The admired French pianist, Samson Pascal François, was born in Frankfurt where his father worked at the French consulate. His mother, Rose, named him Samson, for strength, and Pascal, for spirit. François discovered the piano early - at the age of two - and his first studies were in Italy, with Mascagni, who encouraged him to give his first concert at the age of 6, in which he played a Mozart concerto under Mascagni. Moving from country to country with his itinerant family, he studied in Belgrade with Cyril Licar, obtaining a first prize in performance. Licar also introduced him to the works of Béla Bartók. Having studied in the Conservatoire in Nice from 1932 to 1935, where he again won first prize, François came to the attention of Alfred Cortot, who encouraged him to move to Paris and study with Yvonne Lefébure at the l'École Normale de Musique, the school Cortot co-founded with Auguste Mangeot. He also studied piano with Alfred Cortot (who reportedly found him almost impossible to teach), and harmony with Nadia Boulanger. In 1938, he moved to the Paris Conservatoire to study with Marguerite Long, the doyenne of French teachers of the age. In 1940 he won premier prix at this Conservatoire.
In 1943, be reaching the age of 20, Samson François won the Long-Thibaud Competition and thereafter embarked on a career, one of international scale once World War II had ended. Even during the war, Jacques Thibaud brought François to the attention of Walter Legge, the English recording producer turned wartime concert organiser; François was soon flown to England for an extended tour of factories and camps. From 1945 he toured regularly in Europe, and in 1947 he made his first appearances in the USA. He subsequently played all over the globe, including Communist China in 1964. Concentrating on the Romantic piano literature, and especially the French repertoire, he was acclaimed for his performances of Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, and Chopin, as well as Gabriel Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel. His Prokofiev, too, was impressive. French critics and audiences were especially receptive to his virtuosic approach. François found an appreciative audience in London as well, and enjoyed a largely positive reputation there during his mature years. His extravagant lifestyle, good looks, and passionate but highly disciplined playing, gave him a cult status as a pianist. Though, his passion for night life and his reckless behaviour (characterised by lavish drinking and drug use) resulted in a heart attack on the concert platform in 1968. His early death followed only two years later.
Samson François' early death denied the world a chance to hear how the pianist might have developed had he lived longer. He was a pianist of exceptional persuasiveness in live performance, but only intermittently as arresting in the recording studio. Nonetheless, he left on disc several samples of work approaching his best concert form, albeit with some evidence of the eccentricities critics complained about. His recordings preserve sufficient work of high interest to assure him a place as a major artist. Many of these interpretations are now available on compact disc. Among his remastered and re-released recordings are discs of the Chopin and Ravel piano concertos on EMI's Great Recordings of the Century series. The former, recorded with the Orchestre National de L'Opera de Monte-Carlo (Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo) and its then-director Louis Frémaux, reveals much of what made François special. Containing what Gramophone Magazine deemed "personal and immediate" playing, the artist's quicksilver intensity was awarded with a Diapason d'Or upon its original release. The Ravel recording holds both the concertos, accompanied by André Cluytens and the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, and a mercurial account of the composer's Gaspard de la nuit, all of it a fitting remembrance of an artist who pursued his own singular vision. This disc was originally a recipient of the Prix de L'Académie du Disque Français.
Samson François was a keen jazz fan, and claimed that jazz influenced his playing. Among his other pursuits was that of composition. He composed, among other works, a concerto for piano and incidental music for film. Among his recordings is one of his own piano concerto. In addition, he once composed music for the legendary jazz singer and cabaret artist Peggy Lee.
Samson François married Josette Bhavsar. His life was recalled in some detail in Jérôme Spycket's biography Scarbo, published in 1985. His son Maximilien, born in 1955, published another biography of his father in 2002. François himself said never play simply to play well, a remark that was clearly inspired by his jazz. His interests were wider than his recorded legacy might suggest; even at his most idiosyncratic, he offered moments of wry humour and rare magic.