Jean-Claude PetitBorn: November 14th, 1943, Vaires-sur-Marne, Greater Paris (France)
In 1953, when Jean-Claude was just nine years old, he was admitted to the prestigious Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris, where he studied the piano as well as music theory for seven years, graduating with first prizes in solfege, counterpoint and harmony. Among his teachers were Henri Challan, Yvonne Desportes and Darius Milhaud. To facilitate his son’s music studies, father André decided to move his family to Paris, finding himself a new job and renting an apartment in the capital’s 17th arrondissement.
“My father wanted me to be a music teacher, but that was anathema to me from the outset. Honestly speaking, I did not really like classical music, and although I studied and practiced this type of music day in, day out, there was no true attraction in it for me – and I looked for ways to escape from it as fast as I could. When I was eleven or twelve, I rebelled in my own way and fell in love with jazz. All day, I listened to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and the other great Americans. The next step was discovering the album ‘Piccolo, saxo et compagnie’ by André Popp. Up to that time, I was interested in solfege, in piano, in jazz, but in a prosaic way – from the outside, so to speak. One day, my mother bought me the ‘Piccolo’ record. Listening to it was a revelation, as I discovered the true identity of a clarinet, a bassoon, a harp… In a playful way, ‘Piccolo’ constitutes a marvellous introduction to music analysis and composition. From then on, I could think of nothing more interesting than writing orchestrations to create symbioses of all kinds of different instruments, and to try out all kinds of combinations. Without discovering this album, who knows, I might not have become an arranger and composer.”
Between 1956, when he was just twelve years of age, and 1968, Jean-Claude played jazz piano in various combos – initially with amateur musicians, later on in Paris’ best jazz clubs, the Blue Note and Jazzland, accompanying the likes of Dexter Gordon and other American soloists. “This predilection for jazz kept my head and fingers busy for some twelve years,” Petit laughs. “Nonetheless, I don’t look back on this period with too much nostalgia. The American star musicians were paid the bulk of the revenues – and not much was left to their French accompanists. By the early 1960s, I was married with a child, so after having played in the Blue Note all night, I occasionally walked the four hours to our apartment to avoid having to spend good money on a taxi. This was a situation which couldn’t go on forever; I had to find a better way to support my family, all the more so because there were gaps between different gigs during which there was no income at all. All the same, I am happy to have been offered this outstanding experience – it has given me a versatility which one rarely finds with purely classically trained musicians.”
In 1963, Jean-Claude Petit joined SACEM, France’s Association of Composers, Authors, and Music Publishers. That same year, he made his television debut as a member of jazz combo The Sharks, whilst recording a single with another group, Sonny Jones & Les Blackbirds. Still in 1963, Petit was introduced to pop music, being invited by trumpet player Eddie Vartan to do an audition for the accompanying band of his sister Sylvie, an idol of French teenagers at the time. Although Jean-Claude had never been interested in entertainment music, the proposed salary convinced him.
“When he told me what kind of money I could expect, I was blown away. I had to take advantage of it, because there were no further jobs in the jazz clubs for me that summer. Immediately heading for the record store, I bought Sylvie Vartan’s album ‘Est-ce que tu le sais’ – and back home, listened to it as closely as I could to be as well prepared as possible. At the audition, I tried to reproduce exactly the style of the pianist of the studio recording – and apparently I did a good job at that, because I was hired and did the summer tour with Sylvie. Later that same year, I also accompanied Claude François on stage. Once my father learned about my being on tour with these yéyé artists, he was relieved; he knew that the light entertainment business offered a safer path to making a decent living than going on being a badly paid jazz pianist.”
In the following years, Petit moved ever closer to the recording studio, though he needed time to truly make his mark. Slowly, invitations to play in studio sessions as a replacement pianist began coming his way – and after a while, he became a first choice with some arrangers. Another opportunity came along simultaneously: for a short time, he was the assistant to film composer Michel Magne.
“That was interesting and inspirational, because Michel paved the way into the recording studio. At his house, he had a huge blackboard which he used to write down directives for his assistants – and we more or less tried to follow his ideas, creating arrangements and orchestrations to his film music. The best thing was to be able to attend the sessions in which we could listen to our arrangements being recorded with a grand orchestra. In 1964, I made my debut as a studio arranger for pop singers… Michel Berger and Christophe were among the first artists I worked with in that capacity. At that time, covers of Anglo-Saxon hit successes were hugely popular in France – and at some point, I was commissioned to write an arrangement to such a tune. Listening to the original recording from England or America, I wrote out the different parts, which, with my conservatory background, was a piece of cake. People were impressed by the result, claiming my arrangements were just as good as the Americans’… but they didn’t realise that copying is much easier than creating. Fortunately, it didn’t take me too long to escape this type of work.”
