Jean-Paul Vignon, Stylish French Vocalist and Actor, Dies at 89

Jean-Paul Vignon, Stylish French Vocalist and Actor, Dies at 89

Jean-Paul Vignon, the romantic French vocalist and actor who impressed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic during an eight-decade career, died March 22 of liver cancer in Beverly Hills, his family announced. He was 89.

Performing a repertoire of contemporary pop and American standards, Vignon debuted in the U.S. in 1963 at the famed New York supper club The Blue Angel, where he opened for stand-up comic Woody Allen.

Ed Sullivan would soon showcase him on his Sunday night CBS variety show in eight appearances — including one in which he sang a duet with young Liza Minnelli — and he became a regular guest on Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin’s programs.

Signed to Columbia Records, Vignon released his first U.S. album, Because I Love You, in 1964. Three years later, he had a supporting role opposite William Holden and Cliff Robertson in the World War II film The Devil’s Brigade.

In a 1994 profile in the Los Angeles Times, reporter Robert Koehler noted, “Vignon fulfilled the American image of the romantic, singing Frenchman. Ironically, rather than compare his voice to such renowned Gallic crooners as Maurice Chevalier and Gilbert Bécaud, Vignon says that he has a Bobby Darin kind of voice, able to sing fast and passionate or gentle and slow.”

He continued to play some of the top rooms in New York, Miami, Los Angeles and other major cities into the early 1970s, and in ’74 he recorded a single, “You,” with Farrah Fawcett, then a relatively unknown young actress and model.

Changing audience tastes stalled his career, but he did host a Canadian TV show produced by Dick Clark called The Sensuous Man, which ended each week with him reclining in a bathtub. And for a Playgirl centerfold in 1973, he sported a sweater once worn in a famous photo shoot by Marilyn Monroe and little else.

Born on Jan. 30, 1935, in the port city of Dire-Daou in the colonial territory of French Somaliland (later known as Djibouti), Vignon was schooled in Avignon, France. He briefly studied medicine in Marseille and law at the Sorbonne in Paris but decided to pursue music full time.

He was in his early 20s when, on the recommendation of Belgian singer-actor Jacques Brel, he secured a prestigious cabaret job in Paris that would launch his career.

The baritone debuted in front of the cameras as the star of the 1956 feature Les Promesses Dangereuses, then followed with a performance opposite Francoise Arnoul in the romantic drama Asphalte (1959).

Meanwhile, he had signed as a vocalist with France’s Disques Vogue, which aimed to develop him as an artist along the lines of such balladeers as Charles Trenet (his idol), Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour. His first album was 1957’s autobiographical Djibouti.

His career in France began to lag after he served 17 months of compulsory military service, but after opening for Edith Piaf and performing on board the French liner Liberté before such ocean-going celebrities as Ernie Kovacs, Edie Adams and Carol Burnett, he decided to try his luck in the States.

As he wrote in his 2018 memoir, From Ethiopia to Utopia, “My adventurous spirit was telling me, ‘Marco Polo did not hesitate to go to China, Henry Morton Stanley did not hesitate to presume exploring Central Africa and find Dr. Livingston, Christopher Columbus did not hesitate to sail west to discover America … so it is your turn to discover the United States.’”

After years of career ebbs and flows, he returned to the L.A. cabaret scene in 1993, encouraged by such pop vocalists as Harry Connick Jr., Michael Feinstein and Tony Bennett and the smash success of “Unforgettable,” which paired the late Nat King Cole and his daughter Natalie. He would remain active into his 80s with appearances at Feinstein’s at Vitello’s and the Catalina Jazz Club.

Along the way, he would also appear on such shows as The Rockford Files, Hotel, Falcon Crest, L.A. Law, Columbo, Days of Our Lives and Gilmore Girls; voice one of the Merry Men in Shrek (2001); and narrate the romantic comedy 500 Days of Summer (2009).

Meanwhile, his company, Côte d’Azur Productions, provided French audiences with translations and overdubs of Scarface and other American films.

Survivors include his longtime partner, Suzie Summers; daughters Marguerite Vignon Gaul (from his marriage to late American actress Brigid Bazlen) and Lucy Brank; and granddaughters Leah and Hannah.

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