André Brasseur: from small-town boy wonder to 60s-era hit-making machine

To the cynic, more seasoned observer, the current resurgence of interest shown by journalists, festival directors and record collectors for the work of André Brasseur (1939) is nothing short of squeezing the last drop out of a lemon. To softer, maybe more forgiving souls though, it represents a much-deserved coming of age, a homecoming of sorts. Indeed, despite a career spanning more than 60 years, 600 releases as well as the odd 10-million-unit-shifting hit single or two, the name André Brasseur was, surprisingly, not as well-known as it should be in Belgium. Fast forward to 2014, and the endearing and eternally enchanted organist, composer and arranger is more of a household name today, thanks in no small part to the release of a double CD compilation bringing together some of his lesser-known instrumental compositions, as well as the subsequent heavy-duty touring and countless media appearances this summer. And whilst all this sudden craze for all things Brasseur leaves the 76-year-old rather bemused, he happily goes along with it all, as was the case one afternoon late September, when him and his second wife welcomed us to his home just outside Namur to talk memories, inflated egos and that now infamous time his ex-wife’s assistant bought him his first organ.

All photography by Eden Krsmanovic (c).

As a recording artist with close to 40 years in the music industry, what do you make of the recent resurgence of interest in your career?

Me? I’m as surprised as you are to be honest. I ended this summer’s tour with a performance at Pukkelpop, and it was insane, a revolution of sorts. It even got voted by De Standard as the best concert of the weekend, which is crazy when you think about it because we were playing nothing but instrumentals bang in the middle of the day – we were on at 12pm – to an audience mostly made up of young people, which isn’t the easiest thing to pull off. But at the end, everybody wanted more, so we did an encore, something unheard of at the festival apparently. People were chanting “Merci André, merci André, bravo André.” It was overwhelming.

Sdban’s Stefaan Vandenberghe (also known as Lektroluv), was instrumental in ensuring that your work was given the merit it deserved and brought to the attention of today’s generation, first with the inclusion of two tracks of yours on the compilation series Funky Chicken: Belgian Grooves From The 70s (2014) then with the release of your own double CD compilation, Lost Gems from the 70s (2016).

Yes, it all began with a phone call from Sdban, who wanted to use two of my tracks for their Belgian funk compilation series. Then I went out for dinner with the boss, Stefaan Vandenberghe, who tells me: “Listen, why stop with those two tracks only? I heard all your material and there’s a lot of stuff that stands out – let’s release a double album.” Next thing you know, Lost Gems comes out. Have you seen it? It’s a lovely object, the label really went the extra mile with it.

A lot was written lately about your career from 1965 to 1982 – your chance purchase of a 300,000 Belgian Franc (€ 6,818) Hammond organ, the immeasurable success of your instrumental hit Early Bird, the subsequent residencies at Carton, Recreation or the Metropole for close to nothing and the acquisition of two clubs (the Pow-Pow, in Marche-en-Famenne and La Lokomotiv’ in the region of Hainaut) – as well as its recent unlikely revival, but I’d like to dig into your lesser-known years, from 1982 to early 2000s, when you seemed to have, save for a few appearances here and there, most notably on Vaya Con Dios’ Time Flies in 1992, totally disappeared from the music industry. Can you talk to me about this period?

I was still playing a little bit everywhere, mostly around the Grand-Place in Brussels at the time, but the problem was that, in 1982, none of the labels wanted to take me on because instrumentals were generally a hard sell. And all the majors – Vogues, EMI – wanted me to repeat the success of my debut single Early Bird which had sold 10 million copies. So I started producing and releasing stuff on my own, but distribution was a headache. You had national quotas on the radio, listening committees to convince – the business was changing. So I just continued doing my thing, performing weekly, up to four times a week, in restaurants here in Namur, in Gembloux, in farmer’s markets. And I remember telling myself “ is is nice, I can’t complain. I’ve written close to 600 tracks that were released all over the world, I’ve had a nice career, I’m happy.” Then all this resurgence of interest happened, and we’re back on the road again.

The important thing is to remain grounded. I’ve met Sinatra, I’ve met Tom Jones, I’ve met McCartney and they’re all normal people like you and me. Nothing to fuss about.

In a lot of the interviews I read whilst preparing for the interview, I often got a sense of a small- town boy that kind of fell into success despite himself and, although being very ambitious and proud of your achievements, preferred the peace and quiet of village life than the bright lights of a big city. Would you say this is an accurate observation?

Pretty much so, yes. I always wanted to continue living normally, even at the height of my success. I met too many artists, musicians and showbiz stars that were total pricks. Especially the French ones, like Claude Francois for example, all “me, me, me.” He actually asked me to go on tour with him, but one of his musicians told me he was a real idiot, so I passed. The important thing is to remain grounded. I’ve met Sinatra, I’ve met Tom Jones, I’ve met McCartney and they’re all normal people like you and me. Nothing to fuss about. I also had the opportunity to go on tour with James Brown for two years. His musicians had seen me play at the Village People in Antwerp and the conductor of his band got in touch a few days later asking me to join them. The schedule was too demanding for me – get on the bus, drive for 10 hours, e into the hotel, get changed, sound check, eat, perform, sleep and then back on the bus. So I passed too.

Here I was making music with an outdated organ whilst most hits were being made with guitars at the time.

The Belgian Jazz-Funk scene was a rather incestuous affair back then, with the key figures of the scene at the time either signed to the same label, playing on each other’s records, producing each other’s releases or arranging each other’s albums. You yourself were signed to RKM, the label launched by Roland Kluger who produced your hit single Early Bird and went on to release stuff by Telex, S.S.O, Two Man Sound, El Chicles, American trumpeter Douglas Lucas and, of course, Chakachas. That being the case, you seemed to have stayed in your own universe, most of your releases written, composed and arranged by yourself with very few, if any, collaborations. Why do you think that is the case? How do you see yourself fit into the scene? Where do you situate your work in relation to, say, a Sadi, Philip Catherine, Marc Moulin, or a Dan Lacksman?

Marc Moulin, I wasn’t a huge fan. He mostly had the chance of his RTBF connection. Telex were Belgian, yes, and Roland Kluger had worked with a lot of them – Plastic Bertrand and the likes. But my music was more Germanic sounding. It worked well in Wallonia, but it’s really in Flanders that it took off. When I sold five records in Belgium, that’d translate into four in Flanders and one in Wallonia. My biggest markets were Germany, Holland, England. I just moved in different circles than the rest of the scene at the time I guess. Even my music was difficult for a lot of people to grasp. My hit single, Early Bird, nobody really got it. I mean, here I was making music with an outdated organ whilst most hits were being made with guitars at the time.

That’s something that I wanted to touch upon. Whilst most releases at the time were dominated by guitars, you were churning out hit after hit made using an antiquated Hammond B3 organ. Somewhat of an unlikely choice in Europe back then, despite its phenomenal popularity in American Jazz-Funk circles. Why would you say you were attracted to the instrument and its sound?

It was an accident. I was doing my military service in 1962, and was chosen to be the conductor to represent the Belgian army at Comblain-La-Tour, a jazz festival launched by an American G.I. that, between 1959 and 1966, became quite an important stop on the European trail for some American jazz greats such as Benny Goodman, Albert Ayler, Jimmy Smith and McGriff to name but a few. Rehearsals were taking place in a small little castle, but there were no instruments. So we had to go out and rent some, but the price to rent a piano was as expensive as the one to rent an organ. So I said: “We’re in the army, we might as well give it a shot.” And that’s really how it all started. In the end, it all worked out perfectly as moving an organ around isn’t as difficult as moving a piano. No more tuning to do, just plug and play. I then managed to actually buy my own organ thanks to the assistant of my then wife. She had just inherited a pack of money, and was nice enough to buy me one. We’re talking 300,000 Belgian francs, the price of a Porsche.

That’s a pretty generous act. I even read about a story of someone you had done your military service with and who owned a collection of all your releases. Certain people feel very strongly about your work, and its necessity to continue to exist today.

Yes, that’s quite a funny story. He actually made a miniature replica of my entire catalogue of releases, indexed by year and genre. He worked a year and a half on it, five hours per day. He had three made: one for Stefaan, one for me and one for himself. I couldn’t believe it.

I’d like to end by talking about the legacy you’ve left. How do you think your music, which has stood the test of time, relates to what is being released today? In an ideal world, how would you want today’s kids to perceive your music?

Maybe in terms of the themes and compositions that are sometimes a little bizarre as far as the harmonies. But above all, this is the movie of my life, a very personal story. So I’d want them to see in it the story of a guy from the countryside that tried to make good music for people to be happy and dance to.

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