André Popp

Born: February 19th, 1924, Fontenay-le-Comte (France)
Died: May 10th, 2014, Puteaux (Greater Paris) (France)
Nationality: French

Eurovision record
In 1960, André Popp composed the winning Eurovision entry ‘Tom Pillibi’ for France, whilst he also was responsible for writing the music to ‘Le chant de Mallory’ (Rachel Ros, France 1964) and the iconic ‘L’amour est bleu’ (Vicky Leandros, Luxembourg 1967). Popp’s last participation, and the only one of his four Eurovision efforts conducted by himself, came in 1975, with ‘Une chanson c’est une lettre’, with which Sophie Hecquet obtained a thirteenth place in the contest for Monaco.

André Charles Jean Popp hails from the Vendée region in Western France. His father died when André was just five years of age, upon which his mother went back to live with her parents. “My mother had a tough life”, Popp comments. “She lost all three of her husbands as well as a baby daughter. I grew up in my grandparents’ villa in Fontenay. My grandfather was quite well-educated and took me for walks in the countryside, teaching me names of plants and the like… but nothing about music! It was my mother who sent me to a piano teacher. I was only five years old at that time. The woman, to whom I was entrusted, with hindsight, was a hopeless teacher who failed to help me acquiring any playing techniques. Technically speaking, I have never become an able pianist. She deserves being credited, however, for teaching me right away how to sight-read music scores. This proved an immense help later onwards in my life. Meanwhile, I practiced at an old piano which had been in my grandparents’ house for ages, but merely for decorative purposes and for the odd birthday party to enjoy a sing-along. At this piano, I did not only practice the obligatory lessons, but also invented entire radio broadcasts with spoken introductions… spoken by myself! I was entirely absorbed by music.”

Young André being confirmed into the church, c1936

As a secondary student, André was educated at the Saint-Joseph Institute, which was right across the street where his grandparents lived. Popp: “The school was led by priests. As a student, I was no more than average… I lacked the ambition to spend much energy on anything else than music. Oddly, the German invasion of France in 1940 more or less heralded the start of my musician’s career! The priest who played the harmonium during the masses in our school’s chapel was called up for army duty. Everyone knew that I played the piano and, therefore, the headmaster wondered if I could fill the gap! At that point, I knew nothing of religious music. I had to master playing in Gregorian style all by myself, but, one way or another, I managed. The best thing about this unexpected situation was that I could practice in the chapel for as long as I wanted. Whenever I had the opportunity, I played the works of modern classical composers I was passionate about, such as Ravel, Vierne, Langlais, and Messiaen. On that harmonium, I also did my first improvisations… of course, all of this happened without any audience, just for my own amusement in between lessons or on Saturdays. At home, the ground floor had been requisitioned by German soldiers and our family had had to move upstairs. Luckily, I was allowed to continue using the piano which was in a tiny room downstairs. Four of my friends regularly came there to improvise. They all played different instruments and we formed a little orchestra playing jazz and light entertainment music – just to have a good time.”

In 1944, André obtained his secondary school diploma. Meanwhile, he had met a young musician called Jean Broussolle (1920-’84). Popp: “Jean was a songwriter and singer. Later onwards, he joined Les Compagnons de la Chanson. During the war, he had been in the FFI, the French resistance. He came to Fontenay in the last year of the occupation to hide from German authorities, who were looking for him. In retrospect, meeting Jean was hugely important… he was an exceptional guy who played the violin, trumpet, and trombone. He had been to Paris and knew what the music métier was about… well, surely more than I did! Jean awakened the latent desire in me to go to Paris and to make it as a musician. I badly wanted to get away from Fontenay… live my own life and be free. No, my family did not discourage me concerning my vocation. In November ’44, a couple of months after the Germans had been kicked out, we decided the time was ripe to go to Paris. Train services had not been put back into business yet, which left us little other option than hitch-hiking. We were taken along by a lorry driver, arriving in Paris very late at night. We were due to stay with friends of Jean’s, but the bistro where we were due to meet had already closed for the night! This left us no other option but to rent a room in a… hôtel de putes, a prostitutes’ hotel. That was my first night in Paris! The day after, we met Jean’s friend. He was able to arrange a cramped three-room-apartment without heating for the three of us… Jean, Jean’s wife, and myself… we lived there for some three years. Meanwhile, Jean and I performed here and there, with him singing and me accompanying him at the piano.”

