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Gilbert Bécaud (24 October 1927 – 18 December 2001) was a French singer, composer, pianist and actor, known as "Monsieur 100.000 Volts" for his energetic performances. His best-known hits are "Nathalie" and "Et Maintenant", a 1961 release that became an English language hit as "What Now My Love". He remained a popular artist for nearly fifty years, identifiable in his dark blue suits, with a white shirt and "lucky tie"; blue with white polka dots. When asked to explain his gift he said, "A flower doesn't understand botany." His favourite venue was the Paris Olympia under the management of Bruno Coquatrix. He debuted there in 1954 and headlined in 1955, attracting 6,000 on his first night, three times the capacity. On November 13, 1997, Bécaud was present for the re-opening of the venue after its reconstruction.
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Brown - Light
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French popular music in the late 1950s and early 60s had an influence far beyond its borders, particularly on leading American and British balladeers. Its most famous exponents were the quartet of singers rooted in the French chanson school of plaintive, soulful melody and lyric: Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Charles Trenet and Gilbert Bécaud, who has died aged 74 of cancer.
Of them all, Bécaud had the widest international influence. His biggest hit, Et maintenant (1962), provided Frank Sinatra and Shirley Bassey with the million-selling What Now My Love. Four years earlier, his Le jour où la pluie viendra gave Jane Morgan a British No 1 with The Day That The Rains Came Down. In 1960, his Je t'appartiens became the Everly Brothers' Let It Be Me, and, in 1967, Vicki Carr had a huge hit with It Must Be Him, an English version of Bécaud's Seul sur son étoile.
Sometimes known as the "French Frank Sinatra", Bécaud relished concert audiences. He had once been feted as a brilliant pianist, and his reputation was always strongly enhanced by his composing; only his rival Aznavour had quite the same degree of success as a writer and performer. Indeed, both made their fortunes from wistful, if-only songs, which sounded even more regretful when translated into English and given words that emphasised the minor key.
That went well with Bécaud's contention that his music was more instinctive than intellectual: "I react more than I think," he once said. In France, they called him "Monsieur 100,000 Volts", and, even allowing for the French vaudeville audience's love of hyperbole, the nickname gives some indication of the impact he had in his own country.
Bécaud was born François Silly, in Toulon. He wrote the first of nearly 450 songs when he was only 14. During the early years of the second world war, while southern France was unoccupied, he studied at the Conservatoire de Nice, joining the resistance after the Nazi takeover.
He had his first big opportunities in the early postwar period, playing piano in nightclubs and writing songs. The piano-playing came to an end when he suffered a minor hand injury, which, he said, "gave me the opportunity to sing without a piano in front of me".
In 1953, Bécaud made his first impact as a solo performer, at Paris's famous Olympia music hall. It was here that the "100,000-volt" effect was switched on, and the first comparisons with Sinatra were made. In New York, a dozen years earlier, Sinatra had wowed the teenage bobbysoxers who hung around the theatre from early morning till late at night. In Paris, Bécaud's bobbysoxers bombarded him with pairs of knickers. They had only to hear the opening bars of his signature tune, Monsieur Pointu, to start screaming.
His career as a songwriter took off in 1950. He had been working as an accompanist to Edith Piaf and her husband, the entertainer Jacques Pills. An early number, Je t'ai dans la peau, was recorded by Piaf, and became an instant hit throughout the French-speaking world. Over the years, Bécaud collaborated with lyricist Mack David, with Louis Amade and Maurice Vidalin, and, in 1975, enjoyed his own British hit, A Little Love And Understanding, written with Marcel Stellman.
He also collaborated with Neil Diamond on two of Diamond's biggest-selling hits, Love On The Rocks and September Morn. Sammy Davis Jr, Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand all covered Bécaud songs.
His opera, L'Opéra d'Aran, ran for three months at the Thétre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, but his 1987 musical, Roza, written with English librettist Julian More, closed after only 12 performances on Broadway. Bécaud was philosophical about its demise. He thrived, he said, on the challenge: "When I'm in a difficult situation, that's when I'm the best. Give me a problem and I wake up. If I wasn't a performer, I would probably be an animal trainer or a test pilot."
Bécaud sold millions of records over the years, and seemed almost never to spend an evening away from a stage - in one year he gave 249 concerts. He sang in six languages, a fact that helped his overseas tours, but was always happiest at the Olympia in Paris, where he topped the bill more than 30 times.
He is survived by his wife Kitty Saint-John, whom he married in 1973, their two daughters, and three children from his first marriage.
· Gilbert Bécaud (François Silly), singer and songwriter, born October 24 1927; died December 18 2001
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Contemporary music, Jazz
Vocals, guitar, piano
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