You may think you know nothing about French music, but I suspect you may know more chansons than you realize.
Unlike a primer on American jazz , a proper introduction to French music requires just handful of compact discs or an afternoon listening to Spotify or YouTube to receive a rudimentary education. As there are no plans for a multi-part PBS documentary on French Chanson from Ken Burns – voila, Chanson 101.
The Little Sparrow and La Vie En Rose
Chances are you’ve heard France’s national chanteuse Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose,” which has been recorded by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Madonna. There are many great versions of “La Vie En Rose” available for a listen in Le Space du Cyber. Begin with Piaf’s definitive original from 1947, and then go directly to Satchmo’s splendid jazz version recorded with Sy Oliver and his Orchestra in 1950. Skip Madonna’s, but search out the a cappella rendition by Mia Doi Todd.
Piaf, “The Little Sparrow,” started her singing career in 1935. While “La Vie En Rose” is her signature song, she debuted another iconic anthem, “Non, Je Ne Regret Rien (No, I Regret Nothing)” in a famous live performance in 1961 at the Paris Olympia Theater. Other notable Piaf songs include “Hymn L’Amour,” “Milord,” and Jezebel – the latter, a hit for Frankie Laine in the states.
Piaf died young, but crammed a lot of living in her 47 years: abandoned at birth, growing up in a brothel, experiencing wars in Europe, scandals, mob killings, morphine addiction, and tragic love affairs. If all that sounds like your idea of a good movie, check out “La Vie en Rose,” the 2007 biopic featuring Marion Cotillard, who won an Oscar portraying Piaf.
Trenet et Rossi
Another influential French singer/songwriter who became popular during the war years, was Charles Trenet (right). “Without Trenet, we would all be accountants,” said Jacques Brel. Nicknamed “Le Fou Chantant” (the Singing Madman) and resembling Harpo Marx, Trenet wrote mainly comical, some might say “eccentric” songs – nearly a thousand catalogued. His classic “La Mer” (The Sea) is a beautifully melancholic exception. The song has been recorded hundreds of times since it debuted in 1945, and Trenet’s own version is still the best. Nearly 60 years later after “La Mer,” Charles Trenet was still recording his music, releasing Poets Take to the Streets in 1999. Between 1945 and 1999, there were some bumps in the road. In 1963, Trenet spent 28 days in prison in a French prison, charged with consorting with underage boys. It was revealed after Trenet’s death that it was actor Maurice Chevalier who informed the police about his fellow entertainer. Would Trenet have appreciated the irony of being shopped to the cops by the guy who sang “Thank Heaven for Little Girls?” Peut-être.
If you haven’t yet heard “La Mer,” you probably have heard Bobby Darin’s swinging anglicized hit, “Beyond the Sea.” Or perhaps you saw Lawrence Kasden’s French Kiss (1995), starring Kevin Kline and Meg Ryan. Kline does a credible job singing “La Mer” on the soundtrack (in character as “Luc Teyssier.”) While the film is a mixed-bag, the French Kiss soundtrack is as tasty as an actual french kiss, with tracks featuring Louis Armstrong, Charles Trenet, Paolo Conte, Toots Thielemans, Ella Fitzgerald, and the legendary Tino Rossi.
A handsome tenor from Corsica, Tino Rossi sold over 700 million records, while appearing in operas and in films, where he was compared to Rudolph Valentino. Rossi’s recording of “Petite Papa Noël,” is to France what Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” is to the United States.
Was Rossi a Nazi sympathizer during the war? Did Bing spank his kids? Regardless, I like Rossi’s “Tchi, Tchi” (hear it below) just as much as I like Bing’s “Accentuate the Positive.”
If you are a film lover, you’re aware of the many great theme songs from French movies, from Michel Legrand’s 1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, to Yann Tiersen’s 2001 Amelie. The latter soundtrack features compositions from Tiersen’s first three albums – truly exhilarating songs performed by the composer on violin, accordion and piano. Superb!
Black Orpheus, the 1959 Oscar-winning film made by French director Marcel Camus, has a delicious soundtrack written by famed Brazilian composers Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá. The beautiful song “Manhã de Carnaval” seemed to follow us throughout Paris and in Provence on our recent trip.