André Popp with his Belgian wife Marie-Jeanne Morel, c1955

In those years immediately after the war, Broussolle and Popp wrote many songs together. Their first success came when avant-garde singer Cathérine Sauvage picked up their creation ‘Grand papa laboureur’, which was a minor hit. But Popp did more than just songwriting: “Somewhere in ’47, I met Raoul Breton, one of France’s main music editors. He signed me as a pianist. I played compositions which had been submitted by songwriters to Breton. It was up to me to play the sheet music for artists who visited his bureau looking for repertoire. My ability to sight-read music served me well! I met many stars in Breton’s premises… Charles Trenet, for example… but also a young lady from Dottignies in Belgium who aspired to being a singer: Marie-Jeanne Morel. We fell in love and got married, staying together for forty-five years. Unfortunately, she died quite young… Another person I met thanks to Raoul Breton was Louis Ducreux, who hired me as a pianist for his radio programme ‘Le Journal Officieux’. Louis, who did not read music notes, also asked me to finish his chanson ideas and write arrangements for the little band which accompanied the radio show. Breton also introduced me to Jacques Canetti, at that time the artistic director at France’s branch of record company Philips. He also owned a theatre near Place Pigalle, Les Trois Baudets, where revues were staged and all young singers of his record label performed. I worked as a piano-accompanist at Les Trois Baudets for some four consecutive years.”

In 1949, Popp was given the opportunity to do more radio work thanks to another connection of Raoul Breton’s, poet Jean Tardieu. Tardieu, who worked as a producer at the Parisian branch of French radio (ORTF), had a keen eye for young talent and asked Popp to write some instrumental pieces. “Amongst other things”, Popp remembers, “I wrote some opera parodies and was allowed to conduct the radio orchestra for my own compositions! How I knew how to arrange and conduct? Well, in a stroke of immodesty, I would say that I was extremely talented! I took my inspiration from composers and orchestra leaders from the generation before me, such as Jean Wiéner and Roger Roger. I also carefully studied a textbook about the registers of all classical instruments. Discounting the teacher in my childhood days and some lessons I followed with Olivier Messiaen later onwards in Paris, I am an autodidact. Tardieu gave me my own radio show at local Parisian radio, ‘Chansons pour demain’, for which I was given a combo of four musicians. We accompanied popular singers such as Georges Brassens. In ’52, I wrote the music to a Christmas variety show called ‘On a volé le Père Noël’, which was immensely successful and drew the attention of producers of nationwide radio.”

Conducting the orchestra of ‘La bride sur le cou’, 1954

As a result, in 1953, Popp was offered the job of producer and conductor of his own primetime Saturday night radio show: ‘La bride sur le cou’. He worked on this emission vedette of ORTF for five years. “This was a weekly one-hour-programme with a big orchestra, initially consisting of twenty players and later even of thirty-two. After a while, it was held with an audience present in the auditorium. For each broadcast, half an hour of original instrumental compositions were required. I composed every single note myself… meaning that I built up an immense repertoire. With such a large number of musicians available, I could experiment in writing complicated scores as much as I wanted! Though many of the musicians in my radio orchestra were prize-winning graduates of classical conservatories, they often had to cling onto their chairs while playing my demanding arrangements! In ’58, ORTF tried to transfer the successful radio programme to television, but it failed miserably and no more than two broadcasts were made. That was the end of ‘La bride sur le cou’. One of the nicest things which resulted from my radio work was an exchange programme with West German radio, thanks to which I was invited over to work with orchestras in Stuttgart and Munich.”

For nationwide radio, Popp also composed music for other programmes, most notably the radio play ‘Les maîtres du mystère’, which ran for twenty-two years in France as well as in the French Overseas Departments (1952-1974), whilst it was also broadcast in over twenty other countries. Some of Popp’s compositions for ‘La bride sur le cou’ were adopted as signature tunes for radio and television programmes, such as ‘La tête et les jambes’ and ‘Les chiffres et les lettres’. Later onwards, he composed the music to the first series of ‘Babar’ (1969) as well as to other televised feuilletons, including ‘Pont dormant’ (1972) and ‘La folie des bêtes’ (1974). In 1988, Popp composed the first générique of the popular game show ‘Question pour un champion’.

