Alain GoraguerBorn: August 20th, 1931, Rosny-sous-Bois (France)
In 1944, Goraguer’s father reached the pensionable age and the family moved to the Mediterranean shores of Nice. There, young Alain successfully finished his secondary education, but going to university afterwards was not an option for him. Goraguer: “There was just one thing for me: the piano! When the war was over, I played with some friends in nightclubs in the port of Nice. American sailors, who regularly went ashore there, were looking for some entertainment and we provided that for them by playing jazz standards. There were always plenty of American guys who were able to sing the jazz standards to perfection… for us, it was fantastic to gain some experience there. The nightclub owners did not pay us; we simply did it for the fun… and for the tips!”
Thanks to a friend, Goraguer was introduced to the famous French jazz pianist Jack Diéval, who, upon hearing the young man play, advised him to move to Paris to take up studying the piano professionally. Diéval introduced him to the classical piano teacher Raoul Gola, whose private lessons Goraguer took for four years (1949-’53). “Luckily, my parents were very supportive”, says Goraguer. “They allowed me to focus on my music studies completely by paying the money for a pension room in Paris. Beside my lessons with Mr Gola, I also studied all music theory subjects, such as harmony, counterpoint, and fugue, with a fantastic teacher called Julien Falk. Although the courses were purely classical – and of a very high level too – I had no ambitions as a concert pianist… I was too old for that anyway. It was jazz which interested me most.”
In 1953, Goraguer came second in a jazz contest for amateurs, behind the later famous bebop virtuoso René Urtreger. “It was the first time I played the piano in a jazz trio, with double-bass and percussion”, Goraguer adds. “Even in Paris, I had never played in nightclubs – I was totally absorbed by my courses. Around the same time, I completed my courses with Falk en Gola and started looking for work. My first professional job was accompanying a chansonnière called Simone Alma. As Simone liked singing jazz, she regularly visited Boris Vian, who was considered a connoisseur of jazz music. On one of those visits, I joined her to look for suitable material. Boris and I got on well from the first time we met and it was not long before he called me. He needed a replacement for his pianist Jimmy Walter, who got more and more involved in other projects and was not always available. For some time, I regularly substituted Jimmy and Boris and I became friends. In 1955, Jimmy left for good and I became Boris’ pianist once and for all. We began writing songs together, with me composing the music to Boris’ lyrics. It was the first time ever I composed music myself! These songs were not only interpreted by Boris… we also composed work for others. Much of the material we produced was never recorded, but then again: we wrote chansons to have a good time, not as a job. This was neither my spirit nor that of Boris – and, generally speaking, not the spirit of those days, if I may say so.”
Poet-singer Boris Vian was one of France’s most important avant-garde artists of the 1950s. His song ‘Le déserteur’, poignantly criticizing the colonial war France was waging in Vietnam, caused a scandal. For Vian, Goraguer composed the music to songs which became an integral part of French chanson tradition, such as ‘La java des bombes atomiques’, ‘Complainte du progrès’ (both from 1955), and ‘Je bois’ (1956). Still in ’56, Vian and Goraguer penned one of the first-ever francophone rock ‘n roll songs, ‘Fais-moi mal Johnny’, which was interpreted by Magali Noël. Because of the explicit lyrics, the song was not played in radio, which did not impede it from becoming a huge hit. Goraguer also wrote the arrangement to the song. “That was the first arrangement I wrote. Boris had his own arrangers, such as Jimmy Walter, Claude Bolling, and André Popp, but I was asked to take care of the scores for Boris’ songs recorded by Magali Noël, who was a wonderful girl and a brilliant interpreter. True, I never studied arranging, let alone conducting, but Julien Falk had taught me harmony and counterpoint. To me, those two subjects are the basis, comparable to grammar and orthography in language. Arranging itself cannot be learned; once having mastered ‘grammar’ and ‘orthography’, it is a skill that some have, and many others never will have. It is some sort of gift from above.”
