Léo SourisBorn: July 18th, 1911, Marchienne-au-Pont (Belgium)
Died: March 14th, 1990, Seraing (Belgium)
In the war years, Souris moved to Brussels, where he played the piano in various light entertainment orchestras. Throughout the 1940s, he made his mark as an instrumentalist, but as a composer, arranger, and conductor as well. He was involved in arranging and conducting studio sessions for the Magic label, with, amongst others, singer Johnny Steggerda. Souris’ compositions include instrumentals, such as ‘Rêves’ and ‘Tendresse’, as well as fully-fledged film soundtracks. In 1952, he was the pianist in the Grand Orchestre Symphonique conducted by Jack Say during the Grand Gala de Bienfaisance, a relief concert held in the Ancienne Belgique concert hall in Brussels. Souris’ role in this performance was very important, given the fact that George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, a composition with very complicated piano solos, was amongst the pieces played.
In the early 1950s, Léo Souris founded a big band of his own, with which he played at the Palace Hotel at Place Rogier, Brussels. This dance orchestra consisted of twelve musicians (including well-known trumpeter Charly Knegtel, 1926-2009) and performed with various vocalists, including Jean Miret and Jean Walter. Most of the arrangements for the ensemble were penned by Jack Say. With his orchestra, Souris made some recordings of popular dance music; the Polydor record ‘Chiens perdus sans collier – The little lost dog’ was even released in West Germany and England.
Around the same time, Souris got involved in working for the French-speaking broadcaster in Belgium RTB (until 1960: INR). He hosted a jazz show on radio for many years and was involved in many other radio and TV projects. In 1957, a jazz band led by Souris and formed under the auspices of the INR went on tour in several European countries as well as in the Belgian colonies in Africa; this ensemble included well-known names, such as saxophonists Roger Asselberghs and Jacques Pelzer, trumpeter Herman Sandy, and double-bassist Benoît Quersin.
Léo Souris stood at the cradle of the summer jazz festival which was held annually between 1959 and 1966 in Comblain-la-Tour, a village to the south of Liège, and which drew thirty-thousand visitors in 1961. For the first edition, he wrote the accompanying strings to the performance of trumpet-player Chet Baker. One year later, in 1960, Souris performed at the festival with a jazz-band of his own, again including Pelzer and Quersin, as well as saxophonist Lennart Jonsson and percussionist Vivi Mardens. A four-man string group was added to the band to accompany singer Helen Merrill. Souris arranged and conducted this concert and moreover composed a signature tune to celebrate the occasion, a ‘Comblain Suite’. A live recording of this 1960 Comblain performance was released on LP.
In the 1960s, Souris again started working as a teacher, now at the Institut National Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle (INSAS) in Brussels. Between 1963 and 1970, he taught at the Jeunesses Musicales Summer Courses in Argenteuil, France. Simultaneously, arrangements penned by him were played by Etienne Verschueren’s BRT Jazz Orchestra, the Flemish broadcaster’s radio jazz band, as well as by Jack Say’s RTB television orchestra, most notably for the successful ‘Camera d’Argent’ shows in the 1970s. On one occasion, Say once again included Souris in his orchestra as a pianist for another relief concert at the Ancienne Belgique with international stars Annie Cordy, Georges Brassens, and Gilbert Bécaud, when the concert hall was on the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1970s.
Léo Souris in the Eurovision Song Contest
Henri Segers, however, did not accompany Fud Leclerc and Mony Marc to the international festival in Lugano to conduct the orchestra for them. In his place, Léo Souris travelled to Switzerland to do the job. The reasons behind this move are unknown. Jack Say comments: “There must have been personal reasons for Segers not to have gone to Lugano. Most probably he already had other obligations for that same day. Léo Souris regularly worked for INR radio in those days as a band leader and he was an excellent musician – qualifications which made him the logical choice when someone was needed to replace Henri.”
In the 1956 Eurovision Song Contest, only the winner was announced: Switzerland’s Lys Assia with ‘Refrain’. More than fifty years later, however, the jurors’ ballot papers were found back, establishing that Fud Leclerc was third in the rankings behind Assia and West Germany’s Walter Andreas Schwarz.
Other artists on Léo Souris
Trombonist Frans Van Dyck worked in the recording studios with Léo Souris in the 1950s: “He regularly called on me to play in recordings for Philips and Decca which he had composed or arranged. Usually, this was modern jazz music. He was a fantastic musician with a predilection for avant-garde. If Souris had been given the choice, he would have played jazz all his life; he did not like the light entertainment genre at all. I should not forget to mention that he was a marvellous arranger who was one of the best conductors I worked with during my career. He always managed to get the best out of his musicians.”