In the second half of the 1960s, Jean-Claude Petit’s career was given a considerable boost thanks to his former fellow-student at the Paris conservatory, Jean-Pierre Bourtayre, artistic director at the Barclay record company. Bourtayre managed to introduce Petit to the upper echelons of the pop music business, commissioning him to write arrangements for the likes of Johnny Hallyday, Michel Fugain and Gérard Lenorman. His final breakthrough as an arranger came in 1968, when producer Bob Socquet brought him in touch with an unknown singer-songwriter called Julien Clerc and his lyricist Etienne Roda-Gil. The two young men were friends, both studying literature at university. From the very beginning, Petit realised Julien Clerc had the potential of becoming a successful act:
“In the beginning, Julien played the piano using just three fingers – and his shortcomings as an instrumentalist helped him expressing himself in a style which was completely original. Moreover, Etienne Roda-Gil’s lyrics were somewhat bizarre. To me, Julien and Etienne seemed an utterly iconoclastic couple, imbued with a strange sense of aesthetics and far removed from what was deemed fashionable. It cost me a lot of energy to write my first arrangements to their songs. On a long quest, Julien, Etienne and I managed to come up with an original sound, a new style which lasted until the early 1980s and which no doubt was the main reason of Julien’s success. When his first song, ‘La cavalerie’, was a huge success, the three of us were hugely surprised. Julien Clerc became a star overnight. Etienne Roda-Gil deeply influenced me, because his lyrics helped me finding the inspiration I needed – lyrics with a profound meaning, in short: poetry. Using his poetry as a starting point, I was able to create Julien’s musical universe. As Julien put complete trust in me, it was almost scary how much freedom I had; after all, being given clear directives makes writing much easier! On the other hand, I was encouraged to take risks – which is a rarity in a business which is all about selling as many records as possible.”
In the 1970s, Jean-Claude Petit arranged – and later also produced – the bulk of Julien Clerc’s output, including international hit songs ‘Ce n’est rien’ (1971), ‘Si on chantait’ (1972) and ‘Ma préférence’ (1978). Besides, he also accompanied him on stage, conducting the orchestra at Paris’ Olympia concert hall. Thanks to his work with Julien Clerc, Petit became one of the business’ most sought-after arrangers – and instead of having to look for odd jobs, singers and producers eagerly dialled his phone number. In the early 1970s, Petit worked with Alain Barrière, Charles Trenet and Gilbert Bécaud, whilst he proved himself a veritable ‘hit arranger’ by writing the orchestrations to indelible successes including ‘Les bals populaires’ by Michel Sardou (1970), ‘L’avventura’ by Stone & Charden (1971), ‘Le Lac Majeur’ by Mort Shuman and ‘Je suis malade’ by Serge Lama (both in 1973).
“In writing studio arrangements, it was much the easiest way to not have a meeting with the singer beforehand – in the case of Sardou, for example, his producer Jacques Revaux brought me a mini-cassette containing demo versions with guitar or piano accompaniment. Back then, we often recorded four songs at a time. Four titles usually took me two days to write – and the third day was used to record the orchestrations. Next, the vocalist came in, recording one or two takes, and that would probably be the last I saw of him, unless it was someone I worked with more regularly. It was sometimes funny how hit songs came about. ‘L’avventura’ by Stone & Charden was an odd case. The female half of the duo did not have perfect vocal abilities, but at the same time that voice of hers was remarkable – a memorable sound, if you like. In this case, we doubled her voice in unison, which cancelled out the imperfections in her rendition and which made her all the more charming… and that is how one sometimes turns weakness into strength! My preferred place for recording sessions was Bernard Estardy’s CBE Studio in Paris’ 18th arrondissement; and I booked it whenever the opportunity arose. It was a rather small studio, and so we usually recorded the different sections of the orchestra separately, one by one, which created an ideal sound mix, even if some of the spontaneity was lost in the process.”
In spite of his gruelling schedule as a record arranger, Jean-Claude Petit found the time to make an impact in other fields as well. In 1973, he was the musical director of France’s first-ever rock opera, ‘La Révolution Française’, for which he wrote most of the arrangements and conducted the forty-piece theatre orchestra. Four years later, Petit signed his first and only hit song as a composer, ‘Il a neigé sur yesterday’ by Marie Laforêt, an homage to the Beatles for which he wrote the music in collaboration with arranger colleague Tony Rallo.
