Sylvano SantorioBorn: August 29th, 1933, Florence-Firenze (Italy)
“I have been told I showed signs of talent right from the beginning”, Sylvano continues. “It was not long before I played along with the church harmonium player while he was rehearsing the music to be played for the mass. I came to the church specifically to pick up the harmonies of the organ and play them with my violin. Much to the organ player’s dismay, however, I hardly ever stayed for mass itself! Though both of my parents tried to inspire me to follow in their footsteps in terms of career choice, fortunately, it did not take them long to accept that music was my sole passion. I even took additional lessons to master the double-bass. At secondary school, I proved quite a good student, but I must admit that I was not really tested… that was the way students destined for the conservatory were treated: as everyone knew we were expected to study our instrument for hours a day in preparation of the admission exam, we were not given a hard time at the conventional school subjects.”
Although destined to be a classical violinist, young Silvano never got to conservatory. “In the last year of the war”, he explains, “the Nazis had occupied the local music school and they damaged it quite seriously. Upon war’s end, it took a couple of years before the conservatory opened its doors, so I had to wait anyway. By the time they reopened, however, I had lost my appetite! I had discovered light entertainment music as I started visiting a local dancing bar on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. From scratch, I was fascinated by the little orchestra playing there. All members were young guys of my age, playing mostly contemporary American repertoire… for example Arthur Smith’s bebop records. I became friends with them and wanted to join them… but how could a dance orchestra benefit from a violinist? Occasionally, I improvised with them when they played some waltzes and tangos, but meanwhile I had taken up learning to play the guitar… because they were in need of a guitar player! My teacher was a classical guitarist called Mori. After some six months, I felt confident enough to start playing the new instrument on stage… and it worked. I never touched the violin again!”
Playing the guitar and the electric guitar, Silvano stayed with his friends’ band for four years (1951-’55): “It took me long to get used to not playing from sheet music. Whilst I had been taught to read music by my niece, neither of my friends in the band had this ability… they simply imitated what they heard on the radio or on records. Though they lacked the technical know-how to have a go at more complicated jazz stuff, all of them were great at interpreting bebop and rock. After leaving classical music behind, jazz became my passion, largely thanks to a great American jazz pianist who lived and worked Florence. He introduced me to the music of Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington. Jamming with him, I picked up lots of things I would never have learnt just sticking to the straightforward rock ‘n’ roll of my own band. We were quite popular in town and made some nice money during those years, but we only played during weekends. All of us had daytime jobs, in my case lending my father a hand in his restaurant.”
In 1955, Santorio was offered the opportunity to join the band of Renato Carosone, a Neapolitan singer whose fame extended across the whole of Italy. For three years, he played the guitar and mandolin in Carosone’s accompanying sextet. Santorio: “Carosone must have been told about this young fledgling guitar player from Florence. He was an interesting artist, interpreting Neapolitan songs, but in a modern way… even with a little rock flavour in it, occasionally. I detested having to play the mandolin so often, though, because this instrument uses the same chords as the violin – and I had come to abhor the violin! Carosone was very successful in those years and we even toured abroad, performing in Paris for a month. As with the dance orchestra in Florence, none of my fellow band members were able to read music. I tried to learn them the basics, giving them my solfège textbooks, and wrote down their parts, trying to show them that it was so much easier not having to play by heart all the time.”
After three years with Carosone, for whom he played the guitar on three studio albums recorded on the Pathé label as well, Santorio left his band, staying for three years with a ballroom orchestra which performed in a posh nightclub in Rome (1958-’61). He occasionally went on the road accompanying Italian star vocalists such as Nilla Pizzi on stage. In 1961, however, Santorio took the radical step of leaving for Paris, France. How come? Sylvano explains: “In the record studios in Milan as well as in the nightclub in Rome, I had often met French musicians who told me there was plenty of studio work to be found in Paris. They were impressed by my way of playing the guitar, as I used the Binson Echorec, one of the earliest echo machines. In ’61, I fell in love with the daughter of a Venezuelan diplomat who worked for UNESCO in Paris. That was good enough a reason to finally try my luck as a musician in France! My ambition was not to stay in Paris, but to travel on to the USA to study at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. My girlfriend would have been quite willing to follow me there, but as soon as our little baby daughter was born, I felt the time for taking risks was over. Meanwhile, I made a decent living as a musician and I liked the studio work a lot. Therefore, I decided to stay… and have stayed since. Though I never took the trouble to swap my Italian passport for a French one, in my heart, I am a Frenchman. Paris is the most beautiful place on earth and France has allowed me to make it in music. I am forever grateful to this wonderful country.”
