Gilbert Bécaud ‘Anthologie 1953-2002’ 20 CD box set (Warner France) 4/5

The French do not do things by half measures and so it proves with this titanic box set, the size of a substantial vinyl edition with a separate illustrated book and the individual CDs contained in a neat pocket wallet folder (‘Italian style’ according to the French notes) with original album recordings as well as a plethoras of extras including unreleased studio and live performances from throughout his illustrious career.
A non-French public may well question who exactly Gilbert Bécaud was and, unlike say Yves Montand, he did not enjoy the same level of international status, although he did enjoy one UK pop hit with, ‘A little love and understanding’. Indeed several of his songs will be more familiar in their translated versions and Bécaud was a gifted songwriter first and a singer second in the early stages of his career. That, however, would be to vastly underestimate his importance to a French-speaking public of the 1950s and 1960s who grew up listening to his music, and stayed loyal to him thereafter.
Bécaud was born in 1927 in the south-east port of Toulon and was a child prodigy on the piano aged nine. His family then settled in Paris and he became professionally linked to the world of music as a composer of film music under the pseudonym of François Bécaud. In 1953 he made his debut as a solo performer at the Olympia music hall in Paris, recording two singles, ‘Mes mains’ and ‘Les croix’, and scored his first hit with ‘Monsieur pointu’ which became something of a signature tune for him. Although initially only a support act and one-time manager of Edith Piaf and prior to that pianist of Piaf’s then husband, Jacques Pills, Bécaud was electrifying in live performance and, by February 1955, was a star in his own right. Thus the mythical sobriquet of, ‘Monsieur 100,000 volts’ was born and remained with him throughout his career. His legion of fans were largely young girls who wore the then in-vogue bobbysox and, in this respect, he played a similar role to the young Frank Sinatra as a teenage idol.

That said, Bécaud was no overnight teenage sensation who would rapidly disappear and was a versatile artist. In 1956 he began an acting career, with the director Marcel Carné (of ‘Les enfants du paradis’/’The children of Paradise’ fame) and, by 1960, Bécaud had become one of the most popular of French singers, and this at a time when Brassens ruled supreme, and both Ferré and Brel were emerging as genuine talents. In 1960, Bécaud was awarded the prestigious Grand Prix du Disque and composed a Christmas Cantata. The following year, he topped the French charts with his immortal, ‘Et maintenant?’ (translated into ‘What my love?’ in its English language version), In 1962 he was composing his very first opera, ‘Opéra D’Aran’ (included here), which proved to be a commercial and critical success, and moreover was performed under the esteemed conductor Georges Prêtre, who worked with Maria Callas among others. Another major hit followed in 1963 with, ‘Un dimanche à Orly’.

A new and significant challenge to Bécaud and the singers of his generation arrived with the pop and rock revolution from across the Channel and was known in France as ‘Yé-Yé’. The singer was astute enough to adapt and move with the times, composing hit songs for a younger generation such as ‘Salut les copains’ for Richard Anthony and, eventually, for Eddy Mitchell, both of whom typically adopted anglophone names to appear more hip to the new sounds and younger generation who craved songs everything from the English-speaking world. Johnny Halliday was another such figure. Bécaud remained loyal to the Olympia venue which assured and facilitated his solo success, and between 1954 and 1997 he performed there no less than thirty times, a record that has yet to be beaten.

Over the year Gilbert Bécaud clocked up numerous hits and they are all included here with ‘L’important, c’est la rose’, ‘La solitude, ça n’existe pas’, ‘L’indifférence’, reflecting the contrasting moods of the human condition and comfortably fitting into a tradition that contemporaries such as Charles Aznavour had laid down.

Numerous ‘Best of’ packages have surfaced in the fifteen years since Gilbert Bécaud’s death in 2001, notably the 2011 ‘Essential’ which is substantial in its own right with 12 CDs and arguably a more informative booklet, and these truncated compilations may be a more realistic and affordable option for those starting off with an exploration of the French chanson tradition. This box set, however, towers above anything else out there for the serious collector with the final CD devoted to live recordings from l’Olympia between 1955 and 1983, a curiosity of singing and storytelling combined on, ‘Gilbert raconte et Bécaud chante’. One minor presentation quibble and a couple of discographical omissions of note. It is a pity that nowhere in the package can one find the original album covers from the 78s, 45s and LPs and that would certainly have enhanced the authenticity of the project, as would some of the most endearing lyrics being printed out for posterity. The remix ‘Suite’ is best ignored while the impressive ‘1973 live’ concert and the 1964 re-orchestrated versions of his early hits have been left off this anthology which Bécaud’s ‘inconditionnels’ (‘devotees’) would undoubtedly balk at. Otherwise, required listening for fans of French chanson and for long-time Bécaud fans, a feast of music to treasure.

Tim Stenhouse