Following his death in July 2004, the Guardian wrote of Serge Reggiani that he was ‘one of the last of the monstres sacres of French chanson‘and described him as ‘slightly built, with the face of a melancholy puppy’. This somewhat tormented appearance endeared him to thousands; spanning the generations, and captivating the angry young protesters of ’68 as well as their broody existentialist parents. For someone who had not the slightest intention of becoming a singer, his doubly triumphant career as a star of stage and screen (84 films) and of chanson has few equals.
Serge Reggiani sings ‘Je t’aime’, preceded by the poem Le Pont Mirabeau by Guillaume Apollinaire.
Serge Reggiani was born on 2nd May 1922 in Reggio Emilia, Northern Italy. His father, an ardent opponent of Mussolini and the Fascist regime, fled Italy for France in 1930, and established a barber shop. Out of filial duty the young Serge assisted him until 1937, when he entered the Conservatoire des Arts Cinematographiques. Shortly afterwards he was spotted by Jean Cocteau, who gave him a part in his play ‘Les Parents Terribles’ (1938). It was the prelude to a long dramatic career, nurtured by studies at the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique (1939), and issuing in some of the most illustrious French films ever made, including Les Portes de la Nuit , Marcel Carne, 1946; La Ronde , Max Ophuls, 1950; Casque d’Or, Jacques Becker, 1952; Le Doulos, Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962 and Le Leopard, Luchino Visconti, 1963. He became a naturalised French citizen in 1948.
In 1964 Reggiani was approached by the legendary Jacques Canetti, the man who had discovered Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel, whom he had met at a party thrown by Simone Signoret, his co-star in Casque d’Or. Canetti, a compulsive collector, was on the look-out for someone who could bring to life his hoard of unpublished songs by Boris Vian, the recently-deceased denizen of St Germain-des-Pres. Thinking it was a joke, Serge laughingly replied, “Why not?”, and the result, an album called ‘Serge Reggiani chante Boris Vian’ shot to success and, in 1965, was awarded the prestigious Prix de L’Academie Charles Cros.
Serge Reggiani sings Le Deserteur by Boris Vian preceded by the poem ‘Le Dormeur du Val’ by Arthur Rimbaud.
Still diffident, as he had absolutely no desire to become a singer, he was even more so when, in the interests of promoting the album, Canetti insisted that he sing extracts from it on television, and, even worse, perform it on stage. Always a prey to stage-fright, Reggiani had managed to conquer it as an actor; but singing was another matter: you had to be in tune, and keep in time with the orchestra. Drawing on all the resources of his profession, he decided to ratchet up the theatricality of his act and turn Vian’s songs into small plays.
Meanwhile, Barbara, the famous ‘dame en noir’ of chanson, heard Reggiani one evening on the radio. Despite his obvious inexperience, she recognised an enormous singing talent and rang him on the spot to invite him to be her supporting act. This was met with a polite refusal from Serge, on the grounds that he did not possess a personal repertoire. No problem. Barbara rounded up musicians; organised sessions at her house; and, above all, contacted lyricists capable of writing for her protégé. Among them, one Georges Moustaki, known for penning ‘Milord’, the song made famous the world over by Edith Piaf.
Le declic! (Bingo!). So began a partnership where Reggiani shared the riches of his imagination with his collaborator, including all his favourite poets (Baudelaire; Prevert; Apollinaire); and suggested ideas for songs. Steeped in the universe of his new friend, Moustaki crafted such made-to-measure cornerstones of Reggiani’s repertoire as ‘Sarah’ (‘La Femme Qui Est Dans Mon Lit N’a Plus Vingt Ans) (The woman in my bed is no longer twenty); ‘Ma Liberte’ and ‘Ma Solitude’.
Serge Reggiani sings Sarah (La Femme Qui Est Dans mon Lit N’a Plus Vingt Ans) by Georges Moustaki.
The woman in my bed is no longer twenty./With eyes shadowed by the years and by love on the cheap/ Her mouth worn down by countless indifferent kisses/Her complexion is pale beneath her make-up/Paler than a moonbeam.
The woman who is in my bed is no longer twenty./Her breasts, heavy from too much love-making, no longer appeal/ Her weary body/ Too frequently but too indifferently fondled/ Her hollowed back weighed down by memories she’d rather forget.
The woman who is in my bed is no longer twenty./ Don’t laugh!/ Hands off!/ Keep your sarcastic remarks to yourself/ When night enfolds us and her body and hands seek mine/ Her heart, bathed in her tears and sorrows/ Comforts me.
Serge Reggiani sings Ma Solitude by Georges Moustaki.
These became features of his second album ‘Serge Reggiani’ (1967), along with such global hits as ‘Les Loups’(‘The wolves’), a veiled reference to the Nazi Occupation, written by writer and scenarist Albert Vidalie; and ‘Le Petit Garcon’, by Jean-Loup Dabadie, a young playwright creating his first song.
Serge Reggiani sings Les Loups par Georges Moustaki.
From then on, Reggiani led a double career, bringing to life on stage songs he might have written himself, so well did they fit him; and appearing in films directed by the likes of Claude Sautet (Vincent, Francois, Paul . . . et les autres, 1974) and Claude Lelouche (Le Chat et La Souris, 1975). This “middle-aged, deep-voiced balladeer” (as the cinema website IMDB calls him) struck a chord with the politically left generation of the 1960’s, while the preceding one seized on him to fill the emotional void left by the retirement of Jacques Brel.
Throughout the 70’s he turned out a stream of records and appeared continuously at celebrated venues like Bobino and the Olympia, becoming one of the most acclaimed performers of French chanson.
In 1980, tragedy struck. Reggiani’s son, Stephane, also a singer, committed suicide in the family country residence, a loss from which Serge would never entirely recover. He sank into depression and alcoholism, and disappeared from the screen for six years. Nevertheless, he continued to make records, and even to appear on stage. On his seventieth birthday (1992) he appeared every night for two weeks before packed houses of 3,000 at the Palais des Congres.
Serge Reggiani sings Paris Ma Rose, written by himself.
In his 80th year, a group of the biggest names in chanson recorded an album in his honour, and the then President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, named him Commander of the National order of Merit. At the 18th Victoires de la Musique, he was given a special award in recognition of his entire career.
On 22 July, 2004, following a sell-out tour, he was struck down with a heart attack. He had been on the point of starting a new album, with songs by Patrick Bruel and Charles Aznavour.
Copyright July 2016 Pat Harvey