"THERE IS ALWAYS A BEGINNING...
“ONE ANECDOTE OF A MAN IS WORTH A VOLUME OF BIOGRAPHY” – WILLIAM E. CHANNING
My first meeting with Mort Shuman dates back to the end of the 1960s.
Most of the boys of my generation dreamed of America. We spent all our pocket money on buying Presley, Bill Haley and Buddy Holly singles.
Mediocre guitarists, would-be singers, visionary drummers, everyone formed their own groups and awaited success while going to auditions. “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Peggy Sue”, “Be Bop A Lula” and “Jailhouse Rock” formed the basis of the catalogue of our meagre repertoires.
From then on, our vague attempts at original compositions contained references to the major “doers” of the moment.
Because one adored a song by such and such, one wrote thinking they were as good as Leiber and Stoller, Holly and Petty, Blackwell and Scott, Domino and Bartholomew, Greenfield and King, B and F Bryant, Holland, Dozier and Holland.
We didn’t know there had been George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Kern and Hammerstein.
Our classics at the time were Béçaud, Brel, Brassens and Trenet; we hadn’t yet anticipated Lennon and McCartney.
It was then that the duo Pomus-Shuman entered our world.
“Surrender” came along, betraying the customary pure hard rock of The King. These two guys in the form of Pomus-Shuman tarnished the image, sterilising the music that we were listening to.
Never would we take up such a composition even if it was number 1.
Furthermore, how could someone be called MORT?
A few months later, “His Latest Flame” joyfully reconciled us with the inspiration of the duo.
As the tracks went on, our taste as ‘60s teenage pop rock fans considered this inspiration to be in turn fantastic (“Little Sister”, “Turn Me Loose”, “Hound Dog Man”, “This Magic Moment”, “A Teenager in Love”, “Suspicion”) or quite frankly common pop music (“Sweets For My Sweet” or “Save The Last Dance For Me”).
It is true that the French performers of the last two tracks, Frank Alamo and Danielle Darrieux, were not -for our uncompromising ears- the best ambassadors.
This is how Mort Shuman came into my life.
We could have remained there.
1971, Taverne de l’Olympia,
“Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living in Paris”.
On stage Mort Shuman and his piano. The gentleman commands respect
lost behind his moustache and his slightly naïve smile. I
discover a surprising jack of all trades, a tendency
instantly facilitated. A collector of the universe and
a seeker of impressions.
A bit crazy, a joker.
Our meeting was supposed to last twenty minutes, it ended
three hours later. A handshake upon meeting each other,
a hug when we parted.
It was still as a spectator that I triumphantly witnessed his first
French album “Amerika”. I had, however, convinced the very selective
FNAC newspaper to print in full the
rave review that I had written for this record in “Extra”
(a music magazine of the time).
A few months later, having become head of
Public Relations of Philips records
I became the intermediary between the artist, the
record company and the media.
In truth, the role was almost figurative as Mort had chosen
an independent press attaché, as famous as himself, Tony Krantz. She would
organise a formal meeting for me in order to
familiarise me with what she, and secondarily the artist,
expected from our collaboration.
The meeting took place at Mort’s new
Paris apartment, right next to the Eiffel Tower.
Taking time to finish a telephone conversation,
Mort sat me down in his living room, where just like in the illustrations
of magazines of chic interiors, a stack of three or four art books
occupied a corner of the coffee table.
Among them, “La Terre de l’Homme (aerial views)”
by George Gerster. The photos that it contained were an
extraordinary source of surprise.
Mort surprised me leafing through it.
“...It’s great don’t you think? I always look through it.
When I look at these photos I feel as much surprise
as anger, joy or irritation. I ask myself if these photos of the
world are not in fact the pieces of a jigsaw
that resemble me.”
This reflection led us into a discussion
where the promotion of the album was no longer of any importance.
Upon leaving, Mort handed me the book.
MORT SHUMAN, VARIETY SINGER
In the beginning, there is New York...Brooklyn and Brighton Beach more precisely. This particular district is where he spent his childhood and for which he holds a certain nostalgia where feelings and tendencies towards dark realism accumulate.
This son of Polish-Jewish emigrants was in the habit of saying:
“I didn’t choose New York but it could have been worse”.
I really understood this statement when hearing, as a silent witness, an exchange of memories between Roman Polanski and Mort. This could effectively have been worse as the vodka shared that evening had an aftertaste of Warsaw.
In New York, Mort was exploring all fields of performance (musicals, film music, piano bars, etc.) before turning towards singing.
In Paris, between his American culture and the new preoccupation with a European career, Mort forgot revolt and aggression in favour of illusions. Back from everything, back from far away, he glides snugly into his role as variety singer, serene and quiet, both rocker and crooner. His continental approach to song is almost traditional, slightly “rive gauche” under the influence of Brel. When asked about his curiosity and his indulgence concerning current European artists, particularly French and Italian, he quotes Henry James:
“Being American is an excellent preparation for culture”.
In 1972, his lyrics based on Roda-Gil, pure and hard, his taunting voice, his generous music with constant references to all musical genres make him a link between tradition and rock energy.
“In France, because we confuse glamour and love, we mix singing and smiles”.
By saying this, he doesn’t display a need to risk established values; he only wants to get off the beaten track, where the public thought it was a good idea to see him developing while playing the chords of Lac Majeur. In fact, he wants to break free from the clean image, open the doors to theatre of cruelty, where clowns disguise themselves in bitterness. There would be misunderstanding.
While he sets up a mood, brings together, smiles a little disillusioned, passes from an idealised image to the marvellous meeting of a woman one evening, the public want him to talk about love using light, blurred and happy rhythms.
He would sit in front of the white keys of his black piano,
mixing all his musical references and influences with a free-flowing
sensitivity. Succinct description of a world that we tend to
confuse with the suffocations of rock,
without perceiving the quiet music of boredom.
It is as if Scott Fitzgerald was born in Asnières and had left out
bitterness for a young girl’s innocence.
Before introducing himself, fragile and moving, in front of a stage,
Mort, who had worked for others, at times musician, at times composer,
but always sincere, reminds the audience
“...What interests me, is emotion.”
One evening, he bumped into Charlebois. They had the same bulldog face
with hair like a poodle. They exchanged thoughts about the
American dream and European romanticism
and Mort listened to the man from Quebec sing “J’veux de l’amour”.
During the two hour return journey, curled up
in the car, I heard:
“..En enfer quand j’suis saoul
Sous la table
A far cry from rock and jazz, preferring an almost classical sobriety, Mort became attached to the simplicity and authenticity, scattering his lively and contrasting imagination in his music.
He moved between Elvis and the Shirelles to the dreamy surrealism of Roda-Gil with the same energy, mixing torrents of images and aestheticising musical flights of fancy.
He tamed contemporary poetic language to English-speaking rhythms, juggled with the music of the words as well as with the music of sounds achieving a result that has nothing to do with commercial rock.
Before introducing himself, fragile and moving in front of a stage, Mort is clumsy, uneasy. However, his hands, his eyes, his imposing size, the large drops pearling on his forehead suffice. When he meets the public, on podiums in front of 3,000 people or in a piano bar of a luxury hotel, he works in charm, ironic melancholy, light humour and above all tenderness.
At times musician, at times composer, at times storyteller but always sincere,
the rest consists of disguising the silence. The transformation of a look,
a grin that is made instinctively. The rough draft of a story that stops to
start again without knowing where it’s going. The characters, the music,
the hesitations unfold and create the atmosphere.
MORT SHUMAN, HEDONISTIC GENTLEMAN
“MODERATION IN TEMPER IS ALWAYS A VIRTUE, BUT MODERATION IN PRINCIPLE IS ALWAYS A VICE” THOMAS PAINE
Drink in moderation. Eat in moderation.
Moderation: this is something that we have never brought to our table. It was customary in the microcosm of show business to call oneself Coco to have a bite to eat. How awful, what heresy. Boasting solid cookery courses with some of the great names in haute cuisine – Troisgros, Girardet or Guérard, we take great care in front of the ovens in our respective kitchens to prepare in turn or in teams, celebratory meals for evenings among friends. The regular frequenting of Grandes Tables where Michelin-starred chefs became friends made us embrace the project to publish a book of recipes entitled “Les diners de Gala”. Written by four people, the foreword peremptorily states: “We have had the opportunity to frequent the best restaurants in the world as well as polishing off a sandwich onboard a train but we have never prepared the food!...” It couldn’t be clearer. Attentive to others, Mort knew how to translate the emotion of passing time, a candle that flickers, and a frantic or absent glance with music. He could equally have succeeded as a chef.
Mort Shuman was over-the-top; too much so. In everything!
When there were ten guests, he would cook for twenty. Johnny, Eddy, and so many others remember his “Jambalaya” or his scallops in a wine jelly.
The wine, Pommard and Pauillac, Sauternes or Saumur?
He knew them all!
Triumphant in blind tastings, the most refined taste buds. “Les diners de Gala” was never published on account of the author, which is a real shame.
Mort never struck a pose in the sad corridors of habit, his liver betrayed him.
Obviously, Nino the barman’s “bullshots” at George V at six o’clock in the morning, followed by a few kippers or a pastrami at Goldenberg for breakfast all play a part in straightening a man up, but there are very few comrades left to bear witness to these episodes.
The hard core of these warriors consisted of a trio of ruffians resembling a Ripolin advertisement in order of decreasing size: Richard White the giant, Mort Shuman the great and me, poor dwarf.
A rare privileged few could be honoured to join our drinking evenings from 9pm. I insist on the term being taken into account in its literal sense and I’ll keep the names of these adventurers to myself on account of the serious respectable characters that they have now become.
But as Coluche said, “I have the names”.
For a few years I thus participated in the adventures of WHITE and MORTIMER closer to the French comic strip characters of Les Pieds Nickelés than the heroes of Edgar P. Jacobs. Often the next day, during the course of the afternoon, a moment of clarity would lead us to conclude that:
“A Polish-Jewish Yank, an Englishman more British than the Queen and a Gascon proud of being so gives a fine image of the human race.”
Didn’t W. C. Fields say:
“Someone who doesn’t like dogs or children can’t be as bad as all that!”
The beautiful and sweet Maria-Pia who knew her husband Mortimer better than anyone dreaded our evenings out but also welcomed us with a smile.
Generous and lucid, there was never cynicism, immodesty or despair in Mort’s house. He worked in charm, ironic melancholy, light humour and above all tenderness. Dandy certainly, but like Cyrano De Bergerac, he was one of those who wore his elegance.
Luck, making a success of the rabble, Mort never found the door closed when returning dishevelled in the early hours, Richard as the good bachelor had no-one to fear, I was the only one who had to camp on the doormat or in the car.
Sharing the table with a star in a restaurant is invariably subject to the inconvenience of autograph hunters. How many times did I see Johnny, Gainsbourg, or Lama interrupted during their lunch. Mort was no different. There were always a few anonymous people who came to say hello and ask for an autograph. He would sign with a smile accompanied by a kind word.
One day, while he was working on the script of “La Jonque”, we were having lunch with Lino Ventura. Diners gathered there curiously observed the two stars. No-one, however came to bother them. When leaving, I was surprised at this unusual restraint.
“It’s always like this, he said. Lino is a star! People don’t dare to bother the stars..."
Wednesday 6 November 1991.
In the departure lounge heading for London,
I notice the huge silhouette of Richard White.
The suit is as sombre as mine.
He bends down from his one metre ninety eight frame to hug me and we hold back
our first tear. Among the businessmen on the first-class flight, some
loyal supporters among the faithful: Tony Krantz of course, a heart-shaped
rose cushion in her hands, Nicole Savourat came together with a friend
representing the record company, Monique Lemarcis who in the
function of director of programmes on RTL broadcast
“Le Lac Majeur”, “Papa Tango Charly” or “Un été de porcelaine” so many times.
The embraces were silent. The sky over London less sad
than us. The service was short and simple.
Swift transport towards the Jewish cemetery.
We walked in front, slowly, Johnny Hallyday, Eddy Mitchell,
Philippe Lavil, Richard White and me.
A few words in Yiddish and in English at the edge of the vault,
a flower and a handful of earth for a last tribute.
Happy memories will return in a flash-back one day.
A detour via the apartment to hug Maria-Pia and the children.
Johnny tells me to call him
if Maria-Pia needs anything.
Goodbye. One hour later, at the bar of a large hotel,
Richard and I are drinking some “bullshots”. The last.
I think about what Oscar Wilde wrote
in Lady Windermere’s Fan:
“Life is far too important a thing
ever to talk seriously about.”
I don’t doubt that with tenants like Mort, Doc Pomus
and Mourousi that God will make “bullshots”, overdoing it more on
the vodka than on the beef consommé while listening to a few classics. "