Son Of Flanders - Tony Sandler, Singer, Entertainer, and Performer with a Romantic European Appeal

Go to content

Main menu:

Son Of Flanders

Tony Sandler was raised in het platte land, the flatlands of West Flanders, Belgium, on a small family homestead next to the village of Lauwe. His memories of het platte land are idyllic – the whistling of the sea wind and the natural wonders of the ditches and fencerows where he played next to the waving golden flax fields covered with blue blossoms.

Lauwe is situated on fertile soil at the junction of the river Lys at the French-Belgian border. Continually bathed in the temperate moist wind from the North Sea just 30 miles to its west, Lauwe was perfectly fitted for its role in Flanders’ centuries-old flax linen industry. Most of her townspeople worked the flax fields that surrounded the village, as did Tony’s father, Achiel Santelé, when he was a young man. Just four miles to the northeast, in the Medieval town of Kortrijk the harvested flax fibers were woven into fine linen.

Tony’s given name was Lucien Joseph Santelé. From an early age Lucien tilled soil and planted small crops by hand alongside his gentle and meticulous father and his older brothers, learning early the rewards of honest labor in the family field. He was the fourth of eight children born into this Catholic family of modest means. Nevertheless his mother, the well-bred and well-educated Valentine (Van Lerberghe Santelé), saw to it that their children had good schooling.

Each morning the children stood and watched their father Achiel bicycle down the road towards France and the tile mill where he now worked, then they trudged off to Flemish grammar school in Lauwe, about a mile from their home.

Music was alive in the Santelé household. On Sunday afternoons the whole family gathered around the radio to listen to a bell-canto program where Valentine’s favorite Italian opera star Beniamino Gigli was sure to be heard. But the children were especially drawn to the popular international hits they heard on the radio, and this early musical exposure significantly imprinted young Lucien.

Jazz was so hot in Europe that its popularity spawned the first ever books and magazines devoted to jazz, preceding any similar response in the United States. French record label Swing was the first to be devoted exclusively to jazz, and these recordings were on broadcasts throughout Europe. Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt was popular at the time with his “Gypsy jazz,” a mix of American swing, French dance hall musette and the folk strains of Eastern Europe. Recordings produced in the U.S., with such American musicians as Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Gene Krupa and Bunny Berigan, were only distributed in Europe because there was not considered to be a market for them in America. On tour in Europe were Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and by the mid-30’s, a number of American jazz musicians, including Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, had established a thriving colony in Paris. The catchy rhythms and pleasing melodies of all their recordings were exciting to Lucien’s young ears.

The popular Tango as well as the haunting and exotic Gypsy music, flamenco, and folk music from the southern regions and Eastern Europe captured his imagination and inspired an ability to imitate the vocal inflections traditional to this music. The radio first introduced Lucien to German composer Kurt Weill’s Moritat vom Mackie Messer / The Ballad of Mack the Knife, a song that would later become a popular hit with Tony’s European audiences. French radio opened the door to a delicious world of French song with rich and incomparable harmonies and texts that captivated Lucien as he listed to broadcasts of crooner Jean Sablon along with other French singing stars including Mistinguett, Fernandel, Bourvil, Berthe Sylva, Edith Piaf, and the very popular Maurice Chevalier. Tony recalls hearing Chevalier’s Valentine, and drawn by the name of his mother (rather than understanding the content at such an early age) he learned to sing it by rote. But traditional music maintained its place in the hearts of the Santelé children who often harmonized together with all their favorite songs from Flanders, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and England. Thus music and singing became second nature to Lucien. Many of the songs he listened to as a child would be incorporated into his future repertoire. But, for now, his own talent would have to wait.

Lucien was seven years old when Hitler’s forces invaded Western Europe in a seventeen-day blitzkrieg. In one day, on the 10th of May, 1940, the Germans unleashed a series of devastating and audacious operations against neutral Belgium, Holland, and Luxemburg, and brought an end to the peace and innocence of life for young Lucien. The invasion of Western Europe came not where it was expected, but rather through Belgium and the densely forested Ardennes where the terrain was believed to be too difficult for an invading force, and was therefore only lightly defended. The opening events of the invasion related here are a prelude to what young Lucien witnessed in het platte land, and give explanation to his own eye witnessed account.

