Sacha Distel

Singer and romantic icon who became a latterday Maurice Chevalier

Sacha Distel frequently complained that he was uncomfortable with his image as the epitome of the French heart-throb. His fame was a two-edged sword, and although he had the talent to do more substantial work - he was an exceptional jazz guitarist and wrote the standard "The Good Life"- he rarely pursued these interests. His output was mostly lightweight and rarely captured the depth of Brel, Gainsbourg or Aznavour. Many of his albums have not been reissued on CD, and as a result, there are more Sacha Distel LPs in charity shops than record stores today.

Alexandre ("Sacha") Distel, singer and guitarist: born Paris 29 January 1933; married 1963 Francine Bréaud (two sons); died Le Rayol-Canadel, France 22 July 2004.

Sacha Distel frequently complained that he was uncomfortable with his image as the epitome of the French heart-throb. His fame was a two-edged sword, and although he had the talent to do more substantial work - he was an exceptional jazz guitarist and wrote the standard "The Good Life"- he rarely pursued these interests. His output was mostly lightweight and rarely captured the depth of Brel, Gainsbourg or Aznavour. Many of his albums have not been reissued on CD, and as a result, there are more Sacha Distel LPs in charity shops than record stores today.

Distel's father, Leon, came from Odessa and, in 1917, he escaped the Bolshevik revolution by walking to Paris. With the same determination, he established himself in the city, opening an electrical store and marrying into a musical family. His wife, Andrée, who was Jewish, was a talented pianist and a graduate of the Paris Conservatoire and her brother became a noted bandleader. Ray Ventura et ses Collégiens were very popular and, as Ventura still lived with his parents, the young Distel, who was born in 1933, would watch him play and compose.

With the Nazi occupation of France, Distel's mother was arrested and imprisoned outside Paris. For two years, she lived in fear of her life. His father went into hiding and Ray Ventura went to America, but the family's maid took Distel to her sister some 200 miles away and he was educated in a Catholic college.

Following the liberation of Paris, Distel lived with his grandparents until he could be reunited with his parents. When he was 14, he switched from piano to guitar and he was given lessons by the up and coming Henri Salvador, who had played with his uncle. Within a few years he was winning awards and, for five years, he was voted the best jazz guitarist in France. He was praised by the Modern Jazz Quartet and he made an album with their leader, John Lewis, An Afternoon in Paris (1956).

After graduating in philosophy, Distel worked for his uncle's music publishing company. In 1956 Ray Ventura was publishing the soundtrack music for Et Dieu créa . . . la femme ( . . . And God Created Woman) - the film, set in St Tropez, that established Bardot as a sex symbol to rival Marilyn Monroe. This was boosted by Bardot's off-screen performance as her liaisons included the film's director, Roger Vadim, and its leading actor, Jean-Louis Trintignant.

Distel loved the jazz music on the Left Bank and, when he went to New York, he played in various jazz clubs. He accompanied Buddy Greco in America and Juliette Gréco in France and, from time to time, found himself on stage with such jazz greats as Miles Davis and Lionel Hampton. An American arranger and songwriter, Billy Byers, who worked for Ventura, suggested that he should sing his own songs and gradually he decided to do this.

In 1958 Distel invited Bardot to his birthday party in St Tropez and, from that evening, Bardot had a new beau. They were pursued by the paparazzi, but, as with so many celebrities, they encouraged the attention. They were invited on to The Ed Sullivan Show, but Bardot was not interested in a walk-on appearance. Distel, wanting to further his career, accepted and, although he performed a song, he found that Sullivan only remarked on his being the most envied man in the world.

The fame passed to incredulity when it became known that Distel had rejected Bardot's proposal of marriage, largely because his career would always be an appendage to hers. She ended the affair in a press release in 1959. Distel later said,

I don't regret one moment of my relationship with Brigitte, but I do regret that the newspapers made me look like nothing but a playboy when I was making a good living as a music publisher.

