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Last Updated: Friday, 23 July, 2004, 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK
France remembers a showbiz legend
By Hugh Schofield
in Paris

In Britain Sacha Distel will always be remembered as a stalwart of Saturday night shows and royal gala performances.

Sacha Distel at Cafe de Paris in London
Distel continued to perform in his later years
He was the tanned Gallic charmer who - along with Charles Aznavour - carried out a brief cross-Channel invasion of the UK's television screens in the 1970s.

In France, memories go back further - to the guitarist of renown who played with the greats in the exciting jazz scene of post-war Paris.

He was also the consort of Brigitte Bardot, who had a string of hits in the 1960s, and the host of the iconic Sacha Show, which ran for ten years and was the launch-pad for many a career in French showbiz.

French newspapers carried pages of tributes on Friday, with photographs from his glory days and reminiscences from friends and fans.

Jazz star

Liberation was one of many to make the point that if Distel is best remembered today as a variety crooner, his roots were in serious music.

For many years he was regarded as the best jazz guitarist in the land.

Sacha Distel started off as a jazz guitarist
Distel's song Scoubidou was a hit in 1958
"At a time when in Europe guitarists - outside the gypsy choruses of Django Reinhardt - were seen as beyond salvation, Distel had the balls to cross the Atlantic in search of influences - like the fluid playing of Barney Kessel and Jimmy Raney - which no-one over here had even heard of," it said.

Indeed Sacha Distel was far more than just a set of perfect looks.

Born into a musical family in Paris, his uncle was the band leader Ray Ventura, and he took his first guitar lessons from Henri Salvador - a crooner who is still going strong today.

"He asked me what the guitar was for, and I said, 'To get girls!' And that was that," Salvador was widely quoted as saying on Friday.

"Already when he was very young, he was incredibly good looking. The girls used to swoon in front of him."

After the war, Distel immersed himself in jazz. He went to New York and on his return was the guitar accompanist for Juliette Greco.

Mass appeal

He only moved into song in 1958, with his smash hit Scoubidou - a working of a Peggy Lee number whose title was intended as a French variant on the American scat line Shoo Bidoo Wa.

Sacha Distel with Brazilian singer Laura Villa in 1962
Distel (right) was a heart-throb to women around the world

That was the beginning of his mass appeal in France - and he is most widely remembered in France today for his commercial hits of the 1960s and 70s, songs like Tu Es Le Soleil De Ma Vie - Stevie Wonder's You Are The Sunshine Of My Life - which have gone out of fashion now but which never fail to touch a chord of nostalgia.

The other story which French people remember is less happy - Distel's 1985 car crash in central France in which he was found to have been responsible for nearly killing his travelling companion, the actress Chantal Nobel.

As he said in a recent interview quoted in France-Soir: "It is a millstone which I will bear round my neck for the rest of my life."

But oddly, Distel's most lasting legacy may be something totally unconnected with music.

So successful was his hit Scoubidou, the word has entered the French language.

It is the name given to a children's game - invented around the time of the song's release and still very popular in France - in which pieces of coloured plastic cord are twined together to make figurines. Innocent days!


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