With the memory of The Great War (World War I) and its devastation still vivid, no one wanted or could fathom the possibility of an all out second World War. Though France and England had finally declared war against Germany, it was a “silent war,” fought mainly at sea. And although Hitler’s aggression to the east and his overt military buildup along Germany’s western border had put Western European nations at a state of alert, each had been especially careful to not provoke an attack on its own turf. Belgium remained isolated and tenaciously neutral to protect its soil from once again becoming a battleground for its neighbors. To demonstrate its status, Belgium had no unified plan of defense with the Allies, no military collaboration in place for effective communications or compatible munitions supplies, and did not open its borders to Allied troops until it was actually attacked.

Belgium’s principle barrier against an attack from its eastern border was Eben-Emael, a triangle-shaped fortress complex reputed to be impregnable, the strongest military stronghold in the world with a garrison of 1,200 men. Taking out the guns of Eben-Emael was essential to the German army’s progress. The Germans launched their surprise attack with a minutely planned land and air operation. Under the cover of darkness, 11 glider planes silently landed on the roof of the fortress with 85 troops who quickly seized key points of the garrison, killing some 400 Belgians. A heavy air attack by Stuka dive-bombers followed, and Eben-Emael surrendered. With Fort Eban-Emael gone, the Belgians had little time left. Allied men and machines poured into Belgium. On the 11th of May, under cover of advanced contingents of British and French troops the surviving Belgian troops withdrew to defend a number of interior fortresses.

The Belgian army fought for three weeks with extraordinary courage and provided a remarkable resistance against overwhelming odds. On May 24th the Germans opened a major attack against Belgian positions on either side of Kortrijk, and the city was heavily bombarded with artillery shells. Despite help again rushed in by the British and French, the Belgian army began to give way by the 26th of May. Confused, demoralized and unable to slow the German advance, the Allied armies were split in two, and the Belgian army along with the British Expeditionary Force and the French First Army were cornered. Thousands of Dutch, Belgian, French and British soldiers were captured and thousands more lost their lives. But starting at night on May 27 and into the following week, nearly 350,000 British, French, Belgian, and other allied troops managed to escape thanks to a hasty but effective evacuation operation mounted at Dunkirk near the French-Belgian border. They crossed the English Channel on British, Dutch, Belgian, and French ships of all sizes, from destroyers and Channel ferries to fishing smacks and private yachts, all plying the rough waters of the Channel under the cannon and bombs of the Luftwaffe and the guns of coastal batteries. On May 28, 1940, King Leopold of Belgium agreed to capitulate, and Belgium surrendered to Germany.

Tony retells the story of his own boyhood experience as though it happened yesterday. “There were rumors, confused news reports, but little warning. There was a frantic, ragtag, disorganized stampede of fleeing allies, all in a single day, all rushing across the countryside towards the English Channel, grabbing every possible conveyance in their desperate race to reach the boats to England. By contrast the next morning was serene and beautiful with the promises of spring in the air. Then an amazing show of force fell in on us like a steel wall. I will never forget the terrible fear I saw for the first time in my father’s eyes, and my own boyish fascination in what I witnessed. The Luftwaffe arrived first. One of the most modern, powerful, and experienced air forces in the world descended upon us, strafing the landscape. The ground shook as heavy tanks came into sight, polished steel glinted against the sun, followed by the troops of the well disciplined armored corps, all marching in unison, boots polished to a shine. They paraded with undisputed authority through the town as my family watched in disbelief.”  In a panic Lucien’s father marshalled his family and a bundle full of belongings onto bicycles and shepherded them into the stream of neighbors that fled in front of the oncoming troops. But there was no route of escape. After circling Belgium for a week, sleeping in barns and living off the land, the Santelés returned home.

