A figurehead of the Quebec national identity, Gilles Vigneault’s claim to fame in the French-speaking world is based primarily on his work as a singer-songwriter.
Gilles Vigneault grew up between the sea and an evergreen forest in a remote Lower North Shore community whose people, infinite landscape and merciless climate remained an everlasting source of inspiration in his works. Also a poet, a publisher and a stage and film actor, Vigneault’s claim to fame in the French-speaking world is based primarily on his work as a singer-songwriter.
Following classical studies in the Rimouski minor seminary, Vigneault studied in the French Department of Laval University, where he started the poetry magazine Émourie. After completing a licence in French literature in 1953, he performed with Laval University’s Troupe des Treize, an actors’ group that went on to win the Calvert Trophy of the Eastern Quebec Drama Festival five years later. Vigneault remained with the company until 1960 as a director.
December 1958 marked a turning point in Vigneault’s career when he was discovered by the folk artist Jacques Labrecque during an evening of poetry held at the Arlequin, a Quebec City “boîte à chanson.” Labrecque later recorded the artist’s early “character” songs, Jos Hébert, TiPaul la Pitoune and Jos Montferrand, with instant success. A few years later on a Quebec tour, the French popular singer Gilbert Bécaud added Natashquan, the poet’s ode to his native village, to his international repertoire.
In 1959, a banner year in his career, Vignault wrote more songs for Labrecque, created Éditions de l’Arc, where his first book of poetry, Étraves, was published, played the central character of filmmaker Fernand Dansereau’s La canne à pêche (NFB, 1959) and wrote the children’s series Le grand duc (RadioCanada, 1959-1963).
On August 5, 1960, Gilles Vigneault gave his first public concert as a performer from the stage of Quebec City’s Boîte à chansons. It was an instant triumph. 1960 also marked the beginning of his collaboration with his lifelong friend, the pianist Gaston Rochon. The following year, Vigneault met French singers Georges Brassens and Catherine Sauvage, who became the first female singer to add his songs to her repertoire. In April 1961, following a Quebec tour, Vigneault played the Chat Noir in Montreal, initiating a fruitful collaboration with the club’s artistic director, the singer-songwriter Claude Léveillée. In early 1962, Vigneault released his first album, for which he won the Montreal radio station CKAC’s Grand Prix du disque canadien.
In August of the following year, as part of the Superfrancofête Gilles Vigneault received the Grand Prix of the 3rd Congrès du spectacle in 1963. In early November of that year, he gave his first oneman show at the Comédie Canadienne. In May 1964, he took part in the Independence Gala at the Montreal Forum. In a performance by Pauline Julien, his song Jack Monoloy won second prize at the International Song Festival in Sopot, Poland. Vigneault’s song for filmmaker Arthur Lamothe’s Il a neigé sur la Manicouagan, the historic Mon Pays, received first prize at the same festival in 1965 in a performance by Monique Leyrac; the song was also brought Vigneault an award from the Ostend Festival in Belgium and, in Quebec the Festival du Disque’s Félix Leclerc Award. That same year, Vigneault wrote the theme for Lamothe’s Poussière sur la ville and was awarded the Governor General’s Award for his book of poetry Quand les bateaux s’en vont.
In 1966, the SaintJeanBaptiste Society presented Gilles Vigneault with its Calixa Lavallée Award and dedicated a float in that year’s SaintJeanBaptiste Day parade to him and Monique Leyrac and Félix Leclerc. The same year, Vigneault wrote the song Chanson des enfants for Gratien Gélinas’ play Hier les enfants dansaient and, in September, his song Jack Monoloy was the subject of a ballet by Georges Reich at the Comédie Canadienne. After recording an album in Paris, Vigneault made his debut at that city’s Bobino Theatre with Pauline Julien.
Vigneault’s album La Manikoutai was released in Montreal in 1967. In September, in the wake of General de Gaulle’s historic Quebec visit, the Paris Olympia Theatre devoted three consecutive evening programs to new Francophone talents from across the Atlantic, Vigneault’s first opportunity to perform in that prestigious venue. Returning to France the following year, he was an opening act for French singer Serge Reggiani as part of a tour of 30 European cities. After creating Le vent qui vire for the publication of his songs and lyrics, Vigneault created the L’Escargot label for the release of his recordings in France. In July 1969, he took part in the Mariposa Folk Festival and played Massey Hall in Toronto.
This brings us to 1970, the year Vigneault won the Grand Prix of the Charles Cros Academy for his European album Du milieu du pont (1969) and took part in the Osaka World Exposition. The breaking out of the Quebec October Crisis shortly thereafter had a profound effect on his career. His political engagement deepening, Vigneault took part in many independence events such as the Poèmes et chants de la résistance concert, staged at the Gesù Theatre in 1971. He also recorded Lettre de Ticul Lachance à son premier sousministre, a work in the form of a letter that was openly critical of the then Quebec premier.
