'Les grand orchestres' of the fifties
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Nowadays it has become more of a rarity or special event when a pop-singer or rockartist is backed up by a big orchestra (think Robbie Williams or Michael Bubblé). Even the Eurovision banned the orchestra for being to expensive. And of course programming a computer is always cheaper and easier then arranging a whole score and getting it well rehearsed with 15 person’s or more. Younger generations may even regard the use of an orchestra a bit stuffy. Nowadays you’ll find (compilation)albums of these artists gathered under ‘light music’. But in the two decades just after WW2 it was the orchestral arrangers that stood at the basis of European popmusic. Influenced by the big band composers from the US, which came to Europe during the war as entertainment for the troops, European composers began to create their own blend of orchestral music. In the fifties their expertise was combined with the first generation of pop-singers. One of the countries that this coöp occured was France. Flip over early E.P.’s from Aznavour, Montand, Greco, Brel or Piaf and you’ll find mentioned that they were accompanied by [name] and his orchestra. But they were more then just the band. Some of them also performed as exclusive musical director for these young chansonniers. In this article we take you back to those roaring fifties and take a closer look at four of the most prominent orchest-leaders, Paul Mauriat, Frank Pourcell, Raymond Lefèbre and André Popp. With the 1958 hit ‘Chariot’ (Internationally better known as ‘I will follow him’) as key track.

Paul Mauriat
Mauriat grew up in Marseilles and began leading his own band during the Second World War. In the 1950s he became musical director to at least two well-known French singers, Charles Aznavour and Maurice Chevalier, touring with them respectively. In 1957, Mauriat released his first EP Paul Mauriat, a four track RGM release. He wrote his first song with André Pascal. In 1958 they were prizewinners in the Coq d'or De La Chanson Française with Rendez-vous au Lavendou. Using the pseudonym of Del Roma, Mauriat was to have his first international hit with ‘Chariot’, which he wrote in collaboration with friends Franck Pourcel (co-composer), Jacques Plante (French lyrics) and Raymond Lefèvre (orchestrator). Originally written for Petula Clark the song was re-recorded as ‘I Will Follow Him’ by Little Peggy March and became #1 on the Billboard charts for 3 weeks.

Between 1959-1964 Mauriat recorded several albums on the Bel-Air record label under the name Paul Mauriat et Son Orchestre, as well as using the various pseudonyms of Richard Audrey, Nico Papadopoulos, Eduardo Ruo and Willy Twist, to better reflect the international flavour of his recordings. During this period, Mauriat also released several recordings with Les Satellites, where he creatively arranged vocal backing harmony for such albums as ‘Slow Rock and Twist’ (1961) and ‘A Malypense’ (1962). Between 1967 and 1972 he wrote a lot of songs for Mireille Mathieu; ‘Mon Credo’ (1,335,000 copies sold), ‘Viens dans ma rue’ and ‘Geant’, etc. and contributed 130 song arrangements for Charles Aznavour.

Like most of these composers Mauriat’s role in pop changed when popular music like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones appeared. Most of them turned to composing for movie soundtracks during the seventies. Eventually Mauriat gave his final performance in 1998 in Osaka, Japan.

Frank Pourcell
Also born in Marseille, Pourcel's father started to teach him music at the age of six. Later Pourcel studied violin at the Conservatoire in Marseille, led several jazz ensembles, including the French Fiddlers, and spent a year in Paris at the Conservatoire.

By 1931 he was working as a violinist at the Théâtre des Variétés in Marseille. He then became the musical director for Yves Montand and Lucienne Boyer, with whom he went on a world tour. He emigrated to the United States in 1952, but returned to France the following year to record ‘Blue Tango’ and the follow up ‘Limelight’. In 1954 Pourcel recorded his first album on the Pathé-Marconi record label, with whom he would record a total of nine albums in a three year period. In 1956 he recorded his version of ‘Only You’. Between 1956 and 1972 he was the conductor for France at the Eurovision Song Contest.

By 1958 Pourcel commenced recording classical music. His series of Pages Célèbres led to him conduct the London Symphony Orchestra, The Society of Concerts for the Conservatoire, The BBC Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, and the Lamoureux Orchestra at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. In 1962 he co-composed with Paul Mauriat and Raymond Lefèvre the hit, ‘Chariot’. Pourcel recorded until 1995 with EMI. He died on 12 November 2000 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, at the age of 87, from Parkinson's disease.

Raymond Lefèvre
Born in Calais, he was accepted at the Paris Conservatory at 17 years old. During the early 1950s he played the piano for the Franck Pourcel orchestra. In 1953 he played the piano at the Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles. He started his musical career in 1956 on the Barclay label and recorded his debut album in the same year. He worked in the French television programs Musicorama (1950s) and Palmarés des Chansons (1965, 1966, 1967) accompanying famous artists as Dalida, Claude Francois, Richard Anthony, with his own orchestra.

His recording of ‘The Day the Rains Came’ was a best seller in the United States in 1958. The song ‘Ame Caline’ (Soul Coaxin') became an international hit in 1968 and ‘La La La (He Gives Me Love)’ was a minor hit in 1968 in Canada and the United States. In 1969 his recording of ‘La Reine de Saba’ (Queen of Sheba) became a big hit in Japan. He also turned to soundtracks during the seventies being most famed for the work he did for the Louis de Funès movies.

André Popp
André Charles Jean Popp (born 19 February 1924) was born in Fontenay-le-Comte, Vendée, he started his career as a church organist, filling the place of his father who had been called up to serve in World War II in 1939. Popp studied music at the Saint Joseph Institute. In the 1960s, he co-wrote (with Pierre Cour) two songs for the Eurovision Song Contest — ‘Tom Pillibi’, which won the competition for France in 1960, and ‘L'amour est bleu’ (Love is Blue) which came fourth for Luxembourg in 1967, but which later became a Number one hit in the US for Paul Mauriat. During this time he was the arranger for many top French singers such as Juliette Greco. He worked for many years for French radio. Popp is the composer of ‘Piccolo, Sax and Co’, a musical tale for children intended as a guide to the instruments of the orchestra and the rudiments of harmony.
In 1957, Popp released ‘Delirium in Hi-Fi’ (originally titled ‘Elsa Popping et sa musique sidérante’), a collaboration with Pierre Fatosme, an experiment in the recording techniques of the time.


Although above composers stood at the forefront of orchestral pop musique it was not to them pick the fruits of their labour. As said they would continue into the easy listening segment and be heralded in the light-jazzy music segment. Their heirs were called Francis Lai, Michel Legrand, Bert Kaempfert and Ennio Morricone (amongst others) who would have chart succes with orchestral compositions, solo and with pop-singers, in the sixties and seventies. The question is if without above foursome they would have the opportunity to cross over so easily between light music and pop. We'll finish with below clip of Petula Clark singing that first 1958 composition 'Chariot' and let you conclude for yourself.

PS. Thanks to André Emílio from Brazil for opting the original idea for this feature article.