Gérard Salesses

Born: August 10th, 1949, Toulouse (France)
Nationality: French

Eurovision record
Pianist, composer, and arranger Gérard Salesses conducted the song which represented Monaco in the 1979 Eurovision Song Contest, ‘Notre vie c’est la musique’ by Laurent Vaguener. At the international festival in Jerusalem, this Monegasque entry picked up twelve votes, finishing sixteenth among nineteen competing acts.

Close-up of Gérard Salesses taken during the recording sessions of Terry Scott Jr.’s album ‘Survivor’ (1978), mere months before Gérard's participation in the Eurovision Song Contest

Biography
Gérard Salesses grew up in Toulouse, in the deep south of France. His father was a carpenter. Though neither of his parents played a music instrument, they were keen for their two sons to take piano lessons. “Our mother sent us to a piano teacher when we were eight or nine years of age,” he recalls. “My older brother – he was one year my senior – should have been a professional musician, because he had loads of talent. He didn’t like the piano, however, and after an unsuccessful switch to the classical guitar, he quit once and for all. Instead, he studied law and became a solicitor. As for me, I was pretty mediocre at school and preferred continuing my music studies at Marguérite Long’s private school in Toulouse. Initially, I was a bit lazy, preferring to hang out with friends… the piano was my parents’ ambition more than mine, but my mother was adamant that I prepared my lessons diligently. It wasn’t until music theory lessons made way for playing short pieces that I really got into it. When I was thirteen, I was admitted to conservatory.”

From 1962 to 1968, young Gérard studied the piano with Thérèse Dussaut at the Conservatoire à Rayonnement Régional de Toulouse, while also taking a minor in flute. Harmony classes were taught by Roger Gayral. Meanwhile, however, Gérard also discovered popular music. “I can’t have been much older than fourteen or fifteen when I discovered variété, light entertainment music. From that time, I liked listening to Johnny Hallyday, while I was also a fan of the Beatles and other bands – something which was deemed unacceptable for a classical conservatory student. I joined a local rock group called Les Caïds. They were a band of four, a singer with a guitarist, a drummer, and a bass player. Around that time, more and more bands also added a pianist to their setup – and these guys decided to start looking for one as well. I auditioned with them and was accepted. We played in local concerts, or galas as we like to call them in France. We were a cover band, playing pure rock ‘n’ roll. ‘Roll over Beethoven’ and ‘Johnny B. Goode’ by Chuck Berry are titles that stick to mind. At some point, I also joined the Orchestre Capitol, one of the many dance orchestras in Toulouse. I played entertainment music all weekend. Of course, back in conservatory class on Monday morning, Madame Dussaut noted immediately: “Gérard, you played variété again this weekend – the way you put your hands on the piano is proof of that!” There was no fooling her!”

When Gérard was seventeen, he attended a concert which his idol Johnny Hallyday gave in Toulouse. For Gérard, it was a memorable night for more than one reason. “Johnny had a great bunch of musicians behind him. One of them was Raymond Donnez, who played the Hammond organ. I instantly loved the sound of that instrument! By that time, I had a small electric organ myself, but this was something different. When I saw that guy on stage with his white Hammond organ, I knew it: that’s what I want too! So when I came home, I told my father that I had enough of playing that small, primitive organ. J’en avais marre! I wanted a white Hammond organ! My father couldn’t believe his ears. “Have you gone out of your mind, son? Where can I find a thing like that?” True, there wasn’t a single music shop in Toulouse which sold Hammonds. Fortunately, my father regularly worked in Bordeaux. There, he found a shop which sold the exact white organ I was looking for! It was ridiculously expensive, but my parents liked doing me a favour… and that’s how I became the only person in Toulouse to own a white Hammond organ. All my friends were jealous of me. From that moment on, I took it to the weekend galas with all the successive dance orchestras I played in. That instrument was my pride and joy!”

Young Gérard with his first piano teacher, Marguérite Long

In 1968, Gérard took the decision to discontinue his conservatory studies. “Some of my fellow-students literally buried themselves in classical music. They were working hard to be admitted to the conservatoire in Paris to continue their studies. Roger Loubet, who was one year older than me, was one of them. I wasn’t averse to classical music, but it wasn’t my ambition to become a concert pianist. I liked rock ‘n’ roll, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones… So I quit, without really knowing what to do next, other than continuing to play in the dance hall circuit in Toulouse.”

