Gilbert Bécaud

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François Gilbert Silly (Gilbert Bécaud), singer and songwriter: born Toulon, France 24 October 1927; twice married (five children and one adopted daughter); died Paris 18 December 2001.

François Gilbert Silly (Gilbert Bécaud), singer and songwriter: born Toulon, France 24 October 1927; twice married (five children and one adopted daughter); died Paris 18 December 2001.

Gilbert Bécaud was one of the first "pop stars" of the Fifties in France, and his name was always associated with the great Olympia music-hall on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. He topped the bill there 30 times, a record. His first appearance there was in 1954, under the celebrated management of Bruno Coquatrix and family.

In April 1893, La Goulue, the artiste immortalised by Toulouse-Lautrec, had opened a "modern, iron-framed" music hall on the site. In 1910, the first film projections in France took place there, while the stage was occupied in the evenings by Yvonne Printemps and Mistinguett, famous chanson names, followed, after the First World War, by heavenly Damia and Lys Gautey. In 1954, the refurbished Olympia opened with the star attractions Lucienne Delyle, Les Ballets d'Analousie and Gilbert Bécaud.

At that time, it was a popular variety house specialising in chanson singers and vocal ensembles, with Edith Piaf, Dalida and Oum Kalsoum on the bill, as well as jazz artists like Ella Fitzgerald, later followed by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Bécaud was born François Silly in the south-eastern port of Toulon in 1927. He studied singing at the Nice Conservatoire and in 1950-52, he accompanied the singer Jacques Pills on a tour of America, picking up the new rhythms and technical and scenic trends.

It was Edith Piaf who introduced Bécaud to the chansonnier Louis Amade, who wrote several lyrics for Bécaud – including " La Croix" and " La Ballade des Baladins". Pierre Delanoë wrote the lyrics for Bécaud's first big hit as a writer, " Mes Mains", sung by Lucienne Boyer.

In 1962, he wrote what came to be his best-known number, and his theme song at all further appearances, " Et Maintenant" (its English title was "What Now, My Love?") which led to international stardom, with appearances in London, Moscow and New York. The song was also recorded by Frank Sinatra, among others; and Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, James Brown and Cher have all recorded versions of "Let it be me" (originally " Je t'appartiens").

Bécaud's energetic stage persona earned him the nickname "Monsieur 100,000 Volts", and the smart, hip, Americanised flavour of his presentations enraptured the young. Every two years he had his big season at the Olympia, where in 1977 he celebrated his 25th appearance, an occasion that heralded a change in his image from fantastic young crooner to a more sober middle-aged mellowness and a sadly deteriorating voice, ruined by over-indulgence in cigarettes. His songs took on slower tempos and had less demanding melodic lines. He would sketch a few elementary dance steps now and then. Some of his song titles reflect this mutation; for instance " C'est en septembre", " Je reviens te chercher", " L'Absent" or " La Solitude".

He would relax with slightly livelier numbers in which he relied on the support of a faithful audience clapping the rhythm and joining in the reprises. He modified his " louque" (look) by wearing dark suits, white shirts and polka-dot neckties. He kept his figure, and remained a charmer, but sat longer at the piano, which he thumped unmercifully – Maurice Chevalier remarked that he "martyred the music" and beat the living daylights out of the helpless piano, with sprinklings of false notes.

The last dozen years or so of his career were marked by a steady decline of the great music-hall traditions in France. In Paris, wonderful palaces of variety and shrines to the chanson and its singers – the Medrano, the Gaumont Palace, Le Concert Mayol and above all the beautiful, atmospheric Bobino in the rue de la Gaieté in Montparnasse, a theatre street slowly being overrun by sex-shops – all were massacred by the property speculator's demolition balls and bulldozers.

Only the Olympia survived, despite financial difficulties that Bécaud generously helped alleviate by appearing there free of charge – something its manager Bruno Coquatrix never forgot. In 1992, the Olympia closed for a period of five years of renovation. There was a grand soirée on the closing night, at which the singers, in tears, smashed champagne glasses on the stage and walked off through a desert of shattered flutes. But Bécaud refused to take part in this emotional separation, declaring: "I like to open – but I refuse to close!"

For the grand reopening in 1997, however, Bécaud was the star to a rapturous audience in the scintillating new building, every crimson fauteuil filled. And broken-voiced with emotion and vocal inadequacy, he sang his signature tune, " Et Maintenant", which resounded with the true meaning of that terribly testing, heart-rending chanson.

James Kirkup