Their house was still standing, though its brick face was pocked by schrappnel from artillery shells and most of the windows had been blown out. The acrid odor of war hung in the air. After a few days, a German soldier was stationed in their home – a constant reminder of the occupation that lasted for four years. At first it was frightening. The soldier did not understand Flemish. Valentine could speak German but the soldier kept his distance, sitting in a corner of the room when the family sat down to supper. The Santelés harbored no love for the German cause or their tactics. But Tony later recalls that this soldier did not have an easy lot either. Often in the evenings he would show them a picture of his wife and six children and sob. His empathy for the Santelé children was especially evident when be began to salvage food for the family.

Life in Belgium under German occupation was harsh. Some 20,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps during the war. But the rest of the population were considered to be “Aryans,” and Hitler’s plan was to incorporate them into the Reich when the war was won. The Germans did their best to impress a new vision of life on the Belgian people, to establish “normalcy.” One Sunday morning after their return, Lucien woke up to a glorious sound. It was band music coming from the square in Lauwe. Lucien rushed down the road to see a phenomenal German marching band. To this day he vividly remembers that gorgeously stirring music, the precision, the force, the amazing musicality, instruments glistening in the May sun, and the strong voices of the German soldiers singing “Auf der Heide blüht ein kleines mädelein und sie heißt: Erika.”

News of any kind was censored, and desperate for reliable information, Lucien’s parents had hidden their radio in the attic. They risked immediate execution by listening for scraps of news on the scrambled and barely audible BBC broadcasts from London. At night, under curfew, his family would whisper to one another in Flemish. By day the soldier was out on assignment, and Lucien’s parents made a show of living “normally” to their children. Valentine cared for the house and the three family goats that provided milk and cheese for the smallest children. Achiel was permitted to bicycle to the tile factory in France each morning, and returned each evening to work with his sons in the field. He gleaned what was left for his family after soldiers took the main harvest of vegetables and crops. Commodities of any kind were scarce, and like most Belgians, the Santelé family now wore wooden shoes. By proclamation, in keeping with Hitler’s policy of maintaining normalcy to win the support of the Belgian people, all children were ordered back to school as though nothing unusual had happened. The strategy was shrewd, for an occupied population without a sense of daily purpose will only turn its energy against the occupier. But the Belgians were not a passive people, and Tony recalls that the greater lessons in those days were the things of war.

Always inquisitive, Tony learned how to identify aircraft and the likelihood of their assigned missions. The sound of the Flying Fortresses was deafening as they flew by the thousands from across the English Channel and blackened the skies over West Flanders fields on their way toward diverse cities in Germany. He learned to judge the Allies’ success by how many made the return trip to England. He witnessed the deadly consequences of disobeying curfew or of aiding downed Allies, and the horror of life ended so arbitrarily and so abruptly by bombardment. On the way home from school Lucien would sometimes lay on his back in a ditch to watch the battered airplanes struggle towards home, continuously attacked by the screaming Stukas, or dogfighting with the persistent Messerschmits, airplanes on fire, some crashing, burning debris and humanity falling to the ground around him. Lucien was forced to ponder too early in life the glorious strengths and hideous weakness of humankind faced with the politics of survival. Tony’s immediate family made it through the war, but several friends and relatives were tragically killed, sadly some even by Allied bombs. From these early experiences Tony gleaned most of all a great passion for life.

After the war, Lucien was sent to a rigorous Catholic boys boarding school, Het Bisschoppelijk College St. Joseph in Moeskroen (or Mouscron), in Wallonia Belgium, the French speaking part of Belgium about 10 kilometers from his home. Here for the first time all of Lucien’s courses, from the middle grades through college, were taught exclusively in French. To keep the tuition down he commuted daily by bicycle. He was an outsider and favored less than the resident progeny of well-heeled families who were already fluent in French. But this Flemish farm boy proved himself to faculty and peers by excelling both in his studies and on the athletic field. By the age of sixteen he won collegiate honors in field and track, received top collegial ranking in the high-jump, and for many seasons played a formidable center forward with a high ranking collegial soccer team. Meanwhile, in addition to the usual studies in science, mathematics, geometry, geography, and literature, Lucien maintained a First rating in linguistics, with courses in ancient Latin and Greek, as well as French, German, English, and Dutch. Later he would learn fluent Italian. Valentine especially encouraged young Lucien’s inclinations towards language and often reminded him, “With each new language, Lucien, you become a different man.”