Meanwhile, as an arranger, Jean-Claude Petit proved his ability to move with his times in the second half of the 1970s, penning disco arrangements (Santa Esmeralda, Cerrone) and writing for the ‘nouvelle vague’, a new generation of French artists, most notably Michel Jonasz and Alain Souchon. Internationally, Petit was commissioned to work with international acts Joan Baez and Mink DeVille, whilst he contributed arrangements to three albums by the Billy Vaughn Orchestra. Following the example of Franck Pourcel and Raymond Lefèvre, Petit released several instrumental records, but contrary to his two older colleagues, his career as a solo artist never really took off.
“True, none of these albums caught the imagination of record buyers, but these projects were worthwhile on a personal level, giving me a chance to show a different side of my musicianship – and I am grateful to the producers who put their trust in me. For such an orchestral record, my approach was usually somewhat more jazzy, perhaps also more modern. In 1980, I released ‘The best of all possible worlds’, an album entirely done with synthesizers. Keen to shrug off my reputation of being exclusively an arranger of acoustic instruments, I wanted to show I was more than able to work with synths as well. I am rather fond of that album, because it was so different of everything else I had done. It never made an impact in the charts, but was met with critical acclaim in France and abroad.”
Contrary to what one might expect, Petit does not think back fondly of his time as France’s most successful record arranger of the 1970s; after a while, he found himself refusing fifty percent of the commissions offered to him: “My telephone had turned into a torture device, albeit a rather pleasant one, because I earned a very good income. All the same, having to arrange thirty songs within a month… that was hellish. One time, I was so exhausted that I fainted while conducting a group of session players in the studio. At some point, the workload began to take its toll in terms of health as well as creativity. To keep production up, I wrote in the same mould over and over. I had the feeling I had ceased to be an individual – I only existed as a commercial tool of others. Therefore, I began charging higher and higher fees to avoid overextending myself, whilst still accruing substantial earnings. In 1981, though, I decided I had had enough. On the one hand, it was obvious that the era of studio orchestras was coming to an end as synthesizers took over. Moreover, I had come to the conclusion that I was doing a job in which others to judge if you’re still in fashion. Sooner or later, I would have been judged old-fashioned, just like most of my colleagues of the generation preceding me. Being a slave to fashion is only bearable while you’re young. Still doing such work at a somewhat more advanced age is slightly ridiculous – and that’s why I felt I had to change course.”
And so Jean-Claude stopped, literally from one day to the other, after having been a record arranger for eighteen years. This does not mean he was ever out of work. By the early 1980s, he was a familiar face to TV viewers across France as he conducted the orchestra in Michel Drucker’s light entertainment show ‘Stars’ (1980-1982), later renamed ‘Champs-Elysées’ (1982-1990). “I also conducted ten editions of ‘Victoires de la musique’ (the French equivalent of the Grammys - BT)”, Petit adds. “In 1980, Michel Drucker asked me to be the musical director in his show. With my friend Jean-Pierre Bourtayre, I wrote the theme tune for ‘Stars’ – and later also for ‘Champs-Elysées’. The funny thing was that, all of a sudden, I was asked to sign autographs by fans… and record companies wanted me to release instrumental albums on their label, ironically just at a time when I wanted to get away from the business at all cost.”
Away from television, Petit was keen to replace his arranging work with film composing. “Longing for artistic freedom, I was hoping to find it in movie scoring. Composing film music would allow me to express my love for jazz as well as my classical conservatory background in a way that record arranging never could. It wasn’t long, however, before I found out that breaking into the film industry was not going to be easy. I lacked the connections to help me on the way. People knew me as an arranger – and arrangers are no composers, at least, that is how others looked at it. Consciously, I took the step to prefer adventure to a high salary; I rather was a young composer than an old arranger. In the beginning, it was rather disheartening to not find any film producers who were keen to work with me, but I made ends meet by writing advertisement jingles – and, if there were no other options left, I accepted the odd arranging commission here or there.”
In 1982, Petit was offered the opportunity to score Gérard Mordillat’s comedy ‘Vive la sociale!’; it is the beginning of a lasting friendship with Mordillat and many more collaborations over the following thirty years. After this first film, other commissions followed, as he was invited to write the music to, amongst other titles, ‘Tranches de vie’ (1984), ‘Tristesse et beauté’ (1985) and, most notably, ‘Jean de Florette’ and its sequel ‘Manon des sources’ (both 1986), starring Gérard Depardieu and Emmanuelle Béart. This film diptych, directed by Claude Berri, was France’s most expensive movie production ever, but a huge box office success at the same time (nearly 150 million dollars in revenue). ‘Jean de Florette’ alone was nominated for eight César Awards and ten BAFTAs. In 1987, Jean-Claude Petit himself was awarded with a ‘Victoire de la musique’ for best film score.
