Joël Rocher

Born: October 7th, 1947, Rugles (Upper Normandy (France))
Nationality: French

Eurovision record
Jean-Claude Pascal, winner of the 1961 Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Nous les amoureux’, returned to the event twenty years later, once again representing Luxembourg. His quirky effort ‘C’est peut-être pas l’Amérique’ was co-arranged and conducted by Joël Rocher. The song finished eleventh in the 1981 festival final in Dublin. It was to remain Joël Rocher’s only participation in the Eurovision Song Contest.

In Paris’ Bois de Vincennes, May 2011

Joël Rocher was born in a small village in Normandy, but his parents moved to Mantes-la-Jolie, a town in the vicinity of Paris, in the mid-1950s. His father was a bricklayer. From a very young age, Joël was fascinated by music and he taught himself to play the guitar when he was fifteen. His ambition was to be a musician and he decided to take private courses in solfège and harmony (1963-1965). “In fact”, Rocher confesses, “I wanted to enrol on courses in the local conservatory in Yvelines in ’64, but they told me I first had to study three years of solfège before I could do anything else. I did not like that method of working at all… after all, I was already seventeen. I was just looking for a minimum of theory which would allow me to work independently as a musician and as a songwriter… being an autodidact at heart, I decided that the conservatory was not for me and stuck to those private courses. I loved all kinds of music, ranging from Sinatra to the Beatles. But my first love was the French chanson. The most important thing was that I wanted to make a career in the music business – no matter if it was as a singer, as a guitarist, or as a composer.” In 1965, he had his first taste of success, when he won the Echo Cup in the Châtelet Festival in Belgium with his first amateur band, Les Cancre.

Rocher (to the left) on stage with Les Cancre

With a burning ambition to succeed in music, young Joël settled in Paris and tried to make a living doing all kinds of different little jobs. Slowly but gradually, he became known as an able bass guitarist in the club circuit. During the summer seasons of 1969 to 1971, he played in the luxurious resorts of Club-Méditerranée in Southern France, entertaining the tourists. In 1972, he met Sophie Makhno, who was an estimated producer (for CBS, later working independently), songwriter, and vocalist, mainly known for her literary chansons and her production work for Barbara. Rocher played the bass in Makhno’s band when she performed as a support act for Georges Brassens in the Bobino Music Hall in Paris. “Meeting Sophie was important”, according to Rocher, “because she gave me a lot of responsibility. Thanks to her, I got to play in studio sessions. Being invited to do session work is a priceless form of recognition for a musician! Moreover, she commissioned me to compose songs, to work as a backing singer, and, somewhat later, to do some production work. It was a pleasant time, working with Sophie and her ‘inner circle’. There were some interesting people there, such as Colin Verdier, a young singer, and Bernard Gérard and Benoît Kaufman, both of whom were very good composers and arrangers. Especially Bernard Gérard always encouraged me to compose and was very enthusiastic about my work. We had long conversations about music and, being so experienced, he learnt me a lot. He also helped me finding artists to interpret my songs.”

Sophie Makhno recorded several of Rocher’s compositions herself, including ‘Cherche un coin tranquille’ (1973), ‘On boucle la valise’ (1975), and ‘Chanson sirop’ (1977). With Makhno, he co-composed the beautiful ‘Il y a quelque chose dans l’air’ for Colin Verdier in ’73. Other artists Rocher wrote for in the 1970s include Michel Piccoli, Village, Emmanuelle Marcellin, and Marie-France Anglade. In the mid-1970s, he also recorded two singles as a solo artist, ‘Faut faire avec’ and ‘Pouce’. With Bernard Gérard, he composed a song which was included in the soundtrack of the movie picture ‘Ce cher Victor’ (1975).

