FOLLOW-UP

The price of growing up

LISA VAN DUSEN September 12 1988
FOLLOW-UP

The price of growing up

LISA VAN DUSEN September 12 1988

The price of growing up

FOLLOW-UP

At the height of his career, he was a Canadian sensation, a boy who valiantly stood in the driving rain of a Canada Day celebration in Ottawa in 1976 to deliver a spellbinding performance. At the time, René Simard, the boy with the angelic voice and the Prince Valiant haircut, was only 15. Now, at the age of 27, Simard—once the highest-selling recording artist in Quebec—is again trying for success in a business which, with few exceptions, does not encourage comebacks. Although Simard says that he has all but given up on the English-Canadian market, he spent part of the past summer recording an album in France which he clearly hopes will put him back on the charts in Quebec. “I always think of Michael Jackson,” Simard said. “He proved what I have always believed—that if you work hard enough, anything is possible.”

Simard’s optimism rekindles an image of the sequin-clad charmer who at various times during his short career shared the stage with such American entertainment giants as Bob Hope,

Bing Crosby and Andy Williams. But a combination of changing times and Simard’s changing voice made him a virtual has-been at the age of 18. He has continued to release records in Quebec, but even though his latest, a single released two years ago, sold 45,000 copies, Simard’s appeal as an adult to

Once the most popular singer in Quebec, Simard, now 27, is trying hard to make a comeback with a new album

an adult market has not come close to matching the success he once enjoyed. Simard even made a foray into English Canada as the host of The René Simard Show, a short-lived variety series that ended 10 years ago after two seasons. And Simard looks back on his career slump with some bitterness. “It wasn’t the public response that both-

ered me so much,” he said. “That I could understand. I was not a cute little kid anymore. It was the people in the business who said I was all washed up. That hurt.”

Simard first burst onto the Quebec music scene in 1970 when, at the age of 9, he landed his first recording contract. At that time, Simard, the son of a lumber-camp cook, was already a local hero on the picturesque Ile d’Orléans, near Quebec City, where he was raised with six brothers and sisters and often sang in talent contests. His first album, VOiseau (The Bird), sold a staggering 175,000 copies, mostly in Quebec, where hit records sell about 25,000 copies each, and was followed by 46 other albums. Some of those were recorded with his younger sister Nathalie, now 19, who also sings on the new album and hosts a daily children’s TV show in Montreal. But as a child, Simard recalled, he never had visions of becoming a national celebrity. “Back then, I just felt lucky to be able to sing,” he said. “I still feel that way— that I have been very fortunate.”

In fact, as a result of royalties from his early successes and frequent guest appearances in Quebec, Simard has never had to consider working outside show business to earn a living. “I have never really considered anything else,” he said. “The music business, when it

works, is a wonderful business. When it doesn’t, it costs a lot of money.” Indeed, his unsuccessful mid1970s attempt to break into the U.S. market cost him personally in both time and money. Although his conversational English is near-perfect, he blames that failure on the unwillingness of Americans to accept his accent. Said Simard: “I think Julio Iglesias is the only guy who can really get away with singing in English with an accent.”

But Simard is still wellknown in his own province.

At his wedding last year,

6,000 fans waited outside the church in the Laurentian Mountains town of St-Sauveur where he married his longtime girlfriend, MarieJosée Taillefer. And some of the acquaintances from Simard’s fame-and-glory days remain—former prime minister Pierre Trudeau acted as toastmaster at the reception. Said Simard of the unlikely association: “I am not a political person but I have always had a great deal of respect for Trudeau. Politics is a lot like show

business. One day you are a hero and the next, you are a zero.”

In his heyday, Simard performed with many show-business celebrities, including Paul Anka and Andy Williams. In

1974, Frank Sinatra awarded him the first prize in the Tokyo Music Festival, after which his international record sales increased dramatically. Now Simard says that he does not really miss being in the international spotlight but he looks back fondly on those times, recalling a day when Bing Crosby showed up at rehearsal for a Bob Hope special in a frayed, torn shirt. “They are regular, nice people,” Simard said. “For the most part, the biggest stars are the nicest.”

Simard’s still-untitled new album, due for release this fall, includes six solos by him and six by his sister, as well as four duet ballads. He says that it is his first attempt to appeal to French audiences as a more relaxed, older singer. And although the sequins and jump suits of his youth are long gone, Simard insists that the new album will not alienate old fans with any drastic departures from his easy-listening style of music. “In previous albums, we did a lot of recording American songs in French,” the singer said. “We never really had our own sound—this is more distinctive.” It is doubtful that, even with a new sound, Simard will be able to repeat his previous success. But given the singer’s eternal optimism, it is also clear that he will keep on trying.

—LISA VAN DUSEN in Montreal