Léo Souris

Born: July 18th, 1911, Marchienne-au-Pont (Belgium)
Died: March 14th, 1990, Seraing (Belgium)
Nationality: Belgian

Eurovision record
Léo Souris conducted the two Belgian entries in the very first Eurovision Song Contest, which was held in Lugano (Switzerland) in 1956. Souris replaced Henri Segers, who had been the conductor of the pre-selection in Brussels. The reasons why Souris was chosen instead of Segers to accompany vocalists Fud Leclerc and Mony Marc to the international final are unknown.

Biography
Hailing from the heavily industrialized Charleroi region in Wallonia, Léo Souris studied the piano at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels. He was the younger brother of André Souris (1899-1970), a celebrated classical violinist, composer, and conductor. In the 1930s, Léo Souris, who developed a penchant for jazz from an early age onwards, mainly worked as a piano teacher in Hainaut, most importantly at the conservatory in Charleroi.

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.

Léo Souris (far left, at the piano) in the 1952 Ancienne Belgique concert conducted by Jack Say

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
In the 1956 Eurovision Song Contest, the first edition of the festival, each of the seven participating countries submitted two entries. To establish its entries for this festival, the French-speaking Belgian broadcaster INR organized a pre-selection in Brussels, produced by Bob Jacqmain and with the orchestra conducted by Henri Segers. These heats were won by Fud Leclerc with the song ‘Messieurs les noyés de la Seine’; this entry was composed by Jean Miret and Jack Say with lyrics by Robert Montal; Jack Say was responsible for the orchestration as well. The number two, Mony Marc, was also given a ticket to the international contest in Lugano; she sang ‘Le plus beau jour de ma vie’, which had been composed by David Bee. Bee was a harp player in the Swingtette ensemble of guitarist Chas Dolne, which played in Antwerp’s Century Hotel. David Bee also regularly worked as an arranger for Bobby Naret’s big band and has the distinction to have one of his compositions, ‘Obsession’, played at the 1958 World Expo by the band of jazz legend Benny Goodman. David Bee naturally also penned the arrangement to ‘Le plus beau jour de ma vie’, with lyrics by his partner Claude Alix.

The Belgian pre-selection in 1956, with (from left to right) Bob Jacqmain, Mony Marc, Fud Leclerc, and Henri Segers

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.


An audio recording of Fud Leclerc’s performance in the 1956 Eurovision Song Contest 1956 with Léo Souris conducting the orchestra

Other artists on Léo Souris
Jack Say (Jacques Ysaye), the composer of ‘Messieurs les noyés de la Seine’, knew Souris professionally: “In 1952, Léo Souris was the piano player in my grand orchestra in the Ancienne Belgique. During the concert, he played the all-important solo in Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in blue’. I remember that, at one stage, Léo got lost in his solo. For me, it was a nervous situation anyway, because it was one of my first public appearances as a conductor; Léo resolved the suspense by giving me a sign when to restart the orchestra after his solo. The anecdote does not tell the real story about Léo, though, for he was an excellent pianist! I wrote arrangements for his orchestra with which he performed at the Palace Hotel. Later, in the early 1970s, he wrote some arrangements for my TV orchestra. In the music business, he was universally liked, being the convivial guy that he was.”

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.”

Léo Souris in 1956

Links & sources
  • An encyclopaedia of Belgian music: Thierry Levaux, “Dictionnaire des compositeurs de Belgique du moyen âge à nos jours” (ed. Art in Belgium), Brussels 2001.
  • An interesting survey of jazz in Belgium: Jempi Salmyn & Sim Simons, “The Finest in Belgian Jazz” (ed. De Werf), Bruges 2002.
  • Thanks to Jack Say (Jacques Ysaye) for providing us with several details about the career of Léo Souris as well as with the priceless photo from 1952.
  • Thanks to Belgian Eurovision expert André Vermeulen for providing us with some valuable information about the 1956 Eurovision Song Contest.

  

Songs conducted
1956: Messieurs les noyés de la Seine
1956: Le plus beau jour de ma vie