Félix Leclerc

Born: 1914, La Tuque, Quebec,
Debut: 1951
Died: 1988
Genre: Folk
Some Hit Songs:
–  “Notre Sentier”
–  ”Moi, mes souliers”
–  ”Le tour de l’Île”
–  ”P’tit Bonheur”
–  ”Litanies du Petit Homme”
–  ”Alouette en Colère”
–  ”Train du Nord”
Multi-talented Leclerc was a singer-songwriter, actor, poet, novelist, and playwright. His father was a grain and lumber dealer and he had ten siblings. The whole family was a musical one; all sang and played various instruments. As a child he fell in love with Mozart and Schubert.
Leclerc composed his first song, “Notre Sentier” at age 18 when he began studying at the University of Ottawa. But the Great Depression hit hard, and he was forced to abandon his educational pursuits. He proceeded to a small town near  Trois-Rivières where he worked as a farmhand. After several jobs, Félix became a radio announcer and scriptwriter. During this time he picked up the guitar.
In 1939, he settled in Montreal where he worked as a scriptwriter for Radio-Canada. His series were extremely popular. He introduced some of his songs on these series. One has to remember that television was not yet in the homes of the populace and radio plays were the primary form of entertainment. Leclerc did some on air acting in a few of these drama series. Because of their popularity, he was able to sell collections of his stories and poems, and he gradually rose to fame through the 40s.
In 1950, the Parisian Jacques Canetti, artistic director of Philips Records, heard Leclerc perform in Montreal and immediately offered him an engagement in Paris. His debut performance was very well received and he was offered a recording contract and invited to tour throughout France, Belgium, and Switzerland. He stood out amongst other stars with his unique style: performing earthy folk songs on the guitar, singing in a robust baritone voice, and dressed in a checkered lumberjack shirt. Leclerc pretty much became an overnight superstar. In early 1951 he was awarded the Grand prix du disque in Paris for his song “Moi, mes souliers”. Beneath his name, printed in large letters on the billboards, was “le Canadien”.
Félix Leclerc was for all intents and purposes, the first international Canadian superstar. Canada was not to produce its first anglophone international superstar for another six years. As such, Leclerc really was the one who laid the groundwork for all the chansonniers to come.
In 1953, he returned to Montreal to partake in the city’s music festivals, and he was given a hero’s welcome. Five years later, he was awarded his second Grand Prix du disque and his third in 1973. In 1974, he appeared with fellow male singers Gilles Vigneault and Robert Charlebois at the Superfrancofête in Quebec City. Leclerc appeared in five feature films. He was awarded an honourary doctorate in 1982.
Leclerc invoked a unique and critically-acclaimed musical style that is best summed up by the Canadian Music Encyclopaedia:
In 160 songs (146 original songs and 14 covers), Félix Leclerc distinguishes himself from his French-speaking European and Quebec predecessors by his combination of carefully chosen verse and the unique style of musical setting for acoustic guitar. Among his characteristic traits are the guitar’s lowered tuning (all strings one or one-and-a-half tones below standard) and the placement of the right hand over the high range of the fingerboard. In the right hand, the integration of artificial harmonics (as in ‘Hymne au printemps’), the rapid strumming of the thumb on the strings (‘La Drave’), the quick arpeggios executed with the thumb and index finger imitating the pick (‘Les 100 000 façons de tuer un homme’), and the combination of arpeggios and classical tremolo (‘Le tour de l’Île’) are noteworthy. In the left hand, there are occasional thumb barrés in the bass as well as occurrences of diminished seventh chords and major chords with added sixths.
Quebec was shocked and shaken by Leclerc’s death, gathering by the thousands to commemorate their foremost singer-poet. Messages were sent from around the globe, including from the government of France. Countless, streets, parks, schools, buildings, and places in the Province now bear his name. The Félix Awards, given to Quebec musicians, are named after him. In 2000, the Canadian Government honoured him by putting his image on a postage stamp.

Birth of Canadian Rock ‘n Roll (1950s)

In the 1950s, Canada continued contributing new musicians to the world stage in the genres of country (Tommy Hunter), jazz (Moe Koffman, trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, and guitarist Lenny Breau), and classical (Pierrette Alarie, Lois Marshall, Louis Quilico, Léopold Simoneau, and contralto Maureen Forrester). Following in La Bolduc’s footsteps were Quebec artists who enriched the landscape of Canadian music by singing folk music in fabulous French. It wasn’t until Beatlemania swept Canada in the 1960s that Quebec artists began to perform pop and rock; for now, folk was the genre of choice. An important word on this is best summed up by the Canadian Music Encyclopedia: 

In Québec, the history of popular music unfolded quite differently. Instead of copying Americans, French Canadians created their own style of pretty and simple poetry inspired by traditional folk songs and played on the guitar by chansonniers (“songmakers” or singer-songwriters).

First and foremost among these chansonniers was the inspired genius of Félix Leclerc, who deservedly became Canada’s first international folk superstar. Second in rank to him was Jean-Pierre Ferland who started out as a folk musician in the 50s, but in the 70s switched to pop/rock releasing some critically-acclaimed albums. Other chansonniers included Yves Albert and Jacques Labrecque. In 1956, Raymond Lévesque scored a big hit with his “Quand les hommes vivront d’amour”. Its message of brotherhood and search for justice, its folky guitar and jazzy piano made it, amongst changing pop styles, a timeless classic of chanson québécoise. The song has been performed by many French singers.  

Percy Faith became Canada’s second easy listening star (after Guy Lombardo). In the following decade he scored a massive hit with his “Theme from a Summer Place”, the number one single of the year on 1960′s Billboard chart. 

Nearly-forgotten Winnipeg songstress Gisele MacKenzie (no relation to Bob and Doug, eh), after getting her own CBC radio show, recorded some songs of her own which became hits in 1955. 

Prior to American Bill Haley’s revolutionary comet-clocking chart-topper, Canada had already set itself up to usher in the rock ‘n roll era with its hit R&B group The Four Lads. Following suit were The Crew Cuts and The Diamonds. These three Toronto-based quartets launched the rock era in Canada by converting some American R&B tunes into rock and by creating some original selections of their own.  

With all this activity in the 1950s, Canadians would never have believed what was to happen in 1957. Their first anglophone international pop superstar arrived from within the nation’s capital. And he was of neither European nor African descent, but Asian. He released a single that rocketed up to Number One on both sides of the Atlantic and became the second best-selling single of all-time (after Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”). He was Canada’s first real teen-idol, scored several more chart-toppers in the late 50s, became a millionaire while still a minor, switched from rock to adult contemporary in the 60s, wrote the theme for the Tonight Show, composed Tom Jones’ biggest hit, foiled Frank Sinatra’s plans of an early retirement by writing his signature song, and rekindled his own singing career with several chart-toppers in the 70s. To date, he has written some 400 songs. He should be regarded as the godfather of Canadian pop. And his name is Paul Anka.