The popular composer-performer of “La mer” and nearly 1,000 other songs, Charles Trenet is the figurehead of present-day chansonniers. A performing legend on a par with Piaf, Chevalier and Sablon, Charles Trenet, the self-styled ‘clown’ of French cabaret, was also an entertainer whose larger-than-life antics masked a broader polymathy and unflagging professional dynamism. Born in Narbonne, in Aude, South-Western France, on 18 May 1913 he always had, first and foremost, a talent for words. He was also given from an early age to vocal improvising and at kindergarten, when asked by his nanny what he was singing about, is said to have replied ‘Je chante ce que j’invente’.
In 1922, following his parents’ divorce, Charles moved with his brother Antoine to Perpignan, where their father was a practising lawyer, and at fifteen, spurred on by the Catalan poet Bausil, he published his first verses. Through this genial but eccentric man-of-letters, who also edited and published the sporting chronicle Le Coq Catalan, Trenet rubbed shoulders with such prominent avant-garde figures as Giono, Giraudoux, Mauriac, Maurois, Saint-Exupéry and the painter Fons Godail, a noted cabaret set-designer under whose influence the young Charles was to exhibit, in 1927, various examples of his own work. In 1928 he joined his mother and step-father (former silent-screen set-designer Benno Vigny) in Berlin and there aspired, at least briefly, to become a film-director! His father had hoped he would become an architect, but the artistically-inclined Charles devoted himself instead to writing his first novel: Dodo Manières.
In 1930 Trenet moved to Paris where he worked as a graphic artist at Pathé’s Joinville film studios and, quickly settling in the capital frequented the nightspots of Montmartre and Montparnasse (notably Le Boeuf sur le Toit). Billed as ‘Le fou chantant’ (the singing clown), he soon rose to cabaret stardom, while his associates in intellectual circles included fellow-writers Antonin Artaud, Jean Cocteau and his literary mentor and hero Max Jacob (1876-1944). During 1933 Trenet’s song-writing and performing duo with his partner, the Swiss-born lyricist-composer Johnny Hess (1915-1983) took off – with a little help from Josephine Baker – and with Hess he went on to co-write many successes, including “Rendez-vous sous la pluie” (1935) and the 1936 Grand Prix du Disque-winner “Vous qui passez sans me voir”. As ‘Charles et Johnny’ the pair recorded for Pathé and made regular cabaret appearances until both were drafted into French military service, in 1936.
Taking his lead from Mireille and Sablon and other revitalisers of the chanson, by mid-decade Trenet was in the vanguard of composer-performers who, inspired by the recently imported transatlantic idiom, had re-channelled Jazz into Swing. His musical gifts were complemented from the outset by an inordinate, if sometimes unequal, poetical instinct. The author of three novels and copious reams of verse (in style at first surréaliste, in emulation of Max Jacob), the songs he wrote from the late-1930s onwards enshrined in some measure the spirit of the age. Like Prévert and few others, he skilfully distilled nostalgia both musically and verbally with amazing economy.
Signed by Columbia, in 1937 Trenet made his first solo commercial recordings: Fleur bleue coupled with Je chante (this last, one of several Trenet collaborations with Paul Misraki (born 1908), the virtual anthem which was to become the title of his first film Je chante (1938), which also featured La vie qui va). Written during his military service, Y a d’la joie became his greatest hit to date and led to an invitation to write and appear in two films, of which La route enchantée (1938 – this included Grand Prix-winning ‘Boum!’ – see Naxos Nostalgia 8.120530: Charles Trenet Vol.1 La mer) was the most successful. In 1943, with more limited success, he returned to the screen (as co-writer with Jacques Prévert) in Adieu, Léonard and spent the rest of World WarII in maintaining French morale with his songs, most significantly “Douce France” (1943).
In 1945 Trenet moved to the USA where for several years he worked mainly as a writer.
Many of his recordings were issued in the States and although none made the popular charts Top 30 several enjoyed wide circulation and assured Trenet a circle of ardent admirers. By 1952 he was again domiciled in his native France, but made regular return trips to the USA and Canada. Energetic and dynamic at every public appearance (‘Je suis né poète, je mourrai athlète’ was the oft-quoted motto which he joked would one day be his epitaph), he continued a rigorous performing schedule in France until his official retirement in 1975. Not yet content to withdraw from the limelight, however, by the end of the decade he had embarked on a series of farewell tours in Canada. In 1978 he published his memoirs, jointly with his mother (who died shortly afterwards) and until the late 1980s he made further tours of Europe and Canada. In 1993 he appeared in a BBC radio tribute, in London. Awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 1989 he was later variously created a commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and Président of the French Ministry of Culture’s Commission for Song.
Never wanting in creative energy, in 1992 and 1995 Trenet published new collections of songs and during November 1999 gave three concerts in Paris where, apparently undaunted in spirit if weakened physically by a series of strokes, he sang at a Charles Aznavour concert in 2000. On 18 February 2001, aged 87 years, he died in a hospital near Paris and the following day was hailed by French President Jacques Chirac as ‘a great artist, poet and national institution.’
Peter Dempsey, 2004