The EC and the Channel Tunnel notwithstanding, the twenty-first century finds France and Britain still viewing each other suspiciously across the same twenty-five mile ditch, their centuries-old legacy of political rivalry and mutual opprobrium more or less intact. It does not help that the English insist on addressing their Gallic neighbours in GCSE French - a language unknown in France - and that the French themselves remain doggedly monoglot. However, one curious side-effect of this long-standing trans-Channel information gap is that each side secretly suspects the other of having a superior grasp of the universe, indeed of probably having a better time generally.
Does this mean that much of the mystique surrounding the great French vocalists and French chansons - merely their word for 'songs' after all - is the result of wilful Anglo-Saxon self-delusion? The probable answer is yes, given that most of our parents and grandparents would have had few clues as to whether Edith Piaf, Jean Sablon and Charles Trenet were singing about a lost love or a light lunch. However, this in itself is a sort of tribute to a generation of French singers whose talents were compelling enough to bridge the linguistic divide between them and their foreign audience.
With Edith Piaf (1915-1963) the talent also included an uncanny ability to squeeze convincing passion and drama from the most anodyne material. Frequently hailed as the Frenchest of love songs, Piaf's 1946 hit La vie en rose is really a conceptual re-tread of a 1926 American number called 'Looking At The World Through Rose-Colored Glasses', albeit with a wholly different tune. The basic thrust of the song is that life is rosy when your lover murmurs the appropriate things in your ear - a timeless yet hardly earth-shattering message. However, the whole thing works because Guy Luypaerts's arrangement owes less to Montmartre than to Glenn Miller, and Piaf's astonishing performance transcends the banality of the words to produce a vocal masterpiece that cuts straight across the language barrier. Her years as a street singer had given her powerful lungs and a razor-sharp instinct for the right emotional register. Still, sometimes the mood of her songs can be misleading, as with the cheery Musette waltz-time of Michel Emer's Monsieur Lenoble, which disguises the rather gloomy tale of a man whose wife runs off with a young artist. The lyrics treat the cuckolded Lenoble with scarcely veiled contempt and he ends up putting his head in the oven, Piaf hanging on to the final sibilant of the word confianceto suggest the hissing of the gas jets!
La vie en rose and Monsieur Lenoble neatly sum up the two main directions of French popular song in the 1930s and 1940s: on the one hand, the established poetic staples of romantic love (J'attendrai, Les amants de Paris, Un baiser), the glories of nature (La mer, Le retour des saisons) and bucolic nostalgia (La derniere bergere); on the other, the so-called 'chanson realiste', which attempted to reflect the harsher aspects of life from a more jaundiced, even politicized viewpoint. In many ways the chanson realiste was a modish recycling of nineteenth century Parisian working-class themes, such as poverty, survival, betrayal, prostitution, disease, death, etc., where protagonists usually came to a sticky end. With the election of Leon Blum's left-wing Popular Front coalition in 1936, a social conscience prominently displayed became a fashionable accessory among the French chattering classes. Now well-heeled patrons could thrill to the trials and tribulations of the lower orders without leaving their box at l'Olympia.
While there might have been a certain amount of Gallic resistance to the American need for happy endings, many singers consciously incorporated other transatlantic entertainment trends into their acts. Charles Trenet (1913-2001) might seem a quintessentially French singer-songwriter, but in the late thirties his wardrobe (zoot suits, dark shirts, white or yellow ties) and manic stage presence were consciously modelled on American lines, even down to his regular billing as 'le fou chantant'-'the Singing Fool'- shamelessly lifted from the title of the pioneering 1928 Al Jolson talkie. Trenet's persona was wild and wacky and, for local audiences at least, the epitome of the imported Swing craze. When his heart went Boum! he used familiar American devices, such as a 32-bar AABA melodic structure, a catchy hook in the title, Cab Calloway-style yelling and scat singing, a jazzy final ride-out and boundless, slightly un-French optimism. He then transferred this