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Bortolo Busato, artisan instrument maker and contemporary of Mario Maccaferri, was the first to dive into Selmer guitar copies – truer than the original – they earned him the reputation he has today and justify the sometimes high prices of his pre-war instruments.
By Arnaud Legrand
The appearance of the Selmer guitar in 1932, thanks to the talent of Mario Maccaferri and his partnership with Henri Selmer, led to the creation of an incommensurable number of imitations and interpretations of the “Selmer” concept. The most beautiful and faithful reproductions remain today the Busatos and Favinos. The Selmer, Busato, and Favino guitars represent then the holy trinity of what is known as the “manouche”-style guitar. They are of course carnally linked to the prowess of the jazz musician Django Reinhardt as well as to the mythical era of the more or less well-known musicians from the Bastille Balls, the Saint- Germain-des-Prés underground clubs, the Clignancourt Flea-Market, and the Samois-sur- Seine Festival.
The history of the Selmer-Maccaferri guitar is known today thanks to the reference work of François Charle. There are a few valid pages on the Internet about Jacque Favino. Up until now nothing has existed on the Busato guitars. The latter have sparked a great interest in the world of manouche music and are enjoying a growing success because of their great quality.
The image and popularity of this mysterious guitar maker –Django Reinhardt owned at least one of his guitars - have been mostly forged around contradictory, false, or idealized information over the last two decades. It is time to shed some light on the “Busato” mystery and establish a few historical facts about him. Here are the results of the first investigation on this subject!
To start, the real first name of Busato has been the subject of far-fetched and unlikely guesswork widely discussed in the guitar maker milieu and among manouche guitar aficionados. His real first name was Bortolo (not Bartolo, Bartoloméo nor Pablo). On certain official papers from the start, the French administration misspelled his first name by frenchyfying it into “Bartolo” before doing a late correction in the 1950s.
Bortolo Busato was born on January 18, 1902 in Chiuppano, Italy, a hamlet of the Carrè district, to Pietro and Caterina Busato. His father was a carpenter and he became a cabinet-maker by trade. Contrary to the myth and the majority of the other Italian guitar makers established in France, he did not come from the south of Italy but from the Vicenza province in Veneto, in the North-East of the country. He arrived on French territory in 1925, he set up his first guitar shop at 34 rue de Chaligny in the 12th arrondissement in Paris. And in February 1931, he wrote the following on the commercial register: “Maker of Musical Instruments and Repairs”. Shortly after his wedding in Italy in 1932 to Perronia Nella (née Segalla) who was also from Chiuppano, he transferred his shop to 40, rue d’Orgemont in the 20th arrondissement in Paris where he lived and worked from 1934 to 1943. During this time, it was pretty common for him to sign his instruments with black ink on the label glued to the inside of the guitar back just beneath the sound hole. It is worth noting that in June 1942, two additions were made to his commercial registry description; one specifying that he now sold “stringed and wind instruments as well as radio equipment,” the other – in relation to this period – mentioning succinctly that he was “Aryan”, in others words : not jewish !
The years from 1931 to 1943 represent Busato’s first period. His Selmer models did not appear before the mid-thirties and are the richest fruits of his production, marked by very important embellishments. Less expensive than the original, they provided the pre-war era with plentiful options of cheap celluloid inlay and other synthetic, colored materials for the fingerboard, embedded pearls or strass (glitter) for the headstock as well as thick and conspicuous pickguards – a general aesthetic borrowed from the accordion world, in the same style that Grestsch adorned his guitars according to his drum series. These guitars did not always have the label that was used during the “40, rue d’Orgemont” era or a signature. However, all the guitars that have one of these labels can without doubt be dated prior to 1943.
From the early stages of Busato’s Selmer model production, a drive for genuine reproduction pushed the luthier to the point of imitating the Selmer style guitar case, sometimes adapted to the larger size of his own guitars. Toady, these original cases are as rare and hard to find as the Selmer ones!
