Claudine Longet’s fractured Franglish albums of popular hits probably wouldn’t have happened if Astrud Gilberto hadn’t first pioneered the role of broken-English chanteuse on the 1963 bossa nova classic “The Girl from Ipanema.” Gilberto wasn’t a professional singer, but her deadpan reading of the translated lyrics perfectly captured the cool, artless beauty the girl in the song is supposed to possess, and the recording became an American sensation. Gilberto’s guileless singing conveys perfectly the impression of a person completely incapable of calculation, and like Audrey Hepburn in the films of this era, she became an archetype for a certain retrograde feminine ideal—a shy, naïve and defenseless innocent who was exotic without being threatening and who seemed to cry out for paternal care.
In 1966, after the bossa nova craze had taken a Gallic turn with Francis Lai’s score for Une Homme et un Femme, the time was ripe for the Parisian-born Longet to attempt a singing career. Married to easy-listening titan and reigning king of squareness Andy Williams, a fatherly man 14 years her senior, and flaunting a halting command of English similar to Gilberto’s, Longet was tailor-made for the coy woman-child role Astrud had popularized. Her life story had already been cast as a kind of storybook romance, a real-life version of the May-December romances Hepburn was portraying onscreen. After a TV performance of “Meditation,” a mellow bossa nova standard by Antonio Carlos Jobim that Astrud had already recorded, Longet signed a contract with Herb Alpert’s A&M Records, the 1960s clearinghouse for cocktail-lounge-style easy listening—the home of Sergio Mendes, the Baja Marimba Band, Chris Montez, and Alpert’s own Tijuana Brass. Williams’s arranger, Nick DeCaro, was brought in for Longet’s sessions and the result, Claudine, was ready by 1967.
The album opens, fittingly enough, with a version of Lai’s “A Man and a Woman” arranged for maximum kitsch—it fades in with a warbling accordion paired with a lone violin and Longet exchanging muttered words in French with her baritone-voiced, uncredited duet partner, someone apparently named Andre. Then it abruptly shifts gears into a lushly orchestrated samba, as if to reassure its original listeners that this is still the au courant bachelor pad record they were expecting and they needed only to remain patient. Far more characteristic of the record’s mood is the next track, a cover of the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere.” Flattening the melody to her limited range, Longet simpers the lyrics in breathy, deliberate, heavily accented English with the occasional twee flourish (“To be dare and evweeware”). Her voice barely projects—it seems like the mic trim had to be cranked to capture her at all—but this fragility is the essence of her style: soft, delicate and intimate, excusing itself for its own slight existence. With no force or urgency behind the vocals, they are devoid of passion, but passion would be inappropriate anyway. Longet’s appeal relies instead on the carefully constructed sense that in being allowed to sing, she is being indulged. This casts the listener as the benevolent father figure, lavishing his pseudo-daughter with attention and unconditional affection—“She’s not much of a singer, but isn’t she just so cute? That’s my little girl .”
But if the borderline incestuous fantasy the record seems designed to inspire isn’t to your taste, the record has other less-coquettish charms. For one, there’s the unintentional comedy of Longet’s cover of Mary Wells’s “My Guy.” Her accent clashes with the arrangement’s Motown trappings and American backing vocals, and the upbeat tempo, faster than she can handle with her uncertain Elmer Fudd pronunciation, only makes matters worse. After the middle eight, a DeCaro introduces a mini-breakdown to allow Longet to contemplate a moment and conclude, “Mmm, beautiful,” with such blasé indifference, you wonder if she’s being sarcastic. It’s as though someone has shown her a Cy Twombly drawing.
Also, there’s more stylistic diversity on Claudine then her ingénue persona would have led one to expect. After the bossa nova-heavy first side, side two opens with urgency (relatively speaking—it’s still somnambulant compared to any non-easy-listening record) with the sitar-powered, semi-psychedelic “Wanderlove,” on which Longet’s delivery sounds the most unforced. Not obliged to sound cute, she comes across as a kind of existential ice queen, Nico without the harmonium. This is followed by “Hello, Hello,” a jaunty absurdity whose vaudeville-style ragtime piano and scattershot percussion makes for wildly inappropriate accompaniment for Longet’s blank singing. However, the incongruity works, giving what would otherwise be a novelty song unexpected depth. When Longet asks, “Would you like some of my tangerine?” it seems like a dimly perceived threat. And of course, her declaration, “I know I’d never treat you mean” takes on a sinister air in light of how she would later inadvertently shoot her lover, Olympic skier Spider Sabich, in Aspen.
On Claudine, her dark destiny seems most palpable on the ballads. There she soars to an ethereal level of seraphic creepiness that would remain unmatched until David Lynch had Isabella Rossellini sing in Blue Velvet. These songs would fascinate even if you knew nothing of her biography. Longet transforms “Sunrise, Sunset” (from Fiddler on the Roof) into a spooky dirge, intoning the line “When did they” as if it were a funeral incantation. Her catatonic version of Buffy St. Marie’s “Until It’s Time for You to Go” makes the fatalistic love in the song seem morbid, an invasive force that stupefies instead of liberates. She turns one of the verses—“I was an oak, now I’m a willow, now I can bend”—into a strangely chilling spoken-word interlude, seeming to turn its face-value meaning inside-out, and then she sounds droning, bell-like notes as she sings, “Don’t ask why, don’t ask how, / Don’t ask forever, love me now,” making it clear that these are less requests than a zombie demand for her your soul.
But the notorious shooting, for which she would spend a month in jail on a criminal negligence charge, inevitably hangs over everything Longet recorded, casting a shadow of grim irony over any of her innocent poses. For some time after the incident, her albums would be almost taboo, transformed overnight into monuments of bad taste, listenable only to those with a ghoulish sense of humor. But time has eased some of Longet’s stigma; her moment of infamy has been supplanted by far more salient celebrity scandals, and she has paid the penance of obscurity.
Claudine Longet - Singing in the 1968 Peter Sellers movie, The Party