Franck PourcelBorn: August 11th, 1913, Marseilles (France)
Died: November 12th, 2000, Neuilly-sur-Seine, Greater Paris (France)
As a teenager, in order to assemble the money required for his studies, Franck Pourcel played jazz music in cabarets in downtown Marseilles. Franck, explaining: “Already during my student days in the 1920s, there were quite a lot of jazz men in Marseilles, especially among students, and with some friends I founded a small jazz orchestra. To be hired by cabarets or for gala evenings, musicians had to be able to play at least two musical instruments. Most violinists chose the saxophone as their second instrument, but I didn’t, because somehow playing the saxophone badly interfered with my perfect pitch – and therefore I picked the drums instead. How I learnt to play them? A local stonemason who played the drums in his free hours taught me the basics!”
Upon graduating in Marseilles, Franck Pourcel moved to Paris for an additional year of studies (1929-’30). In the following year, he accomplished his military service. Returning to his native town, he took up working as a violinist in the Théâtre des Variétés, where his uncle was the general manager. In this theatre, he mainly accompanied revue artists; the renowned Fernandel was one. When the theatre closed down, he continued his career at the Marseilles Opera Orchestra, whilst earning some valuable extra money as a drummer in nightclubs during the late evening hours.
“As a young musician,” Pourcel explains, “my dream was to become a famous violin soloist, but after completing my studies and my year in the army, I had little choice… I had to work in order to make a living. That is why I played in theatres and nightclubs; having said that, I really loved jazz music, which made a welcome change from the operatic performances. After two years at the Marseilles Opera, I quit – mainly because I wanted to progress as a musician and earn a better salary. For that reason, I asked Paul Bastide, the manager of the opera house, to let me go. In the following months, I played the violin in the orchestra of Cinema Odéon. Our job was to accompany the artists who performed the interval act. Around that time, I met Yves Montand. In 1941, Montand was looking for a kapellmeister. His impresario Émile Audiffred then asked me if I were interested to conduct a revue with Montand as the main artist. Of course I was, and I accompanied this revue for about a year.”
In 1942, Yves Montand was forced to temporarily cease his professional activities when he was called up for the Vichy Regime’s paramilitary training. Pourcel did not have to wait long for a new challenge, however, as, one year previously, he had met the singing couple of Lucienne Boyer and Jacques Pills, just at a moment when Lucienne was looking for a violinist for her performances. After signing a first contract for three months, Pourcel stayed with Boyer and Pills for the next eight years, touring and recording several songs in the Parisian record studios. The sessions with Lucienne Boyer in 1943 most probably were Pourcel’s first stint at record arranging.
“In the last years of the war, I mainly toured with Lucienne Boyer, playing in gala performances across Southern France. After France was liberated in 1944, I formed a combo of musicians with which Lucienne and Jacques went on a one-year-long international tour across the world. We performed in Scandinavia, the United States, Canada, even Brazil and Argentina. It was a fantastic experience! In Ottawa, the manager of the auditorium where we were due to play explained us that protocol stipulated to finish the performance with the UK national anthem. As best we could, we played the ‘God save the king’, for which I had slightly changed the musical bridge towards the end of the piece – and the audience reacted very well to that.”
In 1945, Pourcel arranged Boyer’s hit recording ‘Mon cur est un violon’, for which he took care of the essential violin parts himself. In the latter half of the 1940s, apart from touring with Lucienne Boyer and Jacques Pills, Franck Pourcel wrote record arrangements for Maria Vincent, Reda Caire and the duo Gaby Verlor & Jean Davril. In 1949, he met producer Maurice Tézé, who was particularly impressed by Pourcel’s arrangements and wanted to sign him for his record company Selmer. Pourcel, however, had dreams of his own.
“After the war, I discovered the recordings of American conductors such as Morton Gould who played popular music with a grand orchestra. Henceforth, my dream was to form a similar orchestra in France. Frankly, though, the French weren’t ready for that. No matter which record company I turned to, they weren’t interested. At that time, creating an orchestra with 50 musicians sounded nuts, but I wanted it. Maurice Tézé, however, who originally wanted to sign me to do record arrangements for his artists, seemed vaguely interested. He asked me to wait until he had brought together the money for a recording session with a large studio orchestra. Obviously, I didn’t want to wait and took my wife and daughter with me to New York in 1950, and again in 1952, to see if I could realise my ambitions in the United States. In 1952, I had more or less given up on Tézé – and I was prepared to stay in America for good.”
