«In the strange world of show-business where you can find many con-artists and wind merchants, there is a distinguished man, whose look is more that of a diplomat than an artist: Franck Pourcel is discreet, modest and without pretence, this quiet man with a handsome silhouette has recorded and sold more records than most French artists combined together. His career spans the world: from «Limelight» and «Blue Tango», to the Anthem for Concorde», and finally «Only You», he is the first French conductor to have become famous in the USA. I do not desesperate to welcome him on my TV show with his 80 musicians.»
That’s the way Michel Drucker (most famoust TV host on the french TV) described Franck in the seventies, before inviting him twice on his show with his orchestra, in 1981 and 1984. Michel liked to tell the story of my father, who was often taken for an American, and the rising of «this calm man in the middle of French Variety».
Franck Pourcel was his real name: last name originally from Italy, first name a tribute to the composer César Franck. He was born in Marseilles on August 11, 1913. His father was a technician but also a musician in the Navy in Marseilles. At six years old, he began learning music and his father sent him to study the violin at the Conservatoire de Marseilles (he gets the First Prize at 16 years old), and drums too because he loved jazz. Then he went to the Conservatoire in Paris: «My dream was to become a famous soloist. After my studies and the army, I had to work in order to live»
He then came back to Marseilles where he worked in theaters, one of them the Opera, and at night he played drums in nightclubs. This explains, how, later, his orchestrations will be based on strings and percussions.
In 1939 he would married Odette.
During that period, Franck was the musical director of some singers, among them Yves Montand, and he was hired for 3 months by Bruno Coquatrix, the future manager of the Olympia de Paris, to be the conductor of the famous singer Lucienne Boyer ; he would in fact stay 8 years and tour the world with her.
But he always had a dream: his own orchestra, which could freely express his musical feelings.
He always worked toward this dream, but between the dream and the reality, it was very difficult: records companies were not keen on hiring 50 musicians! “At that time, creating an orchestra with 50 musicians sounded nuts, but I wanted it. After many refusals, I moved to United States».
So, the 3 of us emigrated to New York in 1950, and between small jobs, and a wait to obtain the card from the musicians Union, that he will get, he kept looking for a producer.
But, it’s a French one, Maurice Tézé, who will call him in 1952 to ask him to get back to Paris in order to produce his first record «Blue Tango» and the follow up «Limelight».
People took him immediately for an American, super quality label at that time, and instantly he became famous:” Had I used the name of «Marius» Pourcel (his second first name), maybe my career would have turned short» he said with a smile and in the accent of Provence.
It was the start of his long career, and all the French singers are eager to be accompanied by the «American»Aznavour, Tino Rossi, Gloria Lasso, Becaud, Montand, Trenet, Danielle Darrieux, and later I opened the door to an actor who had just appereared in West side Story, and wanted to produce his first record with Franck George Chakiris.
Franck was very serious, dedicated to his work and tireless; he was a perfectionist, writing his arrangements himself, choosing the songs, the musicians, the studio, the editing, and the design of the cover. He was so meticulous that sometimes his musicians thought he was a tyrant! He revitalized the violin. Jazz and popular music had little by little succeeded in removing the violin from any importance in musical entertainment. Franck, believing in the violin’s versatility and enormous possibilities, constantly fought this trend. Needless to say he was successful!. To pronounce the word «violin» is to touch the heart of Franck ; ” For me, the violin is the instrument closest to the human voice. I don’t play it, I make it sing. It should be considered a vocal instrument, an instrument that speaks to the heart of man».
Between 1954 and 1957, he kept recording: 9 LPs in 3 years. He created the series Amour Danse et Violons, which include 54 Lps.
But the Americans look at him, and he went back to Hollywood at Capitol to record albums dedicated to the American market, like Our Paris, French Touch, French Sax, Rainy night in Paris, French Wine-Drinking music and La Femme (composed by Les Baxter) with its graceful and scandalous nude cover. He became «Franck Pourcel and the French Fiddlers», «Franck Pourcel and his Parisians strings» or «The Rockin’ strings Orchestra» !!
In 1959, he releases» Only You», 2 years after the fantastic success of the title by The Platters. But arranging it «à la Franck Pourcel» he gave it a second youth. All my life I’ll remember my father and me arriving at Capitol Tower, a mythic place in Hollywood,. The song was played all day long inside the building, but the record had a tiny distortion. He was furious, and I thought that he was going to have a nervous breakdown, until someone told him that he was going to have a big hit; he would sell more than 3 millions copies, be on the Billboard charts for 16 weeks, and become the first European orchestra leader to sell more than 1 million records in the US.