“There was also a local record studio, Studio Concorcet, where many important French artists recorded their material. To augment my income, I also regularly did sessions there in addition to my stage work. At the studio, I regularly met a friend, Pierre Groscolas, a singer who was aiming at a nationwide breakthrough. Sometime in 1971, he had just recorded his first single – and he was preparing an album. He called on my help to prepare some demos. By that time, friends of mine had adapted my Hammond organ. Since, it was able to produce special, distorted wah-wah sounds. I listened a lot to Brian Auger, Keith Emerson, and the group Deep Purple, who also had transformed organs which produced really amazing sounds. One day, we had been working on his song ‘L’amour est roi’. Pierre was particularly in love with my Hammond sound. One day he told me: “Gérard, I signed a contract with the Trema record label, who booked a studio in Paris for my album recording. I want you to come with me to play on these sessions!” Admittedly, I was a bit taken aback, because I had never set foot in Paris in my life. Pierre, however, left me little choice and said: “On y va!”. We hired a lorry with which we took my Hammond organ to Paris. To me, it felt as the start of a huge adventure – and I only half realised how true that was…”

On the evening before the studio session with Groscolas, Gérard went out to the Rock-‘n’-Roll Circus, the mythical nightclub and dance hall in downtown Paris. At the bar, he met three musicians who were in the process of rehearsing Sylvie Vartan’s Japan tour. “It turned out they were still looking for an organ player,” Gérard adds. “They told me that there would be an audition at the office of Sylvie’s manager the next morning. Of course, I went there… accompanied by the Toulouse lorry driver who had come with me, because my white Hammond organ was still in his truck! At the office, I met a bespectacled young man who introduced himself as Jean-Luc Azoulay. He was Sylvie’s secretary. This guy let me play for a bit and told me to come back the next day, when Sylvie would be there too. He gave me two or three of her records and told me to prepare some songs. Working all night, I wrote my scores. The next day, I did a second audition for Sylvie, who hired me on the spot!”

Gérard (standing, far left) with his fellow-members of the Sentimental Trumpet Dance Orchestra in Toulouse (1967)

For the shy young man from Toulouse, Sylvie Vartan’s tour in Japan (1972) was a veritable baptism of fire. “I had never been in an aeroplane in my life,” he laughs, “and here I was, with Sylvie and her entourage on a flight to Tokyo! Sylvie more or less adopted me, because she somehow felt she had discovered me… and she said I was exactly the kind of pianist ideal for her tour de chant – and Azoulay agreed with her. The band was led by Sylvie’s brother Eddie, a trumpet player. At that time, Sylvie was number one in Japan’s record charts with ‘Caro Mozart’, a song in Italian which was an adaptation of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. For the first concert of the tour, we had to play it on stage without ever having rehearsed it in Paris. Fortunately, I was familiar with the music and, with Sylvie, we improvised our way through the song – she sang it accompanied just by my piano. From that day, she called me simply ‘Mozart’ – and the rest of the band did the same. It was a nickname which stuck with me for just about half my life! This Japan tour was the true start of my professional career. In the following decades, I hardly ever spent a day in Toulouse. Henceforth, Paris was my home.”

In the following years, until 1977, Gérard Salesses remained in the orbit of Sylvie Vartan and her then-husband Johnny Hallyday, for both of whom he played the piano and organ on stage. Furthermore, he accompanied other artists in their concerts as well, most notably Hugues Aufray, Stone & Eric Charden, and Hervé Vilard. In the same period, Salesses also became one of the most sought-after session pianists in Paris’ record studios. As his conservatory background meant he had all the know-how needed to write music, it was only a matter of time before the studio pianist would get his opportunity as a studio arranger as well.

“In those early years in Paris, I became involved in writing advertisement jingles. We recorded most of these at Studio Acousti. There, I met a guy who owned a publishing company which mainly released instrumental music: ballroom orchestras and valse musette. He told me he was looking for a young arranger for a rather unusual project. He had stumbled upon a Romanian record producer with a black pearl, an American model, with whom he wanted to do a disco track. The editor wondered if I was interested… well of course I was! The girl turned out to be Grace Jones and I arranged her single ‘I need a man’. It was an international hit and was played in discotheques the world over in 1975. It wasn’t my first record arrangement. Previously, I had done some work with small publishers, but that had largely gone unnoticed. I was happy to be a pianist on stage and in the studio, but now that some more arranging work started coming my way, I thought it was really interesting. As a session player, I had learnt what a good arrangement should sound like. I particularly liked guys such as Hervé Roy, Jean-Claude Vannier, and Raymond Donnez. They were all very adept at writing for strings. Just by listening to their work I developed my own taste.”

In 1973, Gérard Salesses first met Alain Barrière, whom he started accompanying as a pianist on stage. Sometime later, Barrière also asked Salesses to write arrangements for him. An experienced singer-songwriter, Barrière wasn’t looking for a traditional arranger. Salesses: “He had last worked with Jean-Claude Petit, but he now wanted a younger, more malleable musician who could put to paper his own ideas for arrangements. I fitted the mould! Alain had the last say and, sometimes, he overruled me. For example, when he wrote ‘Tu t’en vas’ (a hit for Barrière which was recorded as a duet with Noëlle Cordier in 1975 – BT), I came up with a score which was too intricate for his taste. Therefore, he simply left out the entire string arrangement I had written. In the end, there was just one marimba player in that large studio! As Alain’s influence over me was so strong, we agreed to co-sign the arrangements for his records. I stayed faithful to Alain for ten years, until 1983. I also accompanied him as the band leader for his concerts, including a particularly successful one at the Olympia Auditorium in Paris. All those artistic adventures with Alain allowed me to learn my job in the best way possible.”

In the second half of the 1970s, Gérard Salesses worked with the likes of Line Renaud and Drupi, while also taking care of the arrangements for Ennio Morricone’s hymn dedicated to the 1978 World Cup, ‘El Mundial’. In 1977, Salesses signed a contract as a pianist and arranger with Paul de Senneville’s record company, Delphine Productions. Initially, he mainly worked on disco productions by, amongst others, Terry Scott Jr., Hurricane Fifi, and Nadine. For their recordings of more traditional music genres, De Senneville’s producers usually relied on other arrangers, mainly Raymond Donnez and Hervé Roy. It was not long, though, before Salesses got a foot in the door as well:

“Shortly after I had taken up working for Delphine, I received a telephone call from Raymond – he was making an album for Jean-Claude Borelly, a trumpet soloist who was enjoying success in Japan, but he found himself so submerged in different recording projects that he couldn’t manage writing everything by himself. At his request, I took over the arrangements for two titles for Borelly. This was something else: an arrangement for a fifty-five piece orchestra! It felt as a litmus test, but I did my best. Raymond didn’t tell anything about my involvement to Borelly or anyone else, but simply conducted my scores. When I listened to the result, I couldn’t help feeling happy with the result. It gave me a huge confidence boost to learn that I actually could write for big orchestras too… and what was even better: sometime later, Raymond revealed it to Olivier Toussaint, De Senneville’s main producer. Toussaint was rather impressed. As a result, he decided to give it a go with me by assigning to me the arrangements of Richard Clayderman’s new LP for the German market, an album called ‘Rêveries’. Toussaint had picked classical pieces mixed with well-known contemporary melodies, which all had to be re-orchestrated in a style suiting Richard’s piano play. First, we recorded the rhythm parts, then the strings. As Richard was on a world tour while we did the album, I played the piano parts for him – all he had to do was follow the track I had prepared. The album sold a huge amount of copies, not just in Germany, but the world over. I was fortunate to be around at the right time. Now, Toussaint wanted me to work on all of Richard’s subsequent albums as well.”

Waiting for a plane to take them to Japan, the rhythm section of the Jean-Claude Borelly’s orchestra in 1980, from left to right: Claude Semard (guitarist), Gérard Salesses (pianist), Dino Latorre (drummer), Sauveur Mallia (bass guitar), and Georges Gasquy (synthesizer player). The guy standing behind them is their tour guide

Between 1979 and 2013, Salesses arranged literally dozens of albums for Richard Clayderman, always in close collaboration with producer Olivier Toussaint. The formula remained unchallenged: a romantic style of piano play with a mix of famous classical fragments and well-known pop melodies, all wrapped in lush, string-laden arrangements. While Clayderman’s star has somewhat faded in Western Europe, he is still very popular in the Far East. What is the explanation for the pianist’s continued success? Salesses: “Richard is the most supple artist I have ever known. Every year, he is on some tour somewhere in a faraway part of the world. His style of playing is very personal and recognisable. Audiences around the world come to his concerts to listen to this Clayderman approach, and not necessarily because they love the piano as an instrument per se. While he was away, we prepared his next record. Olivier Toussaint invented the concept, while I took care of the arrangements in close cooperation with Olivier. Like on the ‘Rêveries’ album, I always played the piano tracks to guide Richard through the sessions once he got back. He never discussed the material which we put before him, because he had complete trust in Olivier’s judgment as well as in mine. Richard’s popularity in China is beyond belief. Even today, children learn to play his pieces in school.”

Though Gérard Salesses loved writing arrangements, he has always felt uncomfortable standing up in front of an orchestra to conduct his scores. “No, I never really liked doing that. I think I was too shy. Of course, conducting a studio sessions with twelve string players for a disco song didn’t intimidate me, but these large orchestras… not my cup of tea. One time, Jean-Claude Borelly asked me to join him for a Japan tour at the very last moment – as it turned out, his conductor Régis Dupré was already booked for a string of concerts with Clayderman. I did it, but with a heavy heart. Later, when we recorded the orchestra for Clayderman in London’s CTS Studios, I asked Roger Berthier to take my place in front of the orchestra. I preferred being in the control room or simply at the piano. An eighty-piece orchestra, with all those classical musicians staring at you sceptically – no, I rather left the job to someone who had really been educated as a conductor!”