Promotional postcard released by Popp’s record company Fontana, c1959

All the while, Popp continued composing songs for an increasing number of artists, especially after the clamorous international success of ‘Les lavandières du Portugal – Portuguese washerwomen’ in ’55. “In general, writing the music to a song did not take me much time, though there were some exceptions to that rule. In most cases, I wrote the music first before calling on the help of a lyric writer. Over the years, I teamed up with many different lyricists. In the case of ‘Les lavandières’, the words were added by Roger Lucchesi, a Corsican who I had met in Paris. The song was recorded by Suzy Delair, but she did not do a great job on it and, as a consequence, nothing happened. Now, Lucchesi, who, like all Corsicans, tried trading everything to anyone, offered the song to Jacqueline François… or, more accurately, she picked the song from a bunch of our creations. Her version conquered France and several foreign countries, upon which the song made le tour du monde.” Popp’s ‘Portuguese washerwomen’ did especially well in the USA. It was covered by tens of vocalists and instrumentalists around the world, including Astrud Gilberto, Joe Carr, Franck Pourcel, Michel Legrand, Alain Goraguer, and even Dizzy Gillespie. In the 1950s, Popp also wrote material for the likes of Maurice Chevalier, Jacques Fabbri, and Michèle Arnaud, whilst his songs ‘La pendule’ for Les Frères Jacques (1955) and ‘De pantin à Pekin’ for Juliette Gréco (1959) sold well in France.

In 1956, when Popp’s engagement at the Trois Baudets theatre expired, its manager, Jacques Canetti, who also owned the Philips and Fontana record labels, offered him a new contract as an arranger and conductor for studio recordings. Together with another fledgling musician, Michel Legrand, Popp arranged most material recorded in the Parisian Philips studios between 1956 and 1960. Artists he worked with extensively as an orchestrator include Juliette Gréco, Jean-Claude Darnal, Henri Decker, Mouloudji, and Henri Salvador. Moreover, he arranged some of the best-known songs of poet-singer Boris Vian, most notably ‘La java des bombes atomiques’ (1956). Popp also helped young and coming Jacques Brel on his way by arranging his first albums and EPs, which included songs as ‘Quand on n’a que l’amour’ (1956), ‘L’air de la bêtise’ (1957), and ‘Dors ma mie’ (1960). When Popp left the Philips record company, another young arranger, François Rauber, became involved in scoring Brel’s work.

With Jacques Brel’s widow France in Brussels, 2010

In the 1950s, Popp’s output as a composer was well-nigh incredible. Apart from his radio and studio work, he came up with the idea of writing an educative symphonic work for children, explaining the instruments in a classical orchestra. The lyrics were written by Popp’s old friend Jean Broussolle. The first of the four ‘Piccolo, Saxo et Compagnie’ albums, released in 1956, won the Grand Prix du Disque. “Jacques Canetti gave me carte blanche to work on this idea of mine”, Popp recalls. “I did not just want to tell children about the instruments… I wanted the instruments to be characters. Creating these characters in music was great. Our Good Lord must have been truly inspired that day! I could not sleep until I had finished this work. Turning to Canetti, he said: ‘Listen Popp, this is wonderful, but we will not sell any disc of this.’ When it won the Grand Prix du Disque in ’57, he admitted he had been wrong. ‘Piccolo, Saxo et Compagnie’ was a success story. Many times, people told me how it had shown them the road to music in their childhood. I consider it l’oeuvre de ma vie, the work of my life. Even today, it is still performed in theatres and by orchestras, while schools in France and abroad have been using it for educational purposes. In ’82, when two Piccolo & Saxo concerts were given in Paris’ Salle Pleyel, 10,000 children had to be disappointed. We could have sold so many more tickets!”