“Claude Berri invited me to work with him on ‘Jean de Florette’,” Petit comments. “He was adamant to find the theme music of an opera, adapt it to his film and work the rest of the music score around that theme. Reading the scenario and discussing it with Claude gave me the idea of picking Verdi’s ‘La forza del destino’. As the character of Jean de Florette plays the mouth organ, I suggested to Claude to adapt Verdi’s theme for mouth organ and a symphony orchestra. In terms of film scoring, it was my first big gamble – and I spared no energy to get it right. Working with L’Orchestre de Paris, we succeeded. When I won a ‘Victoire de la musique’ for ‘Manon des sources’, it came as a complete surprise to me as I felt I wasn’t entitled to such an award. I lacked the experience that other film composers had. The score to ‘Manon des sources’ has taken on a life of its own. Later on, it was even used for a Stella Artois advertisement campaign in England.”
In the following years, Petit continued to work on high-profile films, which included ‘L’île’ (1987) and ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ (1990), again starring Gérard Depardieu, which staggeringly won sixteen film prizes, including the Golden Globe Award for best foreign language film as well as a César and a BAFTA for best original score. In the United Kingdom, Petit worked with director Richard Lester on his film ‘The return of the musketeers’ (1989), whilst also being invited to score BBC’s television serial ‘Lady Chatterley’ (1994).
“When Richard Lester called me in his half-English, half-French accent, I couldn’t believe it,” Petit admits. “I mean, this guy had worked on ‘Help!’ and other Beatles films in the 1960s. It turned out he liked the music score to ‘Jean de Florette’ – and he wondered if I were interested to work with him. I was all the more eager to accept, as I knew ‘The return of the musketeers’ was his third movie revolving around musketeers, having worked with Michel Legrand for the first one and with Lalo Schiffrin for the second… For the first time in my life, I began to think of myself as a high-profile musician. It was a source of immense pride to me to record my score with the London Symphony Orchestra – a truly enriching experience. At the same time, it was sheer folly: I had to come up with over an hour of original music in three weeks. For once, I called upon the help of an orchestrator, the great Maurice Coignard; there was no way of writing the arrangements myself, since I usually do not write more than one minute of useful film music a day.”
More recent film titles with original scores by Jean-Claude Petit include ‘Le hussard sur le toît’ (1995), ‘Podium’ (2004), ‘Le passager de l’été’ (2006) and ‘Dalida’ (2017), whilst he also composed the music to high-profile televised drama series ‘Les misérables’ (2000) and ‘Les vivants et les morts’ (2010). In 2010, the Grand Prix SACEM for film music was bestowed upon him in recognition of his entire film music oeuvre. Asked to reveal the secret of a successful film composer, Jean-Claude Petit comments:
“François Truffaut once claimed that the best film score is the one which is not heard. In a way, that observation is true, but it is completely wrong as well. As a rule, a music score should always be subservient to the film script. The audience’s focus needs to be on the storyline and the images shown on screen. If the music draws all attention, it drowns out the dialogues, which is the worst thing that can happen. In spite of all that, I want spectators to remember the music as they leave the cinema. To achieve that, they have to be given an impression which is almost subconscious. It is a tight rope. In the past, I made the mistake of trying to compose a grandiose score to a film which I thought wasn’t very good – just to save the film, so to speak. In fact, nothing is more unbearable than loud music being played over a weak film scene.”
Beside his work for cinema, Jean-Claude Petit also composed the music to several stage shows, most notably the revue ‘Bonheur’, performed at Paris’ Lido Theatre in 2003 and again in 2014, whilst he also rewrote his own arrangements to rock opera ‘La Révolution Française’, which was performed with a new cast in 2010 – thirty-seven years after the original staging. Once again proving his versatility, Petit also tried his hand at composing in a classical genre, completing two operas, ‘Sans famille’ (2007) and ‘Colomba’ (2014).
Asked about why he was keen to write opera, Petit comments: “Previously, I had never really had the time to compose serious music, except for the occasional commission by Radio France – and it was an interesting opportunity which came along. In fact, it was Paul-Émile Fourny, director at Nice’s Opera, who asked me to write an opera to ‘Sans famille’, the Hector Malot novel which I had discovered as a youngster at the suggestion of my grandfather. The libretto was written by Pierre Grosz, who, thirty years previously, wrote the lyrics to ‘Changez tout’ by Michel Jonasz, a song for which I took care of the arrangement. For the performance, I simultaneously conducted a philharmonic orchestra and two singing groups, a regular choir and a children’s choir. Young Elena Golomeova excellently played the role of Rémi, with Mrs. Milligan being incarnated by Jeane Manson. ‘Colomba’ was also based on a book I read during my teenage years. On this occasion, I had to leave the conducting job to someone else due to heavy back pains which I developed during rehearsals.”