In the early 1980s, apart from his work on instrumental releases for Delphine Productions, Gérard Salesses penned arrangements for records by Charles Dumont, Fabienne Thibeault, and Peter & Sloane. Between 1982 and 2000, he also worked on several albums with Israeli-French songstress Rika Zaraï, for whom he composed some material as well. On stage, Salesses accompanied Zaraï as a pianist and conductor for several years. For the recording of her 1983 album ‘L’espoir’, which was intended for the Israeli market, a large choir was booked; the sessions took place at the studios of Paris’ Palais des Congrès. “I love writing for choirs and vocals,” Salesses smiles, “and I had a great time preparing that particular album. In the studio, after having finished recording the orchestra, Albert Benzaquen’s vocal group came in. Though they had already rehearsed the score, many of the singers had tears in their eyes when Benzaquen started conducting them through the first piece. Subsequently, Rika introduced me to the singers: “This is the guy who wrote your score.” Benzaquen asked me if I was Jewish. When I replied that I wasn’t, he couldn’t believe it. He wondered how I had managed writing so beautifully without having Jewish roots myself. I said I simply did my job to the utmost of my abilities, but he was still incredulous. Well, that’s music: harmonies are still harmonies, whatever our heritage is!”

Gérard Salesses (on the left) with Rika Zaraï and her editor Michel Lafon at the presentation of Zaraï’s book ‘Ma médecine naturelle’ (1985)

Meanwhile, Sylvie Vartan’s former manager Jean-Luc Azoulay had founded a record company of his own, AB Productions, for which he teamed up with Claude Berda. They commissioned Gérard Salesses to write compositions and arrangements for them. After an initial lack of success, AB managed a breakthrough with children’s repertoire. In 1980, the company contracted Dorothée, a presenter of children’s TV shows. Though Dorothée (Frédérique Hoschedé in real life) had never sung before, Azoulay managed to convince her. Salesses and Azoulay co-wrote two songs which were huge chart successes: ‘Rox et Rouky’ (1981) and ‘Hou! La menteuse’ (1982). Dorothée’s interpretation of ‘Rox et Rouky’ was the title song of the French version of the Disney animation film ‘The fox and the hound’. Before composing the tune, Salesses and Azoulay watched a pre-screening of the film at Disques Adès, Disney’s licence holder in France.

“When we got out of the movie theatre, Jean-Luc wasn’t interested in the cocktails or in the buffet which Lucien Adès had ordered for his guests. Instead, he said: “Gégé, let’s go tralalère”, by which he meant: let’s go write a song now! Without losing a second we rushed to his office, where he had a small synthesizer. Jean-Luc already had fragments of the lyrics and the melody in his head when we got there. That’s what’s so amazing about him! Together, we created the song for ‘Rox et Rouky’ in about ten minutes… a really simple, charming ditty. We called Dorothée to record the demo for Lucien Adès. When Lucien heard it, he gave the green light right away, commissioning us to make a proper recording. I wrote an orchestration, but when we were done recording it, Jean-Luc was somehow unhappy. He felt it now had become too sophisticated: “The magic of the demo is no longer there, Gégé!” Then, he rigorously took away all orchestral elements. In the end, all that was left was… my synthesizer! He was the producer, he had the last word – and the record sales proved him right. The success of ‘Rox et rouky’ was immense. Now that we had discovered a sound which fitted Dorothée, we continued in the same vein. For the next decade and a half, we released one album with her each year; always just with a synthetic backdrop. At the outset, I was a bit unhappy, not because I didn’t believe in the concept, but I didn’t see my musician friends as often in the studio as before. Some of them sneered at me about this new synth sound, in a good-humoured way, but still… Fortunately, there was still my work with Clayderman, which was done with a proper orchestra.”

Working with Jean-Luc Azoulay for the following thirty years, Salesses penned over 1,000 children’s songs for Dorothée, Emmanuelle Mottaz, and others, some of whom he also accompanied on stage. In 1987, on the newly privatised channel TF1, Dorothée became the host of her own children’s show, Club Dorothée, which included cartoon series and sitcoms directed at a young audience, alternated with songs and sketches which Dorothée performed in the studio with a combo of musicians. Salesses wrote all incidental music for Club Dorothée, which ran for ten years, as well as all background music used in the sitcoms and most of the theme tunes of the cartoons – mainly mangas imported from Japan. Moreover, Salesses also teamed up with Azoulay to compose song material for sitcom actors such as Hélène Rollès and Christophe Rippert.

Gérard Salesses (on the right) with Dorothée and chansonnier Hervé Vilard (± 1990)

For twenty years, Gérard Salesses practically spent all his time in the studio – recording music on weekdays and composing material with Jean-Luc Azoulay in the weekends. His private life was practically non-existent. Finally, after marrying in 2000, Salesses retraced his roots, moving to a small village on the outskirts of Toulouse three years later. By then, his workload had been brought back noticeably as well. “In the 1980s and 1990s, I usually came to the studio at 2PM with sound engineer Jean-Louis Maillé,” he recalls. “I don’t know how, but Jean-Louis did manage to maintain a family life… amazing, really, because we worked on our recordings until three in the morning, went to sleep, and the following afternoon we were back at the same time. In 1999, after Azoulay and Berda had decided to part ways, Jean-Luc came in with an ashen-faced expression to announce me: “The record market has imploded… we’ll have to stop releasing music altogether.” Many guys would have said: “What a disaster!”, but not me! I exclaimed: “Thank God for that!” It didn’t mean that I was out of work… not at all. The sitcoms such as ‘Les vacances d’amour’, for which I wrote all music, were still broadcast every day – and that was enough to keep me busy and happy.”

Though Salesses had had to practically stop working with regular pop artists due to his extensive workload in other fields, he wrote the arrangements to two albums by the Dutch-French singer Dave in the 1990s, as well as co-arranging the strings for Salvatore Adamo’s 2001 album ‘Par les temps qui courent’. Meanwhile, as a logical extension of his activities as a composer for television series, Salesses took up writing film music. In 1995, he made his debut in this field with Nicolas Vanier’s docudrama ‘L’enfant des neiges’. Since, he has written the music to several TV films and documentaries. In 2011, commissioned by director Jean Sagols, he composed the soundtrack to the movie ‘Je m’appelle Bernadette’, dedicated to Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, which was recorded with the Toulouse Philharmonic Orchestra.

“The funny thing of working on film music is that you can work on a particular scene for days on end, only to be told afterwards by a director: “Sorry, that’s not exactly what I was looking for.” After I had written the music to ‘L’enfant des neiges’, I called Nicolas Vanier to let him hear the result. In this case, if he had rejected it, we could have rewritten it as there were only two musicians working on the recording of this soundtrack: Roland Romanelli and myself. On the other hand, when working with a grand orchestra, such mistakes are out of the question. For a TV sitcom, I watch all the episodes attentively to put them to music – and for television I can rely in part on recurring music themes. For the sitcom ‘Les mystères de l’amour’, we have already recorded hundreds and hundreds of episodes. Over the years of working on this series, I have compiled a gigantic sound library of music pieces written specifically for this sitcom which I can fall back on. I love adding new material to that sound library. When I feel like it, I tell my sound engineer Jean-Pierre Soulagnet: “Come on, let’s spend two days on recording some new pieces of music.” When Azoulay is about to record a comic episode, I write some extra happy tunes. When some sad episodes are on their way because one of the characters dies, I am adding some completely sombre pieces. We add all of that to our sound library, and each time when it’s time to put music to a new episode, we can take advantage of the work we’ve already done in the past and grab a little tune from it.”

Gérard (to the right) with Olivier Toussaint in Sofia, Bulgaria, recording the orchestrations for Richard Clayderman’s album ‘Romantique’ (2012)

In 2013, Salesses made his debut as a composer of sacred music, writing an oratorio called ‘Sabathérat’. The commission came from the Universal-Jade music label who had released the album of Salesses’ soundtrack of ‘Je m’appelle Bernadette’ two years earlier. He was allowed carte blanche to write a new album in the same vein. Given this unique opportunity, Salesses was determined to make the most of it: “I didn’t want to make a meditation album with three synthesizers and a pan flute. One day, the idea came to me. Not far from where I live, there’s the hamlet of Sabathérat with a protestant chapel, which I drive past every day. I thought to myself: “Hmm, that name doesn’t sound too bad!” Subsequently, I listened to music by Era and Karl Jenkins. Jenkins’ compositions in religious style and based on choral music is nothing short of genius. Not long after, the music of this oratorio came to me… and I invented suitable lyrics. Having put together a demo, I went to Paris to meet those responsible at the Jade label. They were impressed when I presented my ideas! Without further ado, they assured me that they would support me in this ambitious project. Sabathérat was released in January 2013. I was astonished and rather proud when the Vatican made mention of it in their newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.”

