When you work at Amoeba Music there’s certain questions you answer over and over again:
“Where’s the restroom?”
“Why’s this one this price and this one this price?”
“Where can I find Edith Piaf?”
That last question is occasionally (to my endless amusement) pronounced as, “Where can I find Edith Pilaf?” to which I always want (but never) answer:
“We file her in-between Condoleezza Rice and Tim Curry. They all go great together.”
My internalized snarkiness aside, I’m all for Edith Piaf. Who could hate La Môme Piaf (her French nickname, literally translated as “That short woman in the black dress with the amazing voice but tragic make-up which someone should seriously having a talking-to-her about”)?
But I think too many people stop with Piaf and don’t investigate the chanson française of her peers, which is a shame because there’s so much to love. Below I offer some performers I think are à l'opposé de terrible.
Model-turned-singer Lucienne Boyer enjoyed a long-lived career, including stints on Broadway. Fans of the movies Casablanca or Henry & June will recognize her biggest hit "Parlez-moi d'amour," a song about how annoying it is to go get some milk from the kitchen, only to find the person you’re living with has left only, like, a tablespoon of liquid left in the carton but put it back in the refrigerator and now what the f**k do you do? (All of which sounds much more lilting and romantic when sung in French.)
Not only a singer but a beloved comedienne, Marie Dubas was a favorite of Edith Piaf, who cited her as an influence. Being Jewish, Marie had to escape Nazi-occupied France during World War II, after which she learned that her sister and nephew had both been murdered by the fascist regime.
Dubas was first to record the song "Mon legionnaire," which would go on to be a mainstay of Piaf’s repertoire. The song was also recorded by superstar Serge Gainsbourg in the late 1980’s.
I love this woman’s voice, but could find little history on her, so I’ll just invent one:
Rina Ketty was born March 1, 1911 in Sarzana, Italy. Her father, Nom de l’Homme, a travelling acrobat, met her mother, Panthère Réelle, at the zoo. There’s was a torrid affair – they eloped to Paris after authorities in Italy refused to marry the couple based on rumors that the black hair which covered Panthère’s lanky body wasn’t “just a nasty case of hypertrichosis.”
Rina was the eighth of eighty-eight children born to the couple, and the only one to survive. Some speculate this is due to her being born in an actual hospital, and not directly into a fiery pit of rotating metal spikes, as her siblings had been.
Rina began making records when she was only eight years of age, but her career didn’t really see success until the mid-1930’s, when she started using her voice.
She died in Cannes in 1996 after getting into a knife-fight with an eight-foot ice-lizard who was trying to freeze the world with its powers!!!
This is a fun one. Jeanne Bourgeois, better known by her stage name, Mistinguett, was a superstar of her time – the highest paid female entertainer of her day. A scandalous sex symbol, her legs were notoriously insured for a huge sum. She had some high-profile love affairs, among them Maurice Chevalier who, at age 23, was 13 years her junior. [Speaking of Chevalier, you may want to check out his music too, though I must admit I am not myself a fan.]
Mistinguett was the first to record the song "Mon Homme," which remains a popular standard, interpreted into many genres of music, often translated into English.
Corsican singer Tino Rossi has a voice like your first kiss – assuming your first kiss wasn’t with your P.E. teacher against your will.
Originally enjoying a career as a matinee idol, much of the public soured on him as a result of his assisting the Carlingue – the "French Gestapo" – during World War II.
I’ve mentioned this chanteuse before, but my list here wouldn’t pass muster without her.
Ambitious Solidor was not only a successful singer, but also opened the posh and popular nightclub La Vie parisienne, which housed her collection of portraits painted of her by some of the art world’s elite, including Man Ray [see above photo], Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Tamara de Lempicka, with whom she had an affair.
After World War II, she too was judged by the Épuration légale to have been a collaborator of the Vichy Regime, which bums me out for reals, because I like my historic gays to be heroic. Mais c'est la vie.
Not too much is known of the flamboyant Berthe Sylva, despite her popularity in her time. Many of the more colorful stories of her life are actually urban legends and not fact – not unlike commonly told tales of various members of New Kids on the Block (stomach pumping myth, anyone?). The victim of poor management, both in business and alcohol intake, she died penniless at age 56.
Perhaps the most accomplished of all acts mentioned here, Charles Trenet was a masterful song-writer as well as singer and only recorded his own material – something rare in his day.
A natural godfather to the careers of Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg, Trenet’s compositions capture the joys and foibles of common humanity in a way so appealing and satisfying that it transcends its language – you need not understand French to appreciate the pathos of his pop.
His song "La Mer" remains a popular piece, perhaps best known in the States as interpreted by Bobby Darin [again, I'm not a fan of Darin, but you'll get no judgement from me if you are].
C'est tout, les gens!