Claude Nougaro

Bullish artist of the chanson

Claude Nougaro, chanson singer: born Toulouse, France 9 September 1929; married (one son, three daughters); died Paris 4 March 2004.

The express sleeper from Paris-Austerlitz to La Tour de Carol stops around 4am at Toulouse for a change of engine. The station announcer's voice booms, "Toulouse - Toulouse", echoing on the double train-whistle vowels. The mute "e" at the end is regionally voiced in an "uh" that does not indicate disgust. It always reminds me of the way the great native son of La Ville Rose, the singer Claude Nougaro, used to bellow out melodiously, lovingly those vibrant vowels in his celebrated theme-song, "O, Toulouse!", devoted, along with several others, to La Ville Rose and its environs.

That appellation refers to the mellow old local red brick of which the old districts (and Matabiau Station itself) are constructed. "A rose-red city, half as old as time", the only line everyone knows of the 19th-century poet J.W. Burgon in a poem on Petra, also comes to mind - though Toulouse today is a thoroughly modern city, swarming with university students: the Canal du Midi runs just across the road from the station. Nougaro sang of that, too.

Claude Nougaro was born in 1929 in the ancient quarter of Minimes, and throughout all his wandering professional life he never forgot it; towards the end, though living in a luxurious apartment facing Notre Dame in Paris, he returned to it. He bought and restored an old house in the countryside at Paziols (the Occitane version Pasiòls is also given on the sign at the entrance to the village). His father was a fine first baritone at the Paris Opéra, and his mother a professional pianist at the Toulouse Conservatoire.

In his last album, Embarquement immédiat (2000), he talks between numbers about his childhood in Toulouse: "My mother gave birth to me at home, helped by my grandmother Cécile Nougaro, a professional midwife . . ." His own first child, a girl, was named after his grandmother, and forms the subject of one of Nougaro's most touching ballads, a real declaration of fatherly love, "Cécile ma Fille".

He was bored by schools - always a good sign in a budding artist at odds with himself, and with society. With the Liberation, he too was liberated and made straight for Paris, determined to be a poet and an actor. He was also attracted by new developments in the composition and performance of chansons under the influence of live American jazz.

In France, famous writers and poets did not look down upon the chanson, a unique popular art form. They compiled lyrics for it: Aragon, Sartre, Queneau, (whose "Art Poétique" was set to music by Kosma), Desnos, Carco, Anouilh, Boris Vian - who was a prolific song writer, especially for Henri Salvador, and provided great lyrics for Kurt Weill's romance about another city, "Bilbao".

In 1950, Nougaro worked with Vian's pianist and started performing his own texts at the "Lapin Agile" in Montmartre. He sent some to Edith Piaf's parolière, Marguerite Monnot, always veiled in clouds of opium fumes, and she produced his first two settings, "Mephisto" and "Le Sentier de la Guerre", which for a while were taken up by Piaf. She also asked Nougaro to be her curtain-raiser at the Olympia, and Dalida followed suit. Nougaro was at last on his way in the chanson world of Paris, so fiercely competitive and cruelly envious of the success of others.

"I, too, like the poets, wanted to sing my life, do self-portraits, express the universal. It was then that the troubles started, that my night began to fall . . . The chanson is a minor art, I agree. But I seized upon those heart-rending street songs with an aristocratic arrogance." One of the people who helped him to achieve those poetic heights was Michel Legrand, who composed for his texts the immortal "Le Cinéma", "Une Petite Fille", "Les Don Juan" and "Le Jazz et le Java". Nougaro gave them their full poetic as well as musical value: "I sing in the French language, that itself sings in rhythm." Melodious troatings of a stag for some.

For his first 33rpm recording in 1958, the poet and dramatist Jacques Audiberti wrote for its cover: "He gives words a concrete resonance seldom heard in the work of poets on paper only." For his first 45rpm disc (1962) Audiberti wrote:

The young bull Nougaro, one who knows how to write, charges once more in full force into the black arena of the disc, his hooves thundering out poems on the night, women, hotel rooms, the rain ("the tap-dancing rain") - women above all, far from the dried-up riverbed of books . . .

That wilful creative arrogance was indeed to know a mixture of light and dark periods, reaching a pitch-black climax in 1985 when he was dropped by his impresario Eddie Barclay: the poet had lost his public. But Nougaro hit back with a triumphant tour of Africa, then made straight for New York, where he was "reborn in the Duke Ellington clinic founded by Boris Vian". With Sonny Rollins, he created the beautiful rhapsody "A tes Seins" ("To Your Breasts"), and "Sing Sing Song" with Nat Adderley.

He became part of French cinema's Nouvelle Vague from its beginning, and helped immortalise Jean-Luc Godard's A Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960) with his own version of that title, based on Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo à la la Turk" - written while hospitalised after a car crash. With the Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell he wrote his impressions of Rio de Janeiro in "Bidonville". The record he cut in New York, Nougayork (1987), became his biggest commercial hit, both in the United States and in Europe. He was soon back in France, on interminable tours and in repeated star appearances at the Olympia, Bobino and the Casino de Paris.

Then the dark days returned when he suffered a heart attack: he was absent from the stage for two years. On his return he no longer danced like a disarticulated performing bear or as a toreador attacking a bull on its last legs. But his voice was still true, sounding at times like a human saxophone. In 1994, he had shared a disc with Dee Dee Bridgwater, Didier Lockwood and Michel Petrucciano ("Le Gardien du Phare" - "The Lighthouse Keeper") but his contribution was spoken only, no music.

He gave his last performance in Andorra in 16 April 2003, to a joyous Catalan audience. On the day of his death, the great square of the Capitole in Toulouse was packed with thousands of fans and a huge photograph of him was hung on the façade of the City Hall while the recordings of his songs boomed out among the ancient arcades - "Tou-lou-suh . . ." "Tou-lou-suh . . ." - all through the night.

James Kirkup

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