In 1943, Busato opened a store under the name “Tout pour la Musique” (Everything for Music) at 140, boulevard de Ménilmontant, still in the 20th arrondissement. At the very end of the year, his workshop closed its doors on rue d’Orgemont for good to relocate to 4, cité Griset in Paris’s 11th arrondissement; this new address appeared in the Bottin Commercial (the former yellow pages) a year later in 1944.
Thus, the second Busato era began in 1943 with this large workshop in the cité Griset, probably the largest site for musical instrument making in Paris. The Busato enterprise produced, wholesaled, and outsourced guitars, mandolins, violins, banjos, accordions, drums, trumpets, saxophones, clarinets, oboes, and instrument cases. A lot of the famous future Italian guitar makers established in France would receive on the job training in the workshop in the cité Griset, which was the case for Jacques Favino, Pierre Bucolo, and even Pierre Anastasio. Jacques Favino did not keep good memories of his tenure at Busato’s – not challenging enough maybe – despite the fact that some of his innovations and creations were inspired by certain Busato models.
In 1946, another “Tout pour la Musique” store opened on 122 rue Amelot in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, which can be seen as a demonstration of the success enjoyed by our luthier-entrepreneur. In the latter half of the forties, the cité Griset also became a retail outlet. A “Busato” catalog of this era exists – the only one known to date – illustrating the general activities of the cité Griset. It includes no less than 103 items, including “Jazz à pied” (old drum sets), Italian mandolins, accordions, aluminum maracas, “all special instruments made-to- order,” and, of course, guitars – the Selmer models being referred to as “Jazz,” some of which were already being outsourced!
From a commercial standpoint, the guitar maker presented his craft as “Lutherie Artistique” as specified on the label glued on the neck block of his polished Selmer copies. By the mid-forties a more simplified general finish appeared; it was more traditional and less lavish than that of the pre-war models. The guitars were often delivered with a simple aluminum tailpiece (instead of a carved brass one) and tuners of lesser quality in lieu of the Selmer-style ones. These changes were directly related to the war restrictions on raw materials, a phenomenon that on the other side of the Atlantic was also affecting neck reinforcement and tailpieces for Gibson.
After the war, a few more limited-edition, decorated models appeared like the black “Grand Luxe” that looked a lot like the “Chorus” model from Di Mauro, but the most popular and the most manufactured was the “Modèle professionnel” which was closer to the spirit of the Selmer. Either way, all Busato Selmer guitar models that were produced and directly sold from the cité Griset workshop after January 1944 are traceable by the label situated on the neck block of the guitar. Three versions exist in terms of composition: two white squared labels and a green or white ovoid label glued beneath the sound hole. The instruments that were sold directly from 140, boulevard de Ménilmontant also have a trapezoid metal logo nailed to the front or the back of the head stock of the guitar. The guitars made for the large instrument stores of Paris like Paul Beuscher were sometimes only branded under the top. Even though at this time Bortolo Busato still signed some of the labels, he only worked on a few guitars in cité Griset: most of the local production of the Selmer style was handed over to other workers like Pierre Calza, who would eventually take over their entire production in the fifties. This compatriot, who was born at the turn of the century, learned his craft making pianos for the famous Gaveau Company. He was one of the most loyal of Bortolo’s workers.
At the end of the forties, the cité Griset counted as many as 43 employees (of which, at least 36 were “officially” employed). This count does not include the many outsourcing projects Bortolo Busato had resorted to for guitar production, for polishing the metallic banjo parts of his own making, and for creating new accordion models like the “Harmonéon”, a chromatic concert accordion unique in the world, conceived and realized by his brother-in-law, Giovanni Segalla. Some of these outsourced projects were actually taking place in the workshop itself.
In 1946, Bortolo Busato and his wife made their first request to obtain French citizenship. They would get it in October 1951 after many more or less favorable recommendations and inquiries from French officials: the artisan, despite having been a “loyalist,” not involved with the collaborationist government nor the resistance, managed to prosper during this time.
