An enduring and beloved figure in the world of French popular song, Henri Salvador has combined classic jazz crooner stylings with a ready wit and an infectious laugh. Often compared to Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole, Salvador is also known for his versatility: he proved to be adept at performing romantic material as well as the novelty numbers that first made him famous during the World War II era. Salvador was skeptical of American musical influences; he parodied rock 'n' roll music when it first appeared, but cannily exploited it as his remarkably long career progressed. Well into his ninth decade of life in the early 2000s, Salvador was still roosting atop French CD sales charts.
Salvador was born on July 18, 1917, in Cayenne, a city on South America's Caribbean coast that was then part of France's colonial empire. His parents were both from the French-speaking Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Salvador's father was a tax collector of Spanish descent, and his Afro-Caribbean or indigenous Caribbean mother "had a beautiful voice," Salvador told the International Herald Tribune. "I inherited that."
Salvador's parents brought him to Paris when he was young, hoping to put their son on the path to a career as a doctor or lawyer. A cousin who introduced Salvador to jazz derailed those plans, however. Salvador was 11 or 12 when he first heard the music of trumpeter Louis Armstrong and bandleader Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington. "I was entranced," he told England's Manchester Guardian Weekly. "I bought a guitar for 100 francs and fell in love with the instrument. I kept on playing night and day—my mother thought I'd gone mad."
After several years of practice and further inspiration from French-Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, Salvador was good enough to play for tips in Paris clubs and sidewalk cafes. The city was home to many African-American jazz musicians in the 1930s, and Salvador's skills were further deepened when he signed on with a band led by violinist Eddie South. Salvador served for several years in the French military, and after World War II broke out, Salvador got an offer from leading French bandleader Ray Ventura to join Ventura's ensemble for a tour of South America.
The safety of Ventura, who was Jewish, was under severe threat from the pro-Nazi government in the French city of Vichy, and the dark-skinned, foreign-born Salvador was hardly better off. After Ventura persuaded or bribed Vichy government official Pierre Laval to issue exit visas for the band, Salvador jumped at the chance to flee France. On tour in Brazil, Salvador did impressions of Sinatra and other leading American vocalists, and he soaked up the country's popular music. When the restrained but sensual Brazilian style known as bossa nova rose to international popularity in the 1950s, Salvador easily incorporated it into his own style, and a good deal of his own music had a Latin tinge.
Working with fellow band member Paul Misraki, Salvador began writing songs of his own, and he was ready for a solo career when he returned to France after the war. Recording for the Polydor label, he notched a series of hits that included "Le portrait de tante Caroline" and "Le loup, la biche, et le chevalier." In 1949 he won the French Grand Prix du Disque—the rough equivalent of an American Grammy award.
Salvador's success continued in the 1950s, and musically aware Americans began to encounter his songs, although he never recorded in English. He made a series of appearances at New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel in 1956 and even appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. These appearances coincided with the height of the original rock and roll craze in the United States, and Salvador took note of the new music, as yet mostly unknown in France. He formed a group called the Original Rock and Roll Boys and, together with song-writer Boris Vian, created "Le blues du dentiste" and other hits that combined a rock and roll influence with Salvador's own characteristic sense of humor. "Le Blues du Dentiste" also had input from American legend-to-be Quincy Jones.
In 1960, worn out by two decades of touring, Salvador retreated to his studio. He formed his own label, Disques Salvador, and remained a consistent hit maker throughout the decade. Many of his songs, like "Juanita Banana," were humorous; in English they would be called novelty songs, and the French called him a fantaisiste —a pursuer of imagination or whimsy. In the late 1960s Salvador made a series of appearances on television specials, and hosted his own show for a time.
With his quick, warm wit, trademark booming laugh, and infectiously rhythmic music, Salvador had always appealed to children. In the 1970s he turned to children's entertainment. A 1971 song titled "Les aristochats," based on the Disney film The Aristocats, became widely known and was followed by a "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" song. Salvador enjoyed his new audience but told the International Herald Tribune, "After 10 years I got sick of writing not so intellectual songs."
A movie career might have seemed like a natural move for Salvador, but it didn't happen, and the singer blamed racism. "There is tacit polite segregation," he told the International Herald Tribune. "It may not be violent like in America, they won't burn any crosses, but they mock you. They treat you like a cute little monkey who looks and acts almost like a human being."
Instead, Salvador returned to performing live in 1982, after a 22-year break. Signing with the EMI/Pathé-Marconi label, he released Henri in 1985. It would become the first album in a remarkable burst of late-life creativity. Salvador made various high-profile live appearances, including one at the 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, moved to the Sony label in 1994, and began once again to write new music. Even in a country that valued its elder musical statesmen to an unusual degree, his success was notable.
Salvador's 2000 album Chambre avec vue exploited his way with bossa nova and dovetailed nicely such venues as Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club, and with a new audience interest in older musicians. The album was issued in the United States in 2002 as Room with a View. Entertainment Weekly pointed to the influence of world music DJs as a factor in Salvador's ongoing popularity, and pronounced Room with a View "nifty for necking." The 86-year-old Salvador followed up with Ma Chère et Tendre in 2003, and showed no signs of slowing down. "You know, I'm a happy man," he explained to the Associated Press. "An optimist. Life is easy. The most important thing for me is today and tomorrow. Yesterday is dead. The future is beautiful."
For the Record …
Born on July 18, 1917, in Cayenne, French Guiana.
Performed jazz in Paris, 1930s; performed with Ray Ventura orchestra in Brazil, 1942-45; performed and recorded in France, 1946-60; stopped performing while continuing to record, 1960; recorded children's music, 1970s; resumed performing, 1982; topped charts at age 83 with album Chambre avec vue, 2000; Chambreavec vue released as Room With a View in the United States, 2002.
Awards: French Grand Prix du Disque, 1949; named Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, 1988; Vic toires de la musique, Special Lifetime Achievement Award, 1996; Best Male Artist and Pop Album of the Year for Chambre avec vue, 2000.
Alias Henry Cording, Philips, 1956.
Henri, EMI, 1985.
Casino de Paris, Sony, 1995.
Mes chansons d'amour, EMI, 1999.
Ses plus grandes: The Best of Henri Salvador, Universal, 2001.
La voix de miel: Les débuts 1943-1950, Forlane, 2001.
Les indispensables, Sony, 2001.
Room With a View, Blue Note, 2002.
Le loup, la biche, et le chevalier (compilation), Proper, 2003.
Ma chère et tendre, Virgin, 2003.
Associated Press, March 19, 2002.
Entertainment Weekly, February 15, 2002, p. 69.
International Herald Tribune, January 12, 1995, p. 18.
Manchester Guardian Weekly (Manchester, England), December 26, 1982, p. 13; May 17, 1992, p. 17.
"Henri Salvador," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 1, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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