Obituary: Georges Guetary

Lambros Worloou (Georges Guetary), singer, dancer and revue artist: born Alexandria, Egypt 8 February 1915; married 1955 Jeanine Guyon (one son, one daughter); died Mougins (Alpes-Maritimes), France 13 September 1997.
One of the tourist sights of pre-war Paris was the spectacle of the legendary chanteuse Mistinguett negotiating the glittering cascade of steps as she made her entrace on the vast plateau of the Casino de Paris, her diamante-gloved right hand grasping in terror the reassuring left forearm of Maurice Chevalier or Jean Gabin.

They were her favourite "Boys". When Chevalier left - she had accused him of trying to make her stumble, a not infrequent faux pas as she stalked and tottered around in absurdly high heels - his place was taken by a succession of personable young chorus boys who became known as the quadrille. Their most glamorous member was the singer and dancer Georges Guetary, who, while respectful enough to "la Miss" on stage, teased the ageing star in her spangled boas and panoplies of rainbow ostrich feathers top and bottom by calling the quadrille of "les Boys" her "four gigolos". But such was the warm good-nature of Guetary, his teasing was always tender, and la Miss adored him, as did many of the ladies (and some of the gentlemen) who fell under his irresistible spell.

Part of Guetary's exotic charm, and much of his stage persona as a "Latin lover" with a voice of Creme Chantilly resided in his mischievous innocence combined with an erotic mystery inherent in his ancestry. His parents were Greek. They emigrated to Egypt, where Georges was born and brought up in Alexandria and Cairo.

He was baptised Lambros Worloou at the Greek Orthodox Church. So he had a background similar to that of one of my favourite poets, Constantine Cavafy, who lived most of his life in Alexandria, where he died in 1933. It is quite possible that Guetary knew him. This connection, however slight, was enough to stimulate my interest in the singer when he arrived after the war in London, where Cavafy's poems had begun to be translated.

As a child, Georges was an ardent filmgoer, and he was taught the rudiments of music. His father was a figure in the textile industry, and intended his son to follow in his footsteps. So Georges dutifully attended the Chadbi School of Commercial Studies, one of the best Greek schools in Alexandria. In 1937, his father dispatched him to Paris, to further his knowledge of commercial procedures. But instead of attending to business Georges went to the music school run by the great violinist Jacques Thibaud and the pianist Alfred Cortot. Thibaud advised him to take lessons from the singer Ninon Vallin, who gave him a good classical training, so that before he ever began singing popular songs he became an accomplished performer of the lieder of Schubert, Schumann, Faure and Duparc.

His first appearance on stage was in 1937 at the Europeen as a soloist with Jo Bouillon's band, where he was "discovered" one night by the eagle- eyed Mistinguett, who fell for his dimpled smile's almost phosphorescent brilliance, and for his velvety voice. He started appearing as her cavalier at the Casino de Paris in 1938, and was an immediate popular succcess.

Guetary began making his first recordings at this period, and with the outbreak of the Second World War went on tour as a solo singer and also in revue and operetta, in which genre he was to make his name. His first role in operetta was in 1942, in Toi, c'est moi.

As the war progressed and France suffered under the Nazi occupation, Georges thought it would be prudent to move south, to Toulouse, where he got a job as maitre d'hotel at Belossi's, then one of the leading restaurants of la ville rose. He stayed at the Hotel Victor Hugo, singing "Serenade Portugaise" and Tino Rossi's big hit "Veni-veni-veni" to anyone who would listen. His voice charmed even the Gestapo. The accordeonist Fredo Gardoni took him on tour, thus re-activating Georges' career.

He was very popular in the Toulouse region, with its memories of the great tango composer Carlos Gardel. The public loved his "Mediterranean" voice, rolling its "r's" like the River Garonne running over its pebbles. It was while he was in Toulouse that he was advised to change his name. He became Georges Guetary, after the Basque town, a change that displeased many Basque patriots and performers who had staked their reputations on being true Basques.

In 1943, he moved back to Paris, where he starred in a long series of operettas. Among the most successful were La Route fleurie ("The Flowery Path") at the ABC which ran for four years from 1952, Pacifico (three- year run), La Polka des lampions (three years) and Monsieur Carnaval (three years at the Chatelet, the temple of operetta). He even did a turn with the Cirque Bouglione, singing his most beloved numbers and performing a haute ecole number. His recordings sold by the millions: "Bolero", "Bambino", "Ce Soir a Mexico", "Chiquito", "Le Petite bal du samedi soir", "Samba brezilienne" and all the hits from international operetta. He also made films directed by Gilles Grangier: Le Cavalier noir, Les Aventures de Casanova, The Gypsy Baron (1954), Le Chemin du paradis (1955), Une Nuit aux Baleares (1956), in which he attempted to catch up with the younger generation with "Georges, viens danser le rock'n'roll".

But Guetary also had a successful career abroad, beginning in London, where Sir Charles Cochran starred him in Bless the Bride, written with great wit and panache by A.P. Herbert, and with Vivian Ellis's enchanting score. It ran for nearly a thousand performances in 1947, and was followed by Latin Quarter (1949) which the British public found a refreshing change from Ivor Novello. In 1950 he played on Broadway in Arms and the Girl, for which he was awarded a Tony as Best Foreign Performer. He went on to Hollywood to appear with Gene Kelly in Vincente Minnelli's An American in Paris (1951), in which he sang "'Swonderful".

At the age of 80, Georges Guetary returned to one of his old haunts, the Bobino music hall, to give a farewell concert. By then, he had become known affectionately as "The Eternal Young Man". The audience was composed mostly of elderly blue-rinsed ladies crushing a tear beneath rhinestone- rimmed eyeglasses as their heartthrob sang with his honeyed tones the ballad of their youth.

I had taken the precaution of asking for an aisle seat, in case I wanted to leave early, but found myself caught up by the magic of Guetary's 90- minute performance. He even came down into the stalls to wander among his fans as he sang, and he even stopped in front of me as he sang "La Valse des regrets" (music by Brahms) a capella. I was one of the very few men in the audience, though there were a lot of younger girls who had come possibly to hear the songs they had heard their mothers and grandmothers sing.

Georges Guetary was still in good form. He never smoked or drank, and took exercise every day. He kept his voice in trim, too, by vocalising for an hour or so in the afternoons. His charm was intact, though I did notice he had resorted to a neat pastiche. The smile was dazzling as ever, and there was still that naughty twinkle in his eyes as he sang certain songs he must certainly have thought of as slushy to say the least. He kept his art alive by the saving grace of humour, and by never taking himself, or his outrageous operetta roles, too seriously.

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