Henri Salvador enjoyed one of the longest careers of any French cabaret artist, debuting professionally in the mid-'30s and recording — with satisfying results — all the way into the new millennium. For much of his career, Salvador was known for his jazzy guitar work, his comic talents, and novelty songs, and a distinct Brazilian influence in his brand of chanson. A star in France since the end of World War II, Salvador shifted into children's music for much of the '70s before reclaiming his old audience. He reinvented himself again with 2000's Chambre Avec Vue, a gentle, nostalgic collection of love songs that, thanks in part to the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, was reissued in America by the legendary jazz label Blue Note.
Salvador was born on July 18, 1917, in Cayenne, French Guiana. His father came from Spanish stock and his mother was descended from Caribbean natives, and both had been born on the island of Guadeloupe. The family moved to Paris when Salvador was seven, and at age 11, he discovered American jazz via Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. He started playing the guitar, influenced primarily by the great gypsy jazzman Django Reinhardt, and at age 16 landed his first professional gig with Paul Raiss' orchestra. In 1935, he began performing with a jazz quartet at Jimmy's Bar, a popular cabaret. In addition to establishing his talents as a comedian, this exposure led to a gig with American violinist Eddy South in 1936, and also a meeting with his idol Django Reinhardt, for whom he served as accompanist for a brief period.
Salvador's promising career was interrupted by World War II; he enlisted in the military in 1937 and served for four years. He quickly found work with Bernard Hilda's Cannes-based jazz orchestra, and from there was hired by orchestra leader Ray Ventura for his comic presence. Ventura's group spent much of the remainder of World War II touring South America, particularly Brazil, with an act highlighted by Salvador's vocal impressions of Popeye. He performed his first solo shows in Brazil in 1942, and when he returned to France after the war in 1945, he decided to embark on a solo career.
Salvador's time in Brazil helped him break away from his dominant Reinhardt influence, and he incorporated elements of samba into much of his subsequent work. He started his own group and, in 1947, cut his first solo sides for Polydor, including "Clopin Clopant," "Maladie de l'Amour," and "Ma Doudou." The following year, he appeared in the operetta Le Chevalier Bayard alongside Yves Montand. In 1949, Salvador was awarded the prestigious Grand Prix du Disque de l'Académie Charles Cros on the strength of two hits, "Parce Que Ça Me Donne du Courage" and "Le Portrait de Tante Caroline." He followed them with one of his all-time classics, "Le Loup, la Biche, et le Chevalier (Une Chanson Douce)."
Salvador spent much of the early '50s giving live performances, both in France and abroad. He moved over to the Philips label in 1952 and issued the LP À Pleyel in 1955. Late the following year, he made his first appearance in the United States, right in the midst of the rock & roll craze. After appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, Salvador returned to France and hooked up with songwriting partner Boris Vian. Adopting the pseudonym Henri Cording, Salvador began writing rock & roll songs with Vian and recording them with a group dubbed the Original Rock and Roll Boys. Oddly humorous novelty numbers like "Rock and Roll Mops" and "Le Blues du Dentiste" gave France some of its earliest exposure to the new music. Salvador moved to the Barclay label in 1958, but unfortunately, Vian passed away the following year, having collaborated on over 400 songs with Salvador in their brief but hugely productive partnership.
Salvador soldiered on, culling another live album, Alhambra, from his performances at the titular venue in 1960. He embarked on a successful 12-week run on Italian television in 1961, which encouraged him to concentrate almost exclusively on that medium for his live performances. He and his wife Jacqueline started their own music publishing company and label, Disques Salvador, and he quickly boosted them with a hit, "Le Lion Est Mort Ce Soir," in 1962. He followed that with the Monsieur Boum Boum LP in 1963, and subsequently started a new label, Rigolo, that would be the home of a series of hit singles from 1964-1968: "Syracuse," "Zorro Est Arrivé" (an adaptation of the Coasters' "Along Came Jones"), "Le Travail C'est le Santé," "Juanita Banana," "Veunise," "Quand Faut Y Aller, Faut Y Aller," and "Mon Pote le Blues," among several others. Salvador closed out the '60s with a series of popular television specials, as well as the LP C'est Beau de Faire un Show in 1969.
In 1971, Salvador morphed into a children's singer with an original song that recounted the plot of the Disney film The Aristocats. The resulting album, Henri Salvador Chante 'Les Aristochats' et le Monde Merveilleux de Disney, helped him win his second Grand Prix du Disque. Over the next five years, Salvador recorded five more children's albums that relied heavily on Disney films, in particular tackling Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Robin Hood, and Pinocchio; he also made recordings of LaFontaine's fables. Following his wife's death in 1976, Salvador returned to adult music, issuing two albums — Salvador 77 and Les Canotiers — over the next two years. In 1979, he recorded Salvador/Vian, a tribute album for Boris Vian that revisited 12 of their best-known works. Salvador en Fête followed in 1980, recapping some of his most celebrated moments on record.
After this burst of activity, Salvador slowed his pace a bit, concentrating more on television performances and his return to the concert stage in 1982. The latter was documented on the double-album Live du Spectacle de la Porte de Pantin. In 1984, Salvador retired his label — in part because his wife had always handled most of its everyday operation — and signed with EMI/Pathé Marconi, for whom he debuted with 1985's all-new Henri. The French songwriters union SACEM honored him with its Grand Prix de l'Humour in 1987, and the following year he was knighted as a Chevalier in the Legion d'Honneur. A new album, Des Goûts et des Couleurs, appeared in 1989 and proved to be his last for EMI.
Salvador kicked off the '90s by returning to his roots in jazz and blues. He appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1991, and two years later performed with the great French jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani. In 1994, he signed a new deal with Sony and traveled to New York to record the jazzy Monsieur Henri album; the live Casino de Paris followed a year later. In 1996, he received a special lifetime achievement award at the Victoires de la Musique Awards, where he performed a duet with Ray Charles.
After resting comfortably on his laurels for several years, Salvador returned to recording in 2000 with Chambre Avec Vue, a high-profile comeback that featured a number of promising young songwriters, a duet with Françoise Hardy, and some of Salvador's first self-penned material in quite some time. A gentle, delicate, romantic fusion of French pop and bossa nova, Chambre Avec Vue was a huge hit with the French public; it also won him Best Male Artist and Album of the Year awards at the Victoires de la Musique. The recent success of the Buena Vista Social Club album and documentary in America had suddenly made hot commodities of older foreign musicians, and in 2002, Blue Note reissued Salvador's album under its English title, Room with a View. Meanwhile, Salvador embarked on a triumphant tour of France and, later, North America. He returned with a similar-sounding follow-up, Ma Chère et Tendre, in 2003, and three years later Révérence, an album that was recorded mostly in Brazil and included duets with Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, came out. Henri Salvador died at age 90 from a ruptured aneurysm at his home in Paris on February 13, 2008. ~ Steve Huey