Like so many of his colleagues in the arranging business in France, André Popp released an impressive number of instrumental albums, such as ‘Popppp!’ (1960), the critically acclaimed ‘Holiday for DJs’ (1963), ‘Popp around the world’ (1965), and ‘Hot shot’ (1976). The most striking of these albums, however, doubtlessly is ‘Delirium in Hi-Fi’, which Popp released under the pseudonym Elsa Popping. It was a project in which the possibilities of the recording technique of the day were stretched to their delirious limits. The production won Popp the Grand Prix Académie Charles Cros. Popp: “The project was originally my wife’s idea. We recorded it together. I made it just to have a good time. All the techniques available to us at that time were used in order to torture the classical standards. Impossible sounds, accelerated sounds, backward sounds… It was recorded in mono, but in order to achieve the effects we wanted, we used four extra tape machines. For instance, we played the sound of a trombone at double its original speed, so it ended up sounding like a trumpet. As a consequence, we were able to record sounds which normally could never be played by anyone. Sound distortion was an unknown phenomenon in those days, but, with the help of the technicians in the Philips studio, we pulled it off. The final result was totally avant-garde. Boris Vian, my artistic producer at Fontana at that time, was blown away by the result and wrote the sleeve notes. Of course, it did not sell quite well, but it was highly esteemed by colleagues in the music industry, especially in the USA. Stevie Wonder once congratulated me on this album! As for my instrumental albums in general, none of them were best-sellers. But then again, I usually only recorded my own compositions. Pourcel, Lefèvre, and Mauriat were France’s most successful orchestra leaders, but the key to their success was that they recorded arrangements to famous hit melodies written by others.”

One of Popp’s solo instrumental albums

In 1960, when his contract with Philips expired, Popp became freelance, a status he never relinquished afterwards. His main source of income were the songs he composed for an endless string of artists. Working with excellent lyricists such as Pierre Cour, Eddy Marnay, and Jean-Claude Massoulier, Popp managed to create hit records, though he never seemed to take developments in popular music into account. Popp about this: “I never followed the fashion of the day, but I have never looked for a style of my own either… in fact I have never looked for anything, but it is true that I have always tried, even in very commercial songs intended for a large audience, to put in dissonances and experimentations.” In the 1960s, Popp composed hit records which conquered Europe and the world, such as Eurovision winner ‘Tom Pillibi’ for Jacqueline Boyer (1960), ‘Manchester et Liverpool’ for Marie Lafôret (1967), and ‘L’amour est bleu’, originally recorded by Vicky Leandros in 1967, but turned into a world hit by the orchestra of Paul Mauriat in ’68 (‘Love is blue’). Other artists he composed pop songs for in that decade include Françoise Hardy, Marcel Amont, Patachou, Les Compagnons de la Chanson, Isabelle Aubret, Michèle Torr, Nana Mouskouri, and Brigitte Bardot. Moreover, he worked as an arranger with several pop singers on an on-and-off basis, but he stopped doing that altogether in 1969. Popp: “Mainly thanks to the money I had made with ‘Love is blue’, I did not need the arranging work any longer. Therefore, I decided to use my ideas solely for compositions of my own instead of the work of others.”

Though an accomplished composer of instrumental pieces, André Popp only wrote a handful of film scores. He himself refers to this lack of work in the movie industry as the biggest regret of his life. Titles Popp worked on include ‘Le petit prof’ (1959), ‘Deux heurs à tuer’ (1966), ‘Papa, les petits bateaux’ (1973), and the comedy ‘En cas de guerre mondiale, je file à l’étranger’ (1983). In theatre, he was responsible for writing the arrangements to the first English production of the successful French musical ‘Irma la Douce’, which ran for three years in London’s West End (1958-’61) and was later staged at Broadway, New York. A unique commission which came Popp’s way was writing the instrumental accompaniment to ‘En France comme si vous y étiez’, a televised French language course which was broadcast in many countries worldwide in the 1960s. In 1979, Popp won the Grand Prix Académie Charles Cros for the second time, on this occasion for his music to a series of audio reworkings of Hergé’s cartoon creation ‘Tintin’.

With singer Martine Clémenceau, Popp won the Yamaha World Popular Song Festival in Tokyo as a composer and conductor (1971)