A lifelong socialist, Jean-Claude Petit has a long-standing reputation in the field of musicians’ rights. Back in the 1970s, he fought for the arranger’s right to claim part of a song’s copyright – and succeeded. Much later, in 2003, he joined the board of SACEM, France’s Association of Composers, Authors, and Music Publishers. Meanwhile, he has served three terms as the body’s president.
In more recent years, Petit has even taken up arranging pop records again, although not nearly as many as in the 1970s. Renewing his fruitful collaboration with Julien Clerc, he co-arranged his albums ‘Utile’ (1992) and ‘Studio’ (2003). As an arranger, Petit also worked on studio albums by Martin Rappeneau, Aldo Romano and Pascal Obispo. In general, though, he prefers sticking to film composing: “I couldn’t bear being a record arranger again, given the way the business has evolved. Currently, a producer usually assembles a group of session players to work on an album. Most projects are done exclusively with rhythm instruments – and if an arranger’s help is called upon, it is usually at a late stage, when a producer feels some additional strings here and there would be nice. Back in the 1970s, the arranger was in charge of the entire music department, including the rhythm section – and that is the way I liked to work. Please don’t get me wrong, there are still excellent songs being written, but the studio sessions are done in a way which I would refer to as industrial, not involving as much craftsmanship as in the old days. This makes the pop business less interesting from a musician’s perspective… at least that is the way I look at it.”
Jean-Claude Petit in the Eurovision Song Contest
In the first twenty-five odd years of the Eurovision Song Contest, the festival was an ideal means for France’s record business to plug their artists. Usually, France, Monaco and Luxembourg recruited their entry in an internal selection from songs submitted to them by Parisian record companies – and even some of Switzerland’s representatives were signed by French labels. In the case of Séverine (in real life: Josiane Grizeau), a twenty-two year old girl from Paris looking to make her breakthrough as a singer, she had a record deal with Philips – and for the 1971 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin, some five or six songs recorded by her were submitted to Monaco’s broadcaster TMC, whilst at least one title, ‘Viens’, was brought to the attention of the Eurovision selection committee of ORTF, France’s public broadcasting organisation.
In the end, Séverine was selected by Monaco to go to Eurovision with ‘Un banc, un arbre, une rue’ by Jean-Pierre Bourtayre and Yves Dessca, whilst she – along with the likes of Jean Ferrat and Guy Bonnet – was turned down by France’s TV in favour of Serge Lama, another, much more established Philips artist, with a song titled ‘Un jardin sur la terre’, signed by Alica Dona, Henri Djian and Jacques Demarny. As it turned out, both selected entries had an arrangement penned by Jean-Claude Petit – a coincidence, but not much more than that, as he was perhaps France’s single-most sought-after arranger in the early 1970s.
“That may indeed be correct,” Petit comments. “After I had done the arrangements for Julien Clerc’s first successes, I became an established name overnight – and everyone wanted to work with me. In the case of Séverine, there was another reason why I was asked to do the arrangement: her Eurovision song was written by Jean-Pierre Bourtayre and Yves Dessca, two good friends of mine. Jean-Pierre and I knew each other from our student days. Meanwhile, he was an artistic director at the Barclay record company and provided me with lots of arranging jobs. I wasn’t exactly enamoured with the Eurovision Song Contest, but there was no way to refuse the request of one of my best friends to arrange his song – and moreover, I liked ‘Un banc, un arbre, une rue’. When orchestrating the melody, I realised it had the potential to do well in a song festival. Séverine wasn’t an artist I had worked with previously, but she had a stunning voice – and her voice inspired me to write the arrangement.”
While the Monegasque entry was melodious and accessible, the same could not be said about ‘Un jardin sur la terre’, the song with which Serge Lama represented France. Even more so after all these years, looking at the impressive repertoire Lama has built up from the 1960s onwards, it defies belief that he was sent to Dublin with such a monotonous melody. Arguably, the B side of his Eurovision single release, the intriguing ‘Bungalow 73’, co-written by Serge Lama himself, would have been a better choice.
“I suspect Serge’s record company pressured him to do Eurovision,” Jean-Claude Petit adds. “In reality, Serge didn’t want to take part. By then, in France, the contest had already lost much of the appeal it had had in the earlier days; and the press didn’t pay much attention to it anymore. Being an established artist, Serge was nervous about having to compete with relative beginners, but being given the opportunity to represent France was an offer which was hard to refuse. As for his song, I knew its composer, Alice Dona, from a very early age – I had accompanied her at the piano. She was a good songwriter, but not in this case. I don’t know how I was asked to do the arrangement, because I don’t think I had worked with Serge previously. In that way, the project could be explained as a success, because I went on to arrange his songs for many years, arranging some of his best-known songs; titles everyone knows… ‘Je suis malade’, ‘Les p’tites femmes de Pigalle’, etcetera.”