During his first year in Paris, Santorio – from now on allowing his given name spelled the French way, Sylvano instead of Silvano – mainly made his money by playing in a nightclub in the Rue Pierre-Charron, waiting for the opportunity to work in the record studios. In 1962, he made his French studio debut in the session of ‘J’entends siffler le train’ with arranger Christian Chevallier. This song, with a distinct guitar part, was interpreted by Richard Anthony and became one of this vocalist’s biggest-ever hit successes. From that moment onwards, Santorio quickly established himself as one of the most sought-after session guitarists in Paris. “I was one of the generation of musicians dubbed les requins, the sharks”, he comments. “We were given this epithet by the older generation, because we took away their jobs… most of them did not read music and were not able to keep up with the scores which became increasingly complicated – too complicated for them to play. They were replaced by guys like me and Yvon Rioland, musicians with a classical background.” From 1962 to the early 1990s, Santorio worked in the recording studios as a guitarist, electric guitarist, banjo and bass player with all major arrangers, most notably Jean-Claude Petit, Tony Rallo, and Jean-Claude Vannier, and recording stars; Hugues Aufray, Guy Béart, Patrick Abrial, and Marc Ogeret, to name just a few.
Following the huge success of ‘J’entends siffler le train’, singer Richard Anthony took Sylvano Santorio onto his live band. Santorio remained with Anthony throughout the 1960s, giving some two-hundred performances annually in the peak years. In those years, Santorio also accompanied young and coming female starlets Françoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan on stage. Later onwards, in the 1970s and 1980s, he toured with the likes of Dalida, Claude François, Thierry Le Luron, and Sacha Distel. With Mireille Mathieu, he performed at concert venues in as far away as the Soviet Union and China.
In the world of television, Santorio was the guitarist in the orchestra of ‘Télé-Dimanche’ (1965), a show which included the singing competition ‘Le Jeu de la Chance’, in which Mireille Mathieu and Thierry Le Luron won fame for the first time. Between 1965 and 1968, Sylvano was a member of the Raymond Lefèvre Orchestra in the hugely popular ORTF musical entertainment show ‘Le Palmarès des Chansons’, where all major artists performed their new work. In the subsequent fifteen years, Lefèvre always called on Santorio in all TV shows for which he was the orchestra leader. “Lefèvre was one of the greatest musicians I ever worked with”, Santorio revels. “He was a friendly man, though he had no mercy for musicians who he thought performed below par. His style of conducting, not surprisingly given his classical background, was second to none. He is usually mentioned in the same breath as Paul Mauriat and Franck Pourcel, but on account of his astounding knowledge of music, I would say Lefèvre was the best of these three arrangers and conductors.”
In the 1960s, ever eager to expand his musical knowledge, Santorio took lessons in harmony and orchestration with André Hodeir (1921-2011). Santorio: “Hodeir was a more than capable classical and jazz musician, who taught me and many other musicians of my generation – Tony Rallo, for example – valuable lessons. Arranging and orchestrating is often about coming up with effective countermelodies to balance the lead melody in a piece of music. Whilst many struggle at this, I found these ideas came to me as a gift from above. At the time of the lessons with Hodeir, there was no question that I was going to do a lot of arranging work. I worked as a studio guitarist from early in the morning until late in the evening. Later onwards, some work came my way… not that much. I did not foster ambitions as a composer, but I would like to have written more arrangements. However, I am not the kind of person to press my name… too modest, perhaps. I have always been an anti-vedette, someone in the background!”
Though never a household name as a composer or arranger, Sylvano Santorio’s name popped up on record covers once in a while. In 1965, he composed Richard Anthony’s success ‘I don’t know what to do’, whilst he was credited as co-arranger of Guy Béart’s album ‘Vive la rose’ one year later. In 1978, he arranged ‘Le temps des cerises’, a minor disco hit for Lisette Malidor. In the early 80s, he was the arranging mastermind behind Frank Dana’s medley success ‘Mega slows Italiano’. As a solo artist, in the 1970s and early 1980s, Santorio – sometimes credited under his pseudonym Ike Matthews – recorded a series of instrumental albums with wonderful compositions and arrangements of his own, such as ‘Pop 2000’, ‘Pop Sound Disco’, and ‘Pop Guitar Sketches’. Over the years, these LPs have become collector items, cherished by music lovers across France and beyond. Santorio: “None of these records, released on the Montparnasse 2000 label, were ever on sale for the general public. These pieces of music were intended to be used by TV stations as jingles and interludes. This has been quite a lucrative business, as many of these tunes were picked up by the major television companies.”
From the 80s onwards, Santorio has had a close working relationship with composer Jack Arel. “I owe much to Jack”, says Santorio. “He helped me by having a lot of arranging work coming my way, though I was not that experienced when he first approached me. Apparently, he had confidence in me. My first job for him was orchestrating his soundtrack to the film ‘La baraka’. After that, many other projects followed”. Indeed, apart from more arrangements to Arel’s film music, such as ‘Jean’s Tonic’ (1984), Arel called upon Sylvano Santorio to arrange the music to TV documentaries such as the hugely popular series ‘30 millions d’amis’ for TF1. Moreover, Santorio played the guitar on Jack Arel’s solo big band album ‘Gravure universelle’ (1997), whilst providing arrangements for Arel’s theatre productions as well. For another long-time friend, Jean-Marie Hauser, Santorio penned the arrangements to his jazz album ‘Complicity’ (2009). From 1999 to 2001, Sylvano Santorio was under contract with private television channel Canal+, composing and arranging the music to several of their programmes, most notably the sketch show ‘Blague à part’. A couple of years later, in ’03, Santorio composed the soundtrack to TV film ‘Bonne nuit’.