Although the golden age of Dorothée was in the 1980s and 1990s, Salesses was the musical director of several reunion concerts of Club Dorothée in 2006 and 2010 in large concert arenas in front of thousands of – now adult – fans, many of whom took along their own children. The 2010 reunion tour was even topped off by a new album, ‘Dorothée 2010’. Incredibly, after over forty years, Jean-Luc Azoulay and Gérard Salesses still form an unbeatable team. Until this day, Azoulay is writing scenarios to sitcoms such as ‘Les mystères de l’amour’, to which Salesses composes the music. Meanwhile, the duo also co-wrote a total of five albums for Elsa Esnoult, the star actress of the series.

A ‘backroom boy’ if ever there was one, Gérard Salesses has been a music professional for over fifty years at the time of our interview. “… and my method of writing has hardly changed,” he adds with a smile. “I still work in the good old-fashioned way, with a pencil and a rubber. I consider myself an ouvrier, a workman – specialised in music, of course, but still a workman! I’ve been into music since I was eight years old. It’s the only thing I’m good at, it’s the only thing I’m interested in. Many colleagues of my generation have retired to focus on their family and hobbies, but I honestly wouldn’t know what else to do with my time. I intend to continue writing music as long as my health allows me to. Classical music or synth pop… as long as it’s well written, I’m happy! There are those in the business who disdain composing advertisement music. I can’t understand their way of thinking. If I am commissioned to write a thirty-second jingle, I will take the job and do it well. You can still find me in my home studio almost daily – and when I’m not in my studio, I’m most probably sitting at the piano. Working in the music business, I’ve only had good experiences. To be honest, I can’t say the same about my private life! I got married when I was fifty; my wife is much younger than me and my children are twenty and sixteen years old. Nowadays, my son is working for Azoulay as an assistant producer, while my daughter is an aspiring dancer. Living around these youngsters prevents me from growing old. To me, my children are an inspiration to go on – I want to keep up with them… I want them to be proud of me!”

Gérard Salesses at work in his home studio: June 2020

Gérard Salesses in the Eurovision Song Contest
For twenty years, between 1959 and 1979, the Principality of Monaco was a steady participant in the Eurovision Song Contest, recruiting the artists taking part on behalf of their broadcaster TMC – mainly – from France. For the last three editions of the festival in the 1970s, the Monegasque broadcaster worked in partnership with record company Disc’AZ. This resulted in entries performed by Michèle Torr, Caline & Olivier Toussaint, and Laurent Vaguener respectively. Strikingly, all three of these songs were co-signed by Jean Albertini, one of the leading figures at Disc’AZ, and Paul de Senneville, managing director at Delphine Productions, a production company closely tied to Disc’AZ. In 1977 and 1978, the formula was rather successful, as ‘Une petite Française’ and ‘Les jardins de Monaco’ both finished in fourth place. Both of these entries were arranged and conducted by Yvon Rioland. In 1979 – incidentally the last time Monaco took part in the contest until the 2004 edition –, when the microstate took part with ‘Notre vie c’est la musique’, Rioland did not play a part; the arrangement was taken care of by Gérard Salesses instead. As it turns out, Salesses was involved in this Eurovision project from the very outset.

“In the last months of 1978, Delphine Productions opened its new studio in Paris. Now that everything was ready, Paul de Senneville wanted the studio to be given a proper test. In his capacity as artistic director at Delphine, Jean Baudlot (the real name of Laurent Vaguener – BT) was commissioned to record an album with Terry Scott Jr., an English guy who sang rock and disco. Jean and I wrote all music and I took care of the arrangements. Though the budget we had been given was somewhat tight, Jean and I had a great time in this wonderful, state-of-the-art studio. We recorded the songs we wanted and used the music we liked, mostly in symphonic rock style. The main thing, however, was to explore all possibilities open to us. We were really excited: “We’ve got to try all microphones!”, that was the spirit in which we were working… like children in a sweetshop. The album, ‘Survivor’, released early in 1979, met with limited success, but Jean and I didn’t really care, because, artistically speaking, we were so happy with the result.”

“While we were doing the album, Jean and I wrote one song after the other. During the sessions, we were given notice that Paul de Senneville was looking for a new Eurovision entry for Monaco. Thanks to his involvement with Jean Albertini at Disc’AZ, he practically had the monopoly on Monaco’s Eurovision entry. Because Jean Baudlot and I were working together so fruitfully on the Terry Scott LP, we decided to make an attempt together. Now, Jean is a guitarist and producer, but a really good songwriter too. He composed ‘A toi’ for Joe Dassin, a great song. For our Eurovision tune, Jean had the initial idea. Thereupon, I sat down at the piano with him standing next to me – and I played some bits and pieces, attempting to put the various fragments and ideas together to make one song. Working together in that manner, we composed the music. It was a disco track. The lyrics, which were in English, were Jean’s work. At that stage, the title was ‘Sing’. Jean himself sang the demo which we put together. This demo was submitted by De Senneville and Albertini to the Eurovision committee at Télévision Monte-Carlo as a potential entry for the festival… and to our excitement, our song was the one which was picked!”