The year 1951 opened the third and last Busato era, with his workshop now located in his new home at 73, avenue de Coeuilly on the Champigny-sur-Marne plateau in the Val-de- Marne region, a close suburb of Paris. This private and professional move allowed the guitar maker to significantly increase his production capacity with six new workers as well as expand his commercial endeavors. In 1952, he added to his activities in the commercial registry “commission, importation, exportation of any kind of merchandise, particularly hosiery, musical instruments, wood, and tin cans.” Bortolo Busato supplied high quality wood to the furniture making shops of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine neighborhood, between place de la Bastille and place de la Nation in Paris. The boulevard de Ménilmontant store became a branch at this time. Our luthier was now outsourcing most of his musical instrument production, starting with the body of his classical guitars made by Pierre Fontaine (born in 1910), a guitar maker that produced, on his own, about two-thirds of the entry-level guitars on the French market between 1952 and 1982. Likewise, the manufacturing of nice Selmer copies by Busato ended gradually coinciding with the end of production of the Selmer guitar. The Selmer style Busatos subsequent to 1952 soon became lesser copies, sometimes assembled from miscellaneous parts from French and Italian outsourcing workshops, a rather common practice among the Paris Italians like Di Mauro, for example, who was ordering necks in quantity from the South of Italy. On these “nameless,” “petites Busatos” (of lesser quality), quite frequently found on the market, there is no label of any kind, no brand on the back of the headstock or under the top. Even though some of them are signed and dated by Busato himself, everything points to a Pierre Calza manufacturing, destined for Bortolo Busato’s stores. However it may be, they do not compare favorably to the first two Busato eras.
In 1953, the “Tout pour la Musique” store was placed under the management of a small company called “Radio Electricité & Télévision,” a sign of the times. In 1957, the almost clandestine workshop of Champigny-sur-Marne was finally officially registered and definitively took over most of the activity from the cité Griset where production decreased. Bortolo then added two new activities to the Busato Company: haberdashery and lingerie! To summarize, the third Busato era marked the end of his interest in musical instruments in favor of a larger importation enterprise.
The guitar maker Pierre Fontaine kept an image of Bortolo Busato as a small and sturdy man, reserved and not very talkative, if not shy, that could not directly give his workers their pay: he would come and chat with them for a minute at their work stations before discretely leaving rumpled bills on a corner of the table. He also remembered a dedicated man to the course of his work as a craftsman and a remarkable businessman who earned a good living. As an example of this, he was one of the first in France to be able to afford a DS Citroën car when it came out in the mid fifties, a real sign of wealth, as it was the same as Charles de Gaulle’s! Ironically, Pierre Fontaine also has the memory of a fairly disorganized man at his workstation as well as in the management of his company. In relation to this, he had a few problems with the labor service – most notably in relation to a serious work-related accident involving one of his workers – but the ease with which his cash always helped him bounce back.
In the midst of prosperity and just before starting a new career as a wholesale importer, Bortolo Busato passed away July 4, 1960 of a heart attack in his home on avenue de Coeulliy in Champigny-sur-Marne. He had three children with his first wife Perronia: a son, Pierre, who committed suicide soon after the death of his father, and two daughters Caterina and Brunetta. The latter was in charge of the “lingerie-hosiery-notions” store adjacent to her father’s workshop in the suburbs. Without anyone to take over the music business, his name soon disappeared into luthier limbo at the dawn of mass production.
Myths and contradictions, which are often related, started to take seed then. Among them one of the most amusing described a very tall and voluble man or, better yet, another told the tale of his death being hidden from the government for four years to allow his widow to keep his business going. Every coin has a flipside and the contemporary success of our guitar maker has brought a large number of over priced guitars on the Internet hastily attributed to Bortolo Busato, despite being of dubious and inconsistent quality!
Of the import-export activity and its very serious “tin can” division, nothing is known. The work to refine this short portrait is ongoing but the veil has finally been lifted, some reference points established and the road set. My investigation continues...
Nota bene: For a wide view of the diversity and originality of Bortolo Busato’s production, I advise curious readers to visit the very rich and serious site of Jacques Mazzoleni: gypsyguitars.com. For Francophiles, I invite you to read a couple of complementary articles about Busato in the French revue Vintage Vertigo (by François Charle, André Duchossoir, and Arnaud Legrand), and on this website at:
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