Santorio’s most enduring collaboration has been with chanteuse Isabelle Aubret. He joined her band as a guitarist in 1983 and has been working with her ever since, playing the guitar parts on her studio albums and writing arrangements for recording sessions and live gigs. Santorio: “After all those years, Isabelle has come to think of me as a member of her family. The two of us share a passion for jazz music. For stage performances, I lead the band, writing out all arrangements. In the studio, I usually take care of most of the scores for her as well. She fully trusts me in what I am doing, which makes for a very pleasant working relationship.”
Sylvano Santorio in the Eurovision Song Contest
Santorio, ever (too?) modest, now claims that he should not have been credited as sole composer of the song. He explains: “I was contacted by Richard de Bordeaux, who enjoyed quite some success as half of a singing duo with Daniel Beretta. Though he worked in a different corner of the entertainment industry, we were on good terms – distant friends, if you like. He told me about this nice song he had written for the French Eurovision selection. The lyrics by Joffo were all ready and De Bordeaux had the music virtually ready, but his problem was that he was not a professional musician and did not know how to put his ideas to paper. He wanted me to construct a maquette, in other words: a model, writing down his ideas in conventional music notation. I helped him out, giving him some ideas on how to put a finishing touch to it, but the idea for the music was really his. Apart from the orchestration which is mine, I should have been mentioned as co-composer at most. It really was a one-off involvement for me, as I did not harbour ambitions as a songwriter. Moreover, it is the only time I ever worked with Joffo and De Bordeaux.”
“Joffo and De Bordeaux brought together the five group members”, Santorio continues. “Once the song was ready, they started auditioning for suitable artists. They could easily have compiled a quintet of able backing vocalists from the record studio, but someone must have decided that the factor look should be taken into account seriously. The five group members were all young and good-looking, with a quite ok singing ability… but nothing special in that respect. All of them were excellent dancers, though – and as a group, they certainly had charisma! Our song was chosen for the pre-selection show here in Paris, but we entered it without any belief of being able to actually win it. When we won the right to represent France in the Eurovision Song Contest, all of us were astonished… imagine, neither the songwriting team nor the performers had any reputation to speak of up to that point.”
With the Profil quintet, Sylvano Santorio travelled to the 1980 international Eurovision final, held in The Hague (Netherlands). Though without any experience as a conductor, he was invited by TV channel TF1 to lead the Dutch orchestra himself. Santorio: “TF1 did not push a conductor of their own choice, instead asking me to take care of that job. Indeed, it was the first time I conducted an orchestra – let alone on television! I have never been trained as a conductor, but the main thing was indicating the right tempo – and that was not very difficult. For our song, an up-tempo song, the drummer was of vital importance. Luckily, the percussionist of the Dutch orchestra, with whom I established a nice little conversation in advance of the first rehearsal, was on my side and altogether proved an excellent professional. Quite many of the orchestra musicians spoke French, which made communication easy. As far as the orchestra was concerned, the tension I felt quickly subsided.”
“The singing quintet, however, was quite a different story”, Santorio recalls. “The group members were all very pleasant personalities, a joy to work with and eager to perform well… but they lacked experience and were extremely nervous. Guided by Richard de Bordeaux, they rehearsed the song endlessly, even in between the stage rehearsals. Eventually, Richard and I took the decision to make things a little easier for them by allowing them to sing in unison. By slightly adapting the vocal arrangement in this way, we hoped to bring about a more relaxed performance. A suggestion from someone else, to play the song in a lower tempo, was rejected by me personally… our song was a rhythmical song, alors on fait du rhythme! Changing the tempo would not have been right given our original intentions.”
It was the first time France was not represented in the Eurovision Song Contest by a soloist, and replacing the traditional chanson approach for disco was a radical breach of styles which did not go down particularly well with the international jurors, who awarded France with 45 votes and an eleventh place amongst nineteen participating countries. Santorio: “After all our worrying throughout the week of preparations, we were satisfied that our five singers gave a fine performance. The song was very much up-to-date… no masterpiece, but a fine dance tune. Perhaps, the group looked too much like an ABBA rip-off. Trying to analyse our result, I think the European audience was not ready for a country like France to come up with a beat track. This was the kind of stuff which one expected from Britain or the Scandinavian countries. France was considered the country of melodious chansons – and we did exactly the opposite! But… let us not be too overdramatic about what happened… the Eurovision Song Contest was a great manifestation to be part of and I was not particularly in it to win. The song became a minor hit in France, so all in all there was little to complain.”
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