“The entry having been chosen, the first matter to be taken care of was finding a lyricist who would create a French version. It wasn’t permitted to sing in English when representing Monaco in Eurovision. Didier Barbelivien did a great job on that. This title, ‘Notre vie c’est la musique’ (or in English: ‘Music is our life’ – BT), was his idea – a really clever line. Then, the song was co-signed by Jean Albertini and Paul de Senneville. They were so powerful that they could practically do whatever they liked… and in fact, while the names of Baudlot and Barbelivien were mentioned alongside Albertini and De Senneville, I wasn’t credited as a songwriter at all. That’s how the music industry works sometimes! As a consolation, I had to content myself with being named as the only arranger of the song – which was nothing but the truth, by the way, because I had written it alone. From a financial point of view, being the sole arranger was quite interesting, because I didn’t have to share that part of the royalties with anyone else.”

Single release of ‘Notre vie c’est la musique’. The B side, ‘Israël connection’, is an instrumental synth piece played by Gérard Salesses

“The last remaining question was: who would get to sing it? Baudlot and I decided to organise a casting. We auditioned several singers. Mike Shannon was one, the guy who used to be the lead singer in Les Chats Sauvages in the 1960s. He sang really well. Another singer who showed up was Tony Pacino, the guitarist in Claude François’ band. Tony aspired to be a disco singer at the time. But in the end the decision was taken to keep everything within the ‘Delphine family’, so to speak. Jean had done the demo version – and at some point he said: “I’m going to do this myself.” He used a pseudonym, Laurent Vaguener. I don’t know if he was right to do it, but he did it… Obviously, we could have found a real singer for the song.”

“It’s true that I never really liked being on stage, but I looked forward to the prospect of going to Israel. That year, the Eurovision Song Contest was held in Jerusalem. A one-week holiday in Israel wasn’t something I’d want to have missed! The work to be done consisted of three rehearsals and a concert… almost nothing, certainly when compared to the gruelling workload in the Parisian record studios. All my friends of Delphine Productions were there – even Olivier Toussaint came along. In those years, we were like a clan. We were together in the studio all the time. In Jerusalem, we also had the three singers with us who had done the backing vocals for the choruses in the studio (Marcel Engel and Georges & Michel Costa – BT). Because we had the right to bring five backing musicians in total, we decided to ask Raoul Duflot and Jacky Tricoire to join us too. Raoul was the pianist who had done the sessions and Jacky was a guitarist who was really good at playing disco riffs. With them, we could be pretty sure we would be able to recreate the same sound as in the studio version. It was reassuring to have them with us, and pleasant at the same time – Raoul and Jacky both were good friends.”

“Ah, we had a great time in Israel! We stayed in the Hilton, an immensely luxurious place. Paul de Senneville had allowed me to take my then-girlfriend with me. On our free day, we rented a car. Raoul and Jacky were with us. We drove south into the Negev Desert and saw the Dead Sea. In the Negev, we were halted at several checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers, who told us it would be unwise to travel too far into the desert – and, at the last roadblock, they strongly advised us to go back, but we were having a good time and threw caution to the winds. Of course, we ran into trouble. At some point, our vehicle had a flat tire. Before long, we were picked up by soldiers in a military jeep who took us straight back to the hotel. To our amazement, they drove at full speed – through the desert, but when we entered a little village where children were playing in the streets, they didn’t slow down one bit. Why was that? I asked one of the soldiers… and he told us the inhabitants of this village weren’t Jewish and there was the risk that we would be taken under fire by snipers. That made me feel extremely intimidated. Half an hour before, we had driven through that village at a leisurely speed, completely carefree. Now I also understood why these soldiers were armed to the teeth. We had underestimated the situation in Israel. This was a country which was in a state of war. It was quite an adventure. I’d never been so scared in my life!”

“I must have been nervous for the first rehearsal, but that’s part of my character. Even nowadays, having overseen thousands of studio recordings over the last five decades, I’m nervous about every session I do. Ageing hasn’t helped making me more relaxed on that score. As expected, there was very little to worry about. The orchestra consisted of Israel’s best musicians, who did a sterling job. When I arrived, they had already been rehearsing with their own conductor for weeks. The score had been sent to Jerusalem weeks before we came over. For the performance, we had in mind to have Jacky Tricoire and Raoul Duflot on stage, but for some reason that wasn’t possible – and they had to play from the orchestra pit. It was probably done at the request of the sound engineers. For them, it was easier to get the sound of the guitar and the piano right if Jacky and Raoul were sitting with the orchestra. The rehearsals were flawless. Right from the start, the orchestra managed to reproduce the disco feel we were looking for.”

