To most ears Edith Piaf is a synonym for French cabaret, although to the more versed she surely had her influences, her audible antecedents (Cora Madou, perhaps—even, to some extent, albeit subconsciously, Lucienne Boyer) insofar as they were “around” during her adolescence. But she remains, nonetheless, an outstandingly individual communicator in her own right, not only because of the directness of her delivery but also because the underlying subjects of so many of her songs—drugs, sex, love, infidelity and death—still speak strongly to modern society, her later efforts especially characterised by that melancholic despondency which prompted Yves Montand to label her ‘marchande de cafard’ (= gloom-and-doom merchant). Yet even in this mode she creates a spontaneity in which the compressed emotion of, say, ‘La vie en rose’ or the gritty resolve of ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ combine with fragilité, that brittle, often aggressive, essentially French femininity to place her as a great chanteuse-tragédienne in the tradition of her heroine and youthful role-model Maryse Damià (1890-1978).
The legendary Piaf grew up in a Paris both grim and “romantic” (in the sense of the historic Paname still sought by foreign visitors) and her art on records is to some degree a mythical reflection of its seedy backstreets. Her life is so overlaid with rumour and anecdote that even now, after various biographies, its facts and its fictions are often blurred. It is however certain that her earliest years were marked by dire poverty and struggle. She was born Edith Giovanna Gassion, at Rue de Belleville 72, in the working-class quarter, on 19 December 1915. Her teenage mother, Annetta Giovanna Maillard (1898-1945), a native of Livorno, was a part-Italian café-chanteuse who performed under the pseudonym ‘Line Marsa’; her beloved father, Louis-Alphonse Gassion (1881-1944), of theatrical background, was both a gifted acrobat and a notorious womaniser who joined the French Army in 1916 leaving the infant Edith to her mother’s devices.
Annetta soon took to the streets as a singer, leaving Edith in the hands of Mena, her mother, a dilatory and unfit foster-parent who neglected the child until Louis came to the rescue and consigned her to the care of his own mother, a housekeeper in a Normandy brothel. Thus it was that from her tenderest years Edith came in contact with pimps and prostitutes, a circumstance later to have significant bearing on her many songs reflecting Parisian low-life. In 1929 she joined her father’s acrobatic act but the following year, aged 15, struck out on her own as a street-singer in Pigalle, Ménilmontant and neighbouring Parisian faubourgs. There, whatever she didn’t already know about life she learned the hard way, the ramifications of which would emerge in her powerful, earthy treatment in song of deprivation and love—invariably of the unrequited sort. In this context, such songs as ‘Elle fréquentait la Rue Pigalle’ and ‘Mon cur est au coin d’une rue’ assume an unmistakably personal connotation.
In 1935 (so she claims in her 1958 autobiography Au bal de la chance) she was “discovered” while busking in the L’Etoile district by Louis Leplée. The proprietor of the presigious Cabaret Gerny, a club situated midway between the Champs-Elysées and the Avenue Georges V, Leplée introduced her as ‘La môme Piaf’ (literally: ‘the urchin sparrow’ or, perhaps, ‘singing street-urchin’) and she was an instant sensation with her rendition of ‘Les mômes de la cloche’, a ditty about street-walkers. Within weeks she had made her first appearance on Le Music Hall des Jeunes on the commercial Parisian radio station Radio Cité and before long, she was recording for Polydor (her first session, December 1935, included ‘La java de Cézique’ and ‘Mon apéro’).
When, suddenly, Leplée was brutally murdered, Piaf was interrogated by the police and tabloid journalists did their best to implicate her, but although saddened and shocked by the episode she emerged unscathed and, despite gossip and rumour, went from strength to strength. During 1936 she made further appearances on radio (she would remain throughout her career a regular broadcaster) and her film début (with Arletty, in La garçonne). Her second film, Montmartre-sur-Seine (1941) featured several of her songs and was a noted success. Although often accused during WWII of collaboration with the Nazis she was, like many other artists, at least outwardly apolitical, while via her songs offering at least a covert moral support to the Resistance movement.
The peak of Piaf’s stardom spanned the immediate post-war decade 1945-1955. World renown came her way following her 1947 American tour and through such recordings as her own, monumental ‘La vie en rose’ (she actually wrote the lyrics in 1945 which were later set to music by the Spaniard Louis Louiguy, b. 1916). Her pre-1945 discs display a brightness and freshness which complements the rather more morose accents of her later work. Several of her earliest songs were written expressly for her, although some she appropriated had earlier been featured by other cabaret artists. At Gerny’s she first met resident pianist-composer Raymond Asso (1901-1968), one of her lovers and an important formative influence in her career. A handsome ex-Foreign Legionaire, Asso supplied the lyrics for many of her earliest successes, such as ‘Mon légionnaire’.
Through Asso, Piaf met pianist-composer Marguerite Monnot (1903-1961). A piano pupil of both Cortot and Nadia Boulanger, Monnot was the daughter of the celebrated blind French organist Marius Monnot. Her friendship with Piaf began after the latter assimilated ‘L’étranger’ (her 1935 Grand Prix du Disque-winning song featured by Annette Lajon) into her repertoire. Another important artistic influence on Piaf, Monnot co-wrote various numbers with her, including ‘C’était un jour de fête’, ‘Paris-Méditerranée’, ‘J’ai dansé avec l’amour’, ‘C’est un monsieur très distingué and Tu es partout’ (among the songs Piaf sang in her 1943 film Montmartre-sur-Seine, this was interpolated into Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, 1998).
What perhaps continues to delight us most is the range of mood of Piaf’s output: in its clever juxtapositions and apparent contradictions lie its perennial appeal. Whereas ‘C’était une histoire d’amour’ (by Asso’s disciples Jean Jal and Henri Contet) rates among the most poignantly sombre of all Piaf’s renderings, it is outwardly light-hearted and as utterly French as ‘L’accordéoniste’, a 1937-vintage song success whose composer, the accordionist Michel Emer (1906-1984), had to twist Piaf’s arm before she would even sing it!
Edith Piaf died in Paris on 10 October 1963.
(Peter Dempsey, 2002)