Vian died in 1959, but due to health reasons had ceased performing some years before. Goraguer’s last involvement with the hapless artist was composing the soundtrack to Michel Gast’s film ‘J’irai cracher sur vos tombes’ (1959), which was inspired on one of Vian’s novels. Vian did not approve of the script and in fact died of a heart-attack while attending the first screening of the film. For Goraguer, it was not his first soundtrack, having made his debut as a film composer two years earlier with two movies by director Pierre Kast. With his involvement in ‘J’irai cracher sur vos tombes’, however, he attracted the attention of important producers. From the 1960s until the 1990s, he was one of France’s most active soundtrack composers, with several titles appearing each year, including ‘L’eau à la bouche’ (1960), ‘Le silencieux’ (1973), and ‘Du côté des tennis’ (1976). Especially his haunting music to René Laloux’ animated science-fiction film ‘La planète sauvage-Fantastic Planet’ (1973) proved highly influential. In the 1980s and 1990s, Goraguer wrote the music to many television productions, including countless series for West German public broadcasting, such as ‘Ich heirate eine Familie’ (1983) and ‘Ein Heim für Tiere’ (1985). In 1982, he composed the famous intro music to the Antenne 2 hit programme ‘Gym-Tonic’. His more recent work includes the soundtrack to the motion picture ‘Deux jours à tuer’ from 2008. “For a musician, creating film music is artistically more challenging than composing or arranging chansons”, Goraguer thinks. “With a song, there are the lyrics and vocal limits of the singer to take into account; there is always some sort of pattern which you have to follow. Film music demands more creativity and therefore offers more artistic freedom.”
Mainly thanks to the success of his arrangements for Magali Noël, Goraguer was invited by the artistic director of the French branch of record company Philips, Denis Bourgeois, to team up with another avant-garde artist turned singer: Serge Gainsbourg. Between 1958 and 1964, Goraguer arranged Gainsbourg’s first six studio albums. In 1963, Bourgeois invited him to work on the debut recording of France Gall, soon to become France’s teenage idol par excellence. For five years, Goraguer, using the pseudonym Milton Lewis, arranged Gall’s entire repertoire, including hit songs such as ‘Laisse tomber les filles’ and ‘Baby pop’, as well as her 1965 Eurovision winner ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’; moreover, Goraguer composed some striking songs for her as well, including ‘Le coeur qui jazze’ and ‘Le temps du tempo’. It was thanks to his arrangements for Gainsbourg and France Gall that Goraguer came to be known as the most innovative arranger in the business. Goraguer about this: “It is certainly true that I brought some new elements into popular music. For me, thinking about music has always begun with jazz… and I brought jazz to the chanson, most notably in the work of Serge Gainsbourg, who adored jazz music. I also liked bringing elements of classical music into string arrangements.”
In the course of the 1960s, Goraguer got to work with a string of artists from different corners of the French music landscape, arranging and occasionally composing for, amongst many others, Henri Salvador, Boby Lapointe, Brigitte Fontaine, Sascha Distel, Line & Willy, Juliette Gréco, Brigitte Bardot, Régine, Marcel Amont, Michel Delpech, Frédéric Botton, Gilles Dreu, and Claude Morgan. For nearly twenty years, Goraguer composed and arranged much of the oeuvre of one of France’s most respected chansonnières, Isabelle Aubret. On top of that, he penned the orchestrations to several true evergreens, such as ‘Cent mille chansons’ for Frida Boccara (1968), which is one of his personal favourites, as well as ‘Le métèque’ and ‘Ma solitude’ for Georges Moustaki’ (both 1969).
Alain Goraguer’s most lasting working relationship was with singer-songwriter Jean Ferrat (1930-2010), for whom he wrote the arrangements to his entire oeuvre, comprising eighteen LPs released between 1961 and 1994. Ferrat’s importance in French popular music can hardly be overestimated, with so many of his songs having become part of his country’s public memory: ‘Nuit et brouillard’ (1963), ‘La montagne’ (1964), ‘Que serais-je sans toi’ (1964), and ‘Ma France’ (1969), to name just a few. Including Goraguer’s involvement with Ferrat’s stage shows, the collaboration between the two musicians lasted for over forty uninterrupted years. “Such a long cooperation is unique in this métier”, according to Goraguer. “I cannot think of another artist worldwide who worked with one and the same conductor for such a long time. It was music publisher Gérard Meys who introduced us to each other. Just as in the case of Boris Vian, I got along with Jean very well from the start, even though I have never shared his political ideals. He composed wonderful songs… ‘Nuit et brouillard’, ‘Potemkine’, and ‘Aimer à perdre la raison’ are among my favourites. Admittedly, in spite of his great sensitiveness for melody, technically speaking Jean was not a good musician. He made demos of his creations playing the guitar, but he was not able to play key changes. As a result, the songs he wrote were not really finished when they reached my desk. It was up to me to fill the gaps which Jean had left. When I worked with film composer Michel Legrand, the exact opposite was the case… Michel was a perfect musician and writing the arrangements for him amounted to not much more than simply adding to the ideas that were ready to be found in his compositions. In the case of Ferrat, who did not even read notes, I had to completely write out his demos, then add the missing parts, and lastly write the orchestrations. At the same time, it was always an interesting challenge to come up with some good ideas myself… I often needed countless drafts before coming up with the final version. There are countermelodies in Ferrat’s songs which are my work and which have become as well-known as the melodies itself! I wrote some of my best arrangements for Ferrat, such as ‘Raconte-moi la mer’, which is an orchestration that could stand on itself as a piece of classical music.”
