Think Sacha Distel and sleazy 1970s images of Miss World competition judge and the somewhat corny Sacha Distel show on the BBC might immediately spring to mind to those of a certain age. Or perhaps, the hit single, ‘Raindrops keep falling on my head’, where Sacha mania reached its zenith among English-speaking women. All these stereotypes exist and are undoubtedly true, but there is another, more serious side to the Distel persona. He was brought up in a musical family, his mother a professional pianist of french-Jewish heritage and his father a Russian emigré, while his uncle, Ray Ventura, was in fact a jazz trumpeter who introduced the young Sacha to the sounds of Dizzie Gillespie. The young Parisian developed a passion for jazz guitar, cutting a series of acclaimed French jazz albums which have started to be re-issued, where Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery were his major influences, and he started his professional life in this vein, before gradually making the transition to singer, or to be more precise ‘crooner’. This pairing of albums captures Distel in early crooner career from the beginning of the 1960s when his jazz credentials were still very much to the fore and he was backed by Alain Goraguer (the very same conductor and arranger for early jazz period Serge Gainsbourg) and Claude Bolling (pianist, conductor and disciple of Duke Ellington), while the second saw Sacha recording in New York with the very same orchestra under Ray Ellis that backed Billie Holiday on ‘Lady in Satin’ and Ella Fitzgerald.
The first is almost entirely French language material with playful words on, ‘Calin Calinette’ (Hugs), but the best is reserved for an early excursion into Brazilian music, pre-dating the bossa nova craze with some tasty samba-jazz on ‘Les Variocas (elles sont si belles les cariocas)’ (The women of Rio: they are so beautiful the women of Rio). Nothing too taxing here, but Distel possessed a melodic voice and had clearly listened to the key American singers of the era from Tony Bennett to Frank Sinatra.
A second album was aimed at a wider international market, sung in English, and it is worth noting that one of Distel’s greatest achievements was to have composed ‘The Good Life’, which has become something of a jazz standard, which Betty Carter among others regularly performed. Rounding off matters is a bonus 7″ EP from 1959 that includes his signature song, ‘Scoubadou’. Well worth checking out and surprisingly swinging versions backed by two crack jazz-inflected big bands. In his native France, he is revered both as a singer and actor. Beautifully recreated facsimile of original album covers back and front grace the lavish gatefold sleeve and needless to say inside are various photos of the highly photogenic Sacha, along with just some of his legion of lady friends. Sacha Distel received the Légion D’Honneur for services to the French nation in 1997.