It is difficult to pin the multi-talented Michel Legrand down into one single category. This amazingly versatile French singer, songwriter, composer, arranger, conductor and producer has enjoyed a whirlwind career, excelling in an impressively broad range of domains from film soundtracks and French 'chanson' to jazz and classical music. An international star, who has won as much respect in the States as he has in Europe, Legrand is an insatiable musician whose creativity and ambition appear to know no bounds.
Michel Legrand was born in Bécon-les-Bruyères, in the Paris suburbs, on 24 February 1932. His mother, Marcelle der Mikaelian (sister of the singer Jacques Hélian) was descended from the Armenian bourgeoisie. In 1929, she married Raymond Legrand, a French musician renowned for hits such as "Irma la douce." The couple eventually got divorced in 1946, but in reality Legrand had already left the family home in 1935. He went on to marry again, three times, providing four half-brothers and sisters for Michel.
Michel spent a rather solitary childhood, growing up with his sister, Christiane (born in 1930). He revealed a prodigious musical talent at an early age, playing the piano when he was just four years old. As a child, he was fascinated by a film about the life of composer Franz Schubert (played on screen by Tino Rossi). Michel eventually went on to train at the Paris Conservatoire in 1942. He spent seven years there, studying under renowned teachers such as Nadia Boulanger, Henri Challan, Noël Gallon and Lucette Descaves. The young prodigy went on to win numerous awards for his skills in counterpoint, piano, fugue and 'solfège' (an award he received on 6 June 1944).
1945: All that jazz
In the immediate post-war years, Michel Legrand discovered a new passion: jazz. The moment that triggered off this musical conversion was when he attended a concert by Dizzy Gillespie – and left, totally blown away by what he had seen! By the time he graduated from the Conservatoire in 1949, Legrand had mastered a dozen instruments. And he found himself launched straight into the world of French 'chanson,' thanks to introductions from his father (with whom he had renewed ties by this point). The gifted teenager was soon working as an accompanist to many of the major French stars of the day including Henri Salvador, Juliette Gréco, Zizi Jeanmaire and Catherine Sauvage.
In 1954, Legrand stepped from the accompanying shadows centre stage when the American record label Columbia-EMI commissioned him to make an album of English adaptations of French classics. The album "I Love Paris" went on to sell a staggering 8 million copies, turning Legrand into an overnight star both at home and abroad. It was at this point that legendary French 'chanson' star Maurice Chevalier approached Legrand and offered him a post as his musical director. Legrand accepted and, in Chevalier's company, flew across the Atlantic, discovering the States in the course of numerous tours.
Meanwhile, Legrand's own solo career continued to go from strength to strength. He recorded a whole string of albums: "Holiday In Rome" (1955), "Michel Legrand Plays Cole Porter" (1957) and "Legrand In Rio" (1958), all released on the Philips label, directed by Jacques Canetti. One of the high points of Legrand's early recording career was his 1956 album recorded with Boris and Henri Salvador (aka Henri Cording) under the pseudonym Big Mike – a nickname Jean Cocteau had bestowed upon him! The following year, Legrand was invited to the USSR to perform at the Student Youth Festival. It was on this trip that he met his future wife, a young French model with who he went on to have three children (Hervé, Benjamin and Emilie).
In 1958, Legrand headed back across the Atlantic to the States and spent valuable time in New York, directing studio sessions where he mixed with the crème de la crème of the jazz world, working with the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Ben Webster. The album "Legrand Jazz" was a result of this white-hot jazz period.
1960: The French New Wave
In 1955, Michel Legrand branched out in a new direction, writing the music for Henri Verneuil's film "Amants du Tage," under the pseudonym Lucien Legrand. But Legrand's involvement in the world of French cinema really began in earnest in the late 50s when he was caught up in the French New Wave. Working in close collaboration with a new breed of French directors, Legrand kept up a hectic non-stop schedule, composing soundtracks for up to a dozen feature films and television films a year.
Between 1961 and 1967, Legrand scored seven films for Jean-Luc Godard (including "Bande à part", "La Chinoise" and "Vivre sa vie"). In 1961, he also wrote (and performed) the soundtrack to Agnès Varda's New Wave classic "Cléo de 5 à 7." That same year, Legrand began working with Varda's husband, the renowned French film director Jacques Demy. Together, the pair would work on ten major feature films between 1961 ("Lola") and 1988 ("Trois places pour le 26"). The high points of this collaboration were "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg" (which won the coveted 'Palme d'or' award at Cannes in 1964), "Les Demoiselles de Rochefort" (1967) and "Peau d'Âne" (1970). In short, Michel Legrand was responsible for creating a new - either much-loved or much-hated - genre in the French film world: the musical!
Besides working with the most avant-garde directors of the "Nouvelle Vague", Legrand also collaborated with a number of more 'traditional' French film-makers such as Gilles Grangier and Yves Allégret. He soon found himself in great demand abroad, too. The first foreign director to recognise Legrand's talent was Joseph Losey (for whom Legrand scored "Eva" in 1962). Losey and Legrand subsequently worked together on another three occasions, most famously for "The Go-Between" (which won the 'Palme d'or' at the Cannes film festival in 1971).
1964: French Chanson
Legrand had long been familiar with the French 'chanson' world, having accompanied some of its biggest stars when he was a young 20-year-old just starting out in the business. He had also put in several years at the Philips label, orchestrating countless songs for the big names of the day. When Legrand met the famous Toulousan singer Claude Nougaro in 1962, the two men hit it off immediately thanks to their shared passion for jazz. The pair even went on to write a number of Nougaro classics together including "Les Dom Juan" and "Le Cinéma." Legrand also went on to compose and arrange material for Serge Reggiani in 1970 and he worked with Yves Montand, too, composing hits such as "Coucher avec elle." Meanwhile, Legrand's songs were covered by a number of international stars from Liza Minnelli to Greek diva Nana Mouskouri.
But it was Jacques Brel, a singer for whom Legrand had written arrangements in the 50s, that was to play a decisive role in Legrand's career , for Brel was the one that persuaded him to get up behind the microphone and start performing his own work. As early as 1964, Legrand began building his own repertoire with a helping hand from Eddy Marnay and Jean Dréjac (for the lyrics). Over the following years, he would also work with the likes of Jean-Loup Dabadie, Boris Bergman, Jean Guidoni and novelist (and occasional songwriter) Françoise Sagan.
1966: Big in the States
Ever eager to branch out and conquer new territory, Michel Legrand set off for Los Angeles in 1966, with his wife and three children in tow. He spent three years there, which turned out to be an amazingly productive period for him. In 1968, Legrand sat down and wrote the soundtrack to Norman Jewison's swinging 60s film "The Thomas Crown Affair." The theme tune from the movie, "The Windmills Of Your Mind", ("Les Moulins de mon cœur") which featured French lyrics by Eddy Marnay and English lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman went on to become a huge hit. In fact, Legrand ended up scooping the Oscar for Best Film Theme Song in 1969. What's more, he won another famous gold statue two years later for Best Film Music thanks to "The Summer of '42", a film which was famous for its theme song "The Summer Knows" (French lyrics by Jean Dréjac, English lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman) performed by Barbra Streisand.
Needless to say, Michel Legrand went on to become a major star in the U.S. Indeed, he soon became such a household name that he was soon invited to appear on all the prime time chat shows from The Maurice Chevalier Show and The Danny Kaye Show to The Shirley Bassey Special. Legrand, who was nominated for a Grammy Award no less than 27 times, carried off the prestigious prize five times between 1971 and 1975.
America at that time also meant jazz, of course. And, jazz being one of Legrand's greatest passions in life, he went on to perform several concerts with Ray Brown in 1968 in the famous L.A. club, Shelly's Manne-Hole. The album, "Verve", was produced as a result of this.
1970s-1980s: Legrand, a veritable one-man band
Legrand's astounding versatility continued, if anything increasing over the years. He took his film work to new heights, working with Clint Eastwood in 1973 and Orson Welles in 1976. Legrand also maintained his involvement with homegrown French talent, working with Jacques Deray ("La Piscine", 1968), Jean-Paul Rappeneau ("Les Mariés de l'an II", 1971 and "Le Sauvage", 1975), Costa-Gavras, Elie Chouraqui, Claude Lelouch ("Les Uns et les autres", 1981) and Louis Malle ("Atlantic City", 1981). In 1983, his theme tune to Barbra Streisand’s movie "Yentl" (written in collaboration with Alan and Marilyn Bergman for the lyrics), won him yet another Oscar. Later that same year, Legrand wrote the score for "Never Say Never Again" (the last James Bond film starring Sean Connery). Meanwhile, he also extended his work to the theatre, writing the music for Jean-Louis Barrault’s play "Jarry sur la butte" (1970) and "Monte Cristo" in 1975.
In January 1972, Legrand took to the stage in his own right, performing a successful run at the Olympia (in Paris) with the singer Caterina Valente. In 1975, he gave a helping hand to a young unknown singer, Jean Guidoni, helping assure his promote him as a new talent.
In 1974, Michel Legrand suffered a blow in his personal life when he lost his father, Raymond Legrand.
In the 80s, Legrand chose to devote his time and energy to jazz, forming a trio with drummer André Ceccarelli and double-bass virtuoso Marc-Michel Le Bévillon. The threesome went on to make three albums together. In 1982, Legrand pulled off another major musical exploit, getting the two famous saxophonists, Phil Woods and Zoot Sims, together in the studio to make the album "After The Rain." Later that year, Legrand was responsible for organising the mega-Shirley Bassey show which opened Midem (the annual record industry fair in Cannes). His first solo album as a singer since 1972 was also released at this point.
In the late 80s, as part of the official celebrations for the Bicentenary of the French Revolution, Michel Legrand staged the première of his oratorio (based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) in Lyon. And he ended the decade branching out in a totally new direction, stepping behind the camera to direct his own film. "Cinq jours en juin", starring Sabine Azema and Annie Girardot, hit French cinema screens in 1989, but failed to make a major impact on cinema-goers or the critics.
1990s: Big band
Following his work as part of a jazz trio, Legrand changed musical format in the 90s, creating a big band which he took on several international tours in subsequent years, accompanying Ray Charles, Diana Ross and Icelandic pop diva Björk. He then went off to Suresnes to record an album with the orchestra (which featured a number of well-known musicians including the Belmondo brothers). The album was released in September 1999. Legrand also organised a show at the Olympia for French violinist Stéphane Grappelli who celebrated his 85th birthday in 1992. (A CD was released to mark the occasion).
In 1995, Michel Legrand got down to his composing work, writing new material for Jean Guidoni’s album "Vertigo". The pair took to the stage together at the Casino de Paris in 1996 for a joint show which won a coveted “Victoire de la musique” award. Throughout the 90s, Legrand returned to his classical roots on several occasions. He recorded several CDs with the trumpet-player Maurice André (in 1998 and 2004), staged performances of Erik Satie’s work three times (in 1993, 1999 and 2002) and conducted requiems by Fauré and Duruflé in 1994. In the meantime, a number of songs from his own repertoire were covered by the world-famous opera singer Kiri te Kanawa on an album entitled "Kiri Sings Michel Legrand."
In 1997, working in collaboration with the playwright Didier Van Cauwelaert, Legrand staged a new show "Le Passe Muraille" (based on Marcel Aymé’s work) at Les Bouffes Parisiens. The show proved to be a big hit with theatre-goers and Legrand also took "Le Passe Muraille" to Japan in 2000. But when, in 2002, he attempted to reinvent the show on Broadway in a new adaptation, "Amour", it proved to be a total flop.
2000 on: the tributes pour in
Various Legrand compilations have been available on the international scene since the 1980s. But in 2001, Mercury/Universal finally got round to releasing an official Legrand anthology, summing up the versatile singer-composer-musician’s career. The year before, a major tribute was staged to Michel Legrand when a bevy of stars performed his classics at an open-air concert in the courtyard of the Louvre as part of the annual "Fête de la musique." In 2003, Legrand received recognition at an even higher level, when he was presented with the ‘Légion d'honneur’. Snowed under with honours, music awards and Oscars, this formidable talent has never let fame go to his head or dull his prodigious artistic appetite.
In 2005, Universal Jazz released "Le Cinéma de Michel Legrand", a boxed set compilation featuring Legrand's best known film soundtracks. But Legrand himself appeared reluctant to focus on the past and was not involved in the production of this 'greatest film hits.' The 4 CD set proved to be a veritable musical treasure trove, however, featuring 90 tracks composed in the course of Legrand's 50-year career.
In June 2005, Legrand returned to the studio. This time round, it was not to compose his own work, however, but to pay tribute to his late friend and music colleague, the Toulousan singer Claude Nougaro (who died in 2004). Working with a number of leading jazz musicians and using tapes of Nougaro's voice, Legrand recorded new versions of many of the "Little Bull's" lesser-known songs which they had written together in the course of various collaborations. The album "Legrand Nougaro" also included reworkings of Nougaro classics such as "Don Juan", "Le Cinéma" and "Le Rouge et le Noir." The album, which proved to be more of a jazz extravaganza than a strictly 'chanson' affair, featured a special bonus, including a new song "Mon Dernier Concert" (which Nougaro had written before his death but never recorded himself).
© RFI Musique