Gérard Salesses (note how his name was misspelled by the Israelis) taking his bow to the audience in Jerusalem’s International Convention Centre at the 1979 Eurovision Song Contest

“This Eurovision performance may very well have been the first time that I conducted an orchestra outside the studio. I’ve never been eager to conduct orchestras, not even in the studio… but this one Eurovision song was easy. The arrangement was exactly the same as in the session which I had also conducted. In Jerusalem, a device had been built into the conductor’s desk which provided a visual click to indicate the tempo. There was a small screen where the correct tempo was indicated. Nowadays, the click would be in your headphones, but it was basically the same thing. Absolutely nothing could go wrong. I didn’t really conduct the orchestra… I just indicated the tempo to the players. There was no reason to use the left hand to cue the various sections of the orchestra. It was just a matter of one, two, three – and everyone basically had to fall in from the start. The orchestration was pretty straightforward; droit devant, as we say in French. All of these guys in the orchestra had their score in front of them – and they just had to follow my tempo. In light-entertainment music, some arrangers try to conduct an orchestra as if they’re playing a classical symphony, but basically none of them has been trained as a conductor. Though I have nothing against it, they’re trying to turn something which is perfectly simple and straightforward into a show. The one exception I can think of is Jean-Claude Petit. He’s an excellent conductor who knows exactly what he’s doing, but all the others, each in their own way, don’t do much more than indicating the tempo.”

“As anyone taking part in a song contest, we were hoping to win… and why not? The song had an evocative title, and it was happy, upbeat, and pretty contemporary. However, there’s no telling what juries will like. Then, in the voting, unfortunately, we didn’t do too well (picking up just twelve votes and finishing sixteenth among nineteen participating countries – BT). I don’t remember feeling dejected at all. There wasn’t too much pressure on us. For Jean Baudlot, having a career as a performer wasn’t an ambition. That’s something I know for a fact. He was under contract at Delphine as a producer, working behind the scenes on all kinds of recording projects. Ça, c’était son truc, that’s what he liked doing. In subsequent years, he contributed to lots of Richard Clayderman albums, teaming up with Olivier Toussaint, Paul de Senneville, and me. Looking back, I wonder why Jean insisted on singing the song himself. It wasn’t that he didn’t manage to hit the notes. Jean’s voice is very reliable, very steady, but is it a nice voice to listen to? Well, that’s not up to me to judge…”

“A couple of years ago, somebody showed me the YouTube video of our Eurovision performance. To be honest with you, I had completely forgotten about it! Suddenly, I saw myself walking onto the stage with that funny moustache – and I rather liked what I heard. The orchestra, the song itself: not too bad, not bad at all! Then, all the other memories came back to me… writing the song with Jean, the casting, our excursion into the Negev Desert. The Eurovision Song Contest is a beautiful memory, but it was little more than a very pleasant interlude. Our stay in Jerusalem came in the middle of all kinds of recording projects we were working on in Paris. When we came back, it was straight back into the studio. There was not much reason to look back on it much longer, as there were lots of other things to do. No, I wouldn’t have taken more pride in doing Eurovision if I had defended the colours of France instead of Monte Carlo. Conducting the orchestra in Israel was a job I did because my record company had asked me to – an interesting job, but, having said that, I loved my work. As long as I was occupied with music, I was happy. That’s also why I couldn’t care less about Eurovision the way it has become nowadays. Back then, when everything was 100% live, it was a marvellous event to be involved in!”

Laurent Vaguener performing ‘Notre vie c’est la musique’ on the Eurovision stage in Jerusalem

Other artists on Gérard Salesses
So far, we have not gathered comments of other artists who worked with Gérard Salesses.

Links & sources
  • Bas Tukker did an interview with Gérard Salesses, June 2020.
  • Thanks due to Serge Elhaïk, who allowed me to use information from the article he wrote about Gérard Salesses, which can be found on pg. 1800-1820 in his monumental book about French arrangers: ‘Les arrangeurs de la chanson française’, Ed. Textuel: Paris, 2018.
  • A French radio interview with Gérard Salesses, focusing on his activities as a composer for French sitcoms can be accessed by clicking this link.
  • Photos courtesy of Gérard Salesses, Cees Pels, and Ferry van der Zant.
  • Thanks due to Edwin van Gorp for proofreading the manuscript and putting the article online.

  

Songs conducted
1979: Notre vie c'est la musique