For the international final of the Eurovision Song Contest, Jean-Claude Petit travelled to Dublin, but he didn’t get to conduct both of his arrangements: officially, he was a member of the Monegasque delegation only, as the ORTF resolutely hung onto ‘their’ regular conductor for the contest, Franck Pourcel. Contrary to some of his arranger colleagues who had to cede their place to Pourcel, Petit didn’t have any qualms about the situation:
“No, not at all, for Franck was a friend. I was close to his daughter Françoise; she was married to Alain Boublil, a 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. In fact, I don’t remember anyone of Monaco’s broadcasting station being with us in Dublin, if there were any at all. I do remember Serge Lama being around, 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 throughout the week, enjoying Irish hospitality and drinking whiskey and brown ale – in my case for the first time in my life.”
What were the rehearsals like with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra in Dublin? A mere twenty-seven year old at that time, Jean-Claude Petit could be forgiven for feeling somewhat nervous. “There might have been a slight feeling of apprehension when the first rehearsal was about to begin, because in front of me was an orchestra I didn’t know. Would they play my arrangement well? Once the rehearsal was over, I knew nothing could go wrong. The musicians did an excellent job. True, I had never been taught how to conduct, but by the time this Eurovision Song Contest came along, I had worked as a studio arranger for some four years, so even though I was still young, I had quite some experience under the belt… and conducting one’s own arrangements isn’t that complicated really. There was one slight handicap: my command of the English language is virtually non-existent, but then… I happened to speak music wonderfully well! From Dublin all the way to Tokyo, nuances can be explained by using Italian terminology which is familiar to musicians globally.”
After the voting procedure, Séverine was crowned the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest – Monaco’s first (and to date only-ever) victory in the festival – while Serge Lama had to settle for tenth place. Petit: “For Serge, it was a humiliation, even more so because he was beaten by Séverine, a young girl nobody knew. Honestly, I never believed he could win Eurovision – not with that song. In retrospect, he should have resisted the idea of taking part. He wasn’t happy in Dublin, and the result added insult to injury. For me, on the other hand, Dublin was a quite an event. Everybody in the business had seen me on television conducting the winning song… and it was my arrangement. Producers and record companies were eager to work with someone who could create a winning formula, commercially speaking; so it certainly didn’t harm my career – quite the opposite. I was happy and proud. Moreover, it was the first time I enjoyed international success. In all, that week in Ireland felt as a reward for all the weeks and months I spent on my own with just a piece of music paper, a pencil and an eraser; here now was a week of relaxation with not much work to do, but still there was that pinch of adventure, staying abroad and working with foreign musicians – and added to that the thrill of the applause of a live audience.”
Jean-Claude’s sharpest memory of the 1971 contest, however, is of what happened once the contest was actually over. “After the broadcast, there was a reception to which all participants were invited. When we were ushered out of the theatre to go to the hall where the reception was due, there was a crowd throwing foul eggs and other waste at us. It was their way to protest against this banquet – a sumptuous ceremony, contrasting sharply with their own living conditions… and their feelings were completely understandable, of course. It was strange to find myself being on the receiving end in this situation, but it didn’t detract from the elation I or Séverine felt. As it happens, not so long ago (this interview with Jean-Claude Petit was in January 2019 - BT) I was contacted by Séverine, who I hadn’t been in touch with for ages. She just wanted to reminisce about our common projects. After Dublin, I recorded two more albums with her. In France, she was quickly forgotten about after the Eurovision Song Contest, but she told me she enjoyed considerable success in Germany – and especially in East-Germany. There, she is still much in demand. Incredible, isn’t it, how Eurovision can be the start of such an adventure!”
Three years after ‘Dublin’, Jean-Claude Petit was about to make a new appearance on the Eurovision stage. Danièle Graule – artist name: Dani – was picked to represent France at the contest in Brighton with ‘La vie à vingt-cinq ans’. This unpretentious melody was given a striking string arrangement by Jean-Claude Petit. Unfortunately, Dani never made it to Eurovision. A week before the contest, France’s president Georges Pompidou died; his funeral being scheduled on the day of the actual broadcast, the ORTF decided to withdraw from the competition to avoid being accused of disrespectfulness. In spite of not being allowed to take part, Dani travelled to Brighton, where she was in the front row of the audience. Her arranger and conductor, however, did not go anywhere.