Concerts and tours followed one another relentlessly. In 1973, Vigneault took his show Le temps qu’il (album: J’ai vu le loup, le renard, le lion), Vigneault famously shared the stage with Robert Charlebois and Félix Leclerc in front of 130,000 people gathered on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City. 1974 also saw him perform in a number of Canadian cities including Ottawa, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto. Tam Ti Delam, a ballet based on several of his songs, was choreographed by Brian Macdonald and danced by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in a new orchestral version by Edmund Assaly in November 1974.
Vigneault emerged from a sabbatical in 1975 in time for the official Quebec holiday celebrations on Montreal’s Mount Royal where he premiered the immortal Gens du pays, an instant hit that is commonly used by Quebecers to this day as a birthday song. That same year, Vigneault received an honorary degree from Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. In 1976, he was part of the Une fois cinq show with Robert Charlebois, Yvon Deschamps, Jean-Pierre Ferland and Claude Léveillée. The live album of the same title received an award from the Charles Cros Academy the following year.
At the height of his fame, Gilles Vigneault performed 50 shows at the Bobino Theatre in Paris and gave nearly as many concerts at Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in Montreal. European tours ensued. The singer was made a Knight of the Parliamentary Assembly of Francophonie’s Order of Pleiade, of which he was to be elevated to the grade of Officer in 2005. Back home, he won the Denise Pelletier Quebec Award (a feast he repeated in 1983) and, in 1979, an honorary degree from the Quebec University in Rimouski.
From 1978, Vigneault turned his talents to writing stories for a younger audience, releasing, among other albums, Les quatre saisons de Piquot and Quelques pas dans l’univers d’Éva.
In 1980, Vigneault actively worked as a militant for the Yes camp during the Quebec referendum on constitution. In September, he was the focus of a vibrant tribute, Je vous entends chanter, performed by a number of artists in Montreal’s Place des Nation in front of an audience of 12,000. The same year, Robert Bibeau replaced Gaston Rochon, his musical director of the past 20 years. In 1981, Vigneault received an honorary degree from the University of Montreal and, the following year, the Canada Council’s Molson Prize for the Arts in recognition for his lifetime achievements. Two of his children’s album, Quelques pas dans l’univers d’Éva (1981) and Les quatre saisons de Piquot (1979), won the In Honorem Award of the Charles Cros Academy in 1984.
Vigneault continued writing, performing, recording and touring while accolades kept coming in. In 1985, René Lévesque made him a Knight of the Quebec National Order, France presented him with its Legion of Honour, ADISQ gave him its Tribute Award and York University, in Ontario, presented him with an honorary degree.
The following year in Paris, Vigneault premiered his show Le temps de dire, which was to enjoy 250 performances on its European tour before being presented at Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in Montreal. In 1987, Vigneault received the Jacques Blanchet medal for the quality of his work, a Genie Award for his song Les îles de l’enfance, written for the film Équinoxe, and starred in the film Tinamer. Mon pays was the winner the best Quebec song contest held by the RadioMutuel network.
Additional honours came to Vigneault in 1988 with the French Henri Jousselin Award for his lifetime achievements and Laval University’s Gloire de l’Escolle Award. In 1989, a 4,000 member choir of singers attending the French choral festival Choralies de VaisonlaRomaine backed him up as he performed a series of his songs. In April 1990, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of his career, the City of Paris organized a weeklong tribute to Vigneault, presenting him with the insignia of Arts and Letters Officer and the Vermeil Medal Award of the City of Paris. This was followed by a further Charles Cros Award for his record set of 101 songs (a reference to Bill 101 making French Quebec’s official language) and an honorary degree from the Lumière University in Lyon, France.
In 1991, Gilles Vigneault cowrote, with Marcel Sabourin, the children’s play Titom, presented in Place des Arts in December. His new song Un monde finit was a triumph at the Québec City Summer Festival, where he was awarded the festival’s Tribute Award in recognition for his lifetime achievements. A few days later, he worked his magic as part of Montréal, ville francophone, a megaconcert presented in front of an audience of 70,000 in Montreal’s Parc des Îles to mark the city’s 350 anniversary. The following year, he received the Special Award of Union des Artistes, a second Governor General Award and SOCAN’s Wm. Harold Moon Award, the organization’s highest award honouring a Canadian songwriter. The year 1988 ended with Au doux milieu de vous, an overview of his 40year songwriting career, and the release of Le Cirque, an album of JeanPaul Riopelle engravings with unpublished Vigneault texts. A limited edition of 108 copies of this art book were published, including 75 copies numbered from 1/75 to 75/75.
When Au bout du coeur was released in 2003, Gilles Vigneault wondered if that might not be his last conventional album, given the new methods of distribution made possible by the Internet. In March 2004, he embarked on yet another French tour with a brand new show and received an honorary degree from the Quebec University in Montreal later that year. In the fall, he published the book of poetry Les chemins de pieds. Un dimanche à Kyoto, an illustrated talking book for children, was also published while the artist toured Quebec with Au bout du coeur, a show that he also presented in Europe in 2005.
An emeritus songwriter celebrated on the world’s leading stages, Gilles Vigneault is a prolific and virtually tireless creator. He is beyond any doubt a legendary figure on the Quebec scene while remaining his countrymen’s beloved child.