songwriter and composer changed the face of the French music scene irrevocably. Léo Ferré’s poetry also made a major impact on French literature. As his old friend, the writer and poet Louis Aragon once said - "The literary history of France will have to be re-written a little differently because of the contribution made by Léo Ferré". The same could also be said of French music history.

November 2000

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