“No, no way, there was more than enough arranging work to be taken care of back in Paris. Why then go to England when there was nothing to do for me? At this point, please allow me to share a little anecdote with you. I first met Dani when conducting the rock opera ‘La Révolution Française’, in which she had a minor part… and to be quite honest, she and I had an histoire sentimentale together, a relationship, but very short indeed. This coincided with her being invited to represent France in Eurovision – and of course I wrote the arrangement. Dani owned a nightclub in downtown Paris, she was a good cabaret artist and actress, but she lacked the talent to be successful as a singer. Vocally, she always seemed to struggle. She had a striking personality and was very attractive, but her career as a singer never really took off. I don’t think she would have done well in Eurovision. Anyway, Georges Pompidou’s funeral cut short whatever ambitions we had on an international stage; and so the adventure came to a premature end – and my adventure with Dani as well! These things happen; after all, we are human beings. What we had together, was short-lived, but there certainly was infatuation, temptation, something wonderful...”
In 1981, Jean-Claude Petit decided he had had enough of being a studio arranger; instead, he was looking to start from scratch as a film composer. In that same important year of his professional career, he took part in Eurovision… not as an arranger, not as a conductor, but as co-composer of Luxembourg’s entry ‘C’est peut-être pas l’Amérique’, performed by former winner Jean-Claude Pascal. Conducted by Joël Rocher, the song finished eleventh among twenty competing entries.
Petit: “In the second half of the 1970s, I regularly worked with songwriter Sophie Makhno. She commissioned me to arrange many of her compositions – for Charles Dumont, most notably. I never co-signed compositions with her, except for this one song for Jean-Claude Pascal. Apparently, Sophie couldn’t quite work out how to finish the song – and it might well be there was some time pressure involved, but I can’t give you any details, because I don’t know how that song ended up being Luxembourg’s Eurovision entry. I have good memories of Jean-Claude Pascal, having previously worked with him on a recording project at EMI’s studios in Boulogne-Billancourt; a most charming man and not a brilliant singer, but he made up for that with loads of charisma. I was happy to help him and Sophie. The song was quite nice and interesting, but not really in step with the times. Subsequently, I declined writing the arrangement. First, I lacked the time; and, more importantly, I didn’t want to be an arranger any longer. Only occasionally, I made exceptions to the rule and accepted commissions which were too good to refuse, but Jean-Claude Pascal was not one of them. I didn’t come to the contest as a songwriter and I probably didn’t even watch the broadcast.”
Between 1983 and 1987, France chose its Eurovision entry in a televised pre-selection show with an orchestra, conducted by François Rauber (1983-1986) and Jean-Claude Petit (1987). In spite of his not being involved as a musical director in 1986, Petit conducted the orchestra in the international final of the Eurovision Song Contest for the winners of the French selection, a girl quartet called Cocktail Chic; they performed ‘Européennes’, a song which must rank as one of France’s weaker Eurovision attempts.
“The four girl singers persuaded me to do Eurovision with them,” Petit explains. “They were friends of mine. I previously worked with them on stage in Claude François’s concert tours in which they took care of the backing vocals. They were really good at their job, and, whenever I was looking for choristes in one of my recording projects in the 1970s, I would call them. They usually called themselves Les Fléchettes. The two guys who wrote ‘Européennes’, Georges and Michel Costa, were session singers and good friends as well. I wrote the orchestration to their song simply to do them a favour, but when they won the French selection, they wanted me to come with them to conduct the orchestra in Norway. It was an alluring prospect… a week away from home, enjoying the company of good friends! I had never been to Norway before. It was all the more interesting as the festival turned out to be held in Bergen, hometown of Edvard Grieg.”
Circumstances in Bergen were more difficult than expected. Apart from an excursion to Grieg’s Villa Troldhaugen, the French delegation did not do much sightseeing. Petit: “News had transpired about the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. Newspapers were full of theories about how polluted air from the reactor would be blown to Western Europe. In Scandinavia in particular, people were terrified. We were rather scared as well; it was a bizarre situation. The rehearsals with the orchestra passed flawlessly. However, I was never under any illusion about our chances. The song wasn’t good enough, and even though it was especially written to suit a quartet of singers, the girls didn’t have the personality to take it to another level. They weren’t ABBA! Taking centre-stage requires a completely different approach from being a backing vocalist. Frankly, their performance looked as if they were in the recording studio.”
In the voting, Cocktail Chic picked up thirteen points, finishing seventeenth – never before had France scored so badly in the contest. Petit: “A position near the bottom, right? The girls were disappointed, which is perfectly understandable, but they knew they were not going to win, even though anyone taking part in a competition has this shimmer of hope of winning it. In fact, they weren’t downcast for long and joined me and the rest of the French delegation in a nightclub in Bergen’s town centre – a funny place it was, with women wearing veils dancing on stage. All Norwegians we met were drunk. It wasn’t until then that I was told there was a law in Norway which only allowed the use of alcohol during weekends. I don’t know if the law still exists today – I have never been to Norway since.”
