French and Belgian jazz musicians from the 1950s aren't given nearly as much credit in the U.S. as they deserve. The same is true for British jazz musicians. Ask most Americans to name their favorite European jazz artists from the period and they'll likely run dry after a handful—usually Toots Thielemans, Tubby Hayes, Bobby Jaspar, Martial Solal and maybe René Urtreger. There were plenty more greats, of course, including guitarist Sacha Distel.
Like Nat King Cole, Distel today is best known as a charming, mink-smooth vocalist who was a huge pop star in France in the 1960s and 1970s. But back in the early- and mid-'50s, before his singing career began, he recorded on guitar with European jazz artists for the Vogue, Barclay, Swing and Philips labels. He also played and recorded with touring American jazz artists, including Lionel Hampton, Billy Byers, John Lewis and Slide Hampton. [Pictured above: Sacha Distel, right, with Brigitte Bardot in 1958]
Though Distel wasn't as spry on the instrument as René Thomas, he was richly melodic, clever with harmony and swung gently and ambitiously. [Pictured above, from left: Marcel Romano (standing) and guitarists Jimmy Gourley, Rene Thomas, Sacha Distel and Jimmy Raney in June 1954. Romano was manager of the Club St. Germain in the Rue St. Benoit in Paris]
As a teen, Distel started on the piano. But in 1947, he was tasked with transporting guitarist-singer Henri Salvador [pictured] to a movie studio where his uncle—pianist and bandleader Ray Ventura—was producing a film. During those scooter rides with Salvador, Distel was enchanted by a singing Salvador who wore his guitar slung over his shoulder. Distel soon decided to give up the piano for the guitar and began taking lessons from his uncle, who had led a Dixieland band in the '20s and '30s.
Distel's first exposure to modern jazz came in 1948, when he heard Dizzy Gillespie perform—presumably at Paris' Salle Pleyel with his big band in February of that year. The bop concert left a deep impression on Distel, causing him to abandon Dixieland and "Roaring Twenties" gigs in favor of bop performances.
Before long, Distel was taking modern guitar lessons with Salvador, and in 1951 Distel won first place in a national competition. He visited New York in 1952 but returned to Paris a short time later accompanied by trombonist J.J. Johnson. Distel also befriended Billy Byers, and the two shared a Paris apartment for a time.
His first recording session was in 1953, with the Raymond Le Senechal Sextet, for Vogue. Throughout the '50s, Distel recorded as a sideman with European artists and touring American jazz musicians. He also recorded as a leader.
In 1957, Distel began a singing career after Henri Salvador played him an album of Frank Sinatra's. In 1961, Distel was asked by Roger Vadim to write a melody for a film. Distel penned a melody called Marina, and it was then given to an American publisher. In the U.S., songwriter Jack Reardon wrote English lyrics, and the song became The Good Life, a megahit recorded by Tony Bennett and just about everyone else with a record deal.
In 1968, Distel recorded a big band album with Slide Hampton. Throughout the years that followed, Distel made dozens of albums as a pop vocalist—many featuring American songs sung in French. Distel's suave voice and easygoing smile won the hearts of French television audiences, giving familiar songs new meaning with his seductive, masculine delivery.
Distel was romantically linked with Brigitte Bardot in the late 1950s and rejected her marriage proposal, fearing that his career would always be in her shadow. He was married in 1963 to Francine Bréaud. For more on Distel, go here.
Distel died in 2004 after a long illness. Throughout his career, he was all class and had impeccable taste, transporting what he had learned on the jazz guitar to his singing voice. And like Nat King Cole, few could resist Distel's seductive smile.
JazzWax tracks: On the jazz side, Distel recorded several important albums, including Afternoon in Paris with John Lewis, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke with Barney Wilen on tenor sax in December 1956. Bassist Pierre Michelot replaced Heath on one of the sessions. You'll find this one here.
Many of Distel's French sessions in the '50s are available on Sacha Distel: Jazz Guitarist (EmArcy). This two-CD set is part of the Jazz in Paris series and includes Distel's live single with Hubert Fol at the Apollo Theater in Paris (Half Nelson and I'll Remember April). Also included in the set are Distel's leadership dates in 1956, including sessions with Gene Di Novi (p) George Duvivier (b) and Charles Saudrais (d). This CD can be found here.
The Bobby Jaspar sessions in 1957 are on the above album, as is the exceedingly rare Slide Hampton session in 1968, Back to Jazz With Slide Hampton, originally released on Pathe-Marconi.
For the pop singing side of Distel, type his name into Amazon or iTunes and sample tracks. If you love Paris, you're in for a treat. Distel's voice was always modern, smooth and tremendously inviting.
A special JazzWax thanks to David Langner.
JazzWax clips: Here's Sacha Distel and John Lewis...
Here's Distel with Johanna Shimkus singing Something Stupid (talk about chemistry!)...
Here's Distel singing The Good Life—his melody and Jack Reardon's lyrics...
And here's Distel with Louis Armstrong in 1968...