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NAXOS NOSTALGIA 8.120523 [52.26]




1) "On Ne M'a Jamais Parlé Comme Ça"
2) "Dites-Moi, Ma Mère"
3) "Quant Je Suis Chez Toi"
4) "Mais Où Est Ma Zouzou"
5) "J'Vous F'Rai Voir"
6) "Marguerite"
7) "Moi, J'Fais Mes Coups En D'ssous"
8) "Je Ne Dis Pas Non"
9) "C'Est Pour Vous"
10) "Si J'Étais Demoiselle…."
11) "Mon Cœur"
12) "Valentine"
13) "Moi-z Et Elle"
14) "Quant On Revient"
15) "On Est Plus Léger…."
16) "Menagez-Là"
17) "Mon P'tit Tom"
18) "Ça M'est Égal"

The final curtain would soon fall and the dancers, singers and comedians who had performed in the Royal Variety Performance at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London that year were ready to gather for the finale to pay tribute to the Royal Family by singing the National Anthem. But not until one last performer, his eyes firmly fixed on the Royal Box, straw boater at a raffish angle, sang to the Queen Mother "You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby" ending with a characteristic catch in his voice "'Cause baby, look at you now." That night in the early 1960s I wondered, as I watched on TV, if the Queen Mother felt embarrassed. Maurice Chevalier, for it was he singing of course, made it obvious by the way he was gazing up that he was singing it especially for her. He must have known he had broken with protocol but didn't seem to care about that. His whole performance that evening was so in keeping with those of his many songs over the years but that tendency to exaggerate his French accent while singing in English seemed to me even more pronounced than usual that night and I confess to not liking it very much.

That was the last time that I and many others saw Chevalier on stage or television and as I listened to these old 78rpm recordings, brilliantly transferred to CD, the years rolled back much further to the time I first remembered hearing of Chevalier. At first I found it difficult to relate the handsome, debonair picture of him on the cover to how he looked that night in the 1960s. I can still remember him being mentioned in the 1920s when I was a schoolgirl, a time when people would often speak of "Gay Paree" where we knew he came from as though it were another planet as no one of my acquaintance had ever been there. I had already become a film fan and had a friend who had an elder sister with access to film magazines and I would avidly read through them and occasionally they would mention a new star and Maurice Chevalier was one of them. I even remember reading he had made a record and asking at home if we could have it only to be told by my parents that I wouldn't understand it as it was in French. That if I paid more attention to my school lessons in that language I would be able to understand it. At last a Chevalier record was lent to us and I then heard this "new" Frenchman sing at last. I have no idea what the songs were, but I do know I loved how they were sung. What did it matter if I had no idea what he was singing about? It was the way he was singing them that appealed to me. The record became one of my favourites for a time, until it was returned, but I was to learn a great deal about Maurice Chevalier as time went on and gradually he became a "name". I learned he had been born in 1888 with an ambition to become an acrobat but that because of some accident was unable to do so. He was eventually discovered by legendary night-club singer Mistinguett, and they became a popular act in the Folies-Bergere.

I recall all this so well because I always contrast how I first heard Chevalier in the 1920s with how he sang much later in life, as he did that night on TV in the 1960s. That exaggerated accent perfected over the years for when he sang in English seemed to have been laid on with a bigger and bigger trowel as the years went by and, in the end, I have to say that I found it irritating. So you can understand I was anxious to listen to this new CD because the recordings on it are taken from that first period in his career. In fact they are from just three years between 1925-1928 when he must have hardly been out of the studio and to compare it with how he was in old age is really fascinating. I expected a difference, of course, as he was much younger then. But I found I could barely identify the Chevalier of the late years with the one I was hearing now on this CD. I have listened with great enjoyment to a rousing, rollicking, delightful collection of typically French songs sung by a man who possessed not only a charming, light baritone voice but also who knew how to make full use of it with none of the artifice or manner of the future. So refreshing too.

Of course, Chevalier had great charm in those days. It shouts out to you down the years, even through the vagaries of these historic discs. But I have to say his voice also gives an impression, to me at least, of some arrogance though cleverly concealed by the charming, cavalier type of singing of which he was even then a master. Though all these songs are sung in French, and are in mood as French as the whiff of Gauloise, I think everyone will recognise the tunes of several and be able to admire the style and assurance with which he interprets the words, which is some achievement indeed. I must also pay credit to all the orchestras who accompany him so superbly. However, I particularly liked "Mon Cœur" where Jean Wiener and Clement Doucet accompany on two pianos. With the same piano duet Chevalier also recorded "Mais Où Est Ma Zouzou" in the same month. This is one of the songs whose tune I was certainly familiar with as it’s better known in English as "I wonder Where My Baby is Tonight".

For me, and I suspect all my generation, here is a collection of songs that portray exactly the mood of Paris in the 1920s – or at least what would be our impression of it, which is half the fun of records like this, I think. The war was only recently over when these recordings were made and Parisians were determined to enjoy themselves as much as possible.

Chevalier certainly sings as though he hasn't a care in the world, I assure you, and maybe he hadn't at that time. In between recording he did cabaret work and a few movies. Some were successes and some not. However many successes he had around that time he certainly deserved them. He had been a prisoner of war and it was whilst interned that another prisoner had taught him how to speak English. In 1928, officially failing an MGM screen test, he was accepted by Paramount on condition that the "over the top" French accent he used should be a written requirement of his contract. This surely must have been the start of what I came to find most irritating about him later in his career, brought to a head on that memorable night at the Royal Variety Performance.

I'm delighted to have this CD mainly because I can hear again, and in superbly restored sound, the young Chevalier singing in his own language and in his natural voice. The difference is certainly noticeable. So I highly recommend this disc for the excellent way David Lennick and Graham Newton have succeeded in transferring these old discs with every part clear while still retaining the difference between then and now of how the singers and music sounded in those days so long ago.

Joan Duggan