The ’70s X-rated flick Emannuelle and Jean Luc Godard’s seminal Une Femme Est Une each have notable title songs. Both films were condemned by the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency, though New York’s Cardinal Spellman was said to admire Emannuelle composer Pierre Bachelet’s high cheek-bones and strong shoulders. (I lied about that last bit … sorry.)
Oscar-winning French composers of the past four decades include Maurice Jarre (Laurence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago); Gabriel Yared (Cold Mountain, Camille Claudel, The English Patient) and most recently Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel).
The 1960 film version of Cole Porter’s Can-Can boats what might be the greatest song ever about the City of Lights – “I Love Paris” – but strangely not performed by either of the film’s stars Frank Sinatra or Maurice Chevalier. C’est absurde, non? Look for versions by Ella Fitzgerald, Annie Ross or Al Hirt – each great. The French gypsy-punk band Les Negresse Vertes also cut a rollicking version of “I Love Paris” on the Red, Hot, and Blue 1990 compilation of Cole Porter’s music.
Le Jazz Hot
Jazz is so very important to Paris culture. Post-war American expatriate musicians who struggled to earn a living in the United States, found new opportunities and less racism playing in Paris clubs. Expats in Paris included Sidney Bechet, Kenny Clarke, Dexter Gordon and Bud Powell. A great film describing this experience is Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight (image left), starring Dexter Gordon playing a character based on Bud Powell.
Still today, Miles Davis’ music is an essential component of the Paris soundtrack. A former resident of Paris’ Hotel Louisiane rooming house, Davis recorded French film soundtracks in the 1950s, including Ascenceur pour l’Echaufaud.
While living in Paris, Miles had a romance with the exotic French singer Juliette Greco. “I loved being in Paris and loved the way I was treated,” Davis said in interview. “Paris was where I understood that all white people were not the same; that some weren’t prejudiced.”
On any given summer’s evening, Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing” can be heard somewhere along Paris streets, being performed by street musicians playing gypsy guitar jazz, or Jazz Manouche as it is sometimes called.
The jazz manouche style originated with Django Reinhardt and his all-string band, The Quintette du Hot Club in Paris, in 1934. Their sound became an art form, and the music remains popular today, especially among jazz musicians. As well as Django’s awesome guitar technique, the Quintette featured the swinging jazz violin of Stepahane Grapelli – a jazz legend himself.
A jazz manouche band playing in Paris streets and cafes usually has a lead guitar, violin, two rhythm guitars, and maybe a bass. They will always play a few Django tunes, and the guy with the most handsome smile usually passes the hat after playing a set.
French gypsy guitarists like Biréli Lagrène are keeping the jazz manouche tradition very much alive (check out Biréli’s picking on “Viper’s Dream,” below.)
Gainsbourg, Brel and The Sixties
The French “yéyé” wave of the 1960s was a very poor cousin to the ’60s British Invasion. No Beatles, Stones, or Kinks to be found here. There were however, two very influential 60s-era songwriters, Serge Gainsbourg and the Belgian actor Jacque Brel. Gainsbourg had a very cool hit dueting with Briget Bardot on “Bonnie and Clyde,” and penned “La Gadoue,” a 1966 single for Petula Clark. Gainsbourg is best know for his erotic theme albums, such as Histoire de Melody Nelson, calculated to be scandalously sexual. The man himself created quite a persona as being a modern day Don Juan, despite looks that, it was written “might politely be described as aesthetically challenged.”
Much of Gainsbourg’s music stills sounds quite good (“Marilou Sous la Neige,” “La Noyée”, “La Javanaise” ), while some songs seem dated or just plain skeevy (“Je t’aime Moi Non Plus.”)
A 2010 biopic, Serge Gainsbourg: Vie Heroique (A Heroic Life) features a fine performance by actor Eric Elmosnino, who bares and uncanny resemblance to Gainsbourg, and a few MTV-like recreations of Serge’s songwriting process, which invariably included getting a little nookie. But, a “Heroic Life?” Perhaps scenes explaining the title never made the final cut of first-time director Joann Sfar’s film. “Ugliness has more going for it than beauty,” said Gainsbourg. “It endures.”
