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“, “Cornichons“, 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.
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.
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.
Bonus tracks, the fractured art soul epic “Hot Toddy”…
and finally my personal favorite, which speaks to me personally more than others, “New York”…