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Henri Salvador, 1917 - 2008

French singer, songwriter forged multifaceted career

February 14, 2008|Adam Bernstein | Washington Post

Henri Salvador, one of France's most enduring and multi-talented entertainers, whose broad musical range included prewar chansons, whispery bossa nova, children's favorites and gimmicky rock 'n' roll tunes, died of an aneurysm Wednesday at his home in Paris. He was 90.

During a 70-year career, Salvador attained popularity as a singer, songwriter, dancer, pantomime artist and television personality.

Although he appeared in several movies -- including early musical shorts in blackface -- he said his mixed racial heritage was a barrier to becoming a film star. Salvador was a native of French Guiana, and his parents were of Spanish and indigenous Caribbean descent.

He grew up in Paris and began his career as a guitarist in clubs and orchestras in the 1930s. He exposed French audiences to bossa nova and early rock sounds after tours in South America in the 1940s and the United States in the '50s.

His venture into rock was done for humor as much as anything. He formed the Original Rock and Roll Boys with songwriter Boris Vian and composer-pianist Michel Legrand and introduced such hit songs as "Le Blues du Dentiste" and "Rock and Roll Mops."

Salvador's whimsical touch was further underscored with such 1960s releases as the novelty songs "Juanita Banana" and "Le Lion Est Mort Ce Soir" (a version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight").

There were also many television appearances that highlighted the juxtaposition of Salvador's graceful physique and his long face, excitable personality and huge laugh.

He made several records in the 1970s that accented his long-standing appeal to children, including one based on the Disney film "The Aristocats." Other albums followed, paying homage to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Robin Hood" and "Pinocchio."

By the early 1980s, Salvador had re-energized his career with a series of new recordings and high-profile live appearances, including a concert with the celebrated French jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani.

Salvador's 2000 album "Chambre Avec Vue" -- released in the U.S. two years later as "Room With a View" -- showcased his skillful interpretations of bossa nova.

Henri Gabriel Salvador was born July 18, 1917, in Cayenne, French Guiana, where his father was a tax collector. He was drawn to music at 12 after a cousin played records of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

After a brief army stint, he won a position in Ray Ventura's popular band Les Collegiens de Paris in 1942 as a guitarist, singer and comedian.

Les Collegiens went on a three-year tour of South America to escape the Vichy regime that ruled after France fell to the Nazis, and during that time Salvador picked up composition skills from a bandmate.

He returned to Paris in 1945 and freelanced actively on stage and records. He had many pop hits as a singer and songwriter, including "Parce Que Ca Me Donne du Courage" and "Le Portrait de Tante Caroline."

In 1951, he met Vian, an author, jazz musician and composer of protest music, and they bonded over a love of jokes and imitations.

Salvador once said they spent the next eight years in a fruitful working relationship that led to hundreds of songs in styles as varied as blues, beguines and the politically inspired, including "Marche Arriere" (Backward March) and "Faut Rigoler" ("One Has to Laugh").

Vian died of a heart condition in 1959. The next year, Salvador and his second wife, Jacqueline Garabedian, formed the recording label Disques Salvador. She also urged him to work in television specials, which made him more of a household presence. She died in 1976.

In 2004, he received the French Legion of Honor.

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