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Twenty years already !... I can hardly believe it, to such an extent you are still present in my life, and not only your voice, Joe, this voice which still spreads your tender passion, your humour and your appeal through our frequencies.

Twenty years already !... We had met in 1966. That means that we knew each other for less time than I’ve been missing you ; and as your career spans only sixteen years, your public, which has always been wide and varied, should tell themselves the same thing !...

Joe, you are well-known and unknown, you are loved and underestimated. Your scrupulous professionalism and your absolute absence of self-assurance made you constantly work, remake your songs and their recording. Your posthumous career, a fruit of your consciousness of a craftsman and your doubts of an artiste, does not fully reveal your personality, so strong, so rich and so complex.

You were born in New York on November 5, 1938, grandson of emigres, one a Russian Jew and a carpenter, the other a Hungarian and a hairdresser, son of artists - father a film director and mother a violinist. You had an American passport, a French heart and a cosmopolitan soul.

It was by chance that you became a professional singer. In fact, you had been a brilliant anthropology student, had successfully got a doctor’s degree in ethnology and, back in France, you had become consecutively a film assistant (for your father, Jules Dassin : “Topkapi”, and for Clive Donner : “What’s New Pussycat ?”) and an actor in “Le Trèfle Rouge ” and “Lady L.”. But Maryse, your first wife, who had gone “absolutely crazy” about your voice, asked her friend Catherine R?gnier to transform a magnetic tape into a record at C.B.S. where she worked as a secretary. The roguish destiny wanted it that the recording was heard by the top businessmen of the company and... it went off !...

You were a perfectionist, Joe, and you weren’t satisfied - absolutely not satisfied ! - with the three first 45 rpm records, which, however promising, were a poor success. You were in despair and, at the same time, vaguely touched on the raw, because you were beginning, bit by bit, to be involved in the game. You were saying to yourself: “If others, actually not that gifted, manage to produce good records, why not me ?...”

It was then that Jacques Plait made his entrance into your life. You were presented to each other by Jacques Souplet, head of C.B.S. at the time. Distrusting during your first conversation, you got tamed later when listening to Jacquot, who talked business with his strong wisdom and persuasive loquacity, which didn’t prevent you from getting furious when, asked for a first advice, he let fall without precaution: “First of all, grow your hair !”... For an introvert so little anxious about your appearance which you were, it was a tremendous folly ! As to your future art director, a jazz fan who possessed, however, an acute sense of success (the inexplicable and a little irritating gift !), it was evident ! In any case, this first row began your cooperation. You already had an excellent author, Jean-Michel Rivat, a man of taste, full of humour and enthusiasm, soon joined by Frank Thomas, a sensitive and inspired poet, to form a scintillating tandem that was to adorn the French song of the 60s and 70s with small brilliant gems. But you had to find an arranger. Jacquot and you chose Johnny Arthey, who had just composed a masterepiece of orchestration: “Elo?se”.

The first recording of the new team Plait-Dassin in London : a 45 rpm with two strong titles of the total of four : a text by Georges Liferman on F. Fricker’s music, “?a m’avance ? quoi”, where your serious and thrilling voice works miracles, and the first of your songs inspired by comics, the giddy couplets concocted by Jean-Michel Rivat on original music by Lee Hazlewood - “Comme la lune”. The production - at last! - is excellent, and when the song is broadcast on the radio, it receives warm praises from the DJs.

When I hear - with a certain pleasure - these two songs on the family radio set, I’m far from imagining that several weeks later I am going to get acquainted with the singer. In fact, on July 5th, 1966, during Lionel Rocheman’s “Hootenany”, a “melting pot” show where actors of all sorts can arrive to express themselves, we meet, Joe. It was a very beautiful summer evening and you had dropped in as a neighbour (the show takes place on boulevard Raspail and you live in No. 218) to look for a banjo player. You will not find a banjo player but a singer, Michèle Cherdel, who will become Vava and also ... my first wife. At the same time, you are also going to find - but you aren’t aware of it, just as I ! - an author and a friend. Nothing is more torturing for a shy person than another shy person : you cast a short-sighted look on me from the height of your 1 m 83 and say in a friendly but uneasy way : “I’ve liked your songs a lot, monsieur, would you pay me a visit to take a glass with your friends? I live next door ...”.

I won’t leave your place until four o’clock in the morning. We passed the evening singing, - you, American folk, and our small team from Mireille conservatory {1}, our own creations. Something like a schoolboys’ jam session, slightly flavoured with alcohol and very joyful. Each time that I take my guitar, you pay me a laconic and heartfelt compliment, each time that you accompany me, I listen, I admire, and doubtless also dream a little. That was the first meeting plotted by destiny.

At the end of the same year, 1966, you record your first single 45 rpm with “Guantanamera”, a new version of a Cuban revolutionary song adapted to French by Rivat, secretly produced in full musicians’ strike - ow, I’ve let the cat out of the bag, but so many years have passed, and, moreover, I guess you, the son of an American film director chased by McCarthyism, were greatly reluctant to commit this little sin !

Early next year, your wife Maryse calls me and tells me that you wish to work with me. I am surprised at first : I ask myself what can I, who work in the rive gauche {2} and cabaret style, give you, whose style is rive droite and variety shows. But I feel, I think, I’m sure that it is my finest hour - and it is ! - and I write, scared to death, an adaptation of a nice song, slightly in the 1925 fashion: “Hello hello”. Thus, I have a chance to accompany on a 45 rpm record of the summer 1967, “Les Dalton”, lyrics by Rivat and Thomas on one of your melodies. This song, which you had destined for Henri Salvador and which Jacques Plait had practically obliged you to sing, floods the airwaves, as well as the TV waves with an undescribable and unforgettable Scopitone film (the predecessor of a video !) to boot {3}, shot against the backdrop of Jean Richard’s La Mer de Sable {4}.

The sales are not yet great but your image of an amiable and laid-back cowboy - a red shirt, black trousers and a large belt - begins, almost against your will, to receive recognition.

In the autumn, Jacquot and you choose a title, which is the opposite of the previous one - “Marie-Jeanne”, a brilliant blues by Bobby Gentry, wonderfully adapted by the duo Rivat-Thomas, which does not take the charts by storm, but becomes one of your immortal hits. On “Les deux mondes de Joe Dassin” album, where your French-American bipolarity works muracles, I write “Pauvre Doudou” and “L’ombre d’un amour” which supports us in our desire of cooperation, without meeting, nevertheless, popular approval.

In those times, touring with Adamo in small provincial shows, you question yourself, as well as Maryse, about your future and you are quite often tempted to return to your dear studies or, in any case, to the occupation they intended you to. It is then, in May 68, that the unpredictable destiny decides to bring you success, during that happening-like revolution which you, an eternal student, witness while moving from boulevard Raspail to rue d’Assas (you had well chosen your quarter !), watched by the incredulous and disciplined C.R.S. guards {5} and in the strong odour of tear gas. “Siffler sur la colline” is a hit. You are number one, along with Julien Clerc and his “Cavalerie”. You are filled with joy and lost in doubts. You’ll always be like that !

It is the moment when the French army decides to conscript me for military service which I could have done quite nicely without. As you broke up - I still don’t know why - with Rivat and Thomas, if only it wasn’t vice versa, it is Pierre Delanoe, the most sung French author of the XXth century, who comes to take their place with talent and success ... “Ma bonne étoile”, “Le petit pain au chocolat”, “C’est la vie, Lily”, “Les Champs-Elysées”, “Le Chemin de Papa”, "L’Amérique”, only imagine !... You, the less self-assured American university student, in less than two years became the most popular French singer. On Jacqueline Salvador’s advice the cowboy exchanged his clothes for a white suit.

Who can tell what goes on in your mind at this wonderful moment of your career, so aspired in vain by all artistes longing for recognition?... You are undoubtedly happy, but in your own way, without really beleving in it, so your modesty impedes the overwhelming temporary intoxication which sometimes marks the first steps to stardom. You will always dearly pay for your glory by stresses and exasperation, and you will often tell me : “Claude, when one has no talent, one has to work”. The problem is, that you certainly have it and it’s a miracle that you didn’t murder your own songs with all the labour and strictness you applied to them.

In 1970, free of military service free of military glory, I finally regain Paris and your friendship, so discreet and so sure. It gives me pleasure to note that, however a star, you had not changed, though you seem slightly more strained when in public, but for those who know you well the difference is slight and explainable.