Apart from his involvement as a songwriter in four editions of the Eurovision Song Contest, Popp participated in song festivals in Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, and Tokyo. In Rio (1969), Anne Gacoin performed Popp’s composition ‘Tzeinerlin’, which did not win the festival, but went on to hit success in an English cover version by Herman’s Hermits, ‘Years may come, years may go’. In the 1970s, Popp wrote the French entry to the Yamaha World Popular Song Festival in Tokyo several times. In 1971, his song ‘Un jour l’amour’, performed by Martine Clemenceau, was proclaimed one of the winners of the festival, while Cathérine Ferry came twelfth in 1976 with Popp’s ‘Ma chanson d’amour’. On both occasions, André Popp conducted the festival orchestra himself.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Popp continued writing songs for artists such as Mireille Mathieu, Nicole Croisille, and Gérard Palaprat. Another striking European hit succes was ‘Uakadì uakadù’ by Nuovi Angeli (1971), an Italian cover of a song he had originally written for his son Daniel. Other bestsellers in those years include ‘L’amour c’est comme les bateaux’ for Sylvie Vartan (1976), ‘La solitude c’est après’ for Claude François (1976), and several songs for a very young Céline Dion, such as ‘Ecoutez-moi’ (1982), ‘Les oiseaux du bonheur’ (1984), and ‘C’est pour vivre’ (1985). “Lyricist Eddy Marnay introduced me to Céline”, Popp recalls. “She was just fourteen years old, fresh from Canada and trying to make it in France. Even back then, she had the aura of a super-vedette. She had it all: she knew how to behave on stage and of course there was this marvellous voice. In those days, however, she tried too hard to be a younger version of Mireille Mathieu, because, vocally speaking, she had not succeeded in discovering a sound of her own yet.”

With Hawaiian ukelele player Herb Ohta, recording the album ‘Song for Anna’ (1973)

Amongst the remainder of the music projects Popp worked on, the two albums he recorded with Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso Herb Ohta in 1973 and 1975 deserve a mention. The first of these records, ‘Song for Anna’, was in the American charts for three months and was a number one album in the Netherlands, Australia, and Brazil. In 1985, Dutch musician and producer Gert-Jan Blom invited Popp over to the Netherlands, where the thirty-two-piece orchestra of ‘La bride sur le cou’ was reconstructed for a road show, ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’. Blom, fascinated by Popp’s instrumental compositions from the 1950s, managed to have several of his records re-released and was the driving force behind ‘La musique qui fait Popp’, an album project for which Popp’s best-known instrumental creations were rerecorded by the Metropole Orchestra conducted by Jan Stulen (1993). Popp, concluding: “I have been a lucky man and I keep saying that I have lived a wonderful life. J’ai fait la musique et l’amour, I made music and love! What more could I have asked for?

André Popp in the Eurovision Song Contest
André Popp composed four Eurovision entries between 1960 and 1975, of which he only conducted the last one himself. Though his involvement as a composer in the Eurovision Song Contest began in ’60, he has an interesting link to the first festival, held in Lugano in 1956. The interval act of this first Eurovision Song Contest was taken care of by Les Trois Ménestrels, a French cabaret trio, which performed ‘Ballade de Davy Crockett’ and three other songs. All the combo arrangements for the group – the trio was not, like the singers participating in the contest itself, backed up by Fernando Paggi’s Orchestra Radiosa – were written by André Popp. He also recorded the songs performed in Lugano with the ensemble in the Parisian record studio.

In 1960, André Popp teamed up with lyricist Pierre Cour (1924-1997) to write ‘Tom Pillibi’, which, performed by young Jacqueline Boyer and conducted by Franck Pourcel, gave France a second Eurovision victory. At the 1960 festival held in London, it won with a runaway 32 points. In Eurovision circles, it has always been understood that the song was originally intended for Marcel Amont instead of Jacqueline Boyer, but Popp does not remember anything of this. “No, as far as I recall, Pierre and I contacted Jacqueline ourselves to sing the song. As usual, I wrote the melody first, before calling upon Pierre for the lyrics. I had known Pierre since my days as a pianist at the Trois Baudets theatre, where he occasionally performed as an actor. In one stage show, he was chosen to play a character which was old, but wanted to look young at all cost. Funnily enough, that was exactly what he was like in real life, often wearing extravagant clothing… but he was such a great friend and an extremely talented lyricist! He knew exactly what audiences liked… ‘Tom Pillibi’, about a young girl dreaming about an imaginary dream prince from Scotland, is a very good example of such appealing lyrics. No, I had never been pushing to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest. Being a well-known quantity at French TV, I was simply requested to submit a song to the selection committee. In my three later Eurovision participations, the situation was similar.”

