Obituary: John Littleton

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The Independent Culture
IT IS an accepted fact that some ladies do not hesitate to conceal their exact date of birth, and as airline officials say, even "upgrade" the year in which they were born. But men suffering from this phobia are extremely rare, as I was to find when I started to give different dates for every reference work in which my name was solicited, to confound researchers and also to instil a little mischief into those solemn tomes, with their impersonal cut-and-dried treatment of sensitive personalities. Though age has cured me of that eccentricity, I was delighted to find that a favourite singer, John Littleton, also refused to give his exact date of birth to officious inquirers. I have only recently discovered that he was born in 1930 in Louisiana, the son of a Baptist minister, who also worked his own farm.

When he was still a little boy, he began singing in churches, both solo and in gospel choirs, and soon revealed himself to be the possessor of an exceptionally strong vocal talent. Asked for his exact date of birth, he would always refuse to give it.

For his army service he was sent to France, to the beautiful cathedral city of Reims. It was here that he encountered the woman who was to become his wife when, falling also in love with the whole of France, he decided to settle there permanently. So in his encounters with French officialdom, Littleton must have had to suffer the pain of revealing his birth date - in confidence, of course.

When he was demobilised, after already becoming, in army concerts and church ceremonies, the "ambassador of the negro spiritual in France", he took up studies at the Conservatoire National de Paris, from which he emerged with a first prize for singing, and a first prize for operatic arias. Such success for an American was unprecedented.

He started to sing leading roles in opera, and enjoyed great success as Boris Godunov and Romeo in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, and as Faust in the Gounod opera of that name, with its entrancing ballet music interludes. He made several recordings of these operas and others. As well as possessing a voice on the grand scale, he was also endowed with a striking stage presence, and unlike many opera stars he could act as well as sing. Modest, he abhorred publicity.

In 1960, Littleton began to explore the vast repertory of black American liturgical music, something he had known only partly as a child and youth, but that his lyrical operatic training was to make him especially suited for. He was to become one of the most beloved true gospel singers of his generation.

This kind of music was not part of the French national cultural scene as it always had been in Littleton's native Deep South. The French chanson however was a form that could be adapted to religious themes, most of which, performed by singers of a more trivial and sentimental set of standards, were heard around Christmas and Easter only.

The first true religious popular songs were composed in this century by Aime Duval, which he performed for the groups of young Catholics whose almoner he was. He was both missionary and working-class priest, and with his guitar accompaniment he became known as "the guitarist of the Good Lord," his first record was cut by Gaumont in 1957, and one of its songs, "La Petite Tete", became very popular on the radio. Father Duval in his cassock went touring the world with his inspirational songs. To reach a wide audience, he sang of the poor and the homeless and the lonely. His work encouraged a number of religious chansonniers, both priests and laity. Father Bernard, the Quebec Franciscan was one of them, as was his fellow countrywoman Jacqueline Lemay. Among the native French there were Noel Colombier, and Soeur Sourire ("Sister Smile") whose "hit" number "Dominique" became a world-wide favourite.

John Littleton was perhaps the most outstanding among these people devoted to the renaissance of popular spiritual music. He travelled the world with his wide-ranging repertoire, and was one of the best-loved foreign artists in France. He was praised by Pope John Paul II for the beauty and sincerity of his religious music. His many hundreds of recitals, after which he always kept away from the press and any form of publicity, were recorded on records that sold by the millions.

He cut altogether 75 records, and received many prizes and honours, including the Prix Mahalia Jackson and France's greatest recording distinction, Le Grand Prix du Disque Charles Cros. His spiritual message can be felt in all his work. Among his many distinctions was that of Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur. With his passing, the special quality of his gospel singing, at such a distance from all the clamorous recordings of rock and rap and reggae, will be sadly missed.

James Kirkup

John Littleton, singer: born Louisiana, Missouri 1930; married; died Reims, France 24 August 1998.