POP / Time, women and song: He's a happy crooner, Sacha Distel, obliging with his old Bardot stories. Now he has a new story to tell: he's learned how sing

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The Independent Online
God created woman and then woman created Sacha Distel. That's the story spread by Paris Match in 1956 anyway. Brigitte Bardot, they claimed, hot from Roger Vadim's Et Dieu Crea la Femme, saw Distel playing guitar in a St Tropez night-club, plucked him from obscurity and, with her ravishing smile, helped launch his first single, the romantically titled, 'Scoubidou'. The couple also became engaged.

'That's the legend,' says Distel this week, in his deep, husky French accent, so gravelly it could descale a complete bathroom suite. 'But you've got to go with what things are. She's a lovely lady, but when we met in St Tropez and the romance happened, I was by then a star guitar player and my 'Scoubidou' thing was already in the can. It was a nasty kind of thing Paris Match did. They came to do an interview with Bardot and I was there and we were having fun and then they wrote what they did. The problem was every man was jealous . . .'

So what happened to the engagement? 'In my old-fashioned way you get engaged to see if you're made for each other. It was beautiful and nice and romantic, but she was a big star and it was difficult for a man. She's the kind of girl for whom you have to be there all the time and I wasn't. I wanted to be Sacha Distel. And also, she didn't want to have children. So, it lasted for a bit and then it finished.'

And 'Scoubidou': how did that go? 'Scou- bi do, bi-do,' sings the man who set young hearts beating throughout the Sixties and Seventies, the man who made husbands jealous, the man who dated Brigitte Bardot, the man with the boudoir eyes.

Sacha Distel is in London this month for a series of cabaret performances at the Cafe Royal. In concert, during 'Song Sung Blue' and 'You Are the Sunshine of My Life' ('Tu est la soleil de l'amour', he purrs), he's a charming loverman still, a handsome form in black tie, who sashays his hips, plays up his Freeench accent, dedicates a number to 'all the girls I've loved before', blows a kiss to a woman in the front.

But, later, in the upholstered Trust House Forte suite, you meet a cool, controlled French businessman, a 61-year-old who looks 40, with a stained-pine tan, a hint of gold chain beneath a sky-blue polo shirt, a fan of wrinkles around those eyes and large hands which move around in unison. And he's short. Definitely short.

It's 45 years since, at the age of 16, Distel first played jazz professionally, 38 years since 'Scoubidou' became a French hit, 33 since he wrote the music to the since much-recorded 'The Good Life', 24 since 'Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head' splashed all over the British charts. He's been busy in the meantime - he's had his own television show, he runs his own music publishing company, he has continued to flit in and out of the gossip columns (as when in 1987 he crashed his Porsche, severely injuring the 'beautiful actress' Chantal Nobel). He still records, still performs regularly. In France, he's reviving his uncle Ray Ventura's big band; last year in England he joined Rosemarie Ford in a provincial tour of 'Golden Songs of the Silver Screen'. So the London season is in no way a 'comeback'. In fact, it's more of a 'goforward'. One big thing has changed over the past couple of years: Sacha Distel has learnt to sing.

'This will sound very funny to you,' he says scratching the ball of one hand, thoughtfully. 'I always wanted to sing - Sinatra was really what I was aiming at. But when that 'Scoubidou' thing happened, that put me into the - what would you say, category? - the category of the happy- go- lucky type of singer. In France, all the hits I had through the years, 95 per cent were happy-go- lucky novelty songs. 'The Good Life', which I wrote and which Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, everybody recorded, was a B-side for me. A B- side] Then, with the British success, came the heart-throb, sex symbol, star - whatever that means. It's always the same thing, they put labels on you. But that success rode me into life. Then, there was a point, I'd been having fun, but now I wanted to sing.

'So what you do then is you look for a coach. I've been through all the coaches. I mean all those people who pretend they're going to teach you to sing - all those soprano ladies, aargh] But the body is wrong, the voice is wrong, the mind is wrong. I had problems with my throat and - how you call it? - nodules, and operations. Awful. Then two years ago, I was sitting at a charity thing for the Variety Club next to a strange looking red-haired lady, a rehearsal pianist for the opera, and she told me of this great guy in Paris. I met him and he's changed my life.

'French is a very throaty language, so you have a tendency to put everything at the back of the throat. Now I go up and front and out. I'm doing things I never would have done before, taking risks, feeling confident.'

As a result of the new exercises - Distel meets with his coach once a week, records the sessions and practises every day with a tape - the singer has brought some more ambitious material into his show. There's an escalating 'Some Enchanted Evening', for example, a tremulous 'Mona Lisa', and a throbbing 'My Funny Valentine' in which his voice stretches and expands on the line 'Is your figure less than Greek?' as if reaching out to feel for itself. And of course he sings 'The Good Life', the standard he wrote by accident. (He'd composed a piece of guitar music for the 1961 movie The Seven Deadly Sins, Tony Bennett got hold of it after meeting someone in an elevator and the next thing Distel knew, he was listening to the recorded version in a Brussels night-club. 'Suddenly I thought, 'My God, I know that song'. I ran to the booth. 'What is it?' 'It's Number One in America]' they said. My song]')

The new voice means he's also been fiddling with the Cafe Royal air- conditioning. It is switched off now when he first comes on stage and goes back on again after the instrumental 'Nuage'. This is partly because he gets cold fingers, partly because he got them burnt while giving a concert in Bahrain a few years ago.

'I had a Jewish drummer who didn't want to go there, so I had to have someone to replace him. I rehearsed him for three hours when we arrived, showing him what to do and didn't pay attention to the cold. And then at night, bouf, finished.' Dried up? 'No, blood things. You need cortizone and everything. Pah]'

He has had bad luck with his health over the years. Not only have there been the blood things and the nodules, but he's had cancer twice - once, alarmingly for a singer, of the thyroid gland in his neck. Both times, though, he's recovered completely - partly thanks, no doubt, to his athletic lifestyle.

He and his wife of 31 years, the former French national skier Francie Breaud (they have two grown-up sons), spend part of the year, when they're not at their home in the chic 16th district of Paris or at the family house in the south of France, in a chalet in the Alps where they ski madly. Last year, they heli-skied from Mont Blanc. (It's a lifestyle that yodels argent but Distel says he's only comfortable - 'I couldn't buy a boat. Or a plane' - and that he makes more money betting with people that 'The Good Life' is written by a Frenchman, than he's ever made from the song itself.) But it's in Paris that he spends most time with his real love: tennis. He plays in a club with 45 courts, beautifully situated in the Bois de Boulogne.

'I can prove it]' he shouts, pointing at a huge, hard, yellow callous below his right-hand thumb. 'I can prove it,' he shouts again, jumping up and dashing into his small sixth-floor hotel bedroom to come out brandishing a racquet. 'I adore tennis,' he says with a passion that would break the hearts of all those girls he's loved before.

Sacha Distel is at the Green Room, Cafe Royal until 30 July (Booking: 071-437 9090)

(Photograph omitted)