The man with the golden organ
You may never have heard of him, but unless you’re a complete stranger to the 20th century, you will almost certainly have heard his music. Born in 1939, André Brasseur composed countless tunes that received ample airplay and were used as radio and TV signature tunes all over Europe. His biggest hit, ‘Early Bird Satellite’ (1965) was an international million seller.
But why then does this Belgian Hammond wizard remain relatively unknown outside of a small circle of cognoscenti? Two reasons.
1/ His music
Nearly all Brasseur’s music is instrumental. As in: no vocals. Which makes it more difficult to remember the songs’ titles and the performer’s name.
2/ His life
On the back of ‘Early Bird Satellite’s financial jackpot, Brasseur is able to invest in two dance halls in the south of Belgium. They prove to be very successful, but demand nearly all his time and attention. Great investment. And an even greater career staller.
On the other hand, because of this sudden disappearance from the limelight, Brasseur has an air of mystique about him. But it’s fair to say that it’s really the quality of the music that makes him a cult hero for a diverse and devoted fan base: mods, Northern Soul enthusiasts, superstar DJ’s… Largely unbeknownst to him, his vinyl records from the 60’s and 70’s find a new and dedicated audience.
Especially the body of work created between 1965 and 1975 showcases an exceptional talent on the top of his game; Brasseur’s music swings like the coolest jazz, grooves like the phattest funk and combines all this with the catchiness of pure pop for wow people. It’s party music made in party heaven. Music for the masses that still sounds as fresh and sparkling as it did 50 years ago, as if it had been kept in a perfectly manufactured time capsule. It’s a sound from the past that feels perfectly at home in the present.
During the years, countless compilations of Brasseur’s work have seen the light, but unfortunately none of them has looked beyond the obvious singles or has tried to provide a career-spanning overview.
This new compilation brings Brasseur’s true genius to the fore; it tries to look beyond the obvious and is, as such, a showcase of a back catalogue that deserves to be discovered by a whole new generation.
But there’s a festive side to the album too: André Brasseur has just celebrated his 75th birthday, while his biggest hit, ‘Early Bird Satellite’, was released 50 years ago.
FROM HAM TO HAMMOND
For André Brasseur, a merchant’s son from the Belgian village Ham-sur-Sambre, becoming a musician was a matter of course. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, a classical training was the only option, so the young man studied cello and piano at the Conservatoire Lucien Robert in Tamines. He completed this program in 1955 – at the age of 16 – with an honorary government medal.
The youngster becomes a jazz and blues enthusiast who admires the work of prodigious pianists Errol Garner, Thelonious Monk and Oscar Peterson. November 1961 sees the release of the André Brasseur Trio’s first single, ‘Exciting Blues/December’. Both are Brasseur compositions on which he plays the piano and sings. Bass and drum duties are taken up by Luc Streels and the 17-year old Bruno Castells, who will later become a household name in Belgian jazz and pop as Bruno Castellucci.
In 1962, Brasseur is drafted for military service. Surprisingly, this will give his career an unexpected boost when the Belgian army is invited to take part in the Comblain-la-Tour jazz festival, an event with a singular history: during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, the American GI Joe Napoli had recovered from his injuries in this small village in the valley of the Ourthe… After the war, Napoli became the manager of some of the greatest names in jazz music. When he returned to Belgium in 1955 to thank the people of Comblain-la-Tour, he found out that the village was in need of money to restore its church. Napoli decided to lend a hand, and organised the first Festival du Jazz there, in 1959, with Chet Baker as headliner. More than 20,000 people attended, and the festival instantly gained international fame. Even today, it is still often called “the mother of all European festivals”.
So, in 1962, private Brasseur is appointed bandleader of the first Orchestre de Jazz de l’Armée Belge. An understandable choice: the year before, the André Brasseur Trio had already featured on the festival. This time, he will be performing with a sextet: bass, drums, guitar, keyboard and two horns. The band rehearses in the ‘Small Chateau’, an army base in Brussels where all draftees used to start their military service.
One small problem, though: since Brasseur doesn’t possess a piano, a keyboard will have to be hired. The negligible price difference between a piano and an electric organ prompts Brasseur to go for a Hammond Spinet.
On August 4 & 5, 1962, clad in his army uniform and sporting dark sunglasses, the young man leads his troops through a fifteen-minute set of jazz standards (i.e. ‘On The Sunny Side Of The Street’ and some own compositions). All arrangements are his own.
His talent doesn’t go unnoticed, and some American musicians try to persuade him to cross the Atlantic, telling him it will be a cinch finding work with one of the jazz greats.
But Brasseur has other plans. He wants to go to Paris to find his way into the world of show business. It proves to be hard work: “I tried everywhere. But there was always someone who could play better or faster.” Conclusion: a) Paris a cul-de-sac and b) to really stand out, he will have to write his own material.
Back in Belgium, he releases two singles with the Trio Brasseur: ‘Virginia/Glip-Glap’ (1963) and ‘Je Suis Amoureux/La Vie Est Belle’ (1963). Brasseur writes the music and sings; lyrics are provided by Jean-Claude Darnal, a French singer who also records ‘Virginia’ as a B-side for his single ‘Dites-Moi M’Sieur (L’Oiseau)’ – a song of which the Dutch version (‘De Vogel’) will become a smash hit for Belgian singer Tim Visterin in 1970.
Again, Brasseur makes two life-changing decisions:
a) not being the world’s greatest singer, he will focus on instrumental music and
b) he definitely chooses for a life as professional musician.
The consequence: playing long shows, almost daily. Brasseur and his orchestra become resident musicians at La Récréation, a club in Brussels’ city center, quite close to Ancienne Belgique, the capital’s most important concert hall.
In those days, big international stars were often billed there for a whole week, and La Récréation was a popular aftershow watering hole. Raoul Morlet, Brasseur’s then drummer recalls: “Claude François, the French star, came to see us quite often in those days. At one point, he tried to persuade André to tour with him, but André refused. He had pledged his allegiance to his favourite music: blues and jazz.”
Meanwhile, Brasseur keeps dreaming of playing the same organ as two of his musical heroes, Jimmy McGriff and Jimmy Smith. The Hammond B-3, the bigger and infinitely more powerful successor to the Hammond Spinet, is considered a behemoth among organs, but the price tag is equally impressive: “At the time, a B-3 didn’t change hands for less than 228,000 Belgian Francs (€ 5,700). That was only slightly less than the 300,000 Belgian Francs (€ 7,000) you paid for a Porsche…”
Out of the blue, though, he’s dealt a lucky card, when a colleague of his wife unexpectedly inherits a large sum of money, and decides to buy Brasseur the gift of his life. Literally. After 50 years, his Hammond still works a treat: “Maintenance? One drop of oil a year. Sorted.”
MISTER SIGNATURE TUNE
1965. A young and promising producer is looking for budding talent. Roland Kluger hails from a famous Belgian musical dynasty: father Jacques Kluger was a respected music publisher who managed Jacques Brel’s interests and brought big jazz names like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong to Belgium, but passed away when only 51, in 1963. Roland takes over his father’s business, together with his brother Jean.
Kluger spots André Brasseur when the latter is playing with his orchestra at Hotel Métropole in Brussels. He asks the composer to come up with ‘vintage Brasseur melodies’: “I played him several pieces, but there was always something missing, according to him. He was clearly looking for a hit single, which I couldn’t readily deliver. I was none too pleased… So I went home and started banging out some tunes on my Hammond. And lo and behold: Kluger loved it.”
The title of the song: ‘Early Bird Satellite’. Named after Early Bird, the name of the first communication satellite, launched in 1965. Even though it was officially called Intelsat I, everyone called it Early Bird, as in the English proverb ‘the early bird catches the worm’.
Even according to the most conservative estimates, the single sold more than six million copies. As such, it’s one of the biggest Belgian hits ever, and probably one of the most successful European instrumentals of all time. “I guess it neatly fitted into the Zeitgeist of the time. Guitar bands like The Shadows had sort of run their course, and I came up with something new, just when the public was looking for it.”
Funny thing is, the unique sound of ‘Early Bird Satellite’ is partly due to an error during the recording sessions. “The pure Hammond sound lacked some punch; so I asked to add a choir sound in the studio. By accident, engineer Roger Verbestel recorded those vocals at low speed, resulting in a high-pitched sound when played back at normal speed. But it sounded great, and it provided the boost the song needed, even if you can barely discern them in the final mix. We’ve kept using those ‘smurf voices’ for quite a while on our studio recordings.”
It’s called serendipity. At it makes those early records sound as a prototype of 21st Century dance music. Something like ‘The Chemical Brothers – how it all started.’
‘Early Bird Satellite’ is the second single of André Brasseur And His Multi-Sound Organ, as he is now called. His debut single, ‘Hold Up/Far West’ (1965), had already started something, albeit on a more modest scale: it had prompted Jean-Claude Mennesier, a popular RTB radio presenter, to order a signature tune for ‘Intervilles’, a weekend show that did the tour of cities in the South of Belgium. Brasseur wrote ‘Special-230’ (the program lasted nearly 4 hours, or 230 minutes). Six weeks later, Menessier ordered a new signature tune. Six weeks after that: same story. “After a while, Roland Kluger started to put some of the new material on the side, just for that purpose (laughs).”
A wise decision. Because suddenly, signature tunes all around Europe are signed ‘André Brasseur’: Noel Edmonds uses ‘Holiday’ on BBC Radio 1, ‘Early Bird Satellite’ introduces the German television show Micro-Macro, Micro Scope on the French Europe 1 opens with ‘Pursuit’…
Meanwhile, new pirate radio stations like Radio Mi Amigo, Radio Veronica, Radio Atlantis and Radio Caroline – broadcasting illegally from ships on the North Sea for audiences in Belgium, The Netherlands and Great Britain – ransack Brasseur’s back catalogue to introduce their radio shows: ‘The Kid’, ‘Experience’ and the inevitable ‘Early Bird Satellite’ are all signature tune hit material.
But it doesn’t stop there: ‘The Kid’ also becomes a dancefloor filler in Manchester’s The Twisted Wheel, one of the most legendary Northern Soul clubs; it also ranks high in the Northern Soul Top 500, its ultimate hit list, compiled by Kev Roberts.
And even though Brasseur never manages to repeat the success of ‘Early Bird Satellite’, he remains a respected musician all over Europe, playing Olympia (Paris) with Adamo and countless TV-shows in Germany. When one of the directors there proposes Brasseur to paint his Hammond in gold, The Golden Organ Of André Brasseur is born. It remains golden to this day.
POW-POW + LOCOMOTIV’
On December 16, 1967, Brasseur and his wife open Pow-Pow, a ‘Dancing-Grill-Stereosound’ in Marche-en-Famenne, a small town in the province of Luxembourg, where people can come to eat, drink and dance. “I started making good money. Concerts in the South of Belgium were always attended by 1,000 punters or so, so I thought I’d better invest in something I knew – nightlife – than put my money on the bank.”
Again, good thinking: Pow-Pow becomes an instant success, and Brasseur keeps his two professions neatly separated. Apart from two concerts a year – one on New Year’s Eve, another near midsummer – he doesn’t perform in his own club.
In 1969, he opens a second dance hall, La Locomotiv, in Barbençon, about 70 miles from Marche-en-Famenne. The name of the club refers to the giant steam locomotive in front of the club. “The Brussels brewery Vandenheuvel wanted to become our supplier. I agreed, provided they’d give me the steam locomotive they used to transport barrels in their factory. And I didn’t want anything to happen to the chimney, so they had to find an itinerary from Brussels to Barbençon without bridges… which meant a transport of 200 miles instead of 65.”
Right across the street from La Locomotiv, Brasseur opens another business, L’Auberge du Cheval Blanc. “The beers were slightly cheaper, there. So people often crossed the street for some quick drinks. But they always returned when the DJ started playing the slow songs…”
Both businesses are extremely successful; some 800 people a night find their way to Barbençon. And at one given point, the Brasseurs have 80 people working for them…
Business is going great. But the music suffers: Brasseur can hardly find time to compose new material. When he does, though, he delivers; a fine example is ‘Stress’ (1979), a disco track he releases under the André & Leslie moniker, with a nod and a wink to Jean-Michel Jarre. According to a British specialist site, it’s ‘A cosmic disco bomb; easily as good as classics from Cerrone and Space.’ Today, you’d be hard pressed to find an original 12” vinyl for under € 100.
Old love never dies though, and by the mid-eighties, Brasseur sells off his businesses to return to making music. He teams up with Roland Van Campenhout, Belgium’s most famous blues musician, and plays a starring role on ‘Night Owls’ (1990) and ‘Time Flies’ (1992), two extremely successful albums of Vaya Con Dios.
Apparently, Dani Klein, the band’s star and singer, was absolutely thrilled to be able to work with Brasseur. His contributions to hits like ‘Nah Neh Nah’, ‘Heading For A Fall’ and ‘What’s A Woman’ are crucial. That last song will be the band’s biggest hit, with top-10 spots in Belgium, Germany, France, Holland and Switzerland. Funny: drums on ‘What’s A Woman’ are played by Brasseur’s old compadre Bruno Castellucci.
Today, Brasseur still entertains audiences in a couple of restaurants in and around Namur, where he lives. Seventy-five now, he still plays three to four times a week. Confronted with the question if he could have had a bigger career “if only”, he remains philosophical. “My only ambition has always been to make people dance.”
Which is exactly what he has been doing for over 50 years (and counting), playing the instrument he has been in love with for an equally long time. “It’s a constant fight, me and my Hammond. And sometimes it beats me. But I always know it’ll be my turn next (laughs)”