MUSIC : Recapturing Romance : Crooner Jean-Paul Vignon returns to the cabaret scene, taking his cue from the renewed popularity of such legends as Tony Bennett.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Robert Koehler is a regular contributor to The Times. </i>

Think of French singer and cabaret artist Jean-Paul Vignon as a butterfly. The Palos Verdes blue butterfly.

“The PV blue,” as it’s called, was believed to be extinct three years after it was declared an endangered species in 1980. Development in the Palos Verdes area had apparently gotten the better of the blue-winged creature.

But in March, scientists found 100 to 200 of the butterflies in their habitat--alive, if not completely thriving.


Vignon’s school of music, the romantically sung ballads and standards of the era of Edith Piaf and Lerner and Loewe and Jacques Brel, was believed to be nearly as extinct. Certainly, Vignon’s singing career, once a heady circuit of the “The Ed Sullivan Show” and New York nightclub and Vegas appearances, had been in eclipse since, yes, 1980.

“Everything was rock music, and I just quit, pffft!” says Vignon, in a sunny Studio City restaurant.

But something has happened to bring Vignon back from artistic extinction. Exactly a year after “A Stranger in Paradise,” his first show in 12 years, Vignon is taking his act to Studio City’s Tonto & Dietz. For the new engagement at the cabaret coffee club, he’s titling it “A Frenchman in America.”

Call it the cycle of show biz. Vignon sensed a change in the air when Michael Feinstein and Harry Connick Jr. actually charted with standards and Broadway tunes. Since the mid-’80s, jazz stars like Keith Jarrett and Wynton Marsalis have energetically re-examined the standards canon. The Sinatra presence continues, of course, and seemed to grow each year into the ‘90s. And now there’s the Tony Bennett phenomenon.

“When I read that he’s being embraced by the MTV generation,” Vignon says, “it made my heart so happy.”

The capper that told Vignon to get his act together was Natalie Cole’s huge hit, “Unforgettable,” her faithful remake of father Nat King Cole’s song, incorporating his original vocal. “A Stranger in Paradise” soon followed, to some ringing praise. “Vignon,” noted Drama-Logue critic Polly Warfield, “offers a welcome relief from urban angst , a brief surcease from present cares and refreshments of warmth and bonhomie .”

“What struck me with Cole’s recording,” Vignon says, “was that the old arrangement wasn’t changed. It was like a sign that it’s OK to do the old songs, in the old way.”


Old is about the last term one would associate with Vignon, strikingly youthful for a man born in the 1930s. But because of his years, he has a considerable life to tell--a life he gladly interweaves into his show.

Vignon was the child of a French father and Italian mother, and a product of French colonial Africa. Though born in the Ethiopian city of Dire-Daoua, he spent most of his boyhood in French Somaliland, renamed Djibouti after independence.

“Everyone was poor,” Vignon says, “but because French products couldn’t get through to such a remote country in east Africa, we seemed to have nothing but American goods--from American refrigerators to American cheese. My parents’ friends were traders, and they once brought this catalogue of items with pictures of the perfect American family and the kids with--what you say, freckles?--and so I was very influenced by this image of wealth and perfection.”

The image, amid the dusty but prospering seaport town, seemed further solidified by the most impressive American import of all: the movies. “Seeing these unbelievable sights of Americans on the big screen was just amazing. You can’t imagine what an impact they had in such a place.”

Vignon was yanked out of this world at 11, when his parents sent him to a French Jesuit boarding school in Avignon, leaving him with mixed feelings he still holds about Africa.

“On one hand,” he says, “colonialism was very hard for many people, but it varied tremendously from country to country. I never saw abject poverty in Djibouti, but that was because it was a vital trading center. And there was a real attempt to teach the people. I’ve found that in those countries that cut themselves off from their former colonial masters, they are in desperate shape. Those that didn’t, seem to be doing OK. But what has happened in Ethiopia and Somalia, with war and famine, breaks my heart. Ethiopia was once so rich! It had endless, endless fields of wheat! Imagine!”


The Jesuits at Avignon drummed into Vignon the notion of life’s enormous difficulties--a precursor of his own later struggles, but “a real gift, because when I got out of school, I found that I was ready for anything.” He already knew that he could dazzle people with his singing voice, but followed his father’s wishes and studied medicine in Marseilles. “Bored to death” is how he describes his state of mind then, with the idea of singing never too far away.

In his Studio City living room, Vignon points out a photo of celebrities sitting around the captain’s table on board the French liner, Liberte: “There’s Ernie Kovacs, and Edie Adams and, in the far corner, a young Carol Burnett. I sang on that ship, and they all told to come to America.”

Still, Vignon might have had a major French movie career (he had already starred in late ‘50s films such as “Asphalte” and “Promesses Dangereuses”) but for a two-year compulsory army hitch and the breakout of the French “New Wave” cinema, which swept aside the kind of traditional, romantic movies he was associated with.

Once in America, Vignon’s career took off, with several stints on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Tonight Show,” “The Red Skelton Hour” and a perpetual whirl of nightclub dates. “From the start, it was like magic,” he says. “My first night at the Blue Angel club in New York, Gloria Swanson came to see me. She thought my hair was too long--this was 1964, with the Beatles everywhere--and later that night, she cut my hair in the middle of her 5th Avenue apartment.”

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 Becaud, Vignon says that he has “a Bobby Darin kind of voice, able to sing fast and passionate, or gentle and slow. Darin! Ah! He could do anything!”

But as pop music shifted from Darin to the Doors, Vignon struggled. Married with child Marguerite, then divorced in 1969, he went on to host a Canadian-made, Dick Clark-produced series, “The Sensuous Man,” which led to a posing for one of the first Playgirl magazine centerfolds.


“That show was fun, nothing really, ummm, suggestive,” he says, a smile on his lips. “We’d always end the show with me taking a sensuous bath--in olive oil, or mud, or flowers, even cereal.”

Bad luck, though, started happening: The Paramount studio executive behind “The Sensuous Man” was dumped, along with the show; clubs closed, along with his contracts. “I had had it,” says Vignon, his smile disappearing. A series of unlikely jobs followed, including serving as an accountant and public relations man for Ma Maison’s Patrick Terrail.

But the pop cycle came around again, “and I realized that I not only still had my voice, but I had my own life to tell. We have some new songs this time, but the big difference from ‘Stranger in Paradise’ is that I begin with Johnny Mercer’s ‘Dream,’ the dream of a young boy in Africa, imagining America.”

Vignon credits three women for his return: British playwright Jane Harris, who helped write and polish the show’s spoken narrative; pianist-accompanist Samantha Ryan; and Tonto & Dietz co-producer Susan Dietz. “She has the perfect room for a singer like me,” he says, “where people can hold hands, and listen, and feel they’re at home.”


* What: Jean-Paul Vignon’s “A Frenchman in America.”

* Location: Tonto & Dietz, 12747 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

* Hours: 8:30 p.m. Thursday and May 12 and 19.

* Price: $15. Reservations required.

* Call: (818) 763-4166.