Saturday was Edith Piaf’s centenary.
Her voice, her life, her repertoire: everything contributed to turning the small street singer into a variety star, one of the major and worldwide figures of French popular culture. Let's remember a singer who helped shape French national identity in the 20th century.
Édith Piaf was born 100 years ago on December,19,1915 at the Hospital Tenon in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. She lived a life marked by pain and success in near equal measure. Beginning her career in nightclubs, she rose to national prominence during World War II and achieved international renown following the war. But for all her popularity, she lived in fear of loneliness. Piaf’s mother had abandoned her shortly after she was born, and she was raised for many years in a brothel run by her grandmother. Though she had a daughter at 17, the girl died as a toddler.
Born Édith Giovanna Gassion, she was nicknamed La Môme Piaf (meaning “the little sparrow”) by her first manager, Louis Leplee. He discovered her singing for her supper on the streets of Montmartre. Following her gripping debut performance in Paris in 1935, the singer quickly rose to celebrity status within her home country. Following Leplée’s murder a year later, the singer struggled to manage her career without him amidst allegations of personal involvement in the crime and the ensuing scandal. Eventually, she sought out songwriter and businessman Raymond Asso, who would become her lover in addition to managing her professional recovery and the rehabilitation of her image. It was Asso, in the spirit of “rebranding,” who suggested that the young woman change her name to “Édith Piaf.” Piaf kept singing about the streets where she’d come from all her life. As for America, Piaf cracked the world’s biggest market more than a decade before the Beatles (she won a Grammy hall of fame award in 1998). She popularised the French language overseas with titles like 'Je ne regrette rien' and 'La vie en rose'.
She took many lovers, including world heavyweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, despite him having a wife and children. Marcel flew to New York to surprise her before a show in 1949 but his jet crashed killing all 48 people on board. Piaf took to the stage that night after hearing the news and collapsed mid-chanson, and had to be helped off stage. She always maintained that Cerdan was her one true love. After a tumultuous love life, her lovers provided the inspiration and sometimes co-penmanship of several of her songs, Piaf married a singer, Jacques Pills, in 1952 and divorced him five years later. Her second marriage, when she was 46, was to a 26-year-old Greek hairdresser-turned-actor, Theo Sarapo.
As she got older, Piaf sunk deeper and deeper into addictions to alcohol and morphine, ultimately dying at 47 of cancer. After her death, Piaf received the highest honour from the French government when the tricolor flag was draped over her coffin.
If you want to know more about Edith Piaf's life, I recommend you watch the movie La Vie En Rose, an incredible biopic on famed French singer Edith Piaf who is a stupendously performed by Marion Cotillard. The role won her an Academy Award. You could also read her autobiographies called "The Wheel of Fortune: The Autobiography of Édith Piaf" by Édith Piaf originally published in 1958 or "Édith Piaf", by Édith Piaf and Simone Berteaut, published in January 1982.
Let's sing along to practice our French prononciation 😉! Here are 5 links to her most famous songs and its lyrics :
With lyrics written by Piaf herself, "La Vie En Rose" is surely the best-known and most-loved song in her repertoire. First released in 1946, this tiny masterpiece would go on to become a worldwide hit and an essential piece of the popular music canon. It is also the title of the 2007 movie which starred Marion Cotillard.
Written by composer Charles Dumont and lyricist Michel Vaucaire, "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien," which translates to "No, I regret nothing," was recorded by Piaf in 1960, after she had declared her intent to retire. This song has remained popular in the pop culture cloud for over 50 years, being regularly covered, used in advertisements and films (notably 2010's Inception).
Edith Piaf wrote the lyrics to this dramatic torch song about the love of her life, boxer Marcel Cerdan, just months before his death in a plane crash in October of 1949. The music was composed by frequent Piaf collaborator Marguerite Monnot. The song has been popularly covered by many artists, including Josh Groban and Japanese pop star Hikaru Otada.
This famous number, which tells the tale of a woman of the night who falls in love with an upper-class gentleman who she sees on the street, was written by lyricist Georges Moustaki and composer Marguerite Monnot. It's written very much as a performance tune for the cabaret, with part of the song being performed in a danceable upbeat bal-musette-influenced style, with breaks for dramatic rubato segments. Though not as famous as many of her other songs, the faster-timed melody is immediately recognizable.
This song, whose title translates to "The Crowd," was based on the tune of an earlier popular South American Waltz written by Angel Cabral, with the newer French lyrics written by Michel Rivgauche. It tells a story of a pair of people who are united by the movement of a crowd during a street festival, only to be separated and pulled apart by the same crowd mere moments later.