By Ricky Riccardi June 2020
70 years ago, Louis Armstrong entered Decca’s New York studios to record two songs of French origin: “La Vie En Rose” and “C’est Si Bon.” Sy Oliver put together a terrific studio orchestra and arranged both songs for the date. The result was the biggest hit of Armstrong’s career to this point and two sides that have had ever-lasting appeal, especially “La Vie En Rose,” the only song to rival “What a Wonderful World” in terms of out-and-out popularity in the 21st century. Before we get too carried away, let’s listen to Armstrong’s original glorious performance to get in the right frame of mind:
Because the anniversary falls on a Friday, the day we peak inside “Satch’s Tracks,” it only makes sense to examine some of the French selections in Louis’s record collection.
Besides Armstrong’s version, “La Vie En Rose” is most associated with “The Little Sparrow,” Edith Piaf. And yes, Armstrong owned two Piaf LPs, one of which contained her legendary version of “La Vie En Rose”:
And here is the audio of Piaf’s legendary performance:
However, Armstrong actually preferred another version of “La Vie En Rose” to Piaf’s. On this clip from one of Louis’s tapes, he’s trying to get some shy French fans to speak on tape and mentions that he loves the singing of Jacqueline Francois, feeling that her version of “La Vie En Rose” was smoother than Piaf’s:
Here is Armstrong’s copy of Francois’s Vox 10-inch LP, Jacqueline Francois Sings, containing “La Vie En Rose”:
And here’s Francois’s version of “La Vie En Rose”:
On a later tape, Louis actually got all three versions of “La Vie En Rose”–Piaf’s, Francois’ and his own–and played them back-to-back-to-back. Here’s his catalog page:
For the sake of completeness, here is Louis’s copy of “La Vie En Rose,” marked with one of his homemade “Recorded” labels to denote that it had been copied to tape:
As for the flip side, “C’est Si Bon,” we don’t have as many artifacts related to it in our Archives, but thanks to the efforts of Olivier Betti, we know a great deal about the backstory of the song. Olivier’s grandfather, Henri Betti, wrote the music for “C’est Si Bon,” which was outfitted with French lyrics by Andre Hornez. On February 28, 1948, the Nice Jazz Festival hosted a jam session at the Hotel Negresco that was attended by the likes of Django Reinhardt, Claude Luter and Louis Armstrong. At the session, Suzy Delair sang “C’est Si Bon” in French (Delair passed away this March at the age of 102). Armstrong apparently loved the song immediately and promised to record it when he got back to the United States. A recording ban was in effect at the time, but Armstrong eventually got around to it on June 26, 1950.
And for more on the history of “C’est Si Bon,” Olivier Betti has created a Facebook page and has contributed to the Wikipedia entry on the song, as well as this recent article in French. Thank you, Olivier for all of your efforts in telling the story of your grandfather’s wonderful song! Here is Louis’s copy, with the “Recorded” label, alas, no longer affixed.
“La Vie En Rose” and “C’est Si Bon” were recorded during a prolific period for Armstrong at Decca thanks to the efforts of producer Milt Gabler. A host of Armstrong’s Sy Oliver-arranged singles were originally collected on a 10-inch LP, Satchmo Serenades; Louis’s copy is on display in the den of the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
Eventually a few more tracks were added to turn it into a 12-inch LP, of which Louis owned a Argentinian pressing, Satchmo Seranatas (transforming our two anniversary tracks into “La Vida Color De Rosa” and “Es Tan Bueno”)!
And if you’d like to listen to Satchmo Serenades on Spotify, here’s the link:
Finally, one more memento from the Armstrong Collection, a Decca brochure printed for Armstrong’s 1953 tour of Japan, focusing on “La Vie En Rose” and “C’est Si Bon” and even including lyrics of both so you can sing along while listening: