And Rocking, bien sur: Since first hearing American popular music in postwar France, Dick Rivers has been making waves with his unique oeuvre
Dick Rivers, born Hervé Forneri in Nice 61 years ago, took his name from the character Deke Rivers, played by Elvis Presley in Loving You (from 1957). He first made his mark at 15 singing French covers of American rock 'n' roll and country hits, and over the years has become such a legend that his eponymous new album contains songs by la créme de la créme of young French talent (M, Mathieu Boogaerts, et al.) eager to pay homage to him.
Recently in town to promote the album and tomorrow's concert at the Olympia, he answered the door of his swank suite with a Marlboro king-size dangling from his lips, a blue checked shirt hanging over starched stovepipe jeans, with a shiny pair of pointy cowboy boots the same colour as his jet-black hair that's combed back in his trademark '50s do. He's met and worked with the greats - American, British, French - and he recounts his unique pop-culture experience in a remarkable, deep nicotine-parched voice that sounds better than ever.
'My first group was called Jerry Joyce and the Joycemen because all our idols were American or English, and we believed there's no way to sing rock 'n' roll in French. But when Pathé-Marconi signed us they decided we needed a French name. I was a fan of English singer Marty Wilde and the Wildcats, so I adapted that into Les Chats Sauvages. Then the guy told me I must have a name, so I thought of Elvis and Deke Rivers. But in French it would sound like Dé-ké so I said Dick, like Moby Dick. Now it's on all my papers, passport, everything. I've been Dick Rivers for 46 years.' Voilà.
'The problem in France was that nobody was writing rock 'n' roll, so we had to do covers. Unlike today, when an album goes around the world instantly, people didn't know the original versions of the songs I released in French. C'est pas sérieux (his first hit) was Think for a Dream by Cliff Richard, but people thought I created it. Maybe it's because I had a little personality.'
When Hervé Forneri was growing up, postwar France was in the throes of a love affair with American pop culture.
'The Americans saved Europe and France, I was born near a U.S. navy base, and my parents raised me with the American Dream. On the way to school I saw American soldiers everyday - and so I chewed gum and, later, smoked cigarettes. I played their jukeboxes, and when I heard Heartbreak Hotel I knew I wanted to rock 'n' roll. Maybe I was luckier than other Frenchmen, because I got to know that music before them. I saw the Brando movies in English and ate hot dogs before the rest. Naturally I created my personality with all that.
'In the beginning Elvis Presley was God, and he's still God. Like my friend John Lennon said, 'Before Elvis there was nothing for white people.' He built the bridge that brought black music to les blancs. It was like Jesus Christ with God - formidable! The language of rhythm and blues was le slang des blacks. Today the Internet has taught young people there's no room for racism in music.'
Elvis died 30 years ago but Dick Rivers is still going strong. His resumé, and the names he drops, are like a living music encyclopedia. In 1962 he sold 2 million copies of Twist à Saint-Tropez with Les Chats Sauvages. 'We sang with Little Richard, Tina Turner, Wanda Jackson, c'était magnifique!' Then came Tu n'es plus là, his version of Blue Bayou by Roy Orbison, and Va t'en va t'en, covering the first Moody Blues hit, Go Now. 'In 1964 I was the only francophone invited by John Lennon and Paul McCartney to play a Grenada TV show called The Music of Lennon & McCartney, with Cilla Black, Peter Sellers and me, because they loved my French version of The Things We Said Today.' In 1966 he conquered Quebec with a 21-date tour. In 1969 he travelled to Las Vegas to witness Elvis's comeback.
A 1976 voyage to a studio in Bogalusa, La., produced Mississippi Rivers, its cover designed by Morris, creator of Lucky Luke. In the '80s he launched a weekly radio show, still going and now called Very Dick, a personalized history of rock. 'I've recorded with guitar heroes like Jimmy Page, Steve Cropper, James Burton, and they've stayed friends. I met Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones, but also Edith Piaf and Georges Brassens.' He also writes novels (Texas Blues and Hamburger, Pan-Bagnat, Rock 'n' Roll) and owns a ranch near Nice with a prize horse from Texas, where he travelled in 1991 to record Holly Days In Austin, a bilingual homage to Buddy Holly under the patronage of McCartney, who owns his song catalogue. In 1993 he returned to Quebec, where his show was immortalized in his first DVD, just released.
He branched out, lending his deep voice to Disney films and making his theatre debut in Jean Genet's Les Paravents at the prestigious Chaillot Theatre ('I'd never acted before, but the director begged me'). He was George Lucas's guest at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005. This year, French neo-punk-rockers Mickey 3D and Les Wampas invited him to play Paris's trendy La Cigale.
'Today there's no new idol to look up to. There's a lot of talent on EMI-France, but no one recognizes them because they look like employees of EMI. We need a star-system, to identify with a strong personality. Star Académie is embarrassing. They're asked what they do and they answer, 'Je suis people' - that's how we call it in France, le people.'
No conversation with Dick Rivers is complete without his thoughts on Johnny Hallyday, the other French rock icon. Rivers shrugs: 'I bump into him, but we're not friends. I don't like nostalgia, I need to renew myself with the young generation of musicians. What I'm most proud of is the respect they accord me. They bring me things like I've brought them things. When I tell M stories about Elvis, or ordering Janis Joplin to shut up in Paris because she was being trashy, he's amazed. ... Everyone has stories to tell, and I take advantage of my status as a legend.'
Dick Rivers plays tomorrow night at the Olympia, 1004 Ste. Catherine St. E., at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $43.25 to $63.25 at the box office, 514-845-3524, or through Ticketpro, 514-908-9090 or www.ticketpro.ca.
JUAN RODRIGUEZ , Freelance
Published: Thursday, November 15, 2007
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2007