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#BornThisDay: ”Chanteur de Charme”, Jean Sablon

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March 25, 1906Jean Sablon:

”Music is my daily bread.”  

Jean Saboln first came to my attention in the early 1980s, when I was tasked with choosing the music for a restaurant I was working in and where I was noted for my excellent taste in tunes.

Sablon was an elegant openly gay Frenchman, living with his partner, Carl Galm, a U.S. service man, for more than four decades; all while he was a matinee idol and the French housewife’s pin-up of choice.

With Galm, 1941

He recorded in the 1920s through the 1980s; he topped bills in cabarets and concert halls in Paris, London and on Broadway. George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter wrote songs especially for him. He helped to popularize swing music in France by teaming up on with French Jazz greats Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt.

His father Charles was a composer and conductor of chansons and theatre music. His two brothers were musicians, and his sister, Germaine Sablon, had a career in theatre and music. In London with Charles de Gaulle during WW II, she launched the Chant des Partisans that became a famous inspirational song of The Resistance.

Sablon studied music and piano as a youngster. In his teens, he was cast in small roles in musicals and light comic operas. In 1923, he made his professional debut at the Theatre des Bouffes-Parisiens in Trois Jeunes Filles Nues (Three Naked Girls).

He began writing songs for other singers, but people found that they were attracted to his deep, very pleasant voice. His career as a screen actor nearly ended with his first film role, in Chacun Sa Chance because Sablon hated himself onscreen, so he gave up hopes of being an actor. But in 1928, he went on tour the Bouffes-Parisiens to Brazil, the country that won his heart.

When he returned to Paris, Sablon became an habitue of the cabaret scene, where he became a close friend of Jean Cocteau and joined with Reinhardt and Grappelli to play and record Jazz. He charmed audiences and caught the attention of Mistinguett, a French actor and singer, at the time the highest-paid female entertainer in the world. She hired him as her partner for her act at the Casino de Paris. She was tyrannical as well as temperamental and ruled her productions with an iron hand. Sablon became a real pro working with her; Josephine Baker taught him to dance, and Damia (Marie-Louise Damien),who sang La Marseillaise in Abel Gance’s film Napoleon (1927) helped develop his singing technique.

Another of his great friends was gay singer / songwriter Charles Trenet (1912-2001) who composed one of my favorite songs La Mer, which he composed while riding on a train in 1943. La Mer has more than 400 recorded versions, including by Sablon. The song was given English words by gay American songwriter Jack Lawrence (1912 -2009) and under the title Beyond The Sea was a big hit for Bobby Darin in the early 1960s.

In 1963, Trenet spent a month in prison, charged with corrupting the morals of four young men. The charges were eventually dropped, but the incident forced him out of the closet. It turns out that actor / singer Maurice Chevalier was the one that ratted him out to the police.

Sablon’s hauntingly sad signature song, Vous Qui Passez Sans Me Voir (You Who Pass By Without A Glance) is by Trenet. Whenever I hear Sablon singing it, it makes tear up. Sablon’s recording was a world-wide success.

Via YouTube

In 1937, Sablon made his first visit to the USA, where he was billed as ”The French Troubadour”. He spent two years in America, singing on stage and on the radio, including on CBS Hit Parade, where he was ranked higher than Frank Sinatra. Except for Chevalier and Edith Piaf, he was the only French singer who had real lasting success in the USA. In France, he was considered a ”chanteur de charme” to which the American word ”crooner” hardly does justice. Yet, he became known as ”The French Bing Crosby” and challanged Charles Boyer as the essence of the gallant, elegant, seductive Parisian lover man.

Ramon Navarro with Sablon in 1933, MGM Archives

In NYC, he made his great discovery: the microphone. He brought one back to Paris with him and became the first person to sing through a hand-held mic on the French stage. It caused a scandal; there was the rumor that he had lost his voice. Indeed, for a while he was called ”Le Chanteur Sans Voix”. Gradually he won over the public with his exceptionally sensitive use of the microphone singing beautiful songs.  He made the microphone a part of his body. He made love to it, cradling it in his hands like a lover’s face, stroked it, whispering to it, smiling at it with his ironic yet tender smile. It was amplification as art.

He had a velvety, warm voice, thrilling in its lower registers and light and playful in the upper reaches he floated out so effortlessly with an intimate delivery and his appealing personality. He possessed a charm that was simply natural. He had a perfect smile accentuated by a world-weary moustache, with big brown eyes which held a mischievous sparkle. The influence of his style could be heard in Rudy Vallee, Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour.

From 1946-1948, he hosted the popular The Jean Sablon Show on CBS Radio. His voice was heard by 50 million listeners two times each week. Crosby owned all of his records, and Sinatra compared himself to Sablon in interviews. Sablon spent years living in Hollywood where his close friends included Cary Grant and Marlène Dietrich.

In 1950, Sablon had a global hit with C’est Si Bon. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Saboln made a series of highly rated television specials in France and Britain. In 1984, he sang Vernon Duke and Yip Harburg’s April In Paris in the popular American miniseries Mistral’s Daughter, which was filmed in France He toured five continents demonstrating his independence and inquisitiveness, the qualities led him to introduce many new musical genres to France: Biguine, Calypso and Bossa Nova.

He bought a ranch in Brazil and visited Japan many times where he was the most popular foreign singer. His elegant sartorial style and moustache were much imitated.

In 1981, around the time I discovered his music, he gave a 75th anniversary concert at the Lincoln Center, but it was in his favorite city, Rio de Janeiro, in 1983, that he gave his farewell concert to a very emotional public awash with tears as he sang goodbye: ”I bow myself out . . .”

Sablon took that final bow in his native France in 1994. He was born 112 years ago, he became the toast of three continents, and the idol of millions. There are boulevards named for him in Paris and Cannes. Now, Sablon is now mostly forgotten, but not on The WOW Report.


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