Édith Piaf still typifies French chanson in the eyes and ears of a world since changed beyond all recognition
Remembering Édith Piaf
Gareth Jones is a music connoisseur and the author of the book “French Pop: from Music Hall to Yé-Yé”
A warm, sunny October day in Paris. After a stroll along the Canal St. Martin to La Villette, a southward turn takes me to the Parc des Buttes Chaumont on the edge of Belleville. The park is busy for a Monday – the unusually warm weather has brought out the locals – so after a short stop I drift down through Ménilmontant and arrive at the gates of Père Lachaise cemetery, final resting place of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Chopin, and many, many thousands of others. I download a map, get my bearings and head inside to pay my respects to the “Little Sparrow”, “La Môme”, the greatest of the chanteuses réalistes.
Sixty years ago this month, France – indeed, the world – lost one of its greatest singers when Édith Piaf passed away at the shockingly young age of 47. She looked much older, her tempestuous lifestyle having matched the drama of her songs, note for note. Piaf put her heart and soul into everything that she sang, her songs often reflecting the traumatic twists and turns of a life lived hard, fast and with passion. It was always a source of mystery how she could pack so much power and emotion into her tiny frame (she stood at only 4’8”, around 142 cm) but much like Brenda Lee, Piaf had a voice that belied the body that housed it.
Born in Paris in 1915 and abandoned soon after by her mother, she was raised partly by her father, an acrobat and street entertainer, and partly by her grandmother, a brothel keeper in Normandy. At the age of 14, she joined the family act as a street singer, eventually being spotted in Paris in 1935 by nightclub owner Louis Leplée, who gave her a start in cabaret. After Leplée was murdered by mobsters a year later, she struck up a relationship with songwriter Marguerite Monnot, whose songs, drawn from Piaf’s experiences on the streets, gave her a repertoire to match her dynamic performances. Where other singers may have worn their hearts on their sleeves, Piaf virtually handed hers around the audience for inspection, demanding a response, and buoyed by successful live appearances, she soon began recording (although record sales were always secondary to concert recitals). Piaf’s earliest recordings are interesting but unremarkable, although ‘Reste’ and ‘J’suis mordue’ hint at the pyrotechnics that would follow. Initially modelling her approach on her idol, Marie Dubas, by 1938 Piaf had already surpassed her (compare her recording of that year’s ‘Mon légionnaire’ with Dubas’s original version) and by the time that war broke out, she was one of the country’s biggest stars.
Never one to buckle under, during the Occupation, Piaf took delight in dating the Jewish pianist, Michel Emer (who wrote her hit ‘L’accordéoniste’, and used the concerts she gave in labour camps to provide cover to escaping prisoners. All of this fed into her repertoire, which made a quantum leap forward in the aftermath of the war with the release of the timeless, self-penned ‘La vie en rose’, which saw Piaf determined to see the world through rose coloured glasses at a time of mass deprivation and destruction.
‘La vie en rose’ was arguably her first classic, and with the Columbia label prepared to push her internationally, her popularity snowballed. 1946 brought ‘Les trois cloches’, a rather maudlin ballad that travelled the world as ‘The Three Bells’, 1947 delivered ‘Un homme comme les autres’ and the following year gave birth to ‘Il a chanté’, classics one and all. By now too, Piaf was beginning to show her abilities as a talent spotter, introducing (and in some cases briefly romancing) a number of future stars. Yves Montand, Charles Aznavour, Gilbert Bécaud, Eddie Constantine and the nine-man vocal ensemble Les Compagnons de le Chanson are just a few who owed their start to Piaf’s patronage. Her most important relationship though was with boxer Marcel Cerdan, perhaps the one true love of her life. Cerdan’s death in a plane crash in 1949 not only inspired one of her greatest torch songs, ‘Hymne à l’amour’ (also recorded in English as ‘If You Love Me’) but set in train the spiral of alcohol and drug abuse that would eventually kill her.
