He was born on 5 August 1911 at Rouen, Normandy in France, and to satisfy a personal whim his father, Edmond Roger, really did give him the first name Roger. Music was in the family: his mother was an opera singer and his father was a well-known operatic conductor, who had been a classmate of Claude Debussy at the Paris Conservatoire, so it was hardly surprising that young Roger received music tuition at an early age. His main instrument was the piano (mainly self-taught), but harmony and counterpoint also played an important role in his education. His first job on leaving school was teaching light opera at the Rouen Arts Theatre
Roger Roger made his professional conducting debut at the age of eighteen in a Music Hall, but it wasn’t long before radio and films beckoned. During his long career he claimed to have been involved in more than 500 film productions.
Although his parents encouraged him in classical music, during his teenage years young Roger discovered a love for American popular songs. Later in his life, he told Dutch record producer Gert-Jan Blom that "…George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin really were my teachers, because I learned by analysing their compositions and arrangements."
However his classical upbringing did not desert him. The composers which influenced him most were Stravinsky, Chabrier, Wagner and Handel, with Ravel providing most of his inspiration for scoring and orchestration.
He started writing for French films towards the end of the 1930s (firstly documentaries, then feature films), and was responsible for the famous pantomime sequences in Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis (1944). Several European radio stations employed him, especially Radio Luxembourg, Radio 37 and Europe 1; he was closely involved with the early programmes on the new French Television service.
After the Second World War Roger played piano and conducted a 35-piece orchestra for a major French weekly radio series "Paris Star Time" (Paris a l’heure des Etoiles), which was sent all over the world and even broadcast in the USA. This featured many of the big names of that period, such as Edith Piaf, Jean Sablon, Maurice Chevalier and Charles Trenet. His own instrumental cameos that were featured in the show brought him to the attention of the London publishers Chappell & Co., who were rapidly expanding their Recorded Music Library of background music at that time. Roger’s quirky compositions soon became available to radio, television and film companies around the world, with distinctive titles like Jack O’Lantern (Feux Follets), Paris Fashions (Haute Couture), The Toy Shop Window (La Vitrine aux Jouets) and The Toilers (Grands Travaux). Usually he recorded his own music in Paris, and the unique studio sound added to the special charm that these works possessed. In addition to his brighter numbers, he was also required to create pieces of a more serious nature, including some heavy, repetitive tracks that could be used as accompaniment for industrial scenes in documentaries. A composer of mood music has to be able to write for almost any kind of subject, and this presented no problems for Roger.
The Paris office of Chappells used to issue its own series of LPs of background music, and from the mid-1950s onwards Roger recorded almost 20 albums of his own compositions for them. He often worked with his childhood friend, Nino Nardini. His widow, the opera singer Eva Rehfuss, remembers that Chappells’ agent in the USA was particularly successful in getting Roger’s music used in various soap operas.
Considering how busy Roger was in films and broadcasting, it is surprising that he didn’t make more commercial recordings. He never had an exclusive contract, so his occasional releases appeared on various different labels such as Vega, Polydor, Festival, US Decca, Everest and MGM. Perhaps the reason is that he despised so much of the music that the record companies wanted him to arrange. He held his own orchestra in such high esteem that he didn’t want it to be associated with what he regarded as an inferior product.
Roger’s own compositions have, at times, been compared with the American Leroy Anderson, although they never actually met. But a close collaboration, which developed into a strong friendship, grew up between Roger and Frank Chacksfield. The two worked together on BBC shows, and in a series called "Performance" for French radio. By a strange co-incidence, Frank died just three days before Roger in 1995. Roger also knew Lalo Schifrin well, but it was more of a friendship than a working relationship, because they each preferred to compose on their own.
Roger Roger died in Paris on 12 June 1995 aged 83. He managed to create his own unique sound through his brilliant compositions and orchestrations, and one suspects that future generations of music-lovers will re-discover and enjoy his melodious creations for a long time to come.
David Ades (2003)