René Simard is just 16 years old but like all smart little millionaires he’s learned when to talk and when to listen. Right now he’s listening very attentively as his manager reminds me I’m in the presence of a veritable “monstre du showbizz.”
“One like this comes along every 20 years—if you’re lucky,” says Guy Cloutier, looking straight and full of love at the monster in question. “I’m talking about a Sinatra, a Garland”—he hushes his voice in deep respect—“even an Elvis” (who at the time was still alive in Memphis).
“I hope this isn’t embarrassing you,” I say to the boy singer who is sitting there in a brown dressing gown and $7.98 sneakers.
“Strictly business,” he smiles. “Would you like another Laurentide?”
But Cloutier is just warming up: he remembers René’s first sell-out concert at Montreal’s Place des Arts when the boy was only nine. “I’m with him,” said the manager to the guard at the artist’s entrance pointing at his 82-pound protégé. He tells me about the night the boy drew 200,000 people to Mount Royal, the 30,000 at Place des Nations, the smash hit at the Olympia in Paris, the riot in Hull where the crowds were so big and eager tens of thousands couldn’t get in.
“That was scary,” René admits, remembering. Scary but terrific too, money-inthe-bank-wise. For millions of English Canadians, Simard was the little boy singing in the pelting rain to 70,000 people in a Parliament Hill July 1 downpour. Cloutier chalks up the 19 LP!s—three of them in phonetic Japanese, none of them in English, 11 of them gold which in Canada means more than 100,000 records sold.
But mostly Guy Cloutier tells me about that night in June of 1974 when René, competing against the cream of 43 countries, sang Midori Iro No Yane (No Mama Don’t Cry) and won the Grand Prize at the International Tokyo Music Festival. That was terrific of course, but the award Cloutier really wanted that night was second prize, the Frank Sinatra Trophy for best vocalist, to be presented by old blue eyes himself.
“Win it for me kid,” manager told star who, to tell you the truth had never heard of Frank Sinatra until then. But he won it anyway. The picture of him receiving the prize from Frank flashed around the world. He says money-in-the-bank-wise “c’était too much.” After that it was easy— now Guy Cloutier could say “I’m with him” and open doors around the world. Merv Griffin called and Mike Douglas, too. And now, of course, a half-hour CBC
variety series, premiering September 27. There was the Bob Hope special, René’s own Super-kid show and guest appearances galore back home in Quebec. Not only that but Liberace, Mister Showmanship himself, was on the line saying the kid was ready for Vegas.
“You like the States?” I asked.
“There’s only one Vegas,” says René Simard. “Once you’ve worked there ...” He doesn’t even bother finishing the sentence: Vegas is Vegas. René Simard has been to the top of his mountain. “How much money will he make this year?” “Between six and seven hundred thousand,” says Cloutier.
I roll that around in my head a little: they’d come a long way from Chicoutimi.
Tokyo, Paris, Las Vegas and now—Ste. Marie de Beauce, down near Quebec City: rolling hills, Holsteins and unemployment on the banks of the meandering Chaudière. At eight o’clock on a hot summer Sunday, evening choring is done and the bar-salons are emptying as all roads lead to the Centre Sportif and “the petit Simard” back home on a 25-city tour for the folks from Pepsi. René, Guy and I have been sitting in the star’s trailer which is parked near the ice-clearing tractor. L'heure du spectacle—show time—is just an hour away but Guy is still rolling ...
“At first we went for the mothers,” he’s saying. “At nine years old what else could we do? René was the little boy they used to have. Or the one they couldn’t have. Or even the one they had lost.” You couldn’t live in Quebec and not remember it: le petit Simard in virginal white short pants singing Mama Cherie, Santa Lucia and his all-time monster, the ever popular Ave Maria. Not a dry eye in the province, especially as Guy Cloutier was saying, if your own little angel happened to have been totaled by a truck.
But he couldn’t go on singing mom songs forever. He wasn’t ready for Love For Sale or The Lady Is A Tramp yet but he definitely was growing up. What was needed, says Guy, was “un change de look."
“Claudine doesn’t put his pants on anymore,” he teases. “Or take them off.”
(Claudine Bachand, Guy’s assistant, is René’s constant companion and guardian. She says she had “un bon feeling" about his potential from the very start.)
“Now we want the daughters to fall in love with him,” says the manager. “But we don’t want to lose mom. And when dad finds out his daughter loves René he’ll want to buy her his records.” “You’re sure this isn’t embarrassing you?” “Not a bit,” says René Simard, turning the engine on to get the air conditioner going.
“He never complains,” says Guy. “The great ones never do. That’s what makes the superstars. They don’t mind the work. I say do it, he does it. He once made an album called Un Enfant Comme Les Autres—(A Child Like Any Other). It sold over 100,000. But don’t believe it. The great ones are great because they aren’t the same as others. We took a month off when he was 12 but he was on the phone within a week—couldn’t wait to get back to work.”
“You seem to have built quite a partnership,” I say.
“I live and breathe René Simard,” says Guy Cloutier. “When the Colonel found Elvis it was for life.”
“That’s true,” says the singer.