In New York, Pourcel obtained a member card of the American Union of Musicians, but he had to content himself with the odd job here and there as a violinist. In between his two stays in America, he led the orchestra in the casino of Enghien-les-Bains, Greater Paris. In Enghien, he first worked with pianist Paul Mauriat, who, like Pourcel, was from Marseilles. At long last, in the spring of 1952, while in New York, Franck received a telegram from Maurice Tézé which read: “It is there! I have finally brought together some money to pay for a session with a grand orchestra. Return to France instantly to record the music you want with the orchestra you want!” As he actually wasn’t thinking any longer of making a career in France, Pourcel first consulted a fortune-teller about which choice to make – and he received the advice to head back to Europe, which he duly did. Once in Paris, the first instrumental piece Pourcel recorded was ‘Tango bleu’, a cover version of a chart success from the United States.
“My wife Odette loved that song,” Franck explains, “and though I wasn’t particularly fond of it myself, I chose it for my first recording. Maurice Tézé promised me a session with forty to fifty musicians, including a huge number of violinists. Finally, my dream came true! The session was done in the Schola Cantorum Music School in Paris and most of the musicians were recruited from the Opera de Paris Orchestra. From the moment that first record was released, my name was on the lips of radio presenters and listeners across France. People were assuming I was American – and anything foreign, especially from the United States, a priori sounded better than a French recording. It was like honey to the bees! Franck Pourcel… it was a name with a ring to it. If my name had been Marius Pourcel, I am sure I would not have succeeded. From this moment, my career was off. This record and its follow ups reached incredible selling figures.”
Some titles included on Pourcel’s next single releases were ‘Limelight’ and ‘Moulin rouge’. In 1953, a first LP was released, ‘Danses sélection’, with fourteen instrumental pieces in the newly invented Pourcel style, a string-based easy listening sound. Shortly thereafter, after Maurice Tézé had left Selmer Records and joined Pathé-Marconi, the French branch of His Master’s Voice, Pourcel joined the producer who had given him the opportunity he had been looking for for so long. Pourcel’s first record at Pathé-Marconi, an LP with ten instrumental pieces, was given the title ‘Amour, danse et violons’.
It was the start of a series of fifty-four (!) albums released across the world over the course of the following twenty-seven years (1953-1980), each containing a mix of current chart successes, folk melodies, film music, and dance tunes given the trademark ‘Frank Pourcel makeover’, rich with violins – the instrument which, according to Pourcel, was closest to the human voice and therefore the instrument which speaks to the heart of man. Being a perfectionist, Pourcel, even though between two and four ‘Amour, danse et violons’ albums saw the daylight each year, was accurately involved in every detail, from the sound edit to even the record cover. Whilst he initially wrote all orchestrations himself, Pourcel, forced by a lack of time, later allowed some of the writing work to be taken care of collaborators such as Raymond Lefèvre. ‘Amour, danse et violons’ was a hugely successful concept, copied afterwards by countless arrangers across the world, first and foremost Pourcel’s pianists Paul Mauriat and Raymond Lefèvre.
Meanwhile, in the 1950s, parallel with his solo records, Franck Pourcel became one of his country’s most sought-after record arrangers. In 1952, he wrote the orchestration to Charles Aznavour’s first success ‘Jezebel’. Moreover, he also made studio recordings with, amongst many others, Gilbert Bécaud, Jean-Claude Pascal, Charles Trenet, Mathé Altéry, André Claveau, Danièle Dupré and Tino Rossi. Pourcel’s most lasting connection, however, was with Spanish-born songstress Gloria Lasso, one of the many discoveries of Maurice Tézé. Her signature hit ‘L’étranger au paradis’ (1955), which sold one million copies, was arranged by Pourcel.
“The first recording I did of that song was with a combo of five musicians,” Pourcel recalls. “One evening, around midnight, Maurice Tézé called me to tell that the selling figures of that record were going through the roof, and that Pathé-Marconi would like me to do a re-recording with a grand orchestra to add some cachet to the song. Thereupon, we travelled to Milan for a second session of ‘L’étranger au paradis’ in a church. Unfortunately, as Gloria was feeling exhausted, she was unable to sing the very last note. As my train for Paris was about to leave, I had no other option but to end the session without recording the entire piece – and we recorded that last note with a completely different session orchestra in Paris! In spite of all efforts, the original quintet version has always remained more popular. To my mind, Gloria Lasso was one of the most talented vocalists of her generation. Toward the end of the 1950s, as I was progressively absorbed by my ‘Amour, danse et violons’ albums, I decided to more or less stop writing accompanying arrangements for recording artists. I left Gloria Lasso in the very capable hands of Paul Mauriat. In the remainder of my career, I only very occasionally made an exception from my self-imposed rule of not writing record arrangements any longer – only for some very good friends such as Adamo and Claude-Michel Schönberg.”
In 1958, Franck Pourcel released a record of his arrangements of some of the best-known Viennese waltzes, played with an eighty-piece orchestra, which was the prelude to a new series of LPs, entitled ‘Pages célèbres’ (thirteen albums between 1959 and 1974, followed by three more ‘Classics in digital’ between 1979 and 1982) for which he adapted popular pieces of classical music for a wider audience. Most of these albums were recorded in sessions in London with players of the best British classical orchestras. With ‘Pages célèbres’, which, like ‘Amour, danse et violons’ caught on in many countries worldwide (in spite of the occasional critical note from those who felt he was being disrespectful to the original works), Franck Pourcel led the sale of EMI Classics for years.
Pourcel: “I didn’t aspire at playing symphonies in their entirety, but extracts which showed the composer’s genius. Even people not familiar with classical music knew these melodies, but had no idea if Mozart or Beethoven was the composer. I have often been asked how ‘Pages célèbres’ came to be so successful across the globe. The reason is quite simple, these albums offered rearranged versions of classical pieces aimed at an average music listener. I am sure many people were convinced that they could give ‘La farandole’ or ‘L’Arlésienne’ a try because Franck Pourcel played them… for if Pourcel plays a melody, it couldn’t be too complicated to listen to! Admittedly, I was lucky to record these pieces with the best orchestras, such as the London Symphonic, and with some of the best soloists in the world. They are a factor too in explaining this success.”
Prior to Franck Pourcel becoming a synonym for best-selling records in the 1960s, he and his producer Maurice Tézé worked tirelessly to break the international, and especially the American, market. For Capitol Records, the company who owned the rights of Pathé-Marconi’s releases in the United States, Pourcel recorded some albums specifically aimed at the American market, such as ‘La femme’ (1956) and ‘French wine-drinking music’ (1960); for the latter, Pourcel and Bobby Black composed orchestral pieces, each given the name of a type of wine as its title. The final breakthrough, however, happened in 1959 when Pourcel’s remake of a Platters song, ‘Only you’, managed sixteen weeks in the US pop charts, climbing to number nine in the Billboard Hot 100.
“Initially, when I had written this arrangement to ‘Only you’,” Pourcel recalls, “it made little impact on the French market. Suddenly, however, it turned out to do exceptionally well in America. Dave Dexter, Capitol’s artistic director, gave me a call from Hollywood telling me that I had to come over to the US as fast as possible to witness the success of my recording. Arriving at Capitol Tower in Hollywood, the song was played inside the building – but I immediately heard there was a distortion in the American pressing. A terrible mistake! I was beside myself with anger and told Dexter this could never go well – but I needn’t have worried, as the record sold three million copies in the United States alone.”
While making his mark as an arranger and orchestrator, Franck Pourcel was far less prolific as a composer – a vocation for which he felt he lacked the talent. In the 1960s, he co-wrote several songs which were recorded as B sides on single releases by Jacqueline Boyer, France Gall, Charles Aznavour and several others. In 1961, however, when he teamed up with his two music friends Paul Mauriat and Raymond Lefèvre, a tremendous hit success was born, ‘Chariot’, a song recorded by Petula Clark; shortly afterwards, it was covered in an English version by Little Peggy March under the title ‘I will follow him’, which rose to number one in the Billboard Hot 100. More cover versions were released by countless artists and kapellmeisters. Meanwhile, the tune has become an evergreen, which was adopted as the main theme of Hollywood blockbuster ‘Sister act’ with Whoopi Goldberg – and even hiphop phenomenon Eminem included some bars of the chorus in his song ‘Guilty conscience’.