In those early Eurovision days, the core of a country’s delegation consisted of a vocalist and a conductor. The songwriters had to tune in their televisions at home to watch how their creations would do in the festival final. Therefore, Popp and Cour were not present in the London auditorium when Jacqueline Boyer managed to win the contest. Popp: “There was no question that we would go to London… it was simply taken for granted that authors stayed home. If I considered conducting the song myself? Well no, that would have been a revolution. The French entry was always conducted by Franck Pourcel, who was extremely successful in those days; moreover the selection committee had asked him to write the arrangement, and he did a good job on that. There was nothing wrong with him conducting the orchestra. In London, however, he made a mistake! While counting in the orchestra, il a pris la chanson trop vite, he counted it in a tempo which was too fast. I had invited Pierre Cour over to my place to watch the contest and we were petrified… this could have been a catastrophe. But who cares… we won anyway! When Jacqueline and Franck arrived back in Paris, French television organized a cocktail party to celebrate the success. Of course, this time around, Pierre and I were invited. We were astonished, however, when the both of us received a bill, charging us for the consumptions of all people present… a bittersweet memory!”

Jacqueline Boyer’s winning performance of André Popp’s composition ‘Tom Pillibi’ in the 1960 Eurovision Song Contest. The song was conducted by Franck Pourcel

“As for Jacqueline Boyer”, Popp continues, “her mother Lucienne was a great singer, but, to be honest, she herself was not that interesting as an artist. Things went wrong for her right after that Eurovision success in 1960. She did a tour in France and beyond, but her shows started with ‘Tom Pillibi’, followed by just two or three other songs, followed by a second rendition of ‘Tom Pillibi’… and that was it. She did not have the repertoire and she lacked the charisma. Her career never really took off.” ‘Tom Pillibi became a hit in France and several other European countries. Cover versions were recorded by the likes of Tino Rossi and even Julie Andrews. How does Popp rank ‘Tom Pillibi’ amongst his other songs? “Without a doubt, it is one of my best attempts as a songwriter… a lovely little children’s tune. Contrary to ‘Les lavandières du Portugal’ and, later onwards, ‘Love is blue’, it did not catch on in America, but it is not a mean result to have written a Eurovision winner which became a hit in England and many other European countries!”

Four years after winning the Eurovision Song Contest, André Popp entered the competition again. Again representing his home country France, Popp composed ‘Le chant de Mallory’, an intriguing melody, interpreted at the contest by Rachel Ros. Once more, the lyrics were crafted by Popp’s friend Pierre Cour. This time around, Popp himself was responsible for the orchestration, which, nevertheless, was conducted by Franck Pourcel. In the festival final in Copenhagen, ‘Le chant de Mallory’ obtained fourteen points and a fourth position on the scoreboard. Compared to ‘Tom Pillibi’, ‘Le chant de Mallory’ was a more complicated composition. How did it end up being chosen for the Eurovision Song Contest?

Popp: “In those years, there was a radio programme of light classical music with RTF Light Music Orchestra of conductor Paul Bonneau. Sometimes, I composed pieces which were played in that broadcast. ‘Le chant de Mallory’ originally was an instrumental piece, which was picked by Bonneau for his radio programme together with two or three other creations I had written. A while after the melody had been played on the radio, some RTF official asked me if I had a suitable song for the Eurovision selection. Perhaps I said I doubted that… I don’t remember – anyhow, he suggested making a song out of that orchestral piece, because he believed the melody could catch on with a larger audience. I must have liked the idea, because the next thing I did was contacting Pierre Cour, who wrote lyrics suiting the melody of the composition.”

What about the song title and the name ‘Mallory’? André Popp explains: “Before Pierre Cour came in, the title of the instrumental piece already was ‘Le chant de Mallory’. I had read a book by an English thriller author, James Hadley Chase, bearing the title ‘Mallory’. In the book, the fictional character Mallory collaborated with the Germans in occupied France during World War II. The reason I chose ‘Mallory’ for the title of my composition was simply that it was a name which sounded good. At that point, of course, I did not have a theme for the lyrics in my head. Pierre Cour, proving his genius, wrote words about a love affair in Ireland whilst retaining the title of the original and using the name Mallory in his lyrics too.”

