A huge name in Quebec music, Robert Charlebois influenced an entire generation of musicians and changed Quebec’s musical landscape in 1968 with nothing more than an electric guitar, an idea and his words. He has since established himself in the world’s francophone community as an essential figure in French rock and roll.
Robert Charlebois was born in Montréal on June 25, 1944. Already as a teenager, he felt called by the arts. At 16, he had already been opening act for Félix Leclerc and won the Grand Prix du Festival du disque for his song La boulée. In 1962, he chose theatre studies over his classic studies and met Claudine Monfette, nicknamed Mouffe, at l’École Nationale du Théâtre. Together, they would write many screenplays and lyrics, for several plays and songs.
1967 was the beginning of a new era. Charlebois, who already had two “chansonnier” albums behind him, released his third album “Demain l’hiver”, which featured more electric sounds. The cover photo by Robert Nadeau presented Charlebois pouting and dressed only with a soldier’s helmet filled with flowers. The album featured some of his biggest hits such as Demain l’hiver and Marie-Noël, and reaffirmed his talent as a songwriter and poet. With Mouffe and his friend Jean-Guy Moreau, Robert Charlebois presented a new satire review called “Terre des Bums” during Expo 67 (a pun on “Terre des Hommes”, ie “Man and His World”).
That same year, Charlebois spent three months in California. The trip ended up being very influential, Charlebois recalling that “instead of taking music or music arrangement classes at university, I took this trip. It was like my very own Berkeley.” His music and his lyrics started reflecting this new influence, one that involved anti-establishment, counter-culture, the use of joual (Quebec slang), rock and roll and drugs. At the time, Quebec was going through its Quiet Revolution, fighting against the powers of the Catholic Church and the economic oppression many French Canadians had suffered until then. His anthem Lindberg, sung with Louise Forestier, was directly influenced by his trip to California. It shocked the province with its poetic use of joual and Catholic-based swear words.
In September 1968, Robert Charlebois pushed the boundaries even further and triumphed with his “Osstid’show,” a refreshing, charming review, with its creativity, its audacity, its humour and its hope for change. The show starred not only Charlebois, but also eccentric singer Louise Forestier, as well as Mouffe, le Quatuor de Jazz libre du Québec and satirist Yvon Deschamps. Mouffe recalls that “it was a time when everything became a revolution, everything was changing; it felt like a constant boiling point”. Charlebois and Forestier went on an international tour to support the hit song Lindberg, which included a stop at the Olympia de Paris. Charlebois went on to win many prizes, including the Grand Prix du Festival de la chanson française de Spa, in Belgium in 1969 for Lindberg and first prize in 1970 at Poland’s Festival de Sopot for his song Ordinaire, written by Mouffe. In 1969, Charlebois took part in Toronto’s Pop Festival and stole the show from Steppenwolf as their first act, at Montreal’s Forum.
In 1970, Robert Charlebois was one of the many celebrity musicians on board of the famous Festival Express, touring all of Canada by train alongside Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and The Band.
During the 1970s, Charlebois partnered with famed Quebec author Réjean Ducharme (“Les Bellessoeurs”) and continued to collect hit after hit in the province, such as Conception, Fu Man Chu and The Frog Song. Alongside other great names of Quebec music, he took part in many historical concerts, including the Superfrancofête, during the Festival international de la jeunesse francophone in 1974. The show, entitled “J’ai vu le loup, le renard, le lion” featured Gilles Vigneault, Félix Leclerc and Robert Charlebois together onstage, in front of a crowd of over 100 000 people.
In 1975, he had a starring role alongside Miou-Miou, Terence Hill and Klaus Kinski in acclaimed Italian director Sergio Leoni’s Spaghetti Western movie “A Genius, Two Friends and an Idiot.”
On June 23, 1976, Robert Charlebois was reunited on stage with Gilles Vigneault and Yvon Deschamps for the concert 1 X 5, along with Claude Léveillée and Jean-Pierre Ferland. The show was held on top of Montreal’s Mont-Royal in front of more than 300,000 people. The concert album later won the prestigious Prix de l’Académie Charles Cros.
Throughout his career, Robert Charlebois received numerous distinctions and awards: Prix de l’Académie Charles-Cros, Médaille d’or des Olympiades de la chanson, Prix de la Ville de Paris, Médaille de Vermeil de l’Académie française and the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards. Finally, in 1993, he received a Lifetime Achievement award from ADISQ, Quebec’s music industry awards.
In February 2006, a double album called “Tout écartillé” was released, offering for the first time on CD 35 of Robert Charlebois’ greatest songs from his repertoire. Robert Charlebois’ repertoire of songs is still current, both in words and music. A remarkably powerful repertoire delivered on stage by Charlebois at the top of his form and in complete control. His love for the stage is still strong to this day, as Charlebois still performs, be it live or for television. An undeniable and huge influence in Quebec and francophone music all over the world, one can still recognize Charlebois’ influence when listening to today’s young or emerging artists, like Les Cowboys Fringants, Jean Leloup or even Les Colocs. In October 2009, he has returned to venues across the province with a new show, AVEC TAMBOUR NI TROMPETTE.