Pourcel: “One afternoon, as so often, Paul Mauriat came down to my house near l’Etoile in Paris – and we composed what became ‘Chariot’. Initially, it was due to be used just for one of my ‘Amour, danse et violons’ albums – and when we were about to record the piece, the sound engineer asked me the title. Because of the fast tempo in the melody, I thought of ‘Chariot’ as its provisional title, but we never changed that name later on. Because, in those days, covers of records from abroad usually did much better than local French products, we decided we had better use pseudonyms. Thus, I signed as J.W. Stole and Paul Mauriat, who was keen to have an Italian name, chose Del Roma. Raymond Lefèvre, who wrote the arrangement, became F. Burt. For the original vocal version, recorded by Petula Clark, lyrics were added by music publisher Jacques Plante. To complete the mystification, on the cover page of the score, he wrote: “Signature tune of 20th Century Fox western ‘You’ll never see it’.” Nobody got the joke – not even Petula Clark was aware. Only about a year after, news transpired that this worldwide success had been composed by two guys from Marseilles and one from Calais.”
Asked about his relatively modest output as a composer, Pourcel could have added that the work on multiple album releases every year left him little time for other activities. Nevertheless, he found the time to compose or co-compose the accompanying music to a limited number of TV drama series, including ‘Joie de vivre’ (1959-1963) and ‘L’auberge de la licorne’ (1966); in 1967, working with his friend Salvatore Adamo, he penned the soundtrack to the film ‘Les Arnaud’. Meanwhile, in spite of grown competition from other conductors who had jumped on the bandwagon, releasing their own instrumental albums with cover versions of pop songs, Franck Pourcel’s sales figures kept sky-rocketing. Keen to attract an audience which was as wide as possible, he released covers of film signature tunes and hit songs from Italy and Latin America, whilst releasing homage albums exclusively dedicated to the music of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and even the Beatles and ABBA. In the 1960s and 1970s, he was the best-selling French artist worldwide, being considered one of France’s three main export products, along with Air France and Brigitte Bardot. According to his record company, the sales of his vinyl records exceeded the height of the Eiffel Tower by over twenty times.
Apart from receiving golden discs for his work in countries as far apart as France, the United States, Colombia, Venezuela and Japan, Franck Pourcel was awarded with multiple prizes to honour his work, including, amongst others, the Edison Award for his pop orchestrations (Netherlands: 1965), the Grand Prix du Disque of the Charles Cros Academy (France: 1969) and the Golden Guacaipuro (Venezuela: 1973). He was a guest of honour at the Rio de Janeiro International Song Festival (1968) as well as at the 1972 editions of the World Popular Song Festival in Japan and the San Remo Festival in Italy. Back in France, he conducted operetta concerts with several classical orchestras, including the Orchestre Lamoureux and the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire. In the 1970s, while continuing his astounding production of new albums, Pourcel extensively worked with a new music friend, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, for whom he produced his rock opera ‘La Révolution française’ (1973) as well as arranging Schönberg’s pop work, including his timeless hit melody ‘Les enfants de mes enfants’. In 1975, at the request of Air France, the duo wrote an anthem for the company’s new supersonic Concorde aeroplane. By that time, Schönberg also was Franck’s personal artistic director.
In 1984, Franck Pourcel released his last album on the Pathé-Marconi label, ‘Operas in digital’. Pourcel: “My involvement with Pathé-Marconi lasted more than thirty years. When we said goodbye, it was in the best of mutual understanding. Being without a record deal, I was finally free to accept more of the invitations I received from just about everywhere to conduct orchestras for concerts in Japan, the United States, and Latin America. It was astounding to find how people in many different countries were still familiar with my name. One of the most memorable occasions was a concert in Cuba with the Havana Symphony Orchestra, which had invited me over for the Varadero Music Festival. In the following years, I did two albums and a concert with Kimera, an opera singer from South Korea. In 1990, I recorded a disc of classical works for the Dino label; some were new orchestrations to pieces I had previously done for Pathé-Marconi, of course after having obtained their permission. Some others were arrangements to compositions I had never touched before, notably Rimski-Korsakov’s ‘Sheherazade’ and the ‘Annen Polka’ by Johann Strauss.”
