Marlene Dietrich had always refused to cut a record in French, until she had the good luck to encounter in Paris a great discoverer of musical talents, Jacques Canetti.
He was a younger brother of Elias Canetti, the Nobel prizewinner for literature in 1981. But while Elias went on to to make a name as a writer in Austria, Germany and Britain, Jacques made his way from their home- town, Ruse in Bulgaria, to Paris, where he specialised in German studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales. After graduation, he entered the recording company Polydor in 1931, where he began by sticking "labels with a hole" on the records, a task requiring more delicate precision than might at first be supposed.
It was while engaged on this humble task that he met Dietrich and charmed her into making her first record entirely in French. He was promoted, organised sessions of le jazz-hot on the radio, and produced the first concerts by Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong in Paris. But he also directed the recordings for Ravel's Quatuor and Alban Berg's Suite Lyrique by the string quartet Galimir.
In 1936 Canetti became artistic director at Radio-Cite, determined to promote both classical music and jazz. His popular programme Le Music- hall des Jeunes was the first audience-participation venture on French radio, in which young talents were displayed and listeners were encouraged to phone in their votes for the best artist.
Canetti's first discovery in this way was Agnes Capri, a pupil of both Charles Dullin at the Atelier and of the Schola Cantorum. The switchboard was flooded when Edith Piaf made her first transmission. He signed her up, and followed her with Charles Trenet and Lucienne Delyle, later famous for her nostalgic Parisian chansons like "Sur les quais du vieux Paris".
Canetti's enthusiasm for hot jazz as well as chanson led him to start writing for the British weekly the Melody Maker and to organise tours of Hot Jazz stars all over the United Kingdom. It was he who first introduced to Europe Cab Calloway and all the leading jazz instrumentalists and singers of the pre-war period. He became known as the Impresario of the Immortals.
With the outbreak of war, Jacques Canetti became director of programmes at Radio-France Alger, and formed his first company of actors and chanson singers that toured all over North Africa and the Middle East.
Among his stars were the great actress Francoise Rosay and the comedian Pierre Dac. On his return to France in 1947, he started the Theatre des Trois Baudets, a celebrated launching-pad for young singers in Pigalle. He began to specialise in the direction of "author-composer-interpreter" performances, most of them signed up by him for Polydor-Philips, of which he became artistic director.
It was at Les Trois Baudets that I heard my first chanson stars in the late 1940s - Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg, Juliette Greco, Guy Beart, Jacqueline Francois, Felix Leclerc from Canada. Other now-familiar names who appeared in that cabaret before it closed down, to my chagrin, in 1960, were Leo Ferre, Les Freres Jacques, Michel Legrand, Mouloudji and Henri Salvador.
Canetti appears in books by or about some of these artists - in Juliette Greco's third- person autobiography Jujube, in Philippe Boggio's immense biography of Boris Vian, in Jackie Berroyer's Rock 'n' Roll et chocolat blanc (with a richly eccentric portrait of the maverick Jacques Higelin, whose 12 Chansons d'avant le deluge was produced by Canetti) and many others.
Canetti, volatile and hyperactive, found he could no longer bear the restraints of Polydor and Philips, so he set up his own recording company in 1963, for which he produced Jeanne Moreau's first records, and the early work of Serge Reggiani, who is still making the best of an almost extinct voice on Pascal Sevran's afternoon television show La Chance aux Chansons, in films directed by his son, and in all the leading music-halls of France.
Canetti founded his Disques Canetti in order to accommodate such unclassifiable artists of the chanson as Simone Signoret and Boris Vian. He had an uncanny flair for detecting hidden talent, and, once discovered, he never let them down. Cora Vaucaire said of him: "He never treated artists as if they were consumer products." He encouraged them to develop their gifts and personalities, and consoled them when they flopped or had stage-fright. He also managed the careers of Maurice Chevalier and Yves Montand, organising highly successful tours for them both in France and abroad.
His memoirs, On cherche jeune homme aimant la musique (1978), are full of fascinating stories about the famous, and his "discoveries" have been enshrined in two recent CDs devoted to chanson and comedy. One of his stars, Guy Beart, paid homage to his impresario thus: "In the field of the chanson, he merited the same honours as his brother had won for literature."
Certainly many of the songs promoted by Jacques Canetti have become immortal standards of the French - and the international - musical scene.
Jacques Canetti, musical director and impresario: born Ruse, Bulgaria 30 May 1909; died Suresnes (Hauts-de-Seine), France 7 June 1997.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies