With the body of a bouncer, the looks of a movie star, and a low, sensual voice, Bernard Lavilliers started as a left-wing singer following in the footsteps of Léo Ferré. This boxer-singer rose to stardom in France in the mid-'70s (other Francophone countries followed quickly) and became an icon of the free-thinking singer/songwriter, the conscience of the French bourgeoisie. A serious traveler and occasional reporter, Lavilliers has made long stays in many South American and African countries, always bringing back songs (and sometimes musicians) with him. He was one of the first French singers to make "world music."
Lavilliers (b. 1946) comes from a lower-class family. His father was a steel worker and unionist. Gifted with a solid frame and a resolute mind, the young Lavilliers was prompt to argue and fight -- he picked up boxing as a hobby at age 13. After spending a year in reformatory, he joined his father at the steel mill in 1962. Three years later, he'd had enough and took off to Brazil, working there as a jungle truck driver. Back in France in 1967, he was incarcerated for skipping his military service.
Back in his days at the factory, Lavilliers had begun to write songs. In prison he persevered and once out, started to perform in Paris' cabarets. Jean-Pierre Hébrard of Decca gave him a record contract in late 1967. The singer recorded two singles and an eponymous LP, his acoustic anarchist songs putting him very close to Ferré. He also tried other careers, going back to boxing for a moment, managing night clubs the next. In 1972, he released his second album, Les Poètes. Three years later, Le Stéphanois yielded the minor classic "San Salvador."
His big break came in 1976, at age 30. Signed by Barclay, he was presented with two musicians who would become his first solid backup players and invaluable contributors: Pascal Arroyo and François Bréant. Together they recorded Les Barbares, which propelled Lavilliers to the top. Political and severe in his judgments, the singer threw one hit off after another, up to 1979 when the dark and cold LP Pouvoirs chilled both media and public. Another South American trip later, he recorded O Gringo, which became his biggest seller, thanks to a return to exotic rhythms. The end of a torrid affair with the American body-building star Lisa Lyons is at the heart of État d'Urgence (1983), which included the song "Idées Noires." A hit-scorer and a touring dynamo, Lavilliers turned more and more to South American and African rhythms, as he investigated the situations in Nicaragua and Cuba. If (1988) yielded one of his biggest international hits to date, "On the Road Again," topped only by "Melody Tempo Harmony" in 1995. Slowing down his activities as he crossed the 50-year bar, he continued to release albums regularly and has made a couple of big tours in the late '90s. At the beginning and throughout the ‘00s, he released a plethora of albums, the highlights being 2005’s Escale Au Grand Rex and 2008’s Samedi Soir A Beyrouth.
© François Couture /TiVo