Eddy Marnay

Songwriter of verbal passion

Friday 10 January 2003 01:00
Edmond Bacri (Eddy Marnay), songwriter: born Algiers 1920; died Neuilly, France 3 January 2003.

The world of chanson entertainers includes some oddities. "His Holiness" the topknotted guru of the Raelians and King of the Clones was once, under his real name, Claude Vorilhon, a chanson singer in the French yé-yé period (late Sixties to early Seventies) who had one forgettable number, "Ma femme est jalouse – ouse – ouse . . ."

Eddy Marnay was a songwriter and lyricist whose verbal passion elevated the chanson far above that pitiable level. He was drawn to song from his earliest youth in Algiers, when he used to play hookey from school to spend his days in the local cinemas, watching popular musicals of the Fred Astaire variety, and haunting the record shops listening to jazz classics. His father was a music-hall fan, and soon recognised his son's talent with words, encouraging him to listen to the frequent radio transmissions of grand opera from La Scala and L'Opéra Comique.

During the Second World War, he served with the American troops in Italy, who familiarised him with all the latest hits and the curious lingo of popular American song. So in later life much of his work was used on films and on the new long-play discs, in his own translations.

With the Liberation, he made straight for Paris and Saint- Germain-des-Prés, that musical and artistic paradise of the Forties, with its liberated sexual mores and the deliriums of black jazz rhythms. There Edmond Bacri took on a new personality symbolised by his change of professional name to the more snappy Eddy Marnay. He frequented bars and cafés and jazz clubs situated usually in dank cellars, where he sometimes joined the band for a solo. His daytime life was spent in a variety of odd jobs as assistant director on movies or in journalism.

But he was often without a job, so he started writing song lyrics with the composer Marc Heyral, at the same time growing up politically by joining the Jeunesses Socialistes movement. He became friendly with all the up-and-coming stars of that exciting period, including Juliette Gréco and the musician and song composer Boris Vian, who had set words to Henri Salvador's new songs. He formed more enduring relationships with Léo Ferré and Michel Legrand. Through Ferré he met Edith Piaf, who invited them to play some new numbers. Marnay writes in the Robert Belleret biography Léo Ferré: une vie d'artiste (1985):

One day Ferré turned up at my parents' house, where I was still living. He had written most of "Les Amants de Paris", intended for Piaf, but had got stuck with the music, and I was able to show him a "bridge" passage in a much simpler register than the complicated developments Léo had become embroiled in. I was also able to strike the first spark that lit the all-important words. After a lot of work on it, we took the song to Piaf . . . and it was I who sang the song for her. She snapped it up, and made it a big hit in 1948.

This song marked the start of Marnay's long and successful career. He was in great demand as a parolier during the 1950s. The freshness and originality of his lyrics, he often said, came from memories of a happy childhood in Algeria, with all the savours, sounds, smells and colours of that period soon to be swept away by war. His lyrics are works of art, deeply sensitive, delicately expressed and modestly emotional. They seemed to flow so naturally from his pen (he wrote over 4,000 songs) yet they were always the result of hard work and constant revision.

Marnay's excellent knowledge of English and of the jazz world patois made him an ideal translator and adapter of standards, for in those days popular songs were not like the repetitious rubbish we hear today. One of his best-known songs is "Que sera sera" which Hitchcock used in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), sung touchingly, by Doris Day. His enchanting "Ballade irlandaise", sung by the comedian Bourvil, was a hit in 1958. He wrote "Exodus" for Piaf and songs for Charles Chaplin's A King in New York (1957). He wrote the words for the theme tune by Michel Legrand in Norman Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair (1969), the unforgettable "Les Moulins de mon coeur", rather disappointingly rendered as "The Windmills of my Mind". With André Popp he wrote "Manchester and Liverpool" (1970). He also made French translations for the songs of John Barry in the James Bond movies Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, as well as lyrics for Nino Rota's new treatment of La Dolce Vita interpreted by the ineffable Philippe Clay.

But it was with Michel Legrand that Marnay was to write his greatest triumphs. They became close friends, and this constant companionship gave their works a special unity of tone, as if the music had sprung straight from the words, the words from the music.

Their first song was the subtle "La Valse des Lilas" (1955), soon adapted in English by Johnny Mercer under the title "Once upon a Summertime"; it was played by Miles Davis, sung by a host of stars, from Frank Sinatra to Barbra Streisand, who recorded it in English and French. Streisand wanted to make an album entirely in French, so Marnay and Legrand flew to New York, where she was appearing on Broadway in Funny Girl. In her dressing-room, there was a piano at which the three worked for one month to produce her new album Je m'appelle Barbra (1964).

The great wave of yé-yé in France passed over Eddy Marnay and Michel Legrand – not their sort of thing – though they did cast a look full of irony at the craze in "1964", one of Legrand's best fantasy pieces.

It was in this period that Marnay began to experience that deserted feeling of being no longer fashionable. So he started his own production unit, publishing new composers and lyricists, whose work appealed to his sensitive tastes. It was thus that he was able to finance the music for Claude Sautet's Les Choses de la vie (The Little Things in Life, 1969), composed by Philippe Sarde, at that time still a teenager. After that success Sarde, supported by Marnay, was to compose the music for all Sautet's films up to Un Coeur en hiver (A Heart in Winter, 1992).

However, Eddy Marnay was to experience an unexpected late boost to his life's work when he was sent a recording by a 13-year-old Canadian girl named Céline Dion. "As soon as I heard the first bars, I knew that my career was taking a new turning," he said. He produced the first songs by the gamine, songs that a few years later were to be sold in album form every 26 seconds all over the world. Dion's "D'amour ou d'amitié" from 1982 is still a best-seller.

In the past year, his faithful friend Michel Legrand asked him to start work with him on re-drafting the libretto of The Count of Monte Cristo to celebrate "Dumas Year" in France. It had originally been staged in 1970. "That's what was keeping him alive," says his constant collaborator. "To his very last breath, Eddy always had a pencil in his hand." In every sense of the expression, Eddy Marnay was a man of his word – or rather, of his words.

James Kirkup

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