Rocher with Sophie Makhno, working on a song (late 1970s)

Throughout the 1970s, Joël Rocher was also a much sought-after musician for stage shows and concerts. As a bass player, he accompanied successful soloists such as C. Jerôme, François Valéry, Elisa, Jean-Pierre Savelli, Nicoletta, Patachou, and Michel Jonasz. In the late 1970s, he met one of the most important musical friends of his life, the blind pianist Pierre Tibéri (1947-2000). Rocher comments: “Pierre was in the accompanying bands of Nicoletta and Michel Jonasz with me. He was an excellent pianist and a very good composer too. We became the best of friends and started composing together. ‘In love with music’ from 1979 was one of the first songs the two of us co-wrote. It was released as a single record with Pierre singing it. From the end of the 1970s onwards, we often met up in the studio to arrange and co-produce records for various artists. In 1977, we worked together for months, performing during the summer season in the Monte Carlo Sporting Club. Pierre was from the Lyon region and if he had not lived so far off, we would have worked together on even more projects. It is such a pity he died so young… I still miss him every day!”

In the 1980s, Rocher got the opportunity to work on more ambitious studio projects than in the decade before: “Professionally, in the late 1970s, I had practically always been with Sophie Makhno and her friends only… this small ‘inner circle’. I am convinced that my appearance as a conductor in the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest was the key moment in my career. From that moment onwards, I was invited for all kinds of different things which I would never have been asked to do otherwise. Ambitious studio projects with big orchestras and expensive background vocalists. Why? Because, thanks to Eurovision, all of a sudden many more people in the recording business knew my name. Besides, I had now proved to the outside world that I was a capable arranger. I had more or less taught myself how to write good arrangements using the method of trial and error in the years before. Driven on by my ambition to succeed, I was always eager to try new things and arranging was one.”

Rocher was one of the session musicians of the 1985 album of Pascal Desagulier. Here, Desagulier and his instrumentalists can be seen taking a break during the recordings in Mantes-la-Jolie. From left to right: Joël Rocher, Thierry Picandet, Pascal Desagulier, Pierre Tibéri, Hubert Rondepierre

In the 1980s and 1990s, Joël Rocher worked as a composer, arranger, and producer for various French singers such as Charles Dumont, Cécile Keller, François Deblaye, Sylvain Caruso, Bernard Menez, and Sam Lorie. For Patrick Topaloff, he arranged several singles as well as the album ‘Les fables de La Fontaine’ (1982). In 1987, Rocher produced an album with children’s songs all composed by Pierre Tibéri called ‘Père-Noël Vidéo’. In the Parisian recording studios, Rocher met the highly influential Belgian producer and music editor Jean Kluger, who gave him the opportunity to work in Brussels as a producer with a host of different artists, including Sandy Davis, Janu, and Nicky Baker. Flemish legend crooner Will Tura recorded Rocher’s composition ‘If you’re alone tonight’ with lyrics in Dutch under the new title ‘Als het hart niet meer zingt’ (1987) as well as his arrangement of the American traditional ‘Amen’ (2003). Still in Brussels, Rocher was co-producer of the Ellington tribute album ‘Tango à la Duke’ (2006) by Argentinean piano virtuoso Gustavo Beytelmann.

In spite of his time-consuming activities in the recording studio, Rocher has never ceased working as an instrumentalist on stage. In 1982, he was a member of the combo which accompanied the TV sketch show ‘Chantez-le moi’. From the late 1980s onwards, he has been the bass guitarist in the band which accompanies the legendary American gospel group The Golden Gate Quartet. Rocher: “It all started with a phone call from a friend… a musician and a member of the Golden Gate Quartet accompanying band. It must have been in 1986 or thereabouts. Their bass guitar player had fallen ill and they had to leave for a concert somewhere in the south of France within one hour and fifteen minutes! He wondered if I wanted to help them out as a replacement. I agreed and was rushed to the Gare d’Austerlitz by taxi. I had to learn my parts on the way to the gig. Some time afterwards, their bassist, who was already quite old and could not cope anymore with the demanding touring schedule, left the group once and for all and in that way I became a regular band member. Working with the Golden Gate Quartet is a privilege. They are such professional, polite, and pleasant guys! From the moment they saw I did my job well, I was accepted as a member of the Golden Gate ‘family’. Together, we always do our utmost to give a great performance.”

Rocher (far right) on stage with the Golden Gate Quartet during a TV performance in Switzerland, 1994

With the Golden Gate Quartet, Joël Rocher has extensively toured France, Germany, as well as many other European countries, performing in concerts and festivals. In the Western African state of Benin, Rocher and the quartet took part in the unique ‘Gospel et Racines’ (Gospel and Roots) Music Festival. In 2010, he wrote most of the arrangements for the gospel group’s highly acclaimed new album ‘Incredible’. A couple of years before Sophie Makhno’s passing away, Rocher arranged and co-produced her penultimate studio album, ‘Je m’en fou d’avoir vieilli’ (2003). Nowadays, apart from his work with the Golden Gate Quartet, Joël Rocher still works as a session musician occasionally.

The musicians accompanying the Golden Gate Quartet in the early 1990s, from left to right: Baldo Romelli (drums), Alain Duchesne (piano), and Joël Rocher (bass)

Joël Rocher in the Eurovision Song Contest
In 1961, French crooner Jean-Claude Pascal was crowned the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest in Cannes with the delightful jazz piece ‘Nous les amoureux’. At the twentieth ‘anniversary’ of his victory in 1981, the now 53-year-old decided to have another go and represent Luxembourg for a second time. The festival was held in Dublin and Pascal (real name: Jean-Claude Villeminot) sang ‘C’est peut-être pas l’Amérique’, composed by Sophie Makhno and Jean-Claude Petit with lyrics by Sophie Makhno and Jean-Claude Pascal himself. There was to be no first place for Pascal this time around, as the international juries awarded his song with 41 points and a shared eleventh position. Joël Rocher was the conductor of this Luxembourg entry, his only involvement in the Eurovision Song Contest.

“’C’est peut-être pas l’Amérique’ was not composed especially for the contest and not even with Jean-Claude Pascal in mind”, Rocher recalls. The writing process turned into a very complicated affair. After Sophie Makhno had written the choruses, she found herself unable to compose the rest of the song. That is when she called on me for help and, together, we finished it. Sophie, however, was not entirely satisfied with the result and asked Jean-Claude Petit to have a look at it, which he did. In the end, Sophie chose to use Petit’s contribution to the song and not mine. I do not know exactly what happened next. One way or another, the demo recording found its way to the offices of the French branch of RTL in Paris. There, it was instantly liked by many people and especially by Marie-Christine Villaume, who managed to convince RTL Luxembourg that it was a suitable choice for the Eurovision Song Contest. It was offered to Jean-Claude Pascal, who was already in his fifties, but a sincere artist and an interesting personality nonetheless. For a song with meaningful lyrics such as ‘C’est peut-être pas l’Amérique, he was the ideal interpreter. No, nobody had second thoughts about competing in Eurovision which this song… I mean, literary lyrics are a part of French chanson tradition with famous interpreters such as Juliette Gréco, Jacques Brel, and Isabelle Aubret.”

Co-composer Jean-Claude Petit was once of France’s most sought-after arrangers and conductors, yet the studio arrangement was written by Joël Rocher and Pierre Tibéri and Petit did not come along to Dublin to conduct the orchestra. Why was that? “Being perfectly honest”, Rocher confesses, “under normal circumstances Jean-Claude Petit would have taken care of the arrangement and of course have conducted the orchestra in Ireland as well. The reality was, however, that he was an extremely busy man. He conducted the orchestra which accompanied all artists in the TV broadcast of ‘Star’, a huge weekly show programme hosted by Michel Drucker. For each of those programmes, there were ten or fifteen songs. Jean-Claude always penned all the arrangements to those pieces of music himself! In short, he really did not have time to record the song and there was no way he could leave Paris for an entire week to conduct the Eurovision orchestra. As a result of this, Sophie asked me to come up with a suitable arrangement. I had already got some ideas about what to write, but I decided to work together with my friend Pierre Tibéri once more. Pierre did not find it easy to come up with solutions for this song, which, harmonically, was rather monotonous. It is fair to say that the majority of the final result was my work. For the B side of the single recording, we picked ‘Car tu es la musique’, which was Sophie’s translation of Pierre’s song ‘In love with music’ from two years earlier.”

