Henri Salvador: France's 'Monsieur Joie de Vivre'

The television appearances of the entertainer Henri Salvador brightened up many a childhood in France throughout the Sixties and Seventies. He was best known as a performer of catchy novelty songs such as "Zorro Est Arrivé" (a version of the Coasters' "Along Came Jones" which cashed in on the Western craze), the ode to laziness "Le Travail C'est La Santé", the nonsensical "Juanita Banana" and "Mais Non Mais Non" (a French version of "Mah Na Mah Na", the Piero Umiliani ditty subsequently made famous by The Muppet Show). Salvador was an effervescent, joyful presence, capturing the mood of a nation discovering the delights of the consumer society.

But there was a lot more to him than infectious laughter, a talent for mugging and the Dick Emery-style drag comedy routines, with pigtails and a bunch of bananas. He was also a velvet-voiced, Nat King Cole-like crooner and jazz guitarist and, under the pseudonym "Henry Cording", introduced France to rock'*'roll when he collaborated with the writer Boris Vian and the composer Michel Legrand on the single "Rock and Roll-Mops" in 1956. Vian and Salvador worked on hundreds of songs together, in a variety of styles, including blues (the pun-heavy "Blouse Du Dentiste") and beguine ("Faut Rigoler").

The short colour 16mm films Salvador made for Scopitone ("video" jukeboxes that were all the rage in French cafés in the Sixties) were forerunners of the pop promos, and he also played his part in the gestation of the bossa nova genre and its popularity in French-speaking countries and beyond. A keen pétanque player and advocate of the farniente ("doing nothing"), he nevertheless remained active well into his eighties and released one of his most successful albums, the appropriately titled Révérence ("Bowing out") in 2006. "I don't sing, I whisper," he once said of his silken, honeyed voice. "When you whisper into the mike, you are able to transmit real feeling. My philosophy is, don't hurry, don't worry and always believe in the future."

Born in Cayenne, in Guiana, the French enclave in South America, in 1917, Henri Salvador was the middle child of a municipal tax collector of Spanish descent, who had met and married Henri's mother in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. In the mid-Twenties, the family moved to Paris and Henri Salvador discovered jazz when a cousin played him records by Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. "I fell in love with their music," Salvador said. "At age 12, I found my calling." He convinced his father to buy him a guitar and played constantly, "17 or 18 hours a day, until my fingers bled".

The hard work paid off when he went from playing Pigalle bars to touring France with the American violinist Eddy South. He also worked with the gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. "He looked at me and said: 'Who's the little boy?' He didn't see me as competition," Salvador recalled, "but I knew he was impressed when he changed where we sat on stage so that I couldn't see what chords he used."

His career was interrupted by the Second World War but he kept playing and left France with Ray Ventura, the Jewish bandleader who had managed to get work in South America in 1941. Salvador's gift for languages and comic ability helped Ventura's orchestra get across to Brazilian audiences. "Our shows there were poorly received but I saved them," he said. "We were doing so badly that Ray sent me out as a novelty act. We were dying, so I did a Popeye impersonation. The audiences loved it."

A natural mimic, Salvador developed the comedic side of his act and became a popular figure in Brazil. He struck up a friendship with Antonio Carlos Jobim and influenced the bossa nova style the Brazilian musician developed after listening to Salvador's languid song "Dans Mon Ile" in 1958. "When I recorded that little tune, holed up in my apartment in Paris, I could never have imagined it would change musical history," Salvador remarked. "For me, it was an extraordinary stroke of luck, and a great honour." He was given the honorary title of ambassador for Brazilian music in France by the singer, and Brazilian minister for culture, Gilberto Gil. Salvador duetted with both Gil and the singer Caetano Veloso on Révérence.

Salvador often used Quincy Jones as arranger on his recording sessions in the late Fifties and early Sixties. In 1956, he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in the United States but he subsequently concentrated on the French market with a succession of novelty hits accompanied by the requisite proto-MTV visuals. "There was a company, Scopitone, who put machines in every bar," he explained. "For a franc, you could watch a video. You've just had a hard day at work, you want a drink, you want to be entertained. So I made 17 films to make people laugh."

His second wife Jacqueline Garabedian was the architect of Salvador's mainstream success and managed his move from cabaret into television with shows such as Salves D'Or (1968) and Dimanche Salvador (1973). In the Seventies, his popularity reached new heights when he recorded "Les Aristochats", a song inspired by the Disney feature cartoon The Aristocats, and he made several albums of songs and stories for children. His French television specials saw him duetting with everyone from Tom Jones to Shirley Bassey via Al Jarreau. But he remained modest about his standing in French chanson and other musical genres. "I don't care a bit about that. When we disappear, the world still keeps turning. We are nothing". In 1988 he was appointed a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur by President François Mitterrand. Salvador published an autobiography, Toute Ma Vie, in 1994.

At the turn of the millennium, by now in his eighties, Salvador thought about retiring, but instead began collaborating with a new generation of songwriters, including Keren Ann on the album Chambre Avec Vue (2000), which sold two million copies around the world.

Last year, the entertainer the French called "Monsieur Joie De Vivre" finally made his British television début on the BBC's Later . . . with Jools Holland, performing "La Vie C'est La Vie". With a dark suit and yellow tie, he still cut a dapper figure. After his farewell concert in Paris in December 2007, he said, "I am the only one who can bow out while still alive."

Pierre Perrone

Henri Salvador, singer, songwriter and actor: born Cayenne, French Guiana 18 July 1917; four times married (one son); died Paris 13 February 2008.

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