Richard Clayderman is very happy to still be popular

Elitism has never been part of Richard Clayderman’s repertoire, he tells Ed Power

 

RICHARD CLAYDERMAN is a phenomenon.

The French pianist, now 61, has sold more than 150m record and helped create a new genre of ‘popular classical’ music. He also became an unlikely pin-up during the 1980s, courtesy of soft-focused television commercials for his albums that emphasised his angelic good looks and wonderful hair.

“Some people say that my music is ‘elevator music’,” reveals the 61-year-old musician. “This is their way to make clear that they consider it as a secondary music, a low level music. In fact, it is neither jazz nor classical. It is a kind of soft pop music that appeals to millions of people on the five continents.”

For all his achievements, Clayderman’s life has been tinged with bittersweet moments. Through his years of success he was entangled in a number of unsuccessful romances which belied his cherub-next-door image.

Having married at 18, he split with his first wife just as his career had started to go supernova. His fame was also unfolding in the shadow of his late father, who died aged 40 and never got to see his son conquer the world.

This was doubly heartbreaking as it was his father who had encouraged Clayderman to devote his life to music in the first instance.

“I had lots of downs in the past but since I am married with my third wife… I am in ‘ups’,” he says. “Anyway, my ups and downs do not have influence on my playing. The two sectors are totally separated and do not influence each other.

“My father’s wish was that I become a piano accompanist. He would never have hoped that I become what I am today. No doubt he would have been very proud. I regret that he passed away few months before [Clayderman’s career took off].”

He is open about having stumbled into the big time. In 1976, while he was working as a bank clerk and playing with rock bands by night, Clayderman was invited by producer Olivier Toussaint to record the lullaby-esque instrumental Ballade Pour Adeline (composed by Toussaint’s co-writer Paul de Senneville in honour of his baby daughter).

To the shock of all involved, the track became a global hit, eventually selling 22m copies.

Clayderman had arrived, though it took some time for him to come to terms with the fact. He had never pursued success and wealth. Now that it had landed in his lap, he was temporarily stumped.

“I still remember when Olivier Toussaint offered me the opportunity to record ‘Ballade pour Adeline’,” Clayderman recalls.

“He added, ‘Let’s do this recording for the pleasure to make a good and nice recording… but do not expect that it sells more than 10,000 copies’.

“Honestly, neither he nor I could imagine that it would sell more than 20 million copies and that it would open the door to my career with the fantastic opportunity to record more than 1000 titles and to perform more than 2000 concerts in the past 35 years.”

NAMING GAME

One compromise which he was required to make to showbusiness convention was to adopt a stage alias. Clayderman was born Philippe Pagès. However, it was feared a non-French speaking audience would mispronounce his name. So he became Richard Clayderman.

“My producers did not like Philippe Pages. They picked up one of my grand-mother’s name, Clayderman, and they said ‘Philippe Clayderman’ is not appropriate — that’s how Richard Clayderman was born. Actually all my friends call me ‘Fifi’, for Philippe. But my producers call me Richard and my fans call me either ‘Richard’ or ‘Richie’.”

He is eager to lay to rest the misconception that he was a musical genius as a child — or that he sacrificed a career as high-end concert pianist. If anything has got him where he is today it is hard work and perseverance.

“Definitely I was not a prodigy,” he says. “I was a regular young pianist but my chance was that my father was a music teacher so there was a piano at home and I was terribly attracted by these black and white keys. Despite this I had to practice and practice a lot and I still have to practice a lot, a minimum of three hours a day. To do my job it is essential to rehearse.

“Originally my goal was to be a piano accompanist of singers and I have learned a lot being among the group of musicians and accompanying some artists and French stars but I could not imagine that one day I would be performing at the front of the stage.”

POPULAR MUSIC

He understands that the classical world can be snobbish towards those who sell millions of records. Then, it isn’t really his world. He doesn’t play for elitists but for ordinary people. He is an entertainer, not an upholder of musical traditions stretching back decades.

“It is true that I have been to the classical music conservatory and had a classical studies before deciding not to devote my life to classical music. My classic studies are the essential bases to what I do today. I often say and shall always say that I am not a classical pianist. I am a popular pianist. In France we say ‘pianiste de variétés’.”

STAYING IN THE BUSINESS

With his wealth, Clayderman could have retired years ago. And yet he continues to tour solidly, routinely playing upwards of 100 concerts a year. He has never considered doing anything else. Why would he? He had his fans, and his health. Better to be on the road than mooching around his apartment in Paris. That way would lie ennui and tedium.

“What else would you like me to do? I like to have a break, few days of rest, a few days of holidays with my wife but honestly I am happy to go back at stage. Without my performances I would get bored.” Luckily for his fans, Clayderman is not willing to let that happen.

Richard Clayderman plays the NCH in Dublin on Thursday; and Cork Opera House on Friday

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