In 1996, Franck Pourcel was involved in a studio session for the last time, for the charity CD ‘Quartet for Kobe’, released following the 1995 earthquake in Japan; for this recording, he formed a ‘super group’ with Paul Mauriat, Francis Lai and Raymond Lefèvre. Four years later, in 2000, Franck Pourcel succumbed to the complications of Parkinson’s disease, aged 87.
Franck Pourcel in the Eurovision Song Contest
There is all the more reason to assume Pourcel arranged the two songs with which France took part in the 1956 contest, as, one year later, when Paule Desjardins was RTF’s artist of choice, she chose to be accompanied by her own arranger, Paul Durand. Apparently, in those earliest years of the festival, RTF did not yet insist on Pourcel’s involvement the way the broadcaster was to do in later years.
In 1958, Franck Pourcel was back as France’s conductor in the Eurovision Song Contest, held in Hilversum (Netherlands). He led the orchestra for André Claveau and his delightful romantic ballad ‘Dors mon amour’, written by Hubert Giraud and Pierre Delanoë. Whilst the arrangement to the studio recording was done by Pierre Guillermin, Pourcel himself wrote a distinctly different version for the live broadcast in Hilversum. On the night, Claveau beat competing artists from nine other participating countries – including Domenico Modugno with ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare)’ for Italy – to give France its first-ever Eurovision victory. One Dutch newspaper journalist claimed there was nothing surprising about Claveau’s win, as he “was accompanied from the conductor’s platform by nobody else than Franck Pourcel, who for many years had been the accompanist of Lucienne Boyer, winner of the 1956 Grand Prix du Disque.” Obviously, Franck Pourcel was rapidly becoming a household name to music followers beyond the borders of France. The following decade, with much more French Eurovision success to come, the famous maestro was regarded as part of a potentially winning festival formula.
In 1959, for the second year running, the Eurovision Song Contest was organised in the country which had won the previous edition – and France’s broadcaster RTF chose the Riviera resort of Cannes, and more specifically the Palais des Festivals, as the venue for the programme. Contrary to the organising broadcasters of the three previous Eurovision editions, the RTF did not dispose of a regular radio orchestra of its own. For that reason, Franck Pourcel was commissioned to form an orchestra of freelance musicians especially for the occasion. Whilst he took with him most of the brass and rhythm group he mostly worked with for sessions in Paris’ record studios, he had to make do with a limited budget – and therefore was forced to rely on a fifteen classical string players from across Southern France who had never before played as a group.
During rehearsals in the leadup to the festival in Cannes, some of the competing artists showed their dismay at the quality of playing of Pourcel’s orchestra. Italy’s contestant Domenico Modugno humiliated the orchestra musicians by forcing them to play his song ‘Piove’ dozens of times on end; it was not until over an hour later that Modugno and his conductor William Galassini were satisfied with the result. Dolf van der Linden, who led the orchestra for the Dutch entry ‘Een beetje’ by Teddy Scholten, did not hide his disappointment about Pourcel’s orchestra either: “Just listen to those violins! Absolutely shocking”. He managed to improve the sound more rapidly than his Italian colleague in a rehearsal which lasted thirty minutes.
As the programme’s musical director, Franck Pourcel, armed with a huge baton, did not only conduct ‘his’ orchestra for the French entry ‘Oui oui oui’ by Jean Philippe (who came second), but stepped in for no fewer than five delegations who had travelled to Cannes without a guest conductor: Monaco, West Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and Austria. Undeniably, the orchestra sounded at its most modern and swinging during their rendition of the winning song, ‘Een beetje’ by Teddy Scholten from the Netherlands. Or, as Dutch newspaper Het Parool put it in a rather chauvinist review: “With Dolf van der Linden at the helm, it was as if there was a completely different orchestra playing than the one which was accompanying the other entries. All of a sudden, the sound of the orchestra of Radio Television Française was lush and bright and the musicians were giving an inspired performance, helped no doubt by an excellent arrangement.”
In 1960, the Eurovision Song Contest took place in London. For the second time in five years, France won the festival, this time with André Popp’s composition ‘Tom Pillibi; the song was interpreted by Jacqueline Boyer, the eighteen-year-old daughter of Lucienne Boyer and Jacques Pills, the couple with whom Franck had worked so extensively in the 1940s. In an interview she allowed us in 2018, Jacqueline explained how well she knew Franck: “He worked with my parents from the time when I was a baby. After war’s end, we went on a grand tour which took us to Argentina, Brazil and the United States. In 1947, we stayed in the same hotel in New York for six months with Franck, his wife and his daughter. So Franck knew me from my earliest childhood onwards and was there practically all the time while I grew up… an adorable and highly sensitive man and of course a hugely talented musician, arranger and conductor. It was Franck, the star conductor of Pathé-Marconi, who got me a record deal with this record company and who led the studio orchestra for my first record which included [his composition] ‘Gouli gouli dou’. The recording was done in the Pathé-Marconi studios in Boulogne-Billancourt. He wrote the arrangement to ‘Tom Pillibi’. This song was chosen by Pathé-Marconi and the RTF as France’s entry for the contest in London.”
In London, Jacqueline was accompanied just by Franck Pourcel and his wife Odette; the young singer’s parents had to work in their cabaret club in Paris. Songwriters Pierre Cour and André Popp stayed home too, watching the contest on television. Left without the rest of her entourage, Jacqueline Boyer, who was not only young but also very inexperienced, given that she had first performed as a singer on stage in her parents’ cabaret just six months before the contest, heavily relied on her conductor. A journalist from the Netherlands who attended the rehearsals in London reported: “Conductor Franck Pourcel looked after her as a father. In the draw determining the order in which the songs are due to be performed, luck favoured Jacqueline as she was drawn last. If rules had been followed, she should have rehearsed her song last as well, after all other participating artists. But, given that half past eleven in the evening would have been too late for little Jacqueline, Pourcel filed a request to move her rehearsals forward to half past five, right before the dinner break. The festival organisers spoke to Jacqueline. When she solemnly promised to go to bed on time that evening, in order to be fresh as a daisy for the broadcast tomorrow, the request was granted, much to the relief of little Jacqueline.”
“Indeed, Franck was like a father to me that week,” Jacqueline recalls. “During rehearsals, he kept on reassuring me, because obviously I was terrified! Of course, the song itself was memorable and happy and the lyrics were attractive, but it was Franck who gave it exactly the arrangement which it required – a good job really because, even when listening to it today, nearly sixty years on, it still stands out. When I think back of Franck, the man who knew me as a baby, conducting me while I represented France in the Eurovision Song Contest in what turned out to be the big break in my career… it simply is a wonderful memory which will always be dear to my heart! Just to prove how close we were; at my wedding which took place several months after the contest, Franck’s daughter Françoise was my maid of honour! The Pourcels really were a big part of our life. Unfortunately, I never worked with Franck again after the contest, but he was instrumental in my career – without him, I would probably not have made it to Eurovision, let alone win it and enjoy success across Europe and even in Canada and Japan.”
By the start of the 1960s, Franck Pourcel, bolstered by his success as a solo artist with his Grand Orchestre, had virtually given up working as a studio arranger for chansonniers. Still, RTF were adamant to have this most famous of conductors in the light entertainment genre to lead the orchestra for the annual French Eurovision entry. In 1961, as the Eurovision Song Contest was once again held in Cannes after Jacqueline Boyer’s win the year before, Pourcel was the show’s musical leader once again, overseeing rehearsals and conducting the entries from France, Austria and West-Germany.
Meanwhile, Monaco had copied France’s habit of hiring the same conductor for their entry every year, irrespective of who had arranged the song – and Monegasque broadcaster TMC chose none other than Pourcel’s former pianist Raymond Lefèvre to do the job. According to Lefèvre himself, he was slightly more talented at negotiating a good prize for his services than Franck Pourcel: “When I told Franck how much I was paid for the Eurovision job by Monaco’s broadcaster TMC, he was astonished. He then asked my permission to have a word about this with those at French television responsible for the Eurovision Song Contest – and he demanded exactly the same fee as I received in Monaco. In fact, he succeeded at convincing them and of course he thanked me for helping him to augment his income!” Unfortunately for Lefèvre, his involvement in the Eurovision Song Contest proved to be more short-lived than Pourcel’s, as TMC discontinued their collaboration with him after four editions of the festival (1960-1963).
Strikingly, the arrangements to the French entries conducted by Pourcel were often completely different from the record versions. Good examples are ‘Un premier amour’ (Isabelle Aubret, 1962) and ‘Elle était si jolie’ (Alain Barrière, 1963). In both cases, the studio versions (arranged by Jean-Michel Defaye and Armand Migiani respectively) included a rather modern rhythmical approach, including electric guitar parts; Pourcel’s orchestrations, on the other hand, were more heavily loaded with the maestro’s trademark strings. Most probably, in both instances (and most certainly in later cases) Pourcel himself took the decision to adapt the scores in order to augment his income; for television and radio broadcasts, not only the composer and lyricist of a given song, but the arranger as well, received a set amount of money, based on the number of countries to which the programme was broadcast. However, RTF had little reason to complain, as France continued to do extremely well in the contest; in 1962, Pourcel was part of the winning team for the third time when ‘Un premier amour’ won the Eurovision Song Contest.
In 1964, when the international festival took place in Copenhagen, France was represented by a young girl singer, Rachel Ros, who sang ‘Le chant de Mallory’, a sophisticated ballad composed by André Popp; and, once again, Franck Pourcel waved the baton. In the draw, France’s song was placed right before the UK entry, which was conducted by Harry Rabinowitz. According to Rabinowitz, the Danish orchestra was not exactly impressed by Pourcel’s conducting technique: “The conductor of the entry preceding ours got the ending of ‘his’ song completely wrong and he mystified the orchestra musicians. They did not know what he was aiming at and had a bad time. He had already made a bit of a hash of it during rehearsals and on the night, he did it again. As a result, when I stepped up to conduct our item, the orchestra was very nervous indeed. I realised that I had to think of a way to ease the musicians’ tension. So while I was being introduced to the audience by the presenter, I turned to the orchestra and to the concertmaster in particular, and I asked quietly, pretending not to be sure about the time signature: “Well, by the way, remind me, is this piece in 3/4 or in 4/4?” Of course, they realised I was not being serious; it was an idiotic question and they laughed their heads off. It put them at their ease and we got a good performance!”
In spite of all this, ‘Le chant de Mallory’ did well in the voting and finished fourth. In the following three years, Pourcel helped France coming third on two occasions (in 1965 with Guy Mardel and ‘N’avoue jamais’ and in 1967 with Noëlle Cordier and ‘Il doit faire beau là-bas’) – but was involved in France’s worst showing in the contest up to that point as well in 1966 when Dominique Walter finished sixteenth (third-last) with ‘Chez nous’. Incidentally, Walter’s song was the first Eurovision entry for which Pourcel had to take care of the orchestra as well as a vocal group; the three backing vocalists were crammed in a corner of the pit to allow Pourcel to count them in simultaneously with the orchestra musicians.
In 1968, for the first time in eleven years, Franck Pourcel did not take part in the Eurovision Song Contest. At the international festival final in London’s Royal Albert Hall, France was represented for a second time by Isabelle Aubret. Her song, a delightful folk tune called ‘La source’, was conducted by its arranger, Alain Goraguer. While Goraguer himself was not sure why he conducted the song instead of Pourcel, an e-mail exchange with Isabelle’s husband and producer Gérard Meys confirms that he and Isabelle insisted on Goraguer: “After all, Alain was the arranger, so we wanted him to accompany Isabelle on stage”. Though not represented at the festival, Pourcel, like in so many previous years, released an EP with his instrumental versions of his four favourite Eurovision entries – and for 1968 he picked the winning Spanish entry ‘La, la, la’ as well as ‘A chacun sa chanson’ (Monaco), ‘Nous vivrons d’amour’ (Luxembourg) and… ‘La source’!
Other artists and producers were less tenacious than Isabelle Aubret and Gérard Meys, and so Franck Pourcel was back in the Eurovision Song Contest the following year when Frida Boccara won the festival in Madrid with ‘Un jour, un enfant’. Again, the record arrangement for the song was taken care of by Alain Goraguer, and once more, Pourcel adapted the orchestration for the live performance. In an interview with this website in 2011, Goraguer made no attempt to hide his irritation at having to cede his place to Pourcel: “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 (…), changed two or three notes, signed his name, and received all the money for the television performance. While my personal relationship with Pourcel was always 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.”
In the 1970s, Franck Pourcel conducted three more French entries, of which two were arranged by Alain Goraguer: Guy Bonnet’s ‘Marie-Blanche’ (Amsterdam: 1970) and Betty Mars’ ‘Comé-comédie’ (Edinburgh: 1972). In 1971, when the festival was held in Dublin, France was represented by Serge Lama and ‘Un jardin sur la terre’, an Alica Dona composition arranged by Jean-Claude Petit. Funnily enough, Petit was also responsible for the score to Monaco’s entry in the same contest, ‘Un banc, un arbre, une rue’ by Séverine – the eventual winner, which he conducted himself. Contrary to Alain Goraguer, Petit did not have any qualms about making way for Franck Pourcel:
“No, not at all, for Franck was a friend. I was close to his daughter Françoise, who was married to Alain Boublil, the producer with whom I worked a lot back then. I had huge respect for Franck, who was a great conductor of French light entertainment of the generation preceding mine. In Dublin, we were together all the time… to be honest, at the outset I wasn’t even aware I was defending the colours of Monaco instead of France. I remember Serge Lama was there, and Jean Claudric who was involved in the Luxembourg entry – and some other people too… one big bunch of Frenchmen representing three different nations. We knew each other well and had a good time all through the week. No, he didn’t change my arrangement to Serge Lama’s song – did he do that to Alain Goraguer’s Eurovision arrangements? I find that rather surprising, because Franck was more of a conductor than an arranger… but being the star that he was, he probably was keen to leave his mark on the music he conducted.”
The 1972 Eurovision Song Contest in Edinburgh was the last edition of the festival in which Franck Pourcel took part. Around this same time, Pourcel did a lot of concerts with his Grand Orchestre across the world, which, according to his daughter Françoise, was the reason he discontinued his annual Eurovision involvement. From now on, the French Eurovision entries were usually conducted by their respective arrangers, the first one being Jean Claudric for Martine Clémenceau and her song ‘Sans toi’ in Luxembourg (1973). Clémenceau had won a pre-selection show in Paris in which six songs took part. “I arranged and conducted all songs for that selection programme,” Claudric recalls. “As for Pourcel, he was replaced because singers no longer wanted to work with him. Don’t get me wrong: they had no problems with him personally, because everyone recognised his exceptional talents. But producers and artists simply wanted their song’s arranger to conduct as well. If a particular melody has been arranged by Jean-Claude Petit, he should be the one to lead the orchestra. It was no more than logical…”
In fairness, Pourcel’s fate was a sign of the times. Record companies became ever more powerful and felt they deserved more of a say in ‘their’ Eurovision songs. In 1972, in the Netherlands, Pourcel’s contemporary and fellow festival veteran conductor Dolf van der Linden was replaced by twenty-nine-year old studio arranger Harry van Hoof at the insistence of the producer of that year’s Dutch Eurovision entry. In a way, the Eurovision Song Contest was wrenched from the hands of its ‘founding fathers’ – inevitably so. Yet, with the disappearance of conductors like Franck Pourcel, Dolf van der Linden and Øivind Bergh, something valuable was lost as well; at least, that is how Pourcel’s countryman Jean Musy – himself twice a conductor on the Eurovision stage in the 1970s – feels about it:
“To me, it is not surprising that the decline of interest in the Eurovision Song Contest in my country more or less coincided with the moment Franck Pourcel stopped being involved as a conductor. From the 1970s onwards, the selection of the Eurovision entry here in France became ever more farcical. The pre-selections here were rigged – and everyone knew. Back in his day, Franck Pourcel, by his sheer presence, made sure there was a certain amount of calm and dignity around the festival. After he had gone, Eurovision became an event of trop de monde et trop de bruit, too many people and too much noise.”
There is no doubt that Franck Pourcel is one of the most influential and successful musicians ever to grace the Eurovision stage – and moreover he is amongst the most frequent participants of the contest. In total, he conducted a staggering total of twenty-three songs from six different countries in fifteen Eurovision editions between 1956 and 1972; he was part of the winning team on four occasions. Both by the amount of Eurovision songs he conducted and by number of victories, Franck Pourcel is second only to Noel Kelehan from Ireland; Kelehan led the orchestra for twenty-nine entries (from ‘only’ five different countries) and won five times.
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