Jacque Brel’s melancholy songs have been covered by Judy Collins, Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Scott Walker, Dave Van Ronk, Bowie, Sinatra, and Nirvana, (not bad, eh?) Sadly, Brel’s best know song in the U.S. is “Le Moribond,” which was a hit song for the regrettable Terry Jacks in 1974 (retitled “Season in the Sun.”) – a song that stinks like Munster d’Alsace left on a bank of the Seine in August. Try listening to Brel interpretations from the previously mentioned performers. As a singer, Brel’s heavily theatrical style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but his songwriting talent is undeniable.
There were ’60s Brit performers who sang a stanza or two en français such as Donovan’s “Jennifer Juniper” (Qu’est-ce que tu fais, Jenny, mon amour?) and McCartney’s “Michelle” (…someday monkeys play piano well, my Michelle.) In France, there were sexy pop stars like Francoise Hardy and Jane Birken, each of whom had pretty pipes to go along with their good looks. The sweet, whispering style of singing employed by Hardy and Birken (warning: a little of this goes a long way) was later copped by supermodel/singer Carla Bruni.
Bruni’s excellent debut “Quelqu’un m’a Dit,” was a modest yet well-deserved success in 2002. The fact that Bruni’s husband was French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and her former boyfriends were Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, seemed to dominate her reviews rather than the high quality of her music.
Bruni is no stranger to controversy. As France’s First Lady, she was critical of Pope Benedict XVI on the relationship between Catholic teaching and AIDS. In 2010, Iran’s state-run daily paper Kayhan called Bruni-Sarkozy a ‘prostitute’ after Bruni had condemned the stoning sentence against an Iranian woman for adultery. She’s a “Do Right Woman” who has donated partial royalties from “Quelqu’un m’a Dit” and her other four albums to charities such as the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and AIDS research.
Oh yes…and fuck you, Kayhan News.
Continuing my digression on the subject of religious extremists, shortly after the November 2015 terrorist attacks, France united to mourn the 130 dead and 380 injured in the attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis. “Many victims had made music their profession,” said French President François Hollande. “These songs are unbearable to terrorists. So we will multiply our songs, concerts, and shows.” The tribute performance of Jacque Brel’s beautiful “Quand on n’a que l’amour” (When Love is All You Have) sung by Camélia Jordana, Yael Naïm, and Nolwenn Leroy, was unforgettable.
Returning to The Sixties – there was Pet Clark singing Charlie Chaplin’s lovely “This Is My Song” (recorded in both English and French) and also the chart-topping “Dominique” by the Singing Nun. The Belgian nun Jeanine Deckers actually had quite a tragic life after becoming an international celebrity with”Dominique.”
Suffice it to say, The Singing Nun’s true story closer resembled the reference made in American Horror Story than in the Debbie Reynolds 1966 Hollywood makeover (of course it was a Debbie Reynolds’ flick, not Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun – so what should you expect?) Belgian actress Cécile De France fared better portraying Deckers in 2002’s Soeur Sourire.
On Sunday evenings in the United States, the Ed Sullivan Show might feature the Singing Nun, or the occasional French song performed by a distinguished gray-haired French actor wearing a fedora hat, surrounded by models more likely resembling Carla Bruni than any singing nun. We kids left the TV room, made Jiffy-Pop, and returned for Ed introducing the Dave Clark Five or even better, Topo Gigio (“Keesa me goo’night, Eddie?”)
Middle-of-the-Road french songs our parents liked included Paul Mauriat’s “Love Is Blue” (a Billboard #1 hit in the U.S.) and Noel Harrison’s “The Windmills of Your Mind”(originally “Les Moulns De Mon Coeur.”) Not to be forgotten is Vikki Carr’s hilariously
desperate “It Must Be Him” which was a reworking of Gilbert Becaud’s “Seul Sur Son Etoile.” Gilbert Becaud was known in France as “Monsieur 100,000 Volts” … so let it please be him, as Vikki Carr would say. Mais Oui!
Brassens et Ferré
Two classic performers I must note are Georges Brassens and Léo Ferré. Brassens was the mustachioed poet/anarchist who recorded 14 albums of original songs between 1952 and 1976. His lyrics are political and darkly humorous, intended to tweak French conservative society and self-righteous people anywhere.
