He is a favourite son of Quebec but he is truly a citizen of the world. Claude Léveillée’s artistry has shone in the cities and villages of his native province, in the nightclubs of Paris, the concert halls of Russia, and off-Broadway in New York. His career has embraced music and comedy, theatre and cinema, literature and television. Léveillée has collaborated with chanteuse Edith Piaf, composer André Gagnon, filmmaker and Oscar winner Denys Arcand, and of course, with many of the prominent singer-songwriters of Quebec.
Quite simply, Léveillée has been a giant of Quebec culture for more than 50 years. And somewhat incongruously, it all began with a clown. In the late 1950s, Cloclo the clown, a Radio-Canada show featuring Montreal-born Léveillée, delighted many young television viewers. Léveillée was fresh out of l’Université de Montréal where he had studied social sciences and starred in a school revue, Bleu et or. But the clown was soon to be replaced by the composer.
Léveillée was working at the time with chansonniers Hervé Brousseau and Jean-Pierre Ferland, as they developed a new nightclub or boîte à chansons built around a creative theme. They were joined by two other founders, Clémence Desrochers and Jacques Blanchet. They asked Raymond Lévesque to come on board, too. The group called their rendezvous, Chez Bozo, named after a Félix Leclerc song about a hapless lover. Chez Bozo was to change Léveillée’s life. In 1959, the French singer, Edith Piaf, visited and heard the young pianist in his element at the club.
Throroughly impressed, she suggested he write songs for her. His contribution included songs such as Boulevard du crime and Ouragan. In France, he also teamed up with Michel Rivgauche to launch a comedic ballet. On his return to Quebec in 1960, Léveillée met the up-and-coming chansonnier, Gilles Vigneault. The two worked together intensively and Léveillée recorded his first album, called simply, Claude Léveillée. Another Léveillée-Vigneault album followed in 1963, with Monique Leyrac putting their words into songs. About that time, Léveillée recorded his classic, Frédéric. He also had the honour of being the first Quebec artist to get star billing at la Place des Arts concert hall in Montreal in 1964.
During the 1960s, he partnered with pianist André Gagnon on two albums. Returning to France, he recorded two other albums. Léveillée appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on television in 1967, shortly after an off-Broadway show he had done in New York. The following decade, he toured the former USSR, Europe and central Asia. In addition, Léveillée took the stage at the international song festival in Sopot, Poland, and he composed music for television plays and shows in Quebec. He recorded with other Quebec stars of the day, including Leclerc, Vigneault, Ferland and Robert Charlebois.
Then came the 80s with tours in Europe, Algeria and Canada. With Claude Gauthier and Pierre Létourneau, he presented a concert in 45 towns in Quebec and New Brunswick. When he came back to Montreal, he partnered once again with his friend André Gagnon for another concert at Place des Arts.
For years, Léveillée was not only on the small screen but also on the big screen. In 1966, he was part of Claude Chabrol’s “La Ligne de demarcation” and in 1988 he obtained a second role in the movie “Jésus de Montréal” by Denys Arcand. Léveillée was also the main subject of a documentary by Claude Labrecque about his work in France with Piaf.
In the early 80s, Léveillée made his return on the small screen as Émile Rousseau, the detested newspaper magnate of the series Scoop, a series for which he also composed the music. He returned in the studio to offer newly recorded versions of his biggest hits. He distinguished himself once again on stage at the Festival d’été of Quebec in 1998.
Throughout the years, many Quebec and international artists covered some of his 450 songs. Léveillé’s work won several awards in Europe and Canada (among them the La Bolduc Award for this songwriting talents). He was named Officer of the Order of Canada in 1997. The following year, he became knight of France’s Legion of Honour. In the book La Chanson québécoise, Benoît L’Herbier wrote that Léveillée was “a creator of moving melodies of indefinite beauty.” It is therefore odd that one of his most recent albums is titled “Rêves inachevés” (Unfinished Dreams).