Pierre Tibéri, early 1980s

“Erroneously”, Rocher further explains, “Pierre was credited on the record sleeve of the single record of ‘C’est peut-être pas l’Amérique’ for having conducted the studio session; in fact, he could never have done that – after all, he was blind! That is why I conducted this session. Jean-Claude Pascal, who I had never met before, was so satisfied with the way I handled this that he insisted on me as his musical director in the Eurovision Song Contest. I was extremely proud of that, because Jean-Claude was someone of considerable experience. Being hand-picked by him was an honour indeed! If he had not put his trust in me, probably RTL or the publishers would have chosen another conductor – remember that I had very little experience in conducting orchestras, certainly not on stage! I am still very grateful for the opportunity Jean-Claude gave me to be his conductor in Dublin.”

“We had a marvellous couple of days in Ireland”, Rocher continues. It was a pity Pierre Tibéri could not be there; I would really have loved to have him with us. We had an excellent backing group with the brothers Georges and Michel Costa (who also backed up the French entrant Jean Gabilou that year, BT) and – somewhat ironic, given the title of the song – three American girls. Jean-Claude Pascal, being every inch the gentleman that he was, did not feel above the other contestants because of his victory in 1961. He was pleasant and good-humoured – a joy to work with! I distinctly remember the moment of the first rehearsals: I was terrified at the prospect of having to conduct this huge orchestra of professional musicians. Luckily, they played the score perfectly and complimented me for my work. Even the director of the show tapped me on the shoulder afterwards to tell me the string arrangement worked beautifully. ‘Please don’t you worry’, he said. Those Irish – they really did everything they could to make you feel at ease! Another thing that helped me feeling better was my conversation with David Sprinfield, who conducted the French entry and confessed to me that he felt very insecure as well about having to conduct this grand orchestra… so I was not the only one!”

In the live broadcast, few viewers will have lacked to notice that Joël Rocher was quite nervous when he walked to his conductor’s desk to count the orchestra in. “It is true, I was nervous”, Rocher admits. “I was very conscious of the fact that there was this huge television audience of perhaps more than one hundred million viewers. It was scary and unique at the same time. I mean, no musician in Europe will ever have a bigger audience than that! That also was one of the reasons why I have always defended Eurovision, when other musicians were heckling the event. I think it is most unprofessional to show such disrespect for this enormous number of viewers glued to their TV set. They cannot be all wrong, after all…”

The Luxembourg delegation went home with 41 points and an eleventh position. Rocher: “You will understand that Jean-Claude Pascal was disappointed. I do not know if he ever believed he could win it again, but any competitor in any competition wants to do well. As an artist, you always hope the audience will appreciate your work. For my own career, this festival in Dublin really was the key moment. Thanks to Eurovision, all of a sudden many more people in the recording business knew my name and all kinds of interesting new recording projects came my way!”

Dublin, 1981 – Rocher trying to cheer up Jean-Claude Pascal after the voting

Other artists on Joël Rocher
Guitarist and music teacher Hubert Rondepierre has known Joël Rocher since the early 1980s: “I met Joël Rocher during recordings sessions thanks to my guitar teacher Thierry Picandet. With his friendly character, Joël made me feel at ease from the very beginning. He is completely natural and very polite, something which can also be recognized in his way of play and in his music. His qualities: naturalness and effectiveness. It is in part due to him that I am still working in the world of music!” (2011)

Links & sources
  • Bas Tukker interviewed Joël Rocher in Paris, May 2011.
  • Thanks to Hubert Rondepierre for his comments.
  • All photos courtesy of Joël Rocher, except for the 1985 picture with Pascal Desagulier (courtesy of Hubert Rondepierre).



Songs conducted
1981: C'est peut-être pas l'Amérique