Richard Anthony, “le pere tranquille du twist” (“the quiet father of the twist”) has died in France aged 77, having made 600 recordings and sold 50 million records.
Born Ricardo Btesh to a Jewish father of Syrian origin who had become a prosperous textile merchant in Cairo, Richard spent a cossetted childhood in Egypt, until the rise of nationalism forced his parents into exile; first in Argentina, then in England. He was educated at the prestigious Brighton College, where he became a soloist in the school choir, and had his first taste of fame when, at the age of eleven, he was presented on television to Field-Marshal Montgomery. Aged 13, he emigrated with his parents to France, where he sat his baccalaureat and started to study law. However, he refused to follow them to Milan; preferring to stay in Paris with Michelle, whom he had met at the lycee, and who became his wife (the first of three).
He sold fridges for a living but played the saxophone in jazz clubs, particularly Le Vieux Colombier, whose proprietor was Claude Wolf, the husband of Petula Clark.
Passionate about Anglo-Saxon pop, he determined (literally, as it turned out) to give it a French twist. So he recorded ‘You Are My Destiny’ by Paul Anka and ‘Peggy Sue’ by Buddy Holly in French, and hawked it round record companies under a false identity. Bowled over by their reception of it, he adopted the stage name Richard Anthony and signed for Columbia, unfortunately to sink without trace. Until his third 45 rpm, ‘Nouvelle Vague’ (1959), a rehash of ‘Three Cool Cats’ by the Coasters, which sold half a million copies.
This triggered the statutory pop star lifestyle: jetting between London and Paris and notching up hit after hit. In 1962, his signature success, ‘J’entends siffler le train’ (‘I can hear the train whistle’) triumphed on both sides of the Channel. His greatest ever hit in France, it topped the charts for 21 weeks, and was voted ‘le tube de l’ete’ (the hit of the summer). This slow fox-trot marked the end of the Algerian war, and, in the ears of many young conscripts, recalled the trains which had taken them to “la sale guerre” (“ the filthy war”).
This was followed in 1963 by the no.1 ‘Itsy Bitsy Petit Bikini’ (‘Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’), with a clip by Claude (‘Un Homme et une Femme’) Lelouch.
It was the height of the ye-ye boom: a phrase purloined by French sociologist Edgar Morin (Le Monde, 7.7.63) from the Beatles song ‘She Loves You’ (‘yeah, yeah, yeah’) to describe the odd new phenomenon of French ‘pop’. Richard Anthony and his leading rival, Johnny Hallyday, slogged it out on the charts and in the concert-hall, sometimes literally as hordes of fans came to blows and wrecked the place. Actually, they were the best of friends
By this time notching up 300 ‘galas’ a year, Anthony looked for a more efficient way of getting about, took his pilot’s licence, and bought a private plane – the first singer ever to do so. Jetting regularly between Paris and Swinging London, he became close friends with the Beatles, whom he often bumped into at Abbey Road Studios while they all stayed at the Hilton. One evening, after an exhausting day in the recording studio, he invited Paul for a bite. During the meal, a porter came up with several messages from Richard’s wife. The result was ‘Michelle’: the sixth track on side one of Rubber Soul (1965). The Beatles wanted Richard Anthony to sing it, but he refused, insisting, rightly, that singing the refrain in French would net them huge sales in France.
The seventies saw the beginning of a long desert period for Anthony. Like all the ye-ye’s, he suffered a sharp fall in record sales with the rise of ‘disco’. “Du jour au lendemain on est devenu ringard” (“Overnight we’ve become old-fashioned”). Like all successful French singers of the period, he was experiencing mounting pressure from ‘le fisc’, the tax man, was pursued for concealing revenue, and, in 1983, was eventually imprisoned until released four days later on payment of bail by fans.
In 1993 EMI released an album of 300 re-issues of his songs which won a triple gold disc and re-ignited his desire to perform. Asked if he got bored repeating “J’entends siffler le train’ he replied, “If I didn’t I’d be lynched”. He published his autobiography, Il Faut Croire aux Etoiles (Believe in the Stars) in 1997, and, in 1998, celebrated his 40 year career at the Zenith, one of the largest stadia in Paris. In 2006, aged 68, he gave 30 concerts a year, toured regularly, and published the second volume of his autobiography, Quand On Choisit la Liberte (When You Choose Freedom). He was made Officier des Arts et des Lettres in 2011, and gave a final concert to a packed Olympia in 2012. He died on 22 April at Pergomas in the Alpes Maritimes, from cancer.
Richard Anthony had 17 hits and 21 number 1’s, the only French singer ever to do so. He spoke six languages, and is virtually the only French singer to have had number 1’s in Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, Argentina, Lebanon, and even Iran. He was not a political singer, but sometimes touched on the subject with songs like ‘Inch’Allah’, or ‘Le Deserteur’ (‘The Deserter’).
Copyright May 2015 Pat Harvey