Edith Piaf - Biography

By J Poet


Edith Piaf may be the most popular singer of French chanson in history. Her ability to convey the giddy joys and abject pain of love made her a beloved figure during her life, and her early death insured her legendary status. She rose from poverty to riches, battled the demons of drugs and alcohol, and lived a flamboyant life worthy of her songs, marked by intense love and crushing disappointment. Her powerful voice, all the more impressive because of her small stature, only 4 feet, 8 inches tall, was marked by an emotional vibrato and impeccable phrasing. She recorded more than 400 songs in her brief life. All traffic in Paris stopped on the day of her memorial and 100,000 people lined the streets. Piaf's tomb is one of the most visited at Père Lachaise cemetery with thousands of fans leaving flowers on her grave every year.


Edith Giovanna Gassion was born in a Paris in 1915, in Belleville, a poor working class neighborhood. Her father Louis was an acrobat who performed on the street for tips; her mother Anetta, sang on the street and in cafes. When WW I broke out, Louis was drafted and Anetta left Edith with her own mother, Aïcha, who neglected the child and made her drink wine whenever she was troublesome, which was often. When Louis returned from the war, he took Edith to Normandy where she lived in a house of prostitution run by her father’s mother. When the local priest expressed his outrage at a child in a bordello, Louis took his daughter on the road with him. She started singing on the streets with her father when she was eight and lived a precarious hand to mouth existence.


She left her father in 1930 and went to Paris with her friend Simone Monnot, singing for tips, often spending everything on wine and sleeping in the streets. She married Louis Dupont in 1933 and had a daughter. Dupont made Edith stop singing, but she soon left him and lived on the streets again with her daughter, who died of meningitis in 1934, not yet two. After her daughter’s death she met Louis Leplee, owner of Gurney's, a popular Parisian club. He gave her a job, named her La Mome Piaf - The Young Sparrow – and bought her decent clothing. A week after her on stage debut, she was packing the club and she was offered a recording contract with Polydor. “L'Etranger,” her first 78, became a huge hit in 1934. Other hits followed and Gurney's filled celebrities who helped spread the word about this tiny performer, dressed all in black and possessing an incredible voice. In 1936, Leplee was murdered and Piaf was briefly a suspect. She had to flee to Belgium, where she continued performing.


Piaf returned to Paris in 1937 and met Raymond Asso, who had written “Mon Legionnaire,” her first major hit, with Marguerite Monnot. Asso and Piaf lived together and he helped her hone her act, but when he was drafted in 1939, she took another lover. During the German occupation of France, Piaf remained popular and began performing in plays and films including Cocteau's stage production Le Bel indifferent, which was written for Piaf and her then lover, the actor Paul Meurisse. Piaf and Meurisse also starred in Georges Lacombe's film Montmartre sur scène. On the set, Piaf started an affair with Henri Contet, who later wrote many of her biggest hits. She worked for the resistance during the occupation employing Jewish musicians in her backing band and bringing forged identity papers with her when she sang for the Germans and POWs in detention camps. The papers helped many prisoners escape. Edith Piaf: Her Greatest Recordings 1935-1943 (1995 ASV England) collects 21 of her early hits taken from 78 RPM singles.


In 1944 Piaf met the singer Yves Montand and helped launch his career. She asked Contet to write songs for Montand and Contet contributed two of his biggest hits "Battling Joe" and "Luna Park." In 1945, Piaf and Montand starred in Marcel Blistène’s film Etoile sans lumière. Piaf started writing her own songs that year and her “La vie en rose” became one of her biggest hits and her signature song. She wrote 80 more songs before she died.


In 1946, Piaf met the singing group Les Compagnons de la Chanson and recorded “Les trois cloches” with them. (The Browns had an American hit with a translation of the song called “The Three Bells” in 1959.) The song sold over a million copies, and Piaf asked Les Compagnons de la Chanson to open her shows on her first American tour. Her one-week engagement at the Versailles in New York was extended to four months and Piaf became a star in America.