Father Botte, an exacting yet affable professor of languages and music at the college discovered Lucien’s talent and was instrumental in teaching him the knowledge and vocal skills which continue to serve his long-lived career. As a boy, Tony had a clear soprano voice, a good ear, and a quick mind for learning music. He easily rose to the top as a soloist with the college’s boys choir. The boys were trained in Gregorian chant, and sang daily for morning matins and evening vespers at the college chapel.

At age twelve, Lucien was invited to sing with an international choir, the preeminent Gregorian Choir, Les Petits Chanteurs a la Croix de Bois, conducted by Monsieur Maillet from Paris. This large choir traveled to Rome to sing at the Santa Maria Maggiore and at the Basilica of Saint Peter. “We sang in the Vatican, for Pope Pius XII himself, who gave us a special benediction. Singing in those magnificent cathedrals, the sound, it was breathtaking and awesome for us little children.” When his voice began to change Lucien toyed with the idea of following his older brother Antoine’s footsteps into the noble profession of medicine. But Father Botte had accurately predicted a baritone cantabile for Lucien. And when his sonorous voice and good looks began to attract wide attention especially among the girls, Lucien turned his aspirations to becoming a performer. He organized a band called The Solidors, with piano, bass, drums, and a few brasses, and began to sing for public occasions. Several seaboard resort cafés, les cafés chantants, became a mainstay for Tony where he performed to rooms bursting with stand-up-only audiences and crowds outside pressing against the windows to see him perform.

When he started recording 78s for Novelty Records in Flanders at about age 18, his name was changed to “Tony Sandler.” His first recording was a single, Het Lied Van De Zee (The Song Of The Sea). With the success of this recording, Tony’s popularity began to build throughout Belgium, and engagements began to pour in. More records followed under the Novelty label. Tony’s style was greatly influenced by his love and admiration for popular French cabaret singer and actor, Yves Montand. Tony studied his entire repertoire and included Montand’s songs in his performances.

In 1952 the inevitable happened. Tony was drafted to serve in the Belgian Air Force. On June 25, 1950 The Soviet-backed North Korean army had crossed the 38th parallel to invade The Republic of South Korea in direct opposition to a post-World War II agreement. Belgium joined with an international coalition of United Nations forces to suppress the action in a bloody and extended conflict known as the Korean War. In a twist of fortune, Tony was stationed at Eben-Emael where his multi-lingual skills proved invaluable to the Allied effort, not only as a radar specialist but also in another and unexpected way. His reputation for singing got around, and soon he was asked to perform for the troops to boost morale. So throughout his commission he worked his radar shifts by day and spent his nights on the stage entertaining.

In 1954 Tony won a popularity contest sponsored by Radio Gent. This led to an important series of Flemish recordings in Cologne, Germany where Tony churned out several Flemish hit singles backed by the professional studio orchestras resulting, of course, in even more bookings. One night after a performance, as a line of fans pressed Tony for autographs, one particular young woman, Marie Therese (“Mimi”) Vandenberghe, from Ypers, Belgium, asked him to sign her program. Two years later he asked Mimi to become his wife.

In Belgium Tony had a murderous performing schedule with as many as twenty-five shows a month throughout the country, usually one-nighters that required him to travel by car to each location. This was not an easy assignment given the rolling geography with a climate that frequently surrounds its terrain in thick fog. He put together an international accompaniment with the best musicians he could find from Belgium, France, and Germany, always matching the public’s demand for popular music styles. At one point during his Flanders career the tango was all the rage, so Tony brought in 8 to 12 bandoneon players to play with his rhythm section. The ambiance this created was amazing and audiences were delighted. For another popular style he performed to the accompaniment of as many as 12 mandolin players – by far the most fun he recalls. Tony had become a national celebrity, and his recordings were played in every home, on every radio, and could be heard from loudspeakers at the carnivals and amusement parks.

Back to content | Back to main menu