Billy Obam: “Gainsbourg behaved like a father to me.”

February 13, 2024 / Jerome Goulon

Charlotte Gainsbourg has just opened Serge Gainsbourg's former house, located at 5 bis rue de Verneuil in Paris, to the public, 32 years after the singer's death. Billy Obam, who was Gainsbourg's backing vocalist and dancer on the title You're Under Arrest, released in 1987, tells us about his intimacy with the singer. Touching confessions, which remind us once again to what extent Gainsbourg was a unique artist.

Jérôme Goulon: You just released your single and your music video Gainsbourg Was The Best. Does Serge Gainsbourg still have as much importance in your life?
Billy Obama: Yes. Serge is a major artist of French song, and this song, Gainsbourg Was The Best, is a tribute to my friendship with Serge and everything he gave me.

You are one of the people who knew 5 bis rue de Verneuil, in Paris, where Gainsbourg lived. His daughter, Charlotte, opened this house to the public in September. What effect does that have on you?
I really thank Charlotte Gainsbourg for doing this. From where he is, Serge Gainsbourg must be delighted with this initiative. I was very scared, because at one point there was talk that this house would be sold, but that was not the case. When I found out that Charlotte had regained the rights to this house and that she wanted to turn it into a museum, I found it wonderful. For people who love Gainsbourg, it's a real pleasure. This is a way of allowing Gainsbourg to continue to exist.

What does this address mean to you?
The Gainsbourg house represents something very important in my life. The first time I met Serge Gainsbourg was at 5 bis rue de Verneuil. It was 1987, I was 20 years old. He was looking for a dancer and a backing singer to promote his song You'r Under Arrest on TV and shoot the video, because the American singer Curtis King. Jr., who had contributed his vocals to the record, was unavailable. Following a casting that I had done with Philippe Lerichomme, his lyricist, a limousine came to pick me up and took me to 5 bis. I arrive, the door opens, and I have Serge Gainsbourg in front of me. The first thing that strikes me at the moment are these completely black walls and a huge photo of Brigitte Bardot naked. I will never forget this moment. Serge was there, he looked at me, I was very intimidated. He was very teasing. The butler brought me a Coca-Cola, and Serge asked me to dance in front of him. He made me believe I was auditioning, even though he had already chosen me. So that's my first memory with him. But 5 bis is also a painful memory.

You are indeed one of the people who saw Serge Gainsbourg on his deathbed...
Yes. One day, I received a phone call from Philippe Lerichomme, who told me of Serge's death. I go to rue de Verneuil, and so the last time I see Serge is upstairs, upstairs. Serge was lying on his bed, dead, with a stuffed animal next to him. I felt a lot of sadness at that moment. I couldn't believe that Gainsbourg was dead. I thought he was sleeping. What was very strange was that when I arrived at rue de Verneuil, the people in the street applauded me. I didn't understand why at the time...

Do you pass by Gainsbourg’s house from time to time?
Yes. When I'm towards Saint-Germain-Des-Prés, I happen to pass in front of Serge Gainsbourg's house. It's very moving for me, because I experienced magnificent moments with him. We ate together and sang songs in this house. I also listened to him play the piano for me… I was 20 years old, and Gainsbourg behaved like a father to me. I owe him a lot. We were close.

Are there any strong moments that marked you more than others?
We spent a few evenings together. He had difficult times. Serge Gainsbourg had not digested his separation from Jane Birkin. He cried in my arms several times. I think I was comforting him.

He was crying because of Jane Birkin while he was with Bambou?
Yes. That doesn't mean he didn't like Bambou, but Jane Birkin and him were a very strong story. Besides, when we talk about Gainsbourg, everyone associates her with Jane Birkin, and no other. We saw this clearly when he died last July. To tell you how much he had not forgotten Jane Birkin, Bambou was not allowed to touch the statue of the mermaid which was at the foot of his bed, because it was “the statue of Jane Birkin”.

When Serge Gainsbourg brought you on shows with him, we didn't see many black people on TV. Was it a precursor?
You're right, we didn't see black people on television, apart from American stars. It was his magic. Gainsbourg was one of the first to exhibit with a person of color. He made me come to the Champs-Élysées, Sacrée soiree, Lahaye d’Honneur, or even to the Carpentiers… He made me do all the biggest shows…

What do you remember about him?
Gainsbourg was a very human and very touching person... He loved Africa and when I came to his house, he sometimes cooked plantains for me. One day, he even came to visit my mother in Brussels, because he had promised me, even though nothing obliged him to do so. There aren't many artists who would do that today...

Interview conducted by Jérome Goulon