The way they met is better than any press agent has the right to expect. At eight years little René, the sixth of seven children of Jean-Roch, a lumber camp cook, and Gabrielle Simard, had moved from Chicoutimi to the Ile d’Orléans. In 1969 he went to nearby Quebec City to compete in a TV amateur show. He won. In the audience was Madame Gertrude Cloutier. Her son Guy had also left Chicoutimi and was making a name for himself in the showbiz management circles of Montreal. Gertrude thought René sang like an angel and a few days later we find her calling on Gabrielle and Jean-Roch Simard on the Ile of Orléans.
“Your son, he sings like an angel,” she said. Yes, they already knew. “And I’d like
him to sing at my son’s wedding.”
July 17,1971 and the bells are ringing for Guy and his gal—the former Carole Fullum. The wedding service is just lovely but it gets much, much better when surprise, surprise,—little René hits A ve Maria up in the balcony. A boy who sang like an angel: Guy Cloutier would never be the same again—neither would René Simard because Guy came calling right after the honeymoon. They’d make an album together. It sold 162,000 copies. The rest is legend.
The manager has left to check out the sound system. Claudine is fussing with the
star’s stage clothes. “What’s it like to be headed for your second million at sixteen?”, I asked René Simard. He says it’s lots of fun. “Today it buys me my sneakers, my socks, my jeans. But someday it will buy me a car.” But then—with a twinkle in his eye—he changes that to “cars”—heavy on the plural.
“But really, the things I like—water-skiing in the Bahamas, filet mignon and Disneyland—will never cost millions.”
“You’re the first Québécois to ever play Las Vegas. That must have been satisfying.” He said it was lots of fun. “Mr. Liberace was like a grandfather to me—always trying to help.”
Today it’s the Las Vegas Hilton but just two years ago René Simard says he couldn’t speak a word of English. But Guy fixed that too by sending him to Berlitz—in Beverly Hills.
“It took me three months to learn English,” he says. “But I love learning things. I’d love to really learn Japanese—that would take two years. I study dancing in Hollywood and it took me one and a half years to learn the basic steps. Now I want to learn the piano. I don’t know how long that will take. But everything is easy for me.” But not as easy as it was when he was nine years old. “At nine everything I said was cute. But not everything is cute at 14 or 16.1
had to learn how to talk.”
Then there was the delicate question of his voice change. Sooner or later the little angel was going to start growing hair on his chest. Could his soprano survive it? Could his career survive it? Could Quebec survive it? But they were ready. He had set aside some records in the event that the voice cracked under the pressure of manhood. He’d also hired Debbie Reynolds’ and Ann Margaret’s Hollywood voice coach to teach René how to baby his voice against the looming storm. But the fuss was all for naught.
“I was working Vegas when it happened,” says the singer. “Nobody ever
knew the difference when my voice changed. I lost five tones off the top—so what?” Now he can be blasé about it.
“It’s also very demanding,” I say, peeking out at the reporters and TV crews waiting their turn to get in. “At 16 I still had a paper route. The more you give the more people want,” he says. “But that’s the way I like it. I’m doing what I was meant to do. And remember, I’ve been doing it since I was nine.” “You mean you’re a pro.” “Yes I am.”
I ask him if there have been any big disappointments along the way. “Just onesome of the Quebec stars, people I really respect... some of them haven’t been very friendly to me. A little stuck-up.” He sticks his nose in the air to make the point. He may be hot stuff in Las Vegas but maybe not Québécois to the patriots back home.
“I don’t know why they feel that way,” he says, obviously hurt and confused. “I always say I’m from Quebec, Canada—no matter where I go.
Cloutier is back with the news that arenas weren’t made for singing. “In Vegas the engineers were right in the clubs controlling the sound as if it were a recording. And we could be there right now if it wasn’t for our new CBC English television show coming up in the fall. But nothing is more important than that—not even Vegas. English Canada is going to be very important for René. His first English album will sell 200,000 copies in English Canada.”
Canada more important than Vegas? For a Québécois? The mind boggles and if you don’t mind we’ll pause here to savor what he sang. Savor because this is the first time I’ve heard such a thing. Quebec, you see, has been shaped by its artists. That sense of identity that now bums so bright in the Québécois spirit was nurtured more by singers and writers than it was by René Lévesque. And none of those singers and writers ever gave a damn about Canada: Toronto was for Gordon Lightfoot. Hamilton could have been the moon. Their lack of interest was total, complete. They couldn’t afford us as they attempted to define themselves. And they did their jobs well, the Leclercs, the Vigneaults, Juliens, Charlebois and Deschamps—so well, that, the Chicoutimi connection of Cloutier and Simard today feel not only the muscle but
the need to hustle you and me too. In the long live Canada department that’s the best news I’ve heard in ages.
He has all the fancy Las Vegas moves. The Hollywood coaching is paying off and, let’s face it, you don’t work with Mr. Liberace and not pick up some polish. Most of the time he sings in tune—someday he may even be very good. Some of the Ste. Marie mothers seemed to miss the short pants and Ave Maria but he didn’t seem at all concerned because their daughters were screaming like crazy—right on target. Only two passed out, but in a town this small who could ask for anything more? ^
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.