In a life cut tragically short even as Florent Schmitt’s was blessedly long, Olivier Despax was a musical meteor shot across the sky.
Music history is full of examples of family members following in the footsteps of important composers and musicians. It’s easy to understand why — exposed (and even immersed) as they would have been to some truly great inspiration.
No such examples exist in the family of French composer Florent Schmitt, except for one surprising case — unusual in that it comes in the world of popular instead of classical music (although not completely unheard of; Evelyn Künneke, the daughter of German composer Eduard Künneke, enjoyed a lengthy career as a pop singer and actress).
As it so happens, Florent Schmitt’s grand-nephew was the French heart-throb guitarist, singer and actor Olivier Despax, who was born in 1939. Based on his successes in playing, singing and acting, clearly he would be well-known today but for his untimely death in 1974 from leukemia at the age of just 35.
Despite his relative obscurity today, Olivier Despax was quite the star in France during the 1960s and into the early 1970s. Recently, Mortimer Winterthorpe published a biographical profile in his online series on French pop vocalists, Le Net plus ultra de la chanson Française, which helps us understand just how important a personality Despax was in those times.
In Winterthorpe’s profile, we learn that Olivier Despax exhibited extraordinary musical talent early in life, winning an award for Best Jazz Guitarist in 1955 from the Salon de la Jeunesse du Grand Palais when he was just 16 years old.
At the time, Despax’s grand-uncle Florent Schmitt was 85 years old and still in robust health — so no doubt the “grand old man of French music” would have been quite proud of young Despax’s accomplishment.
Four years later, with another national medal for guitar performance under his belt, Despax was conscripted into military service in Algiers — a hapless decade-long campaign against the Algerian freedom fighters that Charles DeGaulle would finally end several years later.
With that unpleasant episode in his life behind him, Despax would return to music in earnest, forming a pop group he named The Gamblers.
Despax’s colleagues in the band included several famous pop instrumentalists in France at the time such as saxophonists Jean Marie Dariès and Philippe Maté, and bassist Ricardo Galeazzi. The band performed at important venues like the Madison Club, where the popular dance of the same name got its start in the late 1950s.
Under the name Olivier Despax and The Gamblers, the band was signed to a three-year contract with the Barclay record label, which expanded its fame across the country with songs such as The Madison, Be-Bop-a-Lula, Sack O’Woe and Mashed Potatoes.
During the summer of 1962, Olivier Despax and The Gamblers appeared at the grand opening of the soon-to-become-famous Le Papagayo nightclub in St. Tropez. The band was flying high … but as is often the case, personality conflicts within the group led to its disbandment just two years later.
Undeterred, Olivier Despax proceeded to embark on a solo career, singing as well as playing the guitar. Clips from several television appearances in the mid-1960s demonstrate his photogenic personality as well as his sophisticated crooner’s voice, such as this December 1965 RTF performance of the Henri Salvador ballad Syracuse.
There was even a joint television appearance with the actress Brigitte Bardot in a song titled The Guitar Lesson, where Olivier Despax attempts to teach Mlle. Bardot how to play the instrument — only to have the stage-set morph into a nuptials scene. This broadcast led to rumors of a romantic relationship between the two artists (which proved to be unfounded).
During the mid-1960s, Despax also parlayed his “movie-star good looks” into a film career, ultimately starring in a dozen French films by 1970.
Unfortunately, as Mortimer Winterthorpe states in his biographical profile, for Olivier Despax it was “too soon, too young”: The artist suffered the curse of a young death in 1974 at the age of 35, in stark contrast to his grand-uncle Florent Schmitt, who had lived to the age of nearly 90.
Unlike many young stars whose lives have been cut short by drugs, alcoholism or other actions of their own volition, Despax was stricken with leukemia, which in a sense makes his early death that much more tragic.
Today, Olivier Despax is better known for his singing than for his instrumental or acting career. But his most famous quote, given to a French magazine in 1959, was as an instrumentalist commenting on the perception of jazz music in France at the time:
“Black musicians have a singular character — a spirit of their own and one that whites lack. It is a kind of ferocity of rhythm, a violence which they call ‘swing.’ They also have a great deal of sensitivity — and it is absolutely not the sensitivity of whites.”