Goraguer’s arrangements for Jean Ferrat became the norm in the music business, even to the point that record companies begged their arrangers to write strings just like Goraguer! What did Goraguer think of working with a stubborn communist? Ferrat never renounced his ideals. “Actually, Jean and I hardly ever discussed politics at all”, Goraguer comments. “He probably knew I was not a man of the left at all, but he never asked. Between us, however, there was an enormous mutual respect. In everyday life, Jean was a hugely charming man! Moreover, I appreciated the fact that he never became a member of the French Communist Party. This allowed him to remain independent, heavily attacking Georges Marchais in one of his songs, for example. Correct, Boris Vian was an artist with firm anti-establishment ideas as well, but he was an anarchist and therefore anti-political. But again, also in Boris’ case, I never discussed politics with him.”
Goraguer conducted the orchestra for Ferrat on stage on several occasions, such as two concert series in the Palais des Sports in Paris (1972 and 1974) as well as many television broadcasts. Goraguer worked as a pianist and conductor on stage with some other artists as well, most notably Adamo and Nana Mouskouri, both of whom he accompanied on concerts in Canada. “With Nana, I was invited to perform with the Montreal Symphonic Orchestra, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary”, Goraguer recalls. “I did not conduct the orchestra, but played the piano. I never toured with any artist in my career. It was just something that never came about, because I was unable to leave the recording studio for too long. As for conducting an orchestra in a studio or on stage, it is not extremely difficult. No, I never took any conducting courses, but I managed quite well from the first time onwards. You need a minimum of technique, such as counting in a band of musicians correctly, but from that point onwards each conductor develops his own style.”
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Alain Goraguer continued to be much in demand as a studio arranger, working with the likes of Nana Mouskouri, Betty Mars, Melina Mercouri, Dalida, Serge Lama, France Gall, Frida Boccara, and, perhaps most notably, Serge Reggiani. Most of the times in collaboration with lyricist Claude Lemesle, Goraguer wrote songs such as ‘C’est presque ça’ for Didier Vincent, ‘Bonne nuit’ for France Gall, ‘T’as l’air d’une chanson’ for Serge Reggiani, and ‘Pour mieux t’aimer’ for Nana Mouskouri. On top of that, Goraguer released many instrumental recordings of his own, most of the time using the pseudonym Laura Fontaine. “It was en vogue at that time to use pseudonyms. I signed all arrangements for France Gall in the 1960s as Milton Lewis, because the producer thought an English arranger enhanced the credibility of her songs. Laura Fontaine was an idea of one of my friends at the record company Fontana. Laura was marketed as being a British bar pianist with a penchant for jazz music. These instrumentals kept the middle between jazz and disco and sold enormously well. One day, however, an artistic director at Fontana – an imbecile, I cannot think of another word – unveiled that Laura Fontaine was a fiction and that the recordings were not made in London, but in Paris by a certain Alain Goraguer. Immediately, the record sales plummeted. This cost all of us a lot of money!”
