Henri SegersBorn: May 20th, 1921, Brussels (Belgium)
Died: July 2nd, 1983, Tervuren (Belgium)
During World War II, Segers kept on working in Brussels, being the pianist in the professional jazz orchestras of Fud Candrix (1908-1974), Gus Deloof (1909-), and Jean Omer (1912-1994). Especially Jean Omer was recognized as an influential jazz musician in Belgium in those days. In 1938, the Nivelles-born clarinettist had bought the worn-down cabaret café Pingouin, which was near the Porte de Namur in Southern Brussels, and renamed it Le Boeuf sur le Toit. Omer performed there with his swing orchestra, of which even Coleman Hawkins was a member for some time. It was not long before Omer’s club became the ‘place to be’ in Brussels. Even though swing music was banned by the Germans, the orchestra continued performing successfully. With Omer, Henri Segers regularly worked in the studio to record the orchestra’s most popular pieces, including ‘The blue room’ (arranged by none other than Benny Carter) in 1940. During the German occupation, both Jean Omer and Fud Candrix regularly travelled to Germany with their orchestras, most notably to perform in Berlin’s Delphi Palast. Apart from his work with Belgian maestros, Henri Segers – like so many other Belgian musicians – also played with the German radio swing orchestra of Willi Stech.
In 1944, Henri Segers left Jean Omer’s orchestra. He worked in the recording studio as a piano accompanist, teaming up with the likes of Gus Viseur, when this famous French jazz accordionist recorded some of his work in Brussels in January 1946. That same year, Segers founded a jazz band of his own in Brussels and named it L’Heure Bleue. With it, he was part of the ‘invasion’ of the Netherlands by Belgian orchestras. While Eddie De Latte worked in the Scheveningen Casino and Fud Candrix in the Palais de la Danse, also in Scheveningen, Segers’ swing band performed in a dance club in nearby The Hague. In 1948, his orchestra played in the Valkenburg Casino, still in the Netherlands. Using the name Henri Segers & His Belgian Stars, Segers regularly appeared at the famed Bilzen Jazz Festival. In the early 1950s, his orchestra became the house band of Jean Omer’s Boeuf sur le Toit in Brussels, where he kept on performing for several years.
Meanwhile, in 1953, a national TV service was formed (NIR/INR), introducing television in Belgium. From the very start, Segers’ combo was a regular feature in entertainment programmes. Three years later, producer Ernest Blondeel commissioned Segers to form a grand orchestra for television broadcasts. The story of how this came about sounds improbable, but is well remembered by many musicians, including trombonist Frans Van Dyck: “It actually started with a joke. Jean Warland – an excellent double-bass player – was always thinking of ways to poke fun at others. He rang Henri Segers and, introducing himself as an assistant to Blondeel, he declared: ‘You are expected tomorrow at 10 o’clock in Mr Blondeel’s office. He wants you to form a television orchestra’. There was no truth in this at all, but of course Segers turned up at Blondeel’s office at NIR. It must have been an awkward situation for both men. After his astonishment had subsided, however, Blondeel said: ‘Well, coming to think of it, we do need an orchestra. So, perhaps we can do business after all!’ And that is how Segers was given the commission to form the INR Big Band. Everything thanks to Jean Warland’s joke of course!”
The musicians who played in Segers’ TV band from the beginning, were Frans Van Dyck (trombone, 1923-), Albert Caels (trumpet), Jo Van Wetter (guitar), Constant Letellier (clarinet/saxophone, 1923-), Jo Van Wetter (guitar), Roger Vanhaverbeke (double-bass, 1930-2011), and Jo De Muynck (percussion, -2005). Van Dyck and Van Haverbeke were only two of the many Flemish professionals having played in Segers’ orchestra. Other musicians, who played in the TV band over the years, include Marcel De Bruyn, Bob Pauwels, Johnny Renard, Herman Sandy, Jules Vandyck, Albert Brinkhuizen, Nick Frerard, Albert Godfrinne, Benny Couroyer, Freddy L’Host, Philippe Decae, Gaston Nuyts, and François L’Eglise. Until Francis Bay’s TV orchestra was formed in 1957, Segers’ big band did not only work for French-speaking television programmes, but for Flemish television as well.
Between 1956 and 1965, Segers and his orchestra worked on countless television shows, the most successful one being the weekly music programme ‘Music Parade’, in which stars from Belgium and abroad sang their hit tunes accompanied by Segers’ band. Guests for the show included Charles Aznavour, Sascha Distel, and Gilbert Bécaud. Segers and his combo appeared in over one thousand TV productions for INR and RTB, including many editions of popular entertainment shows such as ‘Tiroir aux souvenirs’, ‘Alphabétiquement vôtre’, ‘Mélodie souvenir’, ‘L’écran dansant’, ‘L’escarpolette’, ‘Show de Bruxelles’, and ‘Dans ma rue’. Many of the orchestrations for these programmes were written by Segers’ musicians, mostly Frans Van Dyck, Francy Boland, and Etienne Verschueren. Especially alto-saxophonist Verschueren (1928-1995), who had joined the orchestra in 1959, played an important role in the ensemble. He regularly appeared as the band’s conductor when Segers was unavailable. All arrangements for ‘Tiroir aux souvenirs’ were penned by Jack Say.
Henri Segers and his orchestra played at the 1958 World Fair (EXPO) in Brussels. Two years later, when Belgian king Baudouin married his queen Fabiola, the orchestras of Segers and Francis Bay both performed during the wedding celebrations. On several occasions, Segers was invited by broadcasters in Holland to make an appearance with his band in TV shows. 1963 became a glorious year for Segers. First, he was awarded with the Bronze Rose of Montreux for his orchestra’s interpretation of ‘La Suite en 16’, a piece composed and arranged by Etienne Verschueren with a star role for the internationally acclaimed vibraphone virtuoso Sadi (Sadi Lallemand, 1927-2009). Moreover, in the fall of that same year, he and his men were invited to come over to the Bavaria Studios in Munich, West Germany, for three weeks to record a television show centred around the piece ‘Fantaisie pour Ballet et Orchestre’.
First and foremost, Henri Segers was a pianist and orchestra leader. He never penned any arrangements, while most of his compositions did not stand the test of time. Segers’ own work can be categorized as genuine dance music, mostly cha-cha-cha and bossa nova tunes. His composition ‘Bistrot’ was recorded by French pianist Onésime Grosbois. With his orchestra, Henri Segers made several recordings for Philips with foreign material, including a LP called ‘Les airs de Paris et d’Italie’ (1962).
Although his big band only performed on RTB television, Segers worked for Belgian radio on many occasions, accompanying singers such as Ferry Barendse, Terry Lester, and Jetty Lee with a smaller combo with Constant Letellier (saxophone), Frans Van Dyck (double-bass), Armand Vandewalle (percussion), and Segers himself on the piano. In 1963, Etienne Verschueren left Segers’ orchestra to join Flemish broadcaster BRT as staff arranger; two years later, he was commissioned to form the BRT Jazz Orchestra, which he conducted until 1985. In that same year, 1965, Segers’ television orchestra was dissolved due to the health problems the conductor was facing at that time.
In 1965-‘66, Segers worked as an arranger for Jean Kluger’s record company World Music. In 1967, he formed an eleven-man-orchestra, which was frequently called upon to appear in gala nights and feasts. One year later, in ’68, Segers was again employed by RTB – this time as a producer. His main success in this second spell at the national broadcaster was ‘Chansons à la Carte’, another music show which ran for an impressive fifteen years. Meanwhile, a new TV orchestra had been formed by Jack Say, who included twelve of the musicians of Segers’ former band and added a string section to suit the demands of contemporary pop and entertainment music. Again faced by marring problems with his health, Segers was forced to leave the RTB towards the end of the 1970s. His last years seem to have been particularly gloomy, with his wife and his only son dying before him. Segers himself succumbed to cirrhosis in 1983.
Henri Segers in the Eurovision Song Contest
Segers first taste of the Eurovision Song Contest came in 1960; for the third time, Fud Leclerc had won the right to represent Belgium in the international final, this time with ‘Mon amour pour toi’, a most poetic love song by Robert Montal and Jack Say. It did reasonably well in the voting with a fifth place amongst thirteen entries. Nevertheless, composer and arranger Jack Say has mixed feelings about the 1960 contest and Segers’ involvement in it: “I travelled to the international contest to witness the dress rehearsal as well as the broadcast itself. During the rehearsal, Fud gave an excellent performance. However, fate struck during the live show. Henri Segers made a mistake, indicating a tempo to the orchestra which was too slow. Because of that, Fud was ‘stuck’, making attempts to adapt his singing to the tempo. Meanwhile, Segers tried to speed the orchestra up, but in vain; Henri had always been more of a pianist than a conductor and he lacked the technique to set things right. Afterwards, he readily admitted that he had indicated the first bar in a wrong tempo. No, we were not angry at him; the atmosphere was very cordial. Luckily, the final results were not that bad for us. In hindsight, the music I wrote to the song, harmonically, was somewhat too complicated to succeed internationally anyway.”
In 1962, Segers and Fud Leclerc again teamed up to defend the Belgian colours, this time in Luxembourg, but Leclerc’s fourth and last participation in the contest with ‘Ton nom’ failed to pick up any points and tied for last place with Austria, The Netherlands, and Spain. Perhaps this disappointing result was the reason RTB chose to select its 1964 Eurovision representative internally: thus, Robert Cogoi won the right to represent Belgium in the international festival in Copenhagen without a pre-selection. His beautiful ballad ‘Près de ma rivière’ was arranged – like so many Belgian entries in the early years of the festival – by Willy Albimoor, one of Belgium’s most prolific pianist and arrangers of those days, this time working under his pseudonym Bill Ador. With the Danish Radio Orchestra conducted by Henri Segers, Robert Cogoi finished tenth amongst sixteen competitors.
Since Segers’ TV orchestra had been dissolved in 1965 and he himself did not work at RTB at that time, the 1966 Belgian Eurovision pre-selection was accompanied by the band of trumpet-player Janot Morales (1919-1981), who later became a member of Etienne Verschueren’s BRT Jazz Orchestra. A singer from Brussels, Tonia, won this selection with the song ‘Un peu de poivre, un peu de sel’. There was no Belgian conductor to accompany her in the international final in Luxembourg, meaning that the orchestra during her performance was led by local host conductor Jean Roderes.
In 1968, Segers returned to the RTB as a producer. He was commissioned to form an ad-hoc orchestra to accompany that year’s Eurovision heats in Brussels. Amongst the participating artists were Nicole Josy and Tonia, while well-known composers David Bee and Paul Quintens had each submitted a song. The selection was won, however, by Claude Lombard and her sophisticated ballad ‘Quand tu reviendras’, composed by Jo Van Wetter, the guitarist of Segers’ former TV orchestra, while the arrangement was again penned by Willy Albimoor. Henri Segers conducted Norrie Paramor’s orchestra in London’s Royal Albert Hall during Lombard’s performance in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest final, in which Belgium respectably finished seventh.
Meanwhile, a new orchestra had been formed at the RTB, conducted by Jack Say. In 1970, Say was the musical director of the Belgian pre-selection for the contest as well as of the Belgian delegation at the international final in Amsterdam. Two years later, Say again conducted all entries in the Eurovision heats in Brussels. Winners were Serge & Christine Ghisoland with ‘A la folie ou pas du tout’. When, however, the duo performed at the Eurovision final in Edinburgh, it was not Say, but Henri Segers to lead the orchestra for them. Why was that? Jack Say comments: “I could not go because, at that time, I had to be in Brussels for a live broadcast of the Caméra d’Argent music show, which I accompanied with my orchestra. Moreover, I was not really keen on accompanying the Ghisolands, since my working relationship with them was not very good. Quite the opposite, I found them extremely unpleasant. I am sure that the Ghisolands would have felt the same about me and would certainly not have insisted on my coming with them to Scotland. Henri still worked at RTBF in ’72 and he was chosen to replace me. And why not…? After all, although he worked as a producer at that time and had not made any conducting appearances on TV for several years, he still was a very able musician!” In Edinburgh, Serge & Christine Ghisoland failed to make any impression on the jurors, finishing second last.
Other artists on Henri Segers
Frans Van Dyck worked as a musician and arranger with Segers’ orchestra between 1953 and 1957, and then again from 1958 to 1965: “I knew of Segers’ abilities as a musician long before we actually met. During the war years, he played in orchestras which I frequently listened to on the radio; he was one of the first modernist jazz pianists and, generally speaking, one of the best piano players of his time. When I became a member of his orchestra, it was not long before we became good friends. My wife and I regularly visited Henri and his family in Tervuren. We worked together on countless arrangements: he usually gave me a rough sketch of what he had in mind and he asked me to elaborate it. To be honest, he never took the time to write arrangements himself. Being the special guy that he was, he often said to me: ‘Now you go and write this arrangement for me, while I am going to have some pints of beer. Make sure you will finish it by tomorrow morning!’ For me, this meant staying up all night, writing and writing. But Henri was always satisfied with whatever I came up with. Together, we wrote hundreds of dance orchestra compositions, which we published at the Motard company in Kessel-Lo. Henri was instrumental in forwarding my career. He advised me to become a member of the Belgian Association of Authors, Composers, and Publishers (SABAM). He really was a friendly guy who was always very much concerned about his musicians and their careers. Francis Bay and Etienne Verschueren were better conductors than he was, but as a pianist nobody could beat him.”