Nino Ferrer (born Nino Agostino Arturo Maria Ferrari in Genua, Italy, August 15, 1934. Died in Quercy Blanc, Saint-Cyprien Lot, Montcuq, August 13, 1998) was a famous French - Italian singer, actor and jazz musician.
From prehistory to jazz
The son of bourgeois parents, an Italian father and a French mother, Nino declared having had a pleasant childhood in a cultivated art-loving family. He spent the first five years of his life in New Caledonia where his father, an engineer, worked in a nickel mine. On holiday in France in 1939, Nino and his mother were unable to leave Europe because of the WWII. While his father carried on working in New Caledonia, they spent difficult years stuck and penniless in Italy, where Nino’s mother was considered the wife of an enemy.
In 1947, the family, re-united and moved to France. Nino was sent to the best colleges in Paris and earned a degree in ethnology and prehistoric archaeology. As a student, much of his free time was spent on archaeological digs and his first job was at the Musée de l'Homme with André Leroi-Gourhan.
Alongside his passion for history, he developed numerous other interests. He became a keen painter, and remained so until his death. Above all, he learned to play several instruments (piano, guitar, clarinet, trombone and trumpet) and composed, wrote lyrics and became a fervent jazz lover.
When he finished his studies, his grandmother offered him a trip to New Caledonia, a gift he took advantage of by going round the world on a cargo ship and taking part in archaeological work on the Isle des Pins in Melanesia. On his return to Paris, he tried several jobs, but everything was uninteresting and poorly paid. Already thinking about a career in music, he finally took the plunge and began accompanying jazz musicians, first of all Richard Bennett and the Dixiecats, then Bill Coleman.
From jazz to rhythm ’n’ blues
At the beginning of the 60s, he worked for several years with American singer Nancy Holloway as her guitarist, continuing at the same time to write gospel-inspired songs which received only refusals from most of the record companies. Hearing Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Sam and Dave for the first time was a musical revelation and transformed his writing style.
Although already spotted by the Barclay record label, he had to wait until 1963 to record his first release, "Pour oublier qu’on s’est aimé". He was 29, whereas most of the young stars of the time were hardly 20. It was a four-track EP, written in a fairly classical vein, and did not sell well in France. However, one of the tracks, "l’Irréparable, was a hit in some European countries, in Japan and even in the Middle East, where he did a week of concerts in Beyrouth.
Having left Barclay for a small label, Bel Air, Nino was still unknown in France. In 1964, he started a gospel group, Reverend Nino and the Jubilees, but it broke up before recording anything worth being released. Nino went on to bring out several solo singles without success.
From "Mirza" to "Je veux être noir"
After so many lean years, the big break came unexpectedly in 1965 when Nino returned to Barclay, who gave him the chance to record his new material. After a few unsuccessful trials, a new artistic director, Richard Bennett, gave Nino free rein to record his compositions as he wanted.
And so Nino Ferrer recorded "Mirza", an effective cocktail of rhythm ‘n’ blues and caustic lyrics. The song was immediately a huge hit. His record company called for more songs in the same vein. His records sold very well and from one day to another, the young singer became an idol. Now the zany singer in vogue, he followed "Mirza" up with "Les Cornichons" and "Oh! Hé! Hein! Bon". Although he was now very popular, his success was founded on material with which he never felt really comfortable. Nevertheless, hit followed hit and he lived his new life as a star at breakneck rhythm. In 1966, he gave 195 live performances and made nearly thirty TV appearances. He soon grew tired of his deliberately blasé and provocative seducer image of which people compared to Jacques Dutronc.
In 1966 he released "le Téléfon", another hit which people are still dancing to thirty years later. However, despite his success, Ferrer, a straightforward, uncomplicated person, grew disenchanted with show business. Little disposed to compromise, he left Paris for Italy where, at the same time, his song "Je veux être noir", was a success of an entirely different kind.
A change of direction
Smothered by his own success, Nino stayed about three years in Italy, from 1967 to 1970. In France, his releases continued to sell well. His lyrics became increasingly iconoclastic, even politicised, while remaining just as sarcastic or even cynical. In 1967, he brought out "Mao et Moa" and "Mon copain Bismarck" and in 1968, "le Roi d’Angleterre", with biting lyrics echoing his irritation with show business and society in general. Around this time, Nino hired a young organist from Cameroon, Manu Dibango, later to become famous as a saxophonist.
In Italy, Nino became notorious in 1969 as the presenter of the satirical TV variety show, "Io, Agata e tu" with Raffaella Carrà. Then, after a brief love affair with Brigitte Bardot, he decided to return to France in 1970.
Determined now to conduct his career as he alone saw fit, he took up residence in the Quercy region in the South West of France and began breeding horses. But music remained his first love and his meeting with Englishman Mickey Finn, a guitarist who had played with T. Rex, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, changed his attitude towards his work. With Finn, Nino launched into rock music and began to write darker, more personal lyrics.
Albums and hits
1972 saw the release of the "Métronomie" album, considered by Ferrer to be his first ‘real’ album. Very much in the style of the time, the album was conceived as an ‘experience’, with the music accompanied by sound effects, but included a new version of his very first release, "Pour oublier qu’on s’est aimé". However, it was not the album which sold but one of its tracks, "la Maison près de la fontaine". Very different from the rest of the album, the single sold more than 500,000 copies. Yet again, the red carpet was unrolled for Nino which only redoubled his contempt for show business.
Ferrer continued to bring out almost an album per year. One hit track was enough to enable him to carry on doing more or less what he wanted, even if commercially the albums were seldom successful. In 1973, Nino started a part-time group with Mickey Finn and other musicians. Together, they recorded "Nino and Leggs", an entirely rock and roll album. The disc did not sell and Nino left the Barclay label for CBS. The following year, he released an album entirely in English, "Nino and Radiah". Radiah Frye is the young American singer on the album sleeve. Only one track was in French: "le Sud", one of Ferrer’s biggest hits. Now a standard of the French repertoire, "le Sud" is in fact only one version of a song originally written in English. When it was released, it was a huge hit, selling over a million copies. But Nino was not satisfied. Once again, the success of one track had overshadowed all the hard work on the rest of the album.
The following year, Nino Ferrer brought out a new album, "Suite en œuf", a commercial flop. The same was true of "Véritables vérités verdâtres, released in 1977 and which marked his departure from CBS.
Return and retirement
The success of "le Sud" nevertheless enabled Ferrer to buy a house in the Quercy region. In 1976, he moved into a 15th century fortress at Lataillade, where he installed a recording studio and continued raising horses and painting. In 1978, he married Jacqueline Monestier, known as Kinou.
Now without a record company, Ferrer released each new album on a different label. In 1979, he brought out "Blanat" on a small independent label, Free Bird. A very gospel inspired, even jazz orientated, the album had both English and French lyrics, as often before. The same year, Ferrer met Jacques Higelin, and went on tour with him. The rock singer’s crazy imagination and powerful personality seduced Ferrer and encouraged him to perform live again, a practice he had abandoned a long time before. Following this tour, he played in Paris at the Bataclan with Paul Personne’s backing group.
The 1981 album, on the WEA label, "la Carmencita", was mostly made up of old material. In contrast, the following release, "Ex-Libris", was entirely new and written as a tribute to his father. 1981 was a year both of return and departure. Ferrer brought out another rock and roll album in the Leggs vein, "Rock ‘n’ roll cowboy", and sang at l’Olympia, the most prestigious of the Paris music venues. Yet, that same year, Ferrer slammed the door on show business definitively.
Nevertheless, he appeared the following year in a stage musical for children, "L’Arche de Noé", at the Théâtre de l’Unité in Paris. Composer of the music, he also played God in this moderately successful show. From the end of 1984 until 1986, Ferrer totally disappeared from the music scene. He retired to his castle where he painted, had several exhibitions and brought up his two sons, Pierre and Arthur. Nevertheless, he recorded an album in 1986, soberly entitled, "13ème album", and whose release went almost unnoticed.
It was on the new FNAC label that Ferrer made his come-back in 1993. That year, he released an album of entirely original material, recorded for the most part at Lataillade and mixed in Toulouse. The sleeve and the lyrics were illustrated by the singer’s own paintings. Co-written with Mickey Finn, the album, as its title "La Désabusion" (a play on the words désabuser and illusion) suggests, marked only a half-hearted, morose return.
For around two years after "La Désabusion", Ferrer popped up in the news here and there. In 1994, he had an exhibition in Paris, published a collection of his writings and continued to promote the album. Then, from April to June 1995, he went on tour for the first time in years, with his faithful group, the Leggs. He was a guest at the Francofolies festival in la Rochelle in July. Also that year, he released a small ten-track album of original material recorded at home. A genuine family effort, recorded between 1987 and 1992, it includes versions of old hits such as "Mirza" and "le Sud", traditional folk songs ("Il pleut bergère", "Besame Mucho"), all of them sung by his wife Kinou, his son Arthur, Mickey Finn and numerous other musicians.
But after this media interlude, Ferrer was glad to return to his house, his animals, his family and his mother, Mounette, who had moved in with them. There followed another period of silence spent in the company of family and friends and helping Arthur, now a student like his brother, to prepare a début album. In July 1998, Mounette’s death left a vacuum in his life. A month later, on August 13th, Ferrer shot himself in the heart in the middle of a cornfield a few kilometres from his home, two days before his 64th birthday.
An unpredictable, moody character, Ferrer refused artistic compromise. But this unwillingness to compromise produced songs as different as "les Cornichons" and "le Sud." He left behind several indelible traces in French musical heritage, not forgetting numerous songs now hardly known.
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