Rachel’s rendition of ‘Le chant de Mallory’ in the 1964 Eurovision Song Contest in Copenhagen (audio); conductor: Franck Pourcel. Unfortunately, no video recording of that year’s contest has survived

Rachel Ros – in arte simply Rachel – was a singer who had been part of Mireille’s Petit Conservatoire de la Chanson together with famous names such as François Hardy, Frida Boccara, and Yves Duteil. Popp: “When I first heard that girl, I was much impressed by her voice. She was a good friend of ours back then. I hand-picked her to interpret ‘Le chant de Mallory’ in the Eurovision Song Contest. Vocally, virtually nobody could have sung it better, but she more or less failed to sell the song. To be successful as a singer, you have to be able to get your emotions across to the audience, but Rachel lacked the enthusiasm and mind-set to be a singer. She was a pretty face and her voice was excellent… but that was it. Nevertheless, the song did reasonably well in Eurovision and was a major hit success here in France. Les Compagnons de la Chanson recorded their version of it.”

In 1967, André Popp and Pierre Cour combined their forces for a third Eurovision attempt, this time with ‘L’amour est bleu’, with which a very young Vicky Leandros represented Luxembourg in the festival final in Vienna. There, the song, arranged and conducted by Claude Denjean, finished fourth. Who could have expected a cover version of that song to turn into one of the biggest hits of the following year? In 1968, an instrumental version by Paul Mauriat and his orchestra, caught on in the USA and became a worldwide success. Popp remembers the remarkable story of ‘L’amour est bleu’ – or as it became known: ‘Love is blue’ – very well.

Japanese single release of Vicky Leandros’ original version of ‘L’amour est bleu’

“RTL Luxembourg commissioned me to write a Eurovision song for Vicky Leandros. They had already chosen her as their representative. She came to my place for me to allow me to assess her vocal abilities. Honestly, I was not much impressed by what I heard. Elle chantait un peu comme tout le monde, her voice did not really have a timbre of its own and she lacked personality. When she sang a Nana Mouskouri song, she copied the style of Nana Mouskouri, and the same with Mireille Mathieu, etcetera. Her later success can only be explained because her father was so adept at pushing her at TV stations and record companies. In short: a totally uninteresting girl. Perhaps for that reason, I did not feel much inspiration to write a good song. Two days before the deadline, and a full month after Vicky Leandros’ visit, the melody came to me. I woke up early and sat at the piano… and then the main theme flowed from my fingers as if it was someone else who guided them. Writing the rest of the song did not take longer than a mere five minutes. It is so funny how things like these go sometimes! I called Pierre Cour and, as usual, he came up with the lyrics in a matter of hours. Our song was ready – just in time!”

For the Eurovision Song Contest, ‘L’amour est bleu’ was arranged and conducted by Claude Denjean, a well-known name in the French recording business. Popp: “I never got to know him closely. He was probably asked by RTL or by Vicky’s record company to take care of the job. In the second half of the 1960s, I only seldom worked as a studio arranger anymore, so, again, I did not push my name forward… and I did not go to Vienna. At that time, I believed the song had died on the Eurovision stage: it came fourth and nothing much happened, chart-wise. Later that year, orchestra leader Paul Mauriat recorded an instrumental cover of the song… no surprise there, as Mauriat, Lefèvre, and Pourcel recorded one disk after the other with such cover versions. Paul did not change much in the original orchestration, apart from adding a dominant harpsichord to enliven the verses a little. To his mind, it fitted the melody.”

Vicky performing Popp’s creation ‘L’amour est bleu’ in the 1967 Eurovision Song Contest in Vienna. The arranger/conductor for this entry for Luxembourg was Claude Denjean

“In the months that followed”, Popp continues, “nothing much seemed to happen. At one point, however, a disk jockey in Minnesota who had been sent the Mauriat record, fell in love with the ‘Love is blue’ track – and so much so, that he played it in his radio show once every hour. Before long, ‘Love is blue’ was picked up by other radio stations and it was given a single release in the USA. It was a huge hit, occupying the number one spot in the Billboard Hot 100 for five weeks – the first time a French song was a number one record in America! It was the second-biggest hit of the year in the United States behind the Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’. Europe and Japan followed suit – except for France, because Radio Europe 1 refused to play it! Thanks to this one song, Paul Mauriat had a career for thirty years in Japan, performing for sell-out crowds. I happened to be in Tokyo once when Paul gave a concert there with his orchestra and he invited me to attend it as a guest of honour. When he introduced me to the audience as the composer of ‘Love is blue’, I received an enormous ovation. After the concert, I was surrounded by fans who were after my signature. It took me over an hour signing all those record sleeves!”