Jean-Claude Petit’s final Eurovision involvement came in 1987. As mentioned in the above, he was the musical director of France’s selection programme, broadcast live by Antenne 2; and as such, conducted all ten competing entries. The winning song was ‘Les mots d’amour n’ont pas de dimanche’, a delicate ballad by Marc Minier and Gérard Curci, performed by Marc’s elder sister Christine. Contrary to Petit himself, songwriter Marc Minier – a prize-winning conservatory student who was only twenty years old at the time – remembers the evening well:
“In spite of the programme going on air live, Christine and I were told a couple of minutes before the voting ended that we were going to win – and we were expressly told to act as if we didn’t know until the last vote. Pathetic! It was then that I began to understand the world of showbusiness. When I composed the song, I was fulfilling my military service, seated in a tent in mid-winter. It was ten degrees below zero! I oversaw the studio recording myself, from computer programming to arranging and conducting the strings to playing the piano parts. The lyrics were written by my uncle, who was a member of La Bande à Basile. We were all motivated to do well, especially Christine, who was extremely keen to do Eurovision; needless to say, we were more than happy to win the right to take part in this wonderful international song festival.”
At the time of his participation in the Eurovision Song Contest, Marc, who later conducted the strings of the Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris on twenty Richard Clayderman albums, was too young to even stake a claim to conducting the orchestra at the international final in Brussels. Therefore, it was again Jean-Claude Petit who took the honours. “In those years, I did lots of television work,” Petit comments, “most notably a long sequence of entertainment shows hosted by Michel Drucker. That is why I was commissioned to conduct the pre-selection and accompany the winning artist to Eurovision. It was nice to work in Brussels, a city which has always been dear to my heart, and where I recorded many of my film scores. The programme was hosted by Viktor Lazlo, a lovely girl with a great sense of music who I was good friends with. ‘Les mots d’amour’ was a song in a style which was typical of the Eurovision Song Contest in those days – but in a good way. Christine Minier was a ravishing girl who sang really well.”
In spite of Christine’s strong performance, ‘Les mots d’amour n’ont pas de dimanche’ only managed a fourteenth spot among twenty-two countries. “The disappointment felt by my sister and uncle was profound,” as Marc Minier recalls. “I wasn’t really, since I knew from the outset that Johnny Logan would win. His song was way better than the rest. First and foremost, I was happy to have my music played to such a large audience – and with this fantastic Belgian orchestra. Jean-Claude Petit did an excellent job. He was a classy guy, friendly and humble, and first and foremost an extremely efficient conductor.”
Asked if he feels the Eurovision Song Contest is an important part of his career, Petit admits: “No, not really, but as a human experience it was important! Being away from home for a while, standing in front of an orchestra you had never worked with before was pleasant as well as valuable. It is a pity that younger colleagues aren’t given the opportunity any longer to work with an orchestra in the Eurovision Song Contest. The programme isn’t the same anymore without live music. Since the orchestra has been done away with, focus has shifted to the performance. Usually, the winner is the artist who has invested most in all kinds of expensive stage structures. In short, image is more important than the music itself. Fortunately, there are exceptions to the rule – the guy from Portugal who won (Salvador Sobral in 2017 - BT) performed a musically interesting, intricate song which didn’t rely on image at all. In a normal era of pop music, such a song would never have won – but the audience fell for him exactly because his style of presentation was the opposite of all the others.”
At the time of writing, France’s last Eurovision victory dates back over forty years, to 1977 – and the last composition by Frenchmen winning the contest was ‘Si la vie est cadeau’, Luxembourg’s entry in 1983. Can Jean-Claude Petit put a finger on the lack of success enjoyed by French artists in the Eurovision Song Contest, contrasting so starkly with French dominance in the early years of the festival? “Well, our pop music is very French – by which I mean to say that our musicians do not seem to be imbued with an international mindset. When listening to the type of music which is successful in the countries around us, I cannot escape the conclusion that our neighbours are, musically speaking, more retro than we are. French musicians seem to be more adventurous, trying to create a pop sound which is fashionable and modern, but this makes it very hard for them to make an international breakthrough.”
Other artists on Jean-Claude Petit
One of the artists Petit worked with as a studio arranger most extensively is Serge Lama: “At the end of the 1960s and throughout most of the 1970s, Jean-Claude Petit was the leading arranger in the business, up until the moment he decided he had had enough of writing arrangements and wanted to do something else. Nobody could write for violins the way he did it – and he has continued writing excellent string parts as a film composer. As an arranger, he managed to find the right colours to build my success, creating a music style which best suited my voice. I owe much to him, there is no doubt about that.” (2018)