Jacques Helian's orchestra was one of the best big bands in Europe in the 1950's


At the Paris "Alhambra" in 1945

From the movie "Pigalle St Germain des Prés"

Ernie Royal joined Helian's band in 1950


Jacques Hélian's orchestra was among the best big bands in Europe in the early nineteen fifties. Mostly remembered in France for his hit songs, Hélian also played jazz. His musicians included Ernie Royal (tp) who was hired by Hélian while he was touring Europe with Duke Ellington, Sonny Grey (tp), Don Byas (sax), Kenny Clarke (drums), Bill Tamper (tb), André Paquinet (tb), Sadi (vibes), Marcel Bianchi (guitar), Larry Adler (harmonica) and many others.


acques Hélian was born in Paris in 1912. After studying dentistry, he was taught how to play the saxophone by his brother-in-law, Raymond Legrand ( Michel Legrand's father). He played in various pre-world-war-2 big bands, including Ray Ventura's Collegians.

In 1944, days after the liberation of Paris, while Ventura was still exiled in South America, Hélian formed his own band and became the second best selling pop artist in France in the early fifties. The first song he performed, « Fleur de Paris », quickly became the French liberation anthem, the equivalent of « In the Mood » for the anglo-american world.
Incidentally, Hélian met
Glenn Miller at the Paris « Armorial » and drank a few cups of champagne with him, hours before Miller flew back to England where he never arrived. They had planned to tour Europe together.

Jacques Hélian created (was the first to perform and record) a number of tunes that became classics. Among them: « C'est si bon » that Louis Armstrong later popularized around the world; « Etoile des Neiges » (« Forever and ever »), sung in the US by Bing Crosby, a classic in France, « Sous le ciel de Paris » (« Under Paris Skies ») that was later to be recorded by Edith Piaf, Yves Montand and innumerable orchestras. He also played french adaptations of American pop or country hits, like Tennessee Ernie Ford's « Mule Train »( "Le carrioleur"), Hank William's « Jambalaya », or Les Paul and Mary Ford's « Mocking bird Hill » ("La colline aux oiseaux") or « Tennessee Waltz ».


In his show, Hélian alternated songs, gags, instrumentals and jazz. The songs required good vocalists. In 1947, Jean Marco joined the band. He trained his voice to the music of Billy Ekstine and soon became famous as a crooner reminiscent of early Sinatra. He died tragically in an auto accident in 1953, just as he was on the point of starting a solo career.

From the very beginning, Hélian introduced female singers in his band, like Ginette Garcin; in 1949, he formed a female group inspired by the Andrew Sisters that became instantly very popular.

In 1950, Jacques Hélian had a one-week contract in Montreal. To respond to a demand that had been considerably underestimated, the band had to perform 5 shows a day; however, Hélian never succeeded in shortening the line of people waiting outside the theatre.

The next place was supposed to be New York but the musicians' union never authorized Hélian to honor his contract; this incident interrupted the activity of the orchestra for 2 weeks during which, at least, Hélian met Stan Kenton, Shorty Rogers, Nat King Cole...


Around that time, when the activity of the band (that counted up to 26 musicians and vocalists) had become sufficiently promising, Hélian decided to « invest » in top jazz musicians. He hired trumpet player Ernie Royal, (on photo) who left Duke Ellington's orchestra to spend 2 years in France; then came successively Don Byas (sax), Kenny Clarke (drums), along with the best French instrumentalists.

In 1952, Jacques Hélian's orchestra was the first big band in Europe.

In 1953, Hélian was asked by his record company to do an album of Charles Trenet's most popular songs. During the first recording session, Trenet just came to the studio to watch; he was so impressed that he asked if he could sing with the vocalists. French pianist Michel Legrand, Hélian's nephew, who had made the arrangements, quickly introduced a number of solos by Trenet. The result was one of the best French albums of the fifties. (see photo)

In 1955, Jacques Hélian started leading a big band focusing on jazz with drummer US Kenny Clarke and a variety of top european musicians. But whatever the style of the music and it's quality, the growing cost of such a number of musicians gradually became a matter of concern. Music trends were changing and brass instruments tended to be replaced by electric guitars and small bands. Bill Haley or the Platters became the « in » thing and they took little time reaching Europe.

On march 15, 1957, Jacques Hélian said for the last time:
« Ici, Jacques Hélian et son orchestre. Bonjour à tous nos amis! »
Thirteen years of a cheerful, authentic music had come to an end.


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