Saturday, March 10, 2007

Edith Piaf Returns

According to a feature by Anita Elash on this morning's Weekend Edition yet another generation is discovering the magic of Edith Piaf. A movie of her life has been released in France and will come to America in June.

Although her short life ended about the time I was finishing high school, the sound of her voice echoed through most of my development years and the decade following. There is in her singing a tragically romantic quality (Romance is often a spin off of tragedy, it seems.) that may fade but never disappears. Few readers will not immediately recognize the melody and voice timbre of this video, even if they don't know the meaning of the words or anything about the singer. Such is the imprint of Piaf's reputation and gift for singing.

Wikipedia lists ten films that include Edith Piaf, from 1936 to 1959. Her repertoire was short but impressive. My guess is that everything she ever sang is embedded somewhere in the memory of anyone over the age of sixty, even if they didn't like her singing. But who would ever admit to being such a Philistine? provides a comprehensive litany of an uneven but unstoppable rise to fame. Was she saintlike? Puh-lease.
Did she touch a lot of people? Read for yourself.
Did she really ever hurt anybody? As far as I can tell, only herself. Maybe that's why she is still loved. Even among the ruins of her many love affairs, my guess is that her lovers would all be willing to say it was better to have loved and know the rest.

As an interpretive singer, Piaf was at the height of her powers during the mid-'50s, even in spite of all her health woes. Her international tours were consistently successful, and the devotion of her massive French following verged on worship. She scored several more hits over 1956-1958, among them "La Foule," "Les Amants D'un Jour," "L'homme à la Moto," and the smash "Mon Manège à Moi." During that period, she also completed another stay in detox; this time would prove to be successful, but years of drug and alcohol abuse had already destabilized her health. In late 1958, she met another up-and-coming songwriter, Georges Moustaki, and made him her latest lover and improvement project. Teaming once again with Marguerite Monnot, Moustaki co-wrote "Milord," an enormous hit that topped the charts all over Europe in early 1959 and became Piaf's first successful single in the U.K. Later that year, she and Moustaki were involved in another car accident, in which her face was badly cut; in early 1960, while performing at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, she collapsed and began to vomit blood on stage, and was rushed to the hospital for emergency stomach surgery. Stubbornly, she continued her tour, and collapsed on-stage again in Stockholm; this time she was sent back to Paris for more surgery. Piaf was soon back in the recording studio, eager to record a composition by the legendary French songwriter Charles Dumont. "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" became one of her all-time classics and a huge international hit in 1960, serving as something of an equivalent to Frank Sinatra's "My Way." Piaf went on to score further hits with more Dumont songs, including "Mon Dieu," "Les Flons-Flons du Bal," and "Les Mots D'Amour." She staged a lengthy run at the Olympia in 1961, and later that year met an aspiring Greek singer named Théo Sarapo (born Theophanis Lamboukis), who became her latest project and, eventually, second husband. Sarapo was half her age, and given Piaf's poor health, the French media derided him as a gold digger. Nonetheless, they cut the duet "À Quoi Ça Sert l'Amour" in 1962, and performed together during Piaf's final engagement at the Olympia that year.

Despite her physical weakness -- on some nights, she could barely stand -- Piaf had lost very little of the power in her voice. Piaf and Sarapo sang together at the Bobino in early 1963, and Piaf also made her final recording, "L'Homme de Berlin." Not long afterward, Piaf slipped into a coma, brought on by cancer. Sarapo and Simone Berteaut took Piaf to her villa in Plascassier, on the French Riviera, to nurse her. She drifted in and out of consciousness for months before passing away on October 11, 1963 -- the same day as legendary writer/filmmaker Jean Cocteau. Her body was taken back to Paris in secret, so that fans could believe she died in her hometown. The news of her death caused a nationwide outpouring of grief, and tens of thousands of fans jammed the streets of Paris, stopping traffic to watch her funeral procession. Her towering stature in French popular music has hardly diminished in the years since; her grave at Père-Lachaise remains one of the famed cemetery's most visited, and her songs continue to be covered by countless classic-style pop artists, both French and otherwise.

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