Said Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Gracia Marquez: “Someone asked who was the best poet at the moment in France. I responded without hesitation – Georges Brassens.” That was in 1981, the year Brassens passed away at age 60.
Leo Ferré has been called a “monument of French chanson.” A singer, songwriter, author, and composer, his popular songs include “Les Anarchistes,” and “Jolie Môme.”His moving “Avec le Temps” is considered his signature song . An anarchist figure in France, he once wrote a song titles “Thank You, Satan.”
Ferré was preparing a come back to the stage when illness struck in 1992. He died in July 1993 at age 77.
Francis Cabrel is a talent comparable with many of the best 1970s-era singer-songwriters in the United States, such as James Taylor and Jackson Browne. I’ve been a fan of Cabrel’s since first being introduced to him by Albert Brooks in the film Broadcast News.
Cabrel’ first hit song was “Petite Marie” in 1974, and since then he has sold 21 million albums. Like James Taylor, his style incorporates folk, blues, and a little country ( un peu Provence, un peu Muscle Shoals.) He’s recorded over a dozen albums, including a terrific collection of Bob Dylan covers titled “Vise le Ciel,” in 2012.
On my recent vacation, I had the opportunity to see Cabrel perform live in the ancient bull-fighting arena in Nimes. It was an unforgettable experience.
La Musique d’aujourd’hui
Since discovering Brassens and Cabrel, I’ve eventually connected to several other French singer/songwriters that I recommend. Jeanne Cherhal and Thomas Ferson are both unique singers in the French chanson tradition. Cherhal’s live concert at La Cigale (2005) is as delicious as Crème brûlée. She performs mainly at her piano and while her theatrical vocal delivery may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I love her humor and energy. Fersen was raised on punk and has a voice like Tom Waits after a pack of Luckys.
He has recorded a dozen albums of original music, as well as a compilation of tunes performed on the ukelele (including a great live singalong cover of Tino Rossi’s “Tchi Tchi.”)
Before his passing in 2008, Hector Zazou was writing and producing great neo-classical compositions and “world music” recordings, collaborating with Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel, John Cale and Björk. Zazou’s “Lights In the Dark” has been a cherished favorite since I purchased it in 1998.
The gypsy punk band Les Négresses Vertes released a truly great album “Mlah”in the early ’90s and coulda been contendahs if they hadn’t lost their Joe Strummer-like lead singer “Helno” to heroin. A band with a similar sound, Louise Attaque, continues to make great records with a violin-based folk-rock feel.
Pauline Croze is one of France’s finest contemporary singer/songwriters.
She gives her writing a rest on her latest effort, 2016’s Bossa Nova – a collection of Antonio Carlos Jobim songs and Brazilian pop/jazz, sung mostly en français. Croze beautifully interprets Jobim’s “Waters of March” as well as Sergio Mendes’ “Voce Abusou.”
The single-name singers Zaz and Camille are also fascinating talents whose best work is in front of them. Camille seems to have graduated from the Bobby McFerrin school of body percussion while Zaz incorporates a gypsy jazz sound with the emotional vocal delivery of Piaf, to whom she’s been compared.
Camille’s first album “Le Sac des Filles” is a near masterpiece. Find it.
Zaz’ infectious songs “Les Passants” and “Le long de la Route” are the kind you replay again-and-again, never hearing the following song on the cd or playlist.
Benjamin Biolay is a singer, songwriter, actor, record producer, and former husband to Chiara Mastroianni (daughter of Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve.) Biolay has recorded a bunch of low-key, tres cool records (he sampled The Carter Family on Little Darlin’ – how cool is that?), and a great tribute album to Charles Trenet in 2015. Did I mention his mother-in-law was once Catherine Deneuve?
There are so many other marvelous young French performers, who are not limited to French chanson. Christine and the Queens, HER records blue-eyed soul that is tasty and original. Carmelia Jordana has a beautifully smoky vocal style. Tim Dup is barely 20 years old and is a singer/songwriter already compared to Trenet. Camille Hardouin, Grand Corps Malade and Jain – perform uniquely French vocal percussion, slam poetry and hip hop. Indie Rock in good hands with Paris’ psychedelic popster Orville Carlos Sibelius and from the French Mediterranean, the Limiñanas.
Check out many of these bands and artists on this Spotify playlist below.
Rock on, mes amis!