In the 1980s, studio work dried up, although Goraguer continued to work with the likes of Isabelle Aubret, Dominique Sylvain, and Supernana, while he composed ‘Les p’tits bateaux’ for Gilles Ganon in 1985. Goraguer: “The 1980s were a bad time for studio arrangers… composers started to put together arrangements in their home studios, using synthesizer and computer. Orchestras were no longer in demand. I was lucky to be involved in soundtrack composing; I was never short of work.” Goraguer has continued working on various projects. He composed the orchestrations to two solo albums by Bruno Maman, released in 2005 and 2008 respectively. Still in 2008, he teamed up with rap artist Abd al Malik, who wanted a string orchestra with Goraguer’s arrangements accompanying the music on his critically acclaimed album ‘Dante’. In 2011, Goraguer and Claude Lemesle finished their reworking of Boris Vian’s musical ‘Mademoiselle bonsoir’.
Alain Goraguer in the Eurovision Song Contest
Goraguer about the 1965 Eurovision success: “Writing the arrangement to this thing did not take me long… as so often, I sat behind the piano and the idea came to me within a couple of minutes. The string intro I wrote was based on a classical theme, which was quite innovative – not that I was consciously writing modern arrangements… it is just a part of my character to explore new ways. With hindsight, the way in which I treated the strings, but actually the entire arrangement of ‘Poupée de cire’, was somewhat revolutionary. The loud percussion gave the song a lot of dynamism. It was a totally different approach than the usual Eurovision orchestrations as Franck Pourcel and others used to write them in those days. As for France Gall, I already knew her longer than Gainsbourg, as she was the daughter of an important songwriter, Robert Gall. I was her arranger from the moment she made her debut in the recording business in ’63. She was a girl with a good heart and she sang well; working with her was a pleasure. At the time of the Eurovision Song Contest, she was only seventeen years old. When we won the festival in Naples, Serge Gainsbourg was beside himself with joy. After he had had to struggle for years for some recognition in France, it was a triumph for him to have such a major success in mainstream music on an international level. For my career, the 1965 contest was an important moment as well; it meant Europe-wide recognition for your work. After the show, we had a ball!”
In 1966, when the contest was held in Luxembourg as a result of France Gall’s victory the year before, Alain Goraguer conducted the Monegasque entry, ‘Bien plus fort’, composed by Gérard Bourgeois and Jean Max Rivière and interpreted by Croatian songstress Tereza Kesovija, who was trying to make an international career. In a complete reversal of fortune for Goraguer, the song did not receive a single point and finished at the bottom of the scoreboard. “Of course, it was never a pleasant experience when a song you had worked on as an arranger and conductor did badly in the voting”, Goraguer admits. “But, frankly speaking, a conductor had little to lose: from personal experience, I can say that, while winning the Eurovision Song Contest had a positive impact on your career, a bad result hardly affected it at all. For a singer, this is a totally different story. Tereza sang extremely well, but the song was not suited for her. These two authors wrote much better creations than this one.”
While Goraguer appeared in the Eurovision Song Contest as a conductor five times, he wrote the studio arrangements to five other songs which were conducted by another maestro, usually at the insistence of the TV station which submitted the song to the contest. The first of these songs was the Swiss entry in 1966, ‘Ne vois-tu pas’ by Madeleine Pascal, where the orchestra was led by Jean Roderes. Goraguer also penned the scores to three French entries, all conducted by Franck Pourcel: Frida Boccara’s Eurovision winner ‘Un jour, un enfant’ (1969), Guy Bonnet’s ‘Marie-Blanche’ (1970), and Betty Mars’ ‘Comé-comédie’ (1972), while he was also involved in the 1970 Belgian representation ‘Viens l’oublier’ by Jean Vallée, for which Belgian maestro Jack Say took care of the orchestra.
Even after forty years, Goraguer cannot hide his irritation when talking about Pourcel’s involvement in the Eurovision Song Contest: “The truth is: artists, who represented France, were obliged to have Pourcel as their conductor in those years. It was French television which wanted it that way. Music publishers and artists were not happy with Pourcel – and neither was I. For the Eurovision Song Contest, he used to take the original orchestration which was written by me or another studio arranger, changed two or three notes, signed his name, and received all the money for the television performance. While my relationship with Pourcel was quite good, I thought his behaviour was shocking and scandalous… No, I never told him, but he knew! It was very cynical, because it was only about money. Take ‘Un jour, un enfant’ for example. For the studio version, I wrote an arrangement of rhythm and strings only, but Franck added some brass elements, which did not fit the song at all. Having made that tiny adaptation, it officially became ‘his’ arrangement and he was paid accordingly. I for one would have loved to do Eurovision with Frida Boccara, who was one of the artists I liked working with most. We were good friends and I was regularly invited over for dinner with her family. They were Jews from Northern Africa and all lived together in two apartments in Paris’ 15th arrondissement. I feel privileged having worked with Frida for some years.”
The 1968 Eurovision Song Contest in London was the exception to the rule: this time, Alain Goraguer replaced Frank Pourcel as the conductor of France’s entry to the festival, Isabelle Aubret’s ‘La source’. Aubret, who had won the 1962 contest with ‘Un premier amour’, finished third with this wonderful creation by songwriters Daniel Faure, Guy Bonnet, and Henri Djian. The 1968 edition of the contest is the only one between 1958 and 1972 which Pourcel missed. Goraguer: “I think Isabelle herself and music publisher Gérard Meys insisted on having me as their conductor. With Isabelle, I had a tight working relationship which lasted for many years. She was a very artistic and pleasant person and, more importantly, a brilliant singer. ‘La source’ was brilliant in its simplicity, while the lyrics were most unusual. I decided to keep the arrangement sober, simply following the music. The contest that year was held in a magnificent theatre, the Royal Albert Hall. The English were very good at organising such a manifestation… I distinctly remember one of the other delegations arriving late for the rehearsal. They arrived five minutes before the end of the rehearsing time allotted to them and were told that there was nothing that could be done about it. The artists were indignant and, by apologizing, tried to talk the show’s producer into giving them some extra time, but he said he could not change the schedule just for them. He was right in doing so and I really liked his attitude. True, we came third, but Isabelle was bitterly disappointed. Because she had won the contest before and as she was a true winner by character, she was reduced to tears after the voting.”
Alain Goraguer’s next participation in the Eurovision Song Contest was in 1978, when the festival was held in Paris and he conducted the French entry, a somewhat pompous ballad called ‘Il y aura toujours des violons’, written by Didier Barbelivien and Gérard Stern, which was performed by Joël Prévost. The song managed to pick up 119 points and finished third among twenty competing entries. “Joël was quite a talented guy”, Goraguer recalls. “Unfortunately, he took his job too lightly – even slightly amateurish – and therefore did not have the career he could have had. While Eurovision Song Contests were usually very well organised, the festival in Paris was a chaotic affair. Even the orchestra was not that good, while the Eurovision orchestras abroad were always of the highest possible level and I never encountered any problems in working with them. The contest is Paris was a case of Murphy’s Law: when the organisation is not 100%, it can be felt in all aspects – including the orchestra. Having said that, we were happy to finish third… it was a good result.”
Alain Goraguer made a surprise return to the Eurovision Song Contest when he conducted the French entry in the 1994 festival held in Dublin, ‘Je suis un vrai garçon’. This most unusual effort was composed by Bruno Maman and interpreted by Nina Morato, who was responsible for writing the very explicit lyrics herself. In Dublin, Morato finished seventh among twenty-five competing acts. How did Goraguer get involved with this very young songwriting team? He explains: “Composer Bruno Maman is about as old as my son Patrick. They were friends from their early childhood onwards and both became professional musicians. In the 1990s, they worked together very often. Nina Morato was a mutual friend of theirs. Patrick gave Bruno the idea of asking me to write the strings to his song, which had by then been selected for Eurovision by French TV. I thought the song itself was rigolo, very funny. I liked the fact that it was impossible to put a label on it. Nina’s stage performance was special as well. Unfortunately, she was perhaps a bit too crazy to have a good career, but she undeniably had talent.”
In Dublin, Goraguer never really felt involved in the contest atmosphere: “I was not the character to socialize with other delegations intensively anyway, but in Dublin I did not have the opportunity, even if I had wanted to. Two weeks after the contest, I was due to record a new studio album with Jean Ferrat with poems by Aragon. When I left for Dublin, the orchestrations were not ready yet. Therefore, I spent every possible moment in Ireland in my hotel room, writing scores. I was brought to the festival rehearsals by taxi, did my job there as a conductor, got back into the taxi as fast as I could to be rushed back to the hotel. I do remember the broadcast, though, with Ireland winning with a simple, beautiful song by two guys with a piano and a guitar. It was a brilliant piece of music – very intricate and artistic, but simple at the same time. Unfortunately, the Eurovision Song Contest has changed since those days. I do not think a beautiful ballad like that could win the contest nowadays.”
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