Bourvil and Music - A Love Story
Bourvil was a great comedian, on stage and in films but his first love was music.
We know Bourvil well from the big screen, as the man who drove a white car in Le Corniaud and who played “Augustin Bouvet, the Painter” in La Grande Vadrouille. The actor is easily memorable, for his nasal voice and amusing expressions, but André Raimbourg, aka Bourvil, was also a singer and performer, and not merely a comic actor.
Born on the 27th of July 1917 in Prétot-Vicquemare, a small town between Dieppe and Rouen, André Raimbourg grew up in the green countryside of Normandy, far from theatres and shows. However, from a young age he surprised with his talent for song and the stage.
As a child he memorised the songs that were played on the radio and performed at the end of family meals. His musical numbers were so well rehearsed and executed that he was invited to perform at all the local festivals and ceremonies. André was known as a happy go lucky lad in his childhood town.
Young André was never without his harmonica. He worked for hours learning the few pieces on the radio by ear, without any knowledge of musical theory. He did so well that his stepfather gave him a diatonic accordion and then a phonograph. André could finally listen to his favourite songs over and over and improve his playing.
He continued his school education; he initially wanted to be a teacher. He worked for a while as a baker. Music was always indispensable to him. He joined Fontaine-le-Dun wind band (playing the cornet) and continued to sing and play accordion informally, with his friends.
He attended his first shows in Rouen and was completely amazed. According to his biographers he didn’t consider a career as a musician because he thought that it was purely a family thing, passed down from father to son.
The Darling of the Regiment
Though, the idea of becoming a professional musician did slowing work its way into André’s mind. Even his future wife, Jeanne, encouraged him to try his luck. But how does one create a career without connections?
Then the two lovers had an idea – André’s military service was approaching and if he didn’t want to be kept away from instruments and music making he needed to join the Army Brass Band. At the age of 19, André Raimbourg joined the 24th Infantry Regiment as a military musician.
It is here that he becomes truly aware of his talent. Among the musicians in the regiment, both professional and amateur, André was the darling and the star. Wherever the group went it livened up parties and cheered up troops with funny songs.
At the end of the 1930s, in Paris, the fashion was to have competitions for amateur singers where both the presenters and public react without pity. If the audience felt the performer was bad, they only needed to shout and boo for the unfortunate participant to be sent offstage.
Encouraged by the guys in his regiment, André signed up for one of these competitions and surprise, surprise he won! Better still, he received a standing ovation from the audience. This was the beginning of Parisian life for the singer. It was a period of lean living, in which André signed up for lots more competitions, he won almost all of them but didn’t earn a penny. He did however learn the joy of laughter and made friends.
The joy the Parisian public took in making fun of competitors in these talent shows because of their modest or silly clothes, their patois or difficulty replying to the presenter’s questions inspired André to create an on-stage alter ego, he would simply play the “common peasant”.
His friendships kept him going. Among his faithful companions was the accordionist Etienne Lorin who helped him to get his first paid shows, they remained close throughout his life. It was these friends that helped him to choose his stage name – Bourvil (a masculine version of a city name).
The “Country” Singer
Bourvil’s musical and comic acts were in such demand that he had to hire an impresario (or manager). One evening he was noticed by the director of a very popular Club, where all the great talents of the era had performed – Ray Ventura, Edith Piaf, Django Reinhardt. In 1945 it was Bourvil’s turn.
He was a triumph! His songs, such as Les crayons, were applauded so much that Line Renaud the act that followed him was met with hisses and whistles. In the wake of this performance, Bourvil was hired by the popular radio show Pêle-mêle by Jean-Jacques Vital. Then, in 1946, he appeared at the prestigious ABC Theatre.
The critics were however already wondering if the public would get bored of a character. They questioned whether he’d be able to reinvent himself and embody a role other than that of a kind but slightly silly countryman.
Bourvil then turned his attentions to operettas. In 1946, Bruno Coquatrix, the successful composer and future director of the Olympia, offered him a role in his first show, La Bonne Hôtesse. Though it was still a role as a peasant it represented an opportunity for Bourvil to prove that he was able to embody a character other than his own. Here, in a new role, amongst a cast, he was once again a “beginner”.
The rehearsals were disappointing… Bourvil was uncomfortable and intimidated. But the first evening was a huge success, in front of an audience André Raimbourg found energy and dared to let go. This marked the beginning of a long career on the stage. Years later when he became better known as a film actor he never missed an opportunity to return to the stage, in front of the public.
His greatest operetta success was between 1952 and 1956, in La Route Fleurie by Francis Lopez and Raymond Vincy. He followed this up with La bonne planche, with the famous George Guétary and Annie Cordy, in 1962.
Bourvil proved his skills as a performer. He had humorous songs (“la ta ca ta ca tac tac tique du gendarme”) and simple, cute songs (salade de fruit, jolie, jolie, jolie), as well as more poetic (Balade irlandaise) or nostalgic (C’était bien, more commonly known as Le p’tit bal perdu) tunes.
He also loved the famous classic repertoire, and was very proud to take on a role in a recording of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman. In 1948, directed by André Cluytens.
He also loved jazz. As a child and teenager he had performed the songs of Fernandel at the end of family meals. He also enjoyed the music of Charles Trénet and Georges Brassens. Brassens lived not far from Bourvil, in Yvlines. The two men admired each other but, as they were both shy, found excuses not to meet too often. When they finally did have dinner together the evening always ended with a musical competition of who knew the most songs, it could last all night…
Music was part of Bourvil’s daily life, on stage and in the city. He liked to be face to face with his audience, singing and making them laugh, even during the height of his cinematic fame in the 1960s when he filled cinemas playing in an on-screen duo with Louis de Funès. He also sang and always had his accordion at hand at home with his wife Jeanne and their two children.
BERRUER Pierre, Bourvil du rire aux larmes, Presses de la Cité, 1975.
CLAUDE Catherine, Un certain Bourvil, Messidor, 1990.
HUET James, JELOT BLANC Jean-Jacques, Bourvil, Stock, 1990.