On June 16, 2017, at the FrancoFolies de Montréal festival, at the end of his show Dubois en liberté, Claude Dubois started pointing at people in the audience while the irresistible melody to his classic hit song “Comme un million de gens” was stretching out.
“Like you! Like me! Like you! Like me!” he shouted, looking left and right, at the mezzanine, or at the floor seats. “Like us,” we could have shouted back. The communion with the audience was rich, intense.
Now aged 70 and battling cancer, Dubois probably never dreamed that this song would become a popular anthem, decades after he wrote it. As so many of his songs did.
Officially, “Comme un million de gens” – which became a SOCAN Classic in 1994, and was inducted in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008 – dates back to 1966, at least as far as the writing is concerned. The recording of the song came a bit later, however. And a bit further, as it were, since it was recorded on the other side of the Atlantic.
A Hippie in 1968
“I was in France in 1968,” says Dubois. “It was a year of turmoil, over there. I had swung by England before arriving in France. It was the height of the hippie days. At the time, I was with a Parisian with Italian roots. I was just a guy parachuted there from America.
“I was attracted by France and its culture. I lived in a riverside apartment. And because I had long hair, they thought I was a student and I got arrested constantly. Only to be immediately released. Still, I tried to remain discreet…”
So much so that the popular Dutch singer Dave (“Vanina,” “Du côté de chez Swann”), who was living in France, helped Dubois out during these hard times. “Dave took me under his wing. We would go from restaurant to restaurant to sing and pass the hat [laughs]. Nowadays, he truly is a survivor of his generation and has his own TV show in France.”
A few months after arriving in France, Dubois recorded the song for posterity. He believes the lyrics were an accurate mirror of what was happening on both continents at the time. “The song was inspired by here (Québec) and there (France). Québec was also going through an awakening at the time. I was inspired by the concept of family in its broadest sense. Not just mommy and daddy, but cousins too. The song said to not be fooled. That everyone had their place in society.
“When I played it for the Pathé-Marconi people, they said: ‘Don’t you think we’re already in enough shit as it is? Another revolutionary song!’ The label bosses called me the ‘maritime genie’ because of how I dressed. I told them that if they gave me back the rights to the song, they’d never have any more trouble with me. And they did. I was already perceived as free.”
When the time came to record “Comme un million de gens,” Dubois and his colleagues had very well-known studio neighbours. “At the end of that year, I ended up at Pathé Marconi’s studios. It was actually at EMI’s. We were in Studio B, and The Rolling Stones were in Studio A. We didn’t quite have the same budget. They would stay in a studio for months on end. We only had a few hours. For the recording, we used Red Mitchell, a guitarist from Québec who at the time was touring Europe with Jean-Pierre Ferland. Otherwise, all the musicians were French [from France]. The result, which is the version everyone [in Québec] knows, was absolutely perfect.”
“Comme un million de gens” was released by Columbia Records as a single in 1969. It was also released in Europe by the label La Compagnie. “That was Hugues Aufray’s label, but it came out a little later (1970),” says Dubois.
“The song went straight to radio,” says Dubois. “It was unprecedented. It was a country song, but back then, country songs didn’t have socially charged lyrics about mass movements.
“I absolutely didn’t expect it to become a hit. I saw what I was doing as arts and crafts. But I didn’t become a star because it was played on the radio. To those who think Dubois was a hit at the time, I say, ‘You’re wrong.’ My career was always a rollercoaster, and I don’t even count my personal issues [laughs]. I only mean my career.
“The number of people who love you do not translate into the amount of money you have, you know. Les Classels and Les Hou-Lops, for example, made much more money than songwriters back then. You could call my success an ‘off Broadway’ success.”
But it’s been ongoing for five decades, now, as last week’s show so eloquently proved.