It was in the middle of the Second World War that the first version of what was to become the Compagnons de la Chanson was born. It all started in 1941 in Lyons in the demilitarised zone, when a choir leader, Louis Liebard created a group composed of young people born into the Compagnons de France (a craftsman's guild) which he called the Compagnons de la musique. During this period they toured around Central France with a very folk repertoire. Liebard was very rigorous and taught them an infallible technique and artistic discipline. Among the original members there was : Jean-Louis Jaubert (his real name was Jacob, born in 1920), Hubert Lancelot (born in '23), Guy Bourguignon, son of a banker (born in '20), Jean Albert, the comedian of the group nicknamed "le petit rouquin"(the little redhead), Marc Herrand (his real name was Holtz). Other youths belonged to the group but disappeared at the end of the war. In 1943, it was the son of an Italian immigrant, Fred Mella (born in '24) who joined the group to escape from the Germans. Endowed with an exceptional voice, he quickly became the soloist of the group instead of beginning the lyrical career of his dreams.
In 1944, they gave one of their first Parisian shows at the Comedie Francaise. A den of classic theatre, this place was not at all devoted to Music Hall events but it was the actor Louis Seigner who asked the young singers to give a recital for an exceptional benefit gala for the railwaymen. During this evening, rich in top attractions, the star was none other than Edith Piaf. Thrilled by the vocal quality of the Compagnons, she quickly decided to take them in hand and modernise their repertoire.
At the Liberation, the Compagnons joined up and were in the choir of the Army Theatre. This is how they followed the troops of the First Army under General de Lattre who was still fighting in the North of France. It was at this time that they were joined by Jo Frachon and Gerard Sabat (born in '26). In 1946, their collaboration with Louis Liebard ended. Now eight members, the Compagnons took their career in hand. The final make up of the group took shape: Fred Mella, Jean-Louis Jaubert, Guy Bourguignon, Marc Herrand, Jean Albert, Jo Frachon, Gerard Sabbat et Hubert Lancelot. In Septembre '46, the list was complete with the arrival of Paul Buissonneau.
What triggered success with a large public was in 1946 when Piaf decided to sing "Les Trois Cloches" with them, a song written by the Swiss songwriter Gilles. Thanks to this "duet" the Compagnons now known as the Compagnons de la Chanson, became an overnight success. The song sold a million copies. All dressed in the classic white shirt and blue trousers, they found themselves quickly admired by a large audience throughout France. It didn't take long for their audience to become international when Piaf decided to take them on tour with her to the United States. This is how they discovered New York. Introduced by Piaf, they were received like stars. Their first trip lasted no less than five months after which the troop returned to Europe on the luxurious oceanliner the Queen Mary.
As of October '48, they returned to the other side of the Atlantic this time going towards Hollywood where they sang in the biggest "in " spots in town.
In 1949, during a tour of Quebec, two of them got married there. Fred Mella married Suzanne, an actress. As for Paul Buissoneau, not only did he marry a young Quebecoise but he left the Compagnons to live in Montreal. He was replaced by Fred Mella's younger brother Rene. Born in 1926, the young man initially integrated into the group for a short time only. Finally, he stayed until the end.
The Compagnons started on the 1950's at the ABC, a famous Parisian venue of the time. Contrary to shows today where the headliner is hardly accompanied in the opening act, the 9 Compagnons were surrounded by numerous acts which went from American Stars (Felix Leclerc and Jacqueline Francois) to acrobatic and tightrope acts. Edith Piaf was in the front row, faithful among the faithful like she would always be.
In 1951, the group went on stage at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. That same year they planned to make a film about themselves with the Petits chanteurs a la croix de bois who would portray them as children. In 1946, they had already played in "Neuf garcons, un cA"ur". In '52 they went back to the United States for a new tour. Then back to Pleyel in '53.
The tours followed one another at a rhythm that didn't often slow down throughout their career. They also recorded a lot and released record after record with each one selling better than the last. With Piaf, they recorded several hits: "Celine", "Dans les prisons de Nantes" in '46, "C'est pour ca" in '47, (title song from the film "Neuf garcons, un cA"ur"). During the Fifties, success followed starting with "le Galerien" in 50, whose music was written by Leo Poll, the father of French musician Michel Polnareff.
In 1952, Jean Broussolle joined the Compagnons following the unexpected departure of Marc Herrand who took up his old job as a band leader. The group gained a real writer but also an adapter. In fact one of the group's specialities was to do the hits of the moment, French or foreign. Their repertoire was also partly made up of cover songs.
The Fifties passed with their tours (often American) and with the family life of each member, marriages, children, joys and pains.
Travels and Tours
In 1956, a new departure of one of the Compagnons. This time it was Jean Albert who decided to try a solo career. He was replaced by Jean-Pierre Calvet, a young guitarist with a nice voice who joined the ranks. In February of that year, the entire troop went on stage at the Alhambra, the mythical Parisian Hall of the time. A month later they found themselves at the Gaite Music Hall in an operetta called "Minnie Moustache", co-written by Jean Broussolle.
During the 1950's, the Compagnons gathered the hits: "Lettre a Virginie" (Jean Constantin) and "le Violon de tante Estelle" (Broussolle) in 55, "San Francisco" in 56 (Broussolle-Van Parys), "Gondolier" in 57 (Broussolle-De Angelis), "Guitares et tambourins" (Broussolle-De Angelis-Marcucci) and "Si tu vas a Rio" (adapt.Broussolle) in 58 and "le Marchand de bonheur" in 59 (Broussolle-Calvet).
After some 25 years in the business and an almost communal life during long tour periods, the Compagnons established a very organised life. Each member saw himself with specific responsibilities and tasks bestowed upon him in order to facilitate their often busy schedule: contracts and public relations (Jaubert), stage direction (Bourguignon), treasury and lighting (Sabbat) and stage costumes (Rene Mella). Broussolle wrote and arranged the songs (sometimes helped in by Calvet in the composition), Lancelot wrote the group's memoires. Nothing was left to chance and everything was controlled meticulously. Payment was governed by seniority and the contract which linked the nine members was exclusively moral. These specific rules and this wise distribution of roles were certainly the main key factors of the Compagnons longevity.
On January 26, 1961 the Compagnons celebrated their 25th anniversay at Bobino in Paris, the stage that they would visit again almost a year later to the day on February 8th, 1962. Despite the trend of rock, French pop music, the twist and the jerk, the nine singers would serenely pursue their solid career without ever really being worried by the music trends followed by their young public. The Sixties was a prosperous period for the Compagnons. Their success was so established in France and abroad that they had no trouble filling the halls. After 15 years with Pathe Marconi records, the group signed with Polydor, in 1962, who offered them a golden contract.
After having sung many many times at the ABC in the 1950's, the Compagnons headlined at the Bobino for the first time in 1962. Then in March '64, they played at the Olympia in Paris for five weeks before heading out on a world tour. They gave 25 concerts in the USSR, then in Israel for the fourth time, they toured a long time in Africa and went to Canada and the United States for the umpteenth time. In New York it was on the largest American stage that they endorsed their repertoire. At this time the Compagnons were selling about 500,000 records a year! Following the example of the Fifties, success followed as early as 1960: "Verte campagne" ('60), "Romeo" ('61), "Un Mexicain" ('62), "la Chanson de Lara" ('66), "En ecoutant mon coeur chanter" ('67) and "Quand la mer monte" ('68).
Good friends with Charles Aznavour, the Compagnons did a lot of his songs over their career such as "la Mamma", "Que c'est triste Venise" or "Sur ma vie". But Aznavour also co-wrote some songs with Jean Broussolle ("Un Mexicain", "Romeo").
The final stretch
From Paris, the Compagnons continued to tour the continents tirelessly. This life on tour was gratifying and exhausting at the same time. Each year or nearly, a new season began. On October 4th, 1969 began the '69-'70 tour. But something strange was in the air seeing that Guy Bourguignon passed away on December 31st. The Compagnons continued with eight members having decided not to replace their deceased friend. So in the spring they returned to Quebec where they were very popular.
In '72 Jean Broussolle left the group. He kept his job as writer and wrote for Sacha Distel among others. This time the Compagnons found Michel Cassez(also known as Gaston) to replace him. The youngest of the octet, Gaston was a multi-instrumentalist who became famous through Claude Francois.
So it was in a tiny bit younger form that the Compagnons pursued their path throughout the Seventies. Israel in '72, Paris in '75 and Japan in '79, not one year without national or international appearances. In 1973 they returned to Bobino after a three-year absence. Some new writers-composers appeared in their repertoire of which the duo Jean-Claude Massoulier/Andre Popp, and even, Michel Mella, Fred's son. But the Compagnons still sang a lot of arrangements like "la Marche de Sacco et Vanzetti" ('71) or "Parle plus bas (from the film "The Godfather" in '72). After the departure of Jean Broussolle, Jean-Pierre Calvet continued writing certain songs and the new arrival, Gaston, co-wrote certain songs like ( "Mouche", "On se quitte", "On a deja vu ca").
As they were approaching the 40-year career mark, the Compagnons were thinking about their retirement. That is how in 1980 they announced their farewell tour.. It would last almost five years!
In '82, shortly after a series of concerts across France, Belgium and Switzerland, Fred Mella underwent a heart operation. This aside didn't put the brakes on their career because they took to the road for a new farewell tour, which confirmed that their popularity was intact. This time it was really the end of their common road. On August 30th, 1983, they gave their final concert at the Olympia, which they sold out for the last time for five weeks. That year they went to the USA, Canada, Egypt, and Israel where they were begged to come once more. The final concert was held on March 15th, 1985.
Each member has since then devoted time to his favourite activity: Jean-Louis Jaubert to football (soccer) as an active member of the French Football Federation, Gerard Sabbat dreamed of the theatre, Jean-Pierre Calvet and Gaston worked in television, Rene Mella devoted his time to building construction and Jo Frachon became the host of a famous television game show. But none of them really stayed in the music business except for Fred Mella who had a hard time leaving it behind. This was how in 1987, he started a production company, gave several solo concerts and made some television appearances. But nothing was long-lasting. He also devoted himself to painting.
In 1989, Jean-Pierre Calvet died at 62. In '92, it was Jo Frachon who passed away. The Compagnons now belonged to the history of French music that they helped build over 40 years, 400 songs and 8000 galas. Today the countless compilations still being released continue to sell. In '89, Hubert Lancelot, archivist of the group, published a book on the epic of the Compagnons entitled "Nous, les Compagnons".
President Francois Mitterrand wanted "L'enfant aux cymbales" to be played at his funeral. That was in January 1996.