Meanwhile, Distel's own singing career, helped by the publicity, was taking off in a big way. He topped the French charts with his own song, " Scoubidou" (1958) and in June 1959, he had four records in the French Top 10 - " Oui oui oui" (1), " Ce serait dommage" (7), " Oh quelle nuit" (8) and, still in the charts after several months, " Scoubidou" (10). In 1960 he had another substantial success with " Mon beau chapeau". Being multilingual, this led to such incongruities as Distel, a Frenchman, at the top of German charts with a German version of an American song with a Spanish title, " Adios Amigo" (1962). Distel also recorded in Spanish and Italian.

In the UK he was less fortunate as "Love is Like a Violin" (1960) was totally outsold by the version by Ken Dodd, hardly anyone's idea of a romantic icon.

Considering his appearance - suntanned, slim and with the clearest of green eyes - it is surprising that Distel made so few film appearances. In 1960 he appeared as an ex-con in Les Mordus ( The Fanatics). In 1961 he was asked to write a song, " La Belle vie", for the film Les Sept péchés capitaux ( The Seven Deadly Sins), and after Jack Reardon had written an English lyric, "The Good Life", it was recorded by Tony Bennett. The song appears to propagate the playboy life ("The good life full of fun seems to be the ideal"), but then takes another direction and shows that lasting love can never be found that way.

And Distel himself was kissing the good life goodbye. He wanted to marry someone who would be a good mother to his children. He found her in the Olympic skier Francine Bréaud and they married in 1963. He never strayed, telling reporters, "Anything I want in a woman I can get at home." They had two sons and he doted on his family.

In 1967 he and the actress Joanna Shimkus recorded a French-language version of "Something Stupid", " Ces mots stupides", with great success.

In 1969 the producers of the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid realised that not enough had been done to establish the relationship between Paul Newman and Katherine Ross. They added an idyllic countryside scene with the two leads riding the same bicycle and they showed it to the composer, Burt Bacharach. Newman's character had troubles all around him but this was a carefree moment and Bacharach passed a working title, "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head", to his lyricist, Hal David. The song, retaining that title, was performed by B.J. Thomas but it was a cover version by Distel that was successful in the UK. It made the Top Ten and was on the charts for six months. Distel's French-language version, " Toute la pluie tombe sur moi", was a major hit in France.

Distel did not have further UK hits, although he recorded two more Bacharach/David songs for singles, "To Wait for Love" and "I'll Never Fall in Love Again". However, he was essentially an albums artist. Sacha Distel (1970) was a big seller and others were Close to You (1972), Love is All (1976), Forever and Ever (1978), and From Sacha with Love (1979). The titles tell the story: Distel became a major concert attraction, playing the attentive lover, emphasising his accent and appealing to the same market as Engelbert Humperdinck. Emphasising his charm, he hosted the Miss World contest in 1978.

Few French stars have succeeded in English-language countries the way that Distel did and he can be viewed as the Seventies version of Maurice Chevalier.

More often than not, Distel was performing and recording contemporary standards such as "You are the Sunshine of My Life", which he recorded with Bardot. "Michelle" was an odd choice, as the song incorporated Paul McCartney's schoolboy French as he romanced an au pair. He often worked with his friend Petula Clark, and they recorded a single together, "Lead Me On" (1973).

Distel had several television series in the UK, notably Sacha and Guests. In 1975 he appeared in a TV adaptation of a Noël Coward play, Fallen Angels, with Susannah York and Joan Collins. In 1978 he found success as a presenter on BBC Radio 2, and he evoked memories of his past with the albums, My Guitar and All That Jazz (1983) and Dédicaces (1991).

In 1985 Distel's Porsche went out of control as he was driving to a stock-car championship with the actress Chantal Nobel. The actress was in a coma for a month. Distel was fined and given a suspended sentence and, racked with guilt, became very depressed.

Four years ago Distel played the lawyer Billy Flynn in the West End production of Chicago, although his performance was as much about Sacha Distel as Billy Flynn. When he recorded a new album, When I Fall In Love, he wanted to show he had more to offer. His English lyricist Gary Osborne recalls:

He was underrated as a composer and I felt that he was uncomfortable with the image that he had traded on for 40 years. I took my 17-year-old daughter Lily to meet him and she fell in love with him instantly. I wasn't surprised, as my wife Lorna had fallen for him the last time we met.

That he could generate feelings in such a wide range was a major facet of his appeal.

Spencer Leigh



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