I began to work anew in my small two-room flat in Issy-les-Moulineaux. One day of May I bring you two songs for which I had written both lyrics and music : “Les filles que l’on aime” [“The Girls We Love”] and “L’équipe à Jojo”. You refuse both telling me in these very words (I believe I still hear your voice !), “Claude, why do you want me to take two melodies which I am perfectly capable to write myself ?”. I get home in low spirits and try to forget your verdict by turning for help to my muse, a bit stubborn this time !... Alas, nothing comes, or at least nothing good, and when in August Jacques Plait, whom I was paying a visit in his beautiful house in St Cézaire sur Siagne, asks me: “What have you written recently, Claude ?”, I thrust on him, naturally, my two songs ordered but not accepted by Joe. Jacquot, with his bursting enthusiasm, immediately gets excited and says to me : “I’ve been desperately searching for two months what could I make after such a hit as “L’Amérique” and that’s it, I’ve got it !” I immediately reply : “There is only one little problem, Jacques : I made Joe listen to them and he doesn’t want them.” “He’s crazy !”, cries Jacquot in despair, but immediately adds : “Don’t worry, I make it my business !”. And for weeks, the persistant Algerian-born producer struggles with you, you, a stubborn American, and finally one day, when you get tired and surrender, you call me on the phone and say : “OK, Claude, Jacquot has won, I do your two songs but I must warn you, it’s going to be pretty hard work !”

Oh! I have seen, Joe, I have seen what it meant to work with you; all days, from morning till night, without a break, I was at yours’, rue d’Assas, to rewrite what was going to become “La Fleur aux dents” and that which was going to remain “L’équipe à Jojo”. I have kept two notebooks filled with the lyrics. The most incredible thing is that after so much labour, deletion, returns to the initial version, and changes, these two songs remained so natural. I confess I always listen to them with pleasure and the public doesn’t seem to be tired of them.

This album, for which we, Pierre Delanoe and I, have written half of the lyrics each, with so personal and clever intrusions by your sister Ricky, is your new triumph. As for your friend Claude, he suddenly changes from a former student of Mireille conservatory and a rive gauche singer into a fashionable lyricist.

Since this date, we’d get together twice a year, in spring for the summer 45 rpm, in autumn for a winter album, and we returned at yours’, Ricky, Pierre and I, as if in conference, quitting all other occupations, to practise our job of songwriters over and over again. You were a delightful bore, “just the best..ard”, as we used to say, Pierre and I, in the moments of friendly revolt.

Up to 1975, we had continued a series of half romantic, half humorous comic strip songs - on melodies which you wrote yourself or borrowed from your American compatriots. Some memorable hard nuts included that “Complainte de l’heure de pointe” for which you had obliged me to keep the original sounds on a German tune, which was so slightly original ! “La dili, la dilo, every people come and go. La dilo, la dili, come on children sing with me.” !!! Try to find something interesting in that ! One day, believing to have successfully solved the great problem, I triumphantly call you: “I’ve got it, Joe, I’ve found, listen... : Dans Paris à vélo, on dépasse les autos, à vélo dans Paris, on dépasse les taxis ...”. [“In Paris, on a bike, you overtake cars, On a bike in Paris you overtake taxis”.] I wait. A long silence on the telephone, then you explode : “Claude! Besides that the music is already totally primitive, you want to make me sing some schlock !... ”

Fortunately, the good soul Jacquot was still on the alert, and pursuaded you to sing the cyclist ditty Ricky and I had concocted. And it’s good he did it - today still, during ecologist demonstrations in the capital, when the participants ride their bikes, they sing this refrain.

Since 1975, relaunched by “Si tu t’appelles mélancolie”, one of yours shortest songs and, paradoxically, one of those that required most work on our part, we have written a series of songs with the wonderful Italian tandem Cutugno-Pallavicini. First it was “L’été Indien”. Delanoe and I had decided two years before to work together, as we thought we two would be more efficient in imposing our texts on you. It was a huge mistake, because you evidently became twice as requiring (if it was possible !).

It is known that Jacquot, usually so far-sighted, wasn’t enthusiastic about the two essential elements (Indian summer, because nobody knows what it is, and Marie Laurencin {6}, because nobody knows who it is !). Fortunately, utterly determined to have not a word changed, you managed to convince your art director (the best that I have known) to keep the text as it was.

For the two following songs, the curious cases are not less amusing : “?a va pas changer le monde” was originally a lovely song merrily called in Italian - I am not kidding ! - “Taratatata”. You managed to make a very beautiful ballad out of it, by keeping the beginning of the melody, changing the rest and slowing down the tempo. I think it still hasn’t lost its appeal.

For another song on this album, we had set out with an idea which seemed to us excellent : “If love did not exist”. We filled pages and pages with ink and that was hollow, empty, uninteresting. One day at last, suddenly enlightened, I declare to Pierre : “I believe I’ve got our problem : if love did not exist, there wouldn’t be anything, that’s why we can’t write anything”. Pierre immediately gets excited - it is one of his major assets - and says : “In that case, we only have to say : “Et si tu n’existais pas”, “And if you did not exist”... The song did not surrender to us any more.

When we were working on “Le Jardin de Luxembourg”, the grouchy Delanoe walked out: “It’s too long, far too long, I’ve had enough of it”. I had to proceed totally on my own. It is necessary to tell that when I was a student, I was an frequent visitor in these alleys with my textbooks and adolescent reveries. For “Le caf? des trois colombes”, we decided to “decentralize” the love song. We were weary of setting our nostalgic love stories in Paris. Thus, the action takes place in Nancy in an imaginary cafe, and that inspired us the phrase which still appeals to me : “Mes chagrins s’en souviennent, le bonheur passait par la Lorraine”. [“My sorrows recall happiness passing across Lorraine”.]

As for “A toi”, it is the only song (together with “L’et? indien”), for which you didn’t ask us to change a single word - a miracle! You’ll sing it in Olympia, for Christine, your new wife, your eyes in hers. Christine will give you the greatest happiness of your life - your two children: Jonathan, born in September 1978, and Julien, born in March 1980.

The two following albums, despite the noteworthy contributions by William Sheller, Alice Dona, Alain Goraguer, Didier Barbelivien and some others, were less an event. You had made me the pleasure to cover “La demoiselle the deshonneur”, one of my first songs. Despite great changes in your life, you were always as severe and faultfinding to your authors, your composers (including yourself), Johnny Arthey and Bernard Estardy, the wizard of sound. But we composed our songs more rapidly and easily, probably with the exception of “Le Dernier Slow”, the song for which you tortured me by telephone, while I was dining at my friends’, to wring from me, at the very last moment, a line which missed in the chorus (“comme si l’air du temps se trompait de tempo”). [“As if our times picked up the wrong rythm”.]

With the last album you regained a slightly jaded enthusiasm. You had decided to record some songs by Tony Joe White, who came in person to play the guitar during Los Angeles sessions and who made us the pleasure to adapt in English one of our songs, “Le march? aux puces” under the name - magnificent, that one - “The guitar don’t lie”, covered lately by Johnny Hallyday (“La guitare fait mal”).

No doubt it would be this way you would have gone on if destiny hadn’t decided to drop you suddenly on August 20, 1980 in Papeete. No doubt that what had only a moderate success at the time, would have prolonged, expanded your career, made it eternal. In July 1980 we, with Alain Goraguer and Pierre Delanoe, were getting ready with a song you liked, “Un dimanche am?ricain”, that went : “J’en ai mis du temps à me dire que c’était rien, c’était rien qu’un dimanche américain.” [“It took me long to realize that it was nothing but an American Sunday”.]

It probably was nothing, Joe, this short adventure, this fulgurant intrusion into the magnificent and absurd world of songs, made by a undergraduate full of culture and perfectionism. An American Sunday, undoubtedly, but rich with melodies and words which you have managed to leave in the heart of the folks you loved so much by way of hard work, passion and resignation. I believe I still hear your serious deep voice : “Keep on searching, Claude, the phrase does exist in Nirvana of songs !”. You used to say: “A song is a thing which already exists, I am sure of that. Somewhere, there is a place where all songs which have never been made and which must be made one day exist. They are there, they are waiting for us, they are waiting to be discovered. I am not a wizard, I am an explorer. For me, a real attitude consists in making songs which help people to live.”

Now that you live, Joe, in that Nirvana of songs you spoke so well about, you must verify it each day of your eternity. And you must be happy to see that you always help people to live. But as for me, I miss your hand on my shoulder.

To you, Joe

Claude Lemesle, February 2000


1 Mireille conservatory - Le Petit Conservatoire de la chanson, a popular song conservatory created in 1954 by the French singer and songwriter Mireille (1906-1996)

2 rive gauche - the left coast of the Seine, usually seen as an intellectual centre, as opposed to rive droite - the right coast, seen as a business centre

3 Scopitone films are a kind of musical videos made to be played on a special Scopitone jukebox, which were extremely popular in the early 1960s

4 La Mer de Sable (Sand Sea) - an amusement park situated in Ermenonville, opened in 1963 by the actor Jean Richard (1921-2001)

5 C.R.S. (compagnies républicaines de sécurité) - French police forces used to enforce order

6 Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) - a French painter mentioned in the song “L’été indien”.

Original article by Claude Lemesle, 2000

Translated from French by Michel S., (C) 2004

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