Before that though, her golden decade beckoned, with sellout tours across the US, a seven month Paris run in the operetta La p’tite Lili and some of the greatest chansons ever recorded by anyone. She was not above tapping into foreign sources, covering Frankie Laine’s ‘Jezebel’ in 1951 and Les Paul & Mary Ford’s ‘Johnny Is The Boy For Me’ (Johnny, tu n’es pas un ange’) three years later, taking on Leiber and Stoller’s ‘Black Denim Trousers (And Motorcycle Boots)’ (‘L’homme à la moto’) in 1955 and recrafting Susana Rinaldi’s Peruvian waltz ‘Amor de mis amores’ as ‘La foule’ in 1958 but it was her homegrown efforts that best retain their impact today. ‘Plus bleu que tes yeux’ (1952) and ‘Padam… Padam” (also 1952 and recently reworked by Kylie Minogue). ‘La goualante du pauvre Jean’ and ‘Le “Ça ira”’ (both 1954). ‘C’est à Hambourg’ (1956). ‘Mon manège à moi’ (1958). And the rest…
Across these songs, across dozens of others, and across a peerless series of in-concert albums, Piaf redefined and perfected the art of the chanteuse réaliste. You could call her the first European blues singer and though she rarely if ever sang anything you could call “the blues”, you would be right to do so. While Ray Charles was busy inventing soul music, Piaf was already injecting more soul into her performances than most of Brother Ray’s acolytes would ever manage. Yes, she was that good: not for nothing did Tony Bennett name-check her on M.T.V. Unplugged. Tony knew a good singer when he heard one.
And then came the blockbuster: ‘Milord’ (1959). Written by Marguerite Monnot to a lyric by Piaf’s latest protégé/lover, Georges Moustaki, the song charted all over the world, far and away the biggest seller of her career. An effortlessly catchy tune married to a charming character sketch that allowed the singer the full range of emotional delivery, the song was in many ways the quintessential Piaf recording, but it didn’t bring her happiness. As the sales mounted, Moustaki picked up his royalties and split for the coast, leaving Piaf alone, to spiral down into a diet of painkillers and alcohol.
But still, she sang. ‘Cri de cœur’, ‘Le vieux piano’, ‘Les amants’ (all 1960). The truly terrifying account of incarceration in an asylum, ‘Les blouses blanches’ (1961). The showstopping ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ (1961), a song so defiant that it makes ‘My Way’ sound like an apology. Piaf truly had no regrets – she lived her life and damn the consequences. When audiences appeared shocked by her 1962 marriage to Théo Sarapo, a hairdresser many years her junior, she shrugged, recorded (with Sarapo) the hit duet ‘À quoi ça sert l’amour’, raised two-fingers on ‘Le droit d’aimer’ (1963) and kept on keeping on. But by now, the strains of her lifestyle were beginning to show. The illnesses became more frequent, the gaps between concert appearances lengthened and eventually, on 10 October, her body gave up the fight.
As much a totemic figure for her generation as Johnny Hallyday would be for the yé-yé fans starting to dominate the record market, Piaf’s passing hit the country hard. 40,000 turned up for her funeral at Père Lachaise, where she was interred alongside her father (and where Sarapo would in turn be placed alongside her following his death in a car accident in 1970). On the day I visited, there were fresh flowers on her grave and a steady stream of visitors coming to pay their respects to the woman who, more than any other, still typifies French chanson in the eyes and ears of a world since changed beyond all recognition. LPs and CDs of her works are still available in shops, there are at least three different biographies on the shelves in bookstores, and as I strolled down the Left Bank a day later, I heard the unmistakable sound of a little jazz band playing ‘La vie en rose’. More than a memory, Piaf’s life and work continue to resonate, to reach out across the years and to sound a clarion call for us all. “Non! Rien de rien! Non! Je ne regrette rien!”. Sixty years gone, and yet still remembered, still admired, still loved, still a part of the country’s culture. As she should be. So adieu, Édith. Rest in peace. And know that we remember you…
Édith Piaf performing live one of her most memorable songs ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’
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