In New York, Piaf met Marlene Dietrich, who remained a close friend, and Marcel Cerdan, a French boxer and the new middleweight champion. She wrote “L'hymne à l'amour” for him, but in 1949 he was killed in a plane crash. Piaf plunged into depression and medicated herself with drugs and alcohol and never fully recovered from his death. The songs she chose to sing after Cerdan’s death were even more dramatic and tragic than before. In 1950, she headlined the Salle Pleyel in Paris and met the up and coming singer/songwriter Charles Anzavour. He became her chauffeur and personnel secretary and wrote many songs for her including "Jézébel" and "Plus bleu que tes yeux," one of her biggest later hits. In 1951, Piaf was in two auto accidents. She survived without major injuries, but came out of the hospital the second time addicted to morphine.


In 1952, she married the singer Jacques Pills, then left for an American tour. She had another lengthy engagement at the Versailles, accompanied by pianist Gilbert Bécaud, who wrote "Je t'ai dans la peau" for Piaf with lyrics by Pills. In 1952 and 53, she tried rehab, but her mental and physical health was in decline, even as her recordings and performances gained in power and subtlety. She left the stage in late 1953, but returned in 1955 with a series of headlining shows at L'Olympia in Paris and an 1956 American tour that included a sold out show at Carnegie Hall. Edith Piaf Au Carnegie Hall 1956-1957 (2004 Angel), includes 37 songs, the complete concerts from 1956 and 57. Hymn to Love: All Her Greatest Songs in English (2004 Angel) collects 16 English language translations of her hits recorded for Capitol when she was trying to break into the US market in the 1950s.


In 1956, she toured Latin America and did another series at L'Olympia introducing two new songs "L'Homme à la moto," a translation of the American rock’n’roll song “Black Denim Trousers And Motorcycle Boots” and "Les Amants d'un jour." Piaf at the Paris Olympia (2001 EMI UK) presents 20 of her classics recorded live at various Olympia gigs. At the end of the year she went into rehab again, and this time it took. She was clean and sober for the rest of her life, but her body was already suffering from years of abuse and she never fully regained her health.


In 1958 Piaf returned to L'Olympia and introduced "Mon manège à moi." She met singer/songwriter Georges Moustaki and started a tempestuous affair. He wrote  "Milord,” another international hit, with her childhood friend Simone Monnot. In September of 1958, they had as serious car accident, but Piaf soon left for another New York engagement, were she collapsed on stage and had to have emergency surgery. She continued to pass out on stage for the rest of her life, but would not give up singing.


In 1960, Piaf met Charles Dumont who wrote "Non je ne regrette rien" for her. She sang it at L'Olympia in 1961, in a benefit to save the venue from bankruptcy and her performance is considered one of the greatest concerts in French history. Later that year she met and married the Greek singer Theophanis Lamboukas and helped start his career. In June she was awarded the Prix du disque de l’Académie Charles-Cros.


In 1962, she was the gust of honor at the premiere of the American film The Longest Day, and sang at a gala concert on a stage at the top of the Eiffel Tower. In 1963, with Lamboukas, she performed at the Bobino cabaret introducing their duet "A quoi ça sert l'amour ?" Shortly thereafter she fell into a coma, after a long battle with liver cancer. She died at her villa in Plascassier in October of 1963. All traffic in Paris stopped on the day of her memorial. An estimated 100,000 people attended her graveside service and her records remain best sellers on CD.


In 1997, Charles Aznavour recorded "Plus bleu que tes yeux," a song he wrote for her. Engineers were able to splice in Piaf's voice from and old recording to produce digital duet. In 2007 Olivier Dahan’s Piaf biopic, La Vie en rose, was an international smash. Marion Cotillard, who played Piaf, won the Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal. Most of Piaf’s original albums are long out of print, but there are countless reissues of her seminal recordings. The mother of all boxed sets is Edith Piaf: L'Integrale (2007 EMI France), 20 CDs with 413 tracks, including the complete Carnegie Hall concerts and 77 out takes and rare songs. Less complete collections include: Edith Piaf: 30th Anniversaire (1994 EMI France) a 44 song overview on two discs; 75 Chansons (2006 Disky France) an overview on three discs; The Very Best of Edith Piaf (1990 Capitol), which includes 15 of her most famous songs including “La Vie en Rose,” “Milord,” “Hymne a l'Amour,” and “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” Eternelle: The Best of Edith Piaf (2002 EMI Classics) may be the best single disc overview, 18 career spanning hits cut in the 1950s. 


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