To tell the story of the artist involved in creating the masterful track of the day, “South”, I have to start backwards from his death. On August 13th, 1998, two months after his mother’s death, Nino Ferrer took the hunting gun from his Creole Cottage-style farm in Quercy in the southwest of France and went into the wheat fields of the neighbouring Saint-Cyprien village, laid down among groves, near some trees he had painted before on canvas, and shot himself in the chest, committing suicide. The next day countless of French and Italian newspapers wrote glowing obituaries proclaiming that Nino, the son of both countries, had finally left the “South”. The ashes of his body would be spread among the fields of New Caledonia where he was born in 1934 and lived most of his young life. So, tied to this song and what it represented he came to embody its deeper meaning.
His real name though was Agostino Ferrer. Somehow, this older man who had the gifts of striking good looks, fame, wealth, admiration and friendship of others who knew him as Nino, never liked Nino much himself. Starting out his career as a joke singer, or at least that’s what they thought when he wrote his earliest hits “Mirza
“, and “Oh! hé! hein! bon!
“. He himself, resented being typecast as a comic singer and forced to perform such hits which put a restraint on exhibiting a different, more artistic side of himself.
|Nino in the late 60s.
As a young man, he was sent to study abroad at the Sorbonne. There he would study Ethnology and Archaeology while maintaining a deep interest and practice in music and art. Rather than get a career in those learned studies, he chose to travel the world as a dock worker. In 1959, upon returning to France, that’s when he turned his eyes fully into music.
Those early successes he had in the singles market, ill-prepared Leo for what fame and admiration entailed. Always having a depressive side to his personality, he would purposely try to antagonize his adoring audience trying repel them from his concerts for demanding to hear the hits, and away from the stage overdo everything: wine, women and songs. This third “thing” was what he was always truly interested in though. He, like other French artists such as Serge Gainsbourg or Michel Polnareff
, were discovering that getting rid of their pop label was hard enough and having to deal with what all that entail, especially in the 70s, was much more than most of them could handle.
In the late 60s, Agostino decided to quit show business and move to Italy. In Italy for the 3 years he stayed there. something about its southern feel, much more like the imagined American South of New Orleans that he dreamt about visiting as a child, soothed his trouble soul. Reinvigorated from his time spent there, he decided to move back to France to a great colonial-style house in Rueil-Malmaison
that reminded him of something he would have seen in our
In his dreamstate Southern home he would use the meager money earned from his failed artistic musical ventures 1972’s Métronomie
and Nino Ferrer and Leggs
to pay for the installation of a recording studio. While those two previous albums, recorded with the immense help of Mickey Finn
(of T-Rex fame), were important shapers of the American country-rock and soul he’d try to blend into his new music, now with this studio he had complete control and comfort to record exactly the type of music that interested him.
There in the country, Leo would start shaping the sound of “South”. Singing in English, for the first time, he writes lyrics that relate to how this laid-back house in the country remind him of the South:
“We call it the South ’cause time is so long there
That life sure will take us more than a million years
And we like to stay there”
He wrote this song at the time of his greatest peace on this earth. Surrounded by his loving wife Kinou
, Radiah Frye (a simpatico musical partner from the US) his backup vocalist, and true friends, he finally felt comfortable enough in his own skin to express that comfort on tape. The song itself is just comforting luxurious, displaying such a uniquely humble blend of styles. You hear the sound of Americana in the guitars, you hear the expansive sound of Chanson with the strings, and at the end you get the beautiful male and female southern-drawl baritone-and-alto vocals of Leo and Raidah. When the song was originally released, in its original English version, Nino refused to sing it in French, saying it would completely rob it of its meaning.
|Le Sud single.
Nino so loved the sound of Radiah and him singing together that he decided to make the whole album together with her, using her style when it seemed appropriate. Unfortunately, the record label at first refused to let him record with Radiah. They would do so only if he would record a French version. Nino, again had to bend to complete his vision, a majestic album that really had immense musical merit on its own, so he did. He re-recorded “South” in French, now titled as “Le Sud”. Barclays subsequently re-released the single and it sold millions upon millions of copies making Nino famous again. For some reason, Nino et Radiah only sold 60,000 copies and an album that should reside alongside L’Histoire de Melody Nelson, Polnareff’s, Comme a la Radio as albums you should know by heart got lost to time.
|Nino and Radiah album cover.
Nino, being Agostino, refuses fame knowing full well he would have to go and make a living based on “hits”. In 1975, a year after reaching heights few dream of, he releases Suite en œuf another brilliant and more challenging album. That album sells even less copies, numbering in the thousands of copies much to the huge resignation of Nino. A moral defeat, and one that makes Nino only find solace by raising his horses in his Quercy farmhouse. By 1977, resigned to ever making a grand statement like in Nino et Radiah he moves momentarily to the US finding some temporary peace going days just relaxing and painting when the mood hits him.
Who knows what transpired in Nino’s mindspace from the time he left the US and went back to live and die in the southwest of France, but if you hear the track that follows “South”, the fractured art soul ballad “Hot Toddy”, you’ll get some sense of the tortured spirit Nino had. Unfortunately, like Brian Wilson said, some people just weren’t born for these times…
Listen to South (original English version) at Grooveshark.
Bonus tracks, the fractured art soul epic “Hot Toddy”…
Listen to Hot Toddy at Grooveshark.
and finally my personal favorite, which speaks to me personally more than others, “New York”…
Listen to New York at Grooveshark.