In 1958, he recorded an LP with the Viennese’s Waltzes, and then decided to lead his «Variety» public to the discovery and appreciation of popular classical pieces. With his «Pages Celebres» he leds the sale of EMI Classics, but he felt no special vanity from this, for he considered himself in the service of music. He will record 17 LPs with the most famous classical orchestras like the London Symphony Orchestra, The London Philharmonic, The Lamoureux Orchestra, The BBC Orchestra…..
In 1979, following the evolution of the recording techniques, the series came to be called Classics in Digital.
«Adapting pop songs or classical pieces is a very delicate work because you have to dose the effects. I studied classics, and I am persuaded that if Mozart or Beethoven were here today they would wrote their music in a different arrangement. For them or the Variety, I write a kind of translation, according to my style, I think I am not betraying them. I often compare music with cooking. For the same recipe a chef can do something personal, the name of the dish remains the same, but the taste is different. Same thing with a score…. I was lucky in my life to be able to succeed in interpreting, my way, some music composed by others. I arrange it (or disarrange), and the original composers are happy».
«Franck has the talent to ennoble the most simple melodies…..entering his music was and still is like entering the Pantheon» said Salvatore Adamo
A few of his musicians started a career on their own: ” Michel Legrand was playing piano, when he was young. In my orchestra I had Raymond Lefevre, Paul Mauriat and Jean-Claude Casadessus, at that time playing percussions in my classical recordings”.
Between 1956 and 1972 he was the regular conductor for France at the Eurovision song contest, and he toured a lot in Japan, USA, South America, and appears on TV -show specials, all around the world.
A very discreet man, he never played up his personal or professional life. His record company has always had difficulty to write a biography mentioning how many records he sold (the sales if they were to be piled, one on top of the other, would represent 20 times the high of the Eiffel Tower), or how many gold records he got throughout the 58 countries where his albums were released. He was proud of his trophies, but didn’t talk about them. He smashed all sales records for the Europeans orchestras without fanfare or boosting.
He rather preferred to show his back directing the orchestra than his face to a camera. He rarely put his picture on the front of a cover «to recognize someone you have to appear on TV or movies. The public knows my name, I was the first one to do this kind of music in Europe».
Nevertheless I watched him in 1984, during the pageant of Miss Mexico. He was President of the jury, and all the beautiful girls wanted to sit on his laps. He did not look unhappy!!!
His records have been exported to 58 countries;»I am going to surprise some people, but I have been the number 1 in the exportation of French records for 20 years (in 1982). Music is easier to export than songs with lyrics. When a record is produced in France it can be released the morning after in Yokohama or Los Angeles: there is no local version «
I remember that in 1975 Franck was asked by Air France to compose the Anthem for the new supersonic Concorde, because he was considered one of the 3 most exported French product with Brigitte Bardot and Air France.
He has composed some songs that he recorded, but rarely, because he did not liked his own compositions.
The most famous, «Chariot», started like a joke. It was composed with his friends Paul Mauriat and Raymond Lefevre , with lyrics by Jacques Plante. At that time, in 1962, everything coming from the US was striking gold, so they invented a story that the song was the soundtrack of a new western movie produced by the 20th century Fox»You’ll never See It». Petula Clark sung the song and had a hit.
In the USA the song was recorded as «I will Follow Him» by Little Peggy March., a fifteen years old singer, became number 1 in the Billboard charts all categories for 3 weeks, and in 1992 the song became the main theme for «Sister Act» 1 and 2, with Whoopie Goldberg. More recently, Eminem included some bars in his song
In 2016 the song recorded by Toulouse was used by Apple for the campaign of the iPhone 7.
From 1968, Franck worked with Claude-Michel Schönberg then artistic director at Pathe-marconi EMI records. A personal and professional relationship started and Franck produced Claude-Michel’s big hit “le Premier Pas” and the following albums.
A show-biz star, against all odds, concerts all over the world, around 200 LPs recorded, more than 3000 titles in his repertoire, this was Franck Pourcel, my father. He passed away on November 12, 2000 and thousands of faithful fans around the world still send me messages, so I try to keep his catalogue alive around the world.
«Hearing this heavenly fiddler, I now understand why instrument makers call the body of a violin its soul»
These words are from the French poet Jean Cocteau the fiddler was Franck Pourcel.