Québécois singer Claude Dubois recorded a French reggae album two years before Serge Gainsbourg
DJ/producer Ghislain Poirier explores the roots of French reggae in his native Quebec
Translation by Erin MacLeod
When it comes to French reggae, Serge Gainsbourg did not invent anything. If the 1979 album Aux armes et cetera was an event in France and is considered by many as the first francophone reggae recording, it is only because history has simply forgotten an album produced by a bold Québécois artist and released two years earlier.
It’s actually Claude Dubois, a popular, Montreal-born singer, to which we owe the first French reggae album ever produced worldwide. Although there had been novelty one-off singles before, never had an artist committed a whole album to seriously explore this new music. But this record, 1977’s Mellow Reggae, achieved a rather limited reach and response. Same for Reggae, a 1982 album from one of the first Black singers to achieve fame in his home province of Quebec, Boule Noire.
These two records, virtually unknown until now, remind us that French reggae is but a poor cousin, in terms of visibility, to reggae in Patois and English—reggae that is well-documented in books, magazines, blogs, forums, and other research. Here, for the first time, is the fascinating story of how music from the islands briefly and unexpectedly turned up in Quebec in the late 1970s and early 1980s via two pop stars who each expressed themselves in an uncommon genre for Quebec, demonstrating that resourcefulness and perseverance will pay off in the form of good music.
Claude Dubois Mellow Reggae (1977)
A surprised Claude Dubois answers the phone. This autumn afternoon, he is driving through traffic in Montreal, stuck on one of the island city’s many bridges as he attempts to leave the city and get to the countryside. The Montreal native is an established figure in Quebec and has achieved enduring success. Celebrating his fifty-year career with a new record in 2013, the mere mention of Mellow Reggae piques his interest. It was an album recorded largely in London in the famous Basing Street Studios (also known as Island Studios) developed by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell.
Yes, Claude wants to talk about it. And right now. “We’ll start with looking at how did this happen to me?” he says. “At the time, I lived with an American from Brooklyn—I ended up marrying her, and she is the mother of my son, but no longer my wife. So this girlfriend at the time knows the girlfriend of Robbie Robertson who played with Bob Dylan. It is through these friends she had in Bearsville, New York—the neighboring village of Woodstock is better known—that gets me in contact with producers and promoters from London. One thing leads to another, and there is interest from Sonny Binns.”
Sonny Binns was a founding member of the Cimarons, an English reggae band formed in 1967 by Jamaican immigrants. Binns took charge of the majority of the conceptualization of the album at Basing Street. It should be noted that the first reggae concert in Paris was the Cimarons at the Campagne Première theater in 1975. This happened even before anyone in France had heard of Bob Marley in concert. “Binns was very involved throughout the sessions,” says Dubois, “He asked us to explain exactly what we saying in the lyrics and explain the topics, what was happening, and where we were to the musicians. I think that he played an important role in our ability to mix our cultures.”
Claude Dubois wrote nine of the songs on Mellow Reggae; this was a rare occurrence at a time when most French reggae songs were just adaptations of English hits. Dubois bursts into laughter at the mention of his insistence on singing in French: “I was the jerk that sang in a language people didn’t know. Albert Grossman always told me, ‘Why do not you sing in a language we can understand?’” As manager of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Robertson’s group, the Band, Grossman was an important figure in the American music industry and important specifically to Dubois, as he owned the Bearsville Recording Studio where Dubois recorded albums in 1974 and 1978.
Dubois recalled his London studio experience: “I was looking for a particular sound. When they played the melodica, I thought it was awesome. The guys were really stoned. It didn’t scare me, didn’t annoy me; I was high too. But after, with a sober head, I realized that we made some serious mistakes. There were pitch problems.”
So this is why the record then traveled to Miami and Criteria Studios, which had just been purchased by the Bee Gees, in the interest of correcting the bass without having to re-record. It was a challenge. Dubois worked with studio engineer Alex Sadkins, who would have an impressive career (Grace Jones, Bob Marley, Duran Duran, Talking Heads) and was part of the Compass Point All Stars, a studio and team set up by Chris Blackwell in Nassau, Bahamas. Dubois convinced the studio manager to make him a deal, but this meant he had to work at night or when a studio was free. “To give you an idea, Aretha Franklin’s in Studio A at the time, while I’m there fixing my bass lines. We didn’t want to re-record, didn’t want to alter the work; we wanted to keep things as they were. But it’s a crazy story that fucking record there. I do not know how the sound engineer did it, but he managed to repair the pitch; it’s really amazing. Look on the album cover for the name of the engineer. It’s important to note him, because he’s an inventor. He really invented stuff on that record.”
With the bass corrected, Dubois flew back to France to work with arranger François Rauber, known for his work with the Belgian author and songwriter Jacques Brel. He added string arrangements—a little unusual for reggae.
The album was completed, but Dubois’s challenges continued: “My publisher in France, Jacques Wolfsohn, said, ‘It is not for France.’ Yet years later, Gainsbourg will put together the same recipe. Gainsbourg was very close to my publisher. I often shared meals with Wolfson, Jacques Dutronc, and Gainsbourg. Obviously, Gainsbourg heard Mellow Reggae. I wasn’t frustrated that he put out reggae, because I already had my head elsewhere. I was at Bearsville recording a new album.” The new album was not reggae. Not at all. Also, it’s important to note that Gainsbourg had more financial resources than Dubois—he was able to produce his reggae album in Jamaica.
After the release of Mellow Reggae in Quebec, Dubois didn’t make a big deal of it because a record entirely devoted to reggae was clearly a new thing for the province. The album was not a hit, but the song “Artiste” stood out and has become a classic in the singer’s repertoire. Also, a year later, Dubois had his biggest success—as a performer this time—with the memorable “Le Blues du Businessman” from the rock opera Starmania. It was a huge hit, resulting in millions of records sold.
Boule Noire Reggae (1982)
Another visionary ignored in the history of French reggae is the late Georges Thurston, known as Boule Noire (“Black Ball”)—the name stemming from his iconic Afro. The life of Georges Thurston alone is worth a movie. Abandoned by his parents at birth in 1951 in the village of Bedford to the east of Montreal, little Georges was in between thirty to forty foster homes before the age of eighteen. Music was his only true refuge and his only way out. He was one of the first Black stars in Quebec and sang soul and disco in French like no other. He was a true pop star in both Quebec and France. Though his song, “Aimer D’amour” (the French adaptation of “Easy to Love” by Leo Sayer), was released in Quebec in 1978, thanks to a French radio DJ, it enjoyed new popularity twelve years later and had sold 800,000 copies in France by 1990.
Through lyricist Jocelyne Berthiaume and musician, director, and jack-of-all-trades Louis Parizeau, Boule Noire discovered Jamaica. Berthiaume and Parizeau, a couple at that time, traveled to Montego Bay and Negril, Jamaica, for the first time in 1975, and they loved the experience. A second trip was planned, this time with Boule Noire, and trips became a bit of a habit for the three friends for several years. Berthiaume, a prolific songwriter, has more than 400 songs to her credit (three on the album Reggae). Parizeau meanwhile coproduced the album with Boule Noire and co-founded the record label Zion Yant to release it, as well as some 45s.
But vacationing in Negril in 1982, how did the trio of Boule Noire, Jocelyne Berthiaume, and Louis Parizeau find themselves one day in the legendary Tuff Gong studios in Kingston, Jamaica? “It really was improvised,” says Berthiaume. “It was really uncertain; we went there by chance. We rented a car and headed to Kingston without knowing what would happen. And we were lucky; we were well received.”
Jamaican music has a rather unique way of being produced. Instrumental tracks, riddims as they are called, can be used over and over, each singer voicing in their own way, using their own words and melody. It’s therefore common and accepted that music is recorded before a singer enters the studio. Parizeau remembers, “We were in the courtyard of Tuff Gong and looking for musicians. We met a guy, Kush Dan I, who had tracks but no voice. I think all riddims were already done. So we recorded an LP. Kush Dan I was happy. He was not a well-known guy; he had no records released to his name, if I remember correctly.” In fact, the voicings started in Jamaica and ended in Quebec. As for the lyrics, some were written on the spot at Tuff Gong by Berthiaume.
Kush Dan I’s instrumental tracks are reminiscent of the filtered, lo-fi sound of Wackies studio in 1980s New York. They also sound like what Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus release through their Basic Channel label. Kush Dan I had managed to record the whole thing with quality musicians like Augustus Pablo, Earl Smith, Dean Fraser, and many others. Moreover, the voice of Boule Noire blends perfectly with the riddims. Boule Noire is reggae. He sings with precise and stunning restraint.
In the end, the album Reggae had six reggae songs that had been created in the Tuff Gong studio and four definitely more pop-sounding tracks recorded in Los Angeles. Georges Thurston recounts this in his autobiography, written in haste just before his death in 2007 from cancer: “The album was one of my favorites… It didn’t beat sales records…and it didn’t play much on radio. But it is because of this record that I lived one of my greatest production adventures.” In 1986, four years after the release of Reggae, Boule Noire was invited to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) festival to sing his French reggae songs with a group of musicians gathered on the spot at the last minute. It could have been a fiasco, but it was ultimately an unforgettable experience for the singer.
Quebec has always been a market where folk and rock and the chansonniers dominate and always have the upper hand. Producing reggae takes artistic courage and confines you to the margins of the music scene. “The Quebec public was not ready for it,” remembers Parizeau, “Georges was underestimated because his hits like ‘Aimes-tu la vie’ took up too much space in his work. Deep down, he was very versatile.”
It is often said that history is that of the victors—those who publicly plant the flag even if they arrived well after those who came first. History is always more complex and slippery than we want to believe. This is why Claude Dubois’s 1977 album Mellow Reggae is almost forgotten today, even though it inspired Serge Gainsbourg, who in turn paved the way for the reggae scene in France and the Francophone world. For its part, the 1982 album Reggae by Boule Noire remains to this day an extremely well-kept secret that deserves a quality reissue—a second life.
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