Obituary: Jean Sablon
Thursday 03 March 1994
'MUSIC was our daily bread,' wrote Jean Sablon in his 1979 autobiography De France ou bien d'ailleurs ('From France or Anywhere You Like'). 'I was born in music]'
His father was a conductor and the composer of chansons and a comic opera. His two brothers were musicians, and his sister, Germaine, had a career in theatre and music. In London with de Gaulle during the Second World War, she launched the Chant des Partisans that was to become a famous Resistants' song.
Jean, too, studied music and piano, but left the Lycee Charlemagne in Paris during his third year to try his luck at the Conservatoire, where he very soon got cast in minor roles in operetta. In 1923 he made his first professional appearance, alongside Jean Gabin, at the Theatre des Bouffes-Parisiens in Trois jeunes filles nues ('Three Naked Girls') and with Viviane Romance in Dix-neuf ans ('Naughty Nineteen') at the Theatre Daunou.
He was already writing songs, and found he was able to sing them in what others declared was a very pleasant deep voice, His career as an actor almost ended with his first film role, again with Gabin, in Chacun sa chance ('A Chance for All') but the critics did not like it, and Sablon did not like himself on the screen, so he gave up hopes of being an actor. But by 1928 he was again with the Bouffes-Parisiens on tour in Brazil, a country he was to take to his heart.
On his return to Paris, Jean Sablon became an habitue of various cabarets, notably Le Boeuf sur le Toit, where he became a close friend of Jean Cocteau and joined forces with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli to make his first jazz records. A frequent visitor there was the Prince of Wales, who became a fan of the group. Another person who was impressed by Sablon's great charm and talent was Mistinguett, who in 1931 hired him as her partner at the Casino de Paris. She was tyrannical as well as temperamental, and ruled her productions with an iron hand. But Sablon became a real pro there: Josephine Baker taught him to dance, and Damia (who personified La Marseillaise in Abel Gance's film Napoleon) took his singing in hand and helped him 'place' his voice.
Another important friend was his exact contemporary the chanson- writer Mireille, who gave Sablon his first popular successes with La Petit Chemin and Couche dans le foin ('Lying in the Hay'). Mireille and her piquant, original songs were to accompany him all through his life. Other great friends were Charles Trenet and his composer-accompanist Johnny Hess, who brought Sablon his signature tune, Vous qui passez sans me voir ('You Who Pass By Without a Glance') with its hauntingly sad lyric by Trenet and lovely melody by Hess. When I was translating a young French writer's first novel for Quartet Books, I found that he had chosen as a title Vous qui passez sans me voir, but despite my pleadings Trenet refused to allow his title to be used. Trenet felt quite rightly that the song was the unique proprietor of its title. Whenever I hear Sablon singing it, the words and music bring tears to my eyes. Sablon's recording of it was a world-wide success, and won him the Grand Prix du disque Charles-Cros in 1937.
This was the year in which Sablon made his first visit to the United States, where he was known as 'The French Troubadour' and 'The Latin Lover'. He spent two years there, singing on stage and on the radio, featuring on the CBS Hit Parade, where he was ranked higher than Sinatra. After Chevalier, he was the only French singer to have such tremendous success in the US. In France, his style was that of a chanteur de charme which the American word 'crooner' hardly does justice to: but he was soon known as 'the French Bing Crosby' and rivalled Charles Boyer as the image of a gallant, elegant, seductive Parisian lover.
It was in New York that he made his great discovery - the microphone. He brought one back to Paris with him, and became the first person to sing through a hand-held mike on the French stage. It caused a scandal, and jealous rivals began to spread the rumour that he had lost his voice. Indeed, for a while he was called le chanteur sans voix. But gradually he won his public round by his exceptionally sensitive use of the microphone in beautiful songs like Syracuse, J'attendrai, Clopin-clopant, La Chanson des rues and La Serenade sans espoir. Another of his great hits was Je tire ma reverence ('I Bow My Way Out') which was to become the song with which he closed his shows.
Sablon made the great discovery that a mere technical tool, a microphone, could be humanised. He made it a part of his body. He made love to his mike, cradling it in his hands like a lover's face, stroking it, whispering words of love to it, smiling at it with his ironic yet tender smile. He used it not for vulgar volume, but to refine his artistry in the delivery of the most banal lyric. He was the first popular singer to know how to conduct a personal relationship between his voice and his mike. It was amplification as art.
His own instrument, a velvety, warm voice, thrilling in its lower registers and light and playful in the upper reaches he floated out so effortlessly, sang in concert with that other instrument, a vessel into which he poured his whole heart until the theatre itself became a living receiver of the subtle emotions relayed by his intimate delivery and his appealing personality. He was the embodiment of a charm that was never facile: it was simply natural. He had a perfect smile whose gentle wit was in later life accentuated by a world-weary moustache that at times, together with his big brown eyes whose languor held a mischievous sparkle, made him look like a reincarnation of the great poet Paul Valery. The influence of his style could be heard in Rudy Vallee, Crosby and Sinatra, and in the work of very different French singers like Sacha Distel, Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour and Georges Brassens, who performed with him and was one of his most fervent admirers.
I first heard Sablon perform in public during his season at the London Palladium in 1948, and I wept all through the performance. I was at the stage door to get his autograph, which he signed with the title of one of his songs - 'Please, James'. During the Seventies he made appearances on French television and toured the world. He bought a ranch in Brazil, and visited Japan innumerable times from the Thirties onwards. His elegant sartorial style and trim black moustache can be seen imitated in Ozu's early silent movies, for in Japan he was a great hit with both sexes.
In 1981 he gave his 75th anniversary concert at the Lincoln Center in New York, but it was in Rio de Janeiro, in 1983, that he gave his farewell recital to a very emotional public awash with tears as he said goodbye: 'I bow myself out . . .'
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