In the end, ‘Love is blue’ sold over thirty million records in Paul Mauriat’s version, and more than forty million when taking into account all cover versions. Popp: “I have never complained about the life I led, but after ‘Love is blue’ things became truly very easy. As a composer, I earned heaps of money because of this one creation; it was the turning point in my career. From that moment, I have been financially independent. It is odd how things developed for me… in ’53 or ’54, I bought my first house taking out a mortgage. In 1955, ‘Les lavandières du Portugal’ was an enormous hit success and I managed to pay off the loan within two years. One or two years prior to ‘Love is blue’, we bought a spacious villa in the French Riviera. Thanks to ‘Love is blue’, I paid off that mortgage within a year as well. Nothing but plain luck!”

Paul Mauriat and his orchestra performing ‘Love is blue’ in a live stage show, c1985

In 1975, Popp composed his fourth and final Eurovision song, ‘Une chanson c’est une lettre’. The lyrics were written by Boris Bergman, who also was involved as a songwriter in the 1973 Monegasque song and the 2013 (!) French entry. Monaco’s broadcaster RMC selected ‘Une chanson c’est une lettre’ to represent the statelet in that year’s contest, which took place in Stockholm. Its interpreter, Sophie (pseudonym of Arlette Hecquet, 1944-2012), had to settle for a meagre thirteenth place amongst nineteen participants. Popp did not only write the arrangement to his own song, but he also conducted the Swedish Eurovision orchestra for it.

The composer is quite reluctant to talk about this Eurovision participation: “What is the use of reminding people of that song? As far as I remember, we came last or second-last. I never decided I wanted to take part… I was invited by RMC to compose a song. They gave it to Sophie and she was no good. Why? Simply, because she was no good! She lacked the charisma and the voice to be a good singer. Sophie was a speakerine, a radio and TV announcer at RMC, and that was probably the only reason she was chosen. We recorded the song with her, but I do not believe that more than a couple of hundreds of copies were sold.”

André Popp’s only appearance as a conductor in the Eurovision Song Contest came in 1975, with his composition ‘Une chanson c’est une lettre’, a song he does not like being reminded of. It was performed by Sophie Hecquet who represented Monaco

In Stockholm, the Monegasque participants struck up a bond of friendship with the French delegation. Popp helped out his conducting colleague for France, Jean Musy, in a most peculiar way. Musy, who had completely forgotten about his flight to Stockholm and who was still asleep when a nervous member of the French party telephoned him to ask why he was not at the airport in Paris, rushed from his house to catch the plane, forgetting to take any clothing with him: Musy had no smoking to wear for the Eurovision concert. In an amusing anecdote, Musy told us how Popp saved the day: “I had travelled to Sweden in jeans… At the rehearsals, I met André Popp; such a nice man! Immediately, he suggested taking a cab to the city-centre of Stockholm to find me something suitable. Clumsily enough, we failed to find anything in my size. In the end, André offered me one of his dress shirts. All other pieces of clothing I was wearing for the concert, including the shoes, were borrowed from different member of the French delegation – except for the underwear! I looked bizarre, because none of the elements fitted me well. The shirt, for a start, was far too tight, as André was so much thinner than me.”

Popp does not recall having conducted the Swedish orchestra, even to the point of denying that he did, but he does remember staying in Stockholm: “One night, we went for a drink in downtown Stockholm with all of the French and Monegasque delegates. It was stone cold, un froid du canard. As we had a good time together, it was already two o’clock in the morning when we decided we wanted to go back to the hotel… but the whole of Stockholm seemed to be fast asleep. There was not a single taxi to be found. We ended up having to walk the long distance back to the hotel in that horrible cold. I had never felt that cold in my life before, nor thereafter. Yes, perhaps it is a little odd that I still remember this and have no recollection of working with the Swedish orchestra, but I am eighty-eight years of age and, sometimes, your mind plays tricks upon you!”

Other artists on André Popp
So far, we have not been able to gather comments of other artists about André Popp.

At home in Puteaux (Paris), January 2013

Links & sources
  • Bas Tukker interviewed André Popp in Puteaux (Greater Paris), January 2013.
  • Many thanks to André Popp for allowing us to use his collection of press publications about himself and his work.
  • Photos courtesy of André Popp, Gert-Jan Blom, and Piet Schreuders


Songs conducted
1975: Une chanson c'est une lettre