Hector Pellerin recorded over 140 wax cylinders and 78-rpm discs between 1916 and 1928. This singer, who was known for his baritone voice, had a large following in French-speaking parts of Canada and the United States, particularly after the advent of radio broadcasting, in the early 1920s, brought his voice into the homes of Canadians and beyond. He was also well known for his frequent appearances in French operettas, plays, and cabarets.
Although it was as a singer that Pellerin became best known, he originally studied piano and organ with the well-known Canadian composer Alexis Contant (1858-1918), as well as with the organist Joseph-Daniel Dussault (1864-1921). Unlike his teachers, however, Pellerin centered his career on popular music. He began his musical career, around 1907, playing the piano to accompany silent films in his hometown of Montréal. He moved to nearby Sorel, Quebec, still working as a cinema pianist, and it was there that he began singing.
Like Contant and Dussault, both of whom had studied and worked in Boston, Pellerin went to Amesbury, Massachusetts for two years, working there as an organist. However, he soon returned to Montréal. There he worked as an actor at local theatre houses, and sang in French operettas and cabarets.
Pellerin turned to recording in 1916; his first recording contract was with Columbia Gramophone in the United States. He specialized in interpreting French popular, cabaret and romantic songs by French songwriters such as Henri Christiné and Harry Fragson. He was quickly engaged by Edison in 1918, where he made wax cylinder recordings and later, 78-rpm discs. Meanwhile, in Canada, Pellerin also recorded for the Starr and His Master's Voice labels. Pellerin also did well with his recordings of French translations of American popular hits from Tin Pan Alley, New York City's enormously successful song-publishing district.
For example, Pellerin appeared on the Edison Amberol Records French records list in November 1919 with "C'est pour vous!" ("Everybody's Doing It Now"), an Irving Berlin hit tune from 1911 about rag-time dancing, which was all the rage at the time. Other songs that he performed in translation include George Gershwin's and Irving Caesar's "Swanee" (in French, "Swanie"); "Yes! We Have No Bananas" ("Oui, des bananes on en a"), by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn; and "For Me and My Gal" ("Pour toi et pour moi"), by George W. Meyer, Edgar Leslie and E. Ray Goetz. The Edison Amberol Records newsletter described Pellerin as possessing "a baritone voice of exceptional quality and beauty". The combination of popular French and American repertoire, and his attractive singing voice, rewarded the baritone with a large following in Canada.
Pellerin also recorded French versions of songs by fellow Canadians, such as Lieutenant Gitz Rice's famous "Dear Old Pal of Mine" from 1918, which Pellerin recorded as "Coeur Blessé" in 1921. He also enjoyed some success with recordings themed on exotic South Seas locales, a genre of popular music that was in vogue in those years. Pellerin's recordings in this style included "Aloha-Oe" ("Farewell to Thee"), composed by Hawaiian Queen Liliokalani and subsequently recorded by such artists as Don Ho, Lawrence Welk, Andy Williams and Elvis Presley. Also in this South Seas theme group was "Jinga-Bula-Jing-Jing", which Pellerin re-recorded in several different versions. Pellerin also performed some songs of his own composition, such as "Quand on est vieux" ("When We Are Old"), although they did not become widely known. On some recordings, he accompanies himself at the piano in his trademark cabaret style.
Pellerin did not devote himself exclusively to recording, however. He continued performing in various operettas, including La Petite bohème and Ma mie Rosette. As well, he travelled to France in 1921, and toured Quebec, New Brunswick and New England with troupes of other entertainers. His performances reportedly drew large crowds.
The 1920s, in particular, were busy and productive years for Pellerin. Not only did he make recordings for several Canadian and American companies, as well as singing in operettas and touring, but he also sang on some of the very first radio broadcasts in Canada. Montréal was the first city in Canada with scheduled radio broadcasts, which began in May 1920; Pellerin began singing in these radio shows within two years. Radio was very good to Pellerin. As many singers discovered, radio could reach much larger audiences, and over a much broader area, than they could hope to reach through concerts or recordings alone. Radio offered steady employment, too, as singers performed live at the radio station, rather than the station playing the singer's recordings, as is the case nowadays. Pellerin's appearances were regular features on radio station CKAC Montréal (1933-1943). The Canadian Elma Hair Waver Co. Limited, the sponsor of his popular program, published a book of song lyrics to his favourite French songs, in response to demand from their listeners. Pellerin dedicated this little collection to the thousands of Canadian and American fans who wrote to him to express their appreciation for his singing.
Pellerin continued performing on radio broadcasts, in numerous stage plays and radio plays, and in Montréal cabarets, through the 1930s and the 1940s. After 1928, he recorded little if at all, devoting his time to radio and personal stage and cabaret appearances.
During his heyday, Hector Pellerin enjoyed star status in Quebec as a singer and entertainer in a variety of mediums. He remains one of Quebec's most-recorded singers.
Selected recordings available
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- Catalogue général français des disques à double face Columbia. Édition 1917. 16 p. P. 9
- Dethlefson, Ronald. Edison Blue Amberol recordings. Vol. 2 (1915-1929). Brooklyn, N.Y. : APM Press, 1980-. AMICUS 2586905
- Moogk, Edward B. Roll back the years : history of Canadian recorded sound and its legacy : genesis to 1930. Ottawa : National Library of Canada, 1975. xii, 43 p. AMICUS 80154. Also published in French under the title: En remontant les années : l'histoire et l'héritage de l'enregistrement sonore au Canada, des débuts à 1930
- "Pellerin, Hector". Encyclopedia of music in Canada. Edited by Helmut Kallmann et al. 2nd ed. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c1992. xxxii, 1524 p. AMICUS 12048560
- Pellerin, Hector. Un recueil de 200 chansons françaises choisies. Montréal : Canadian Elma Hair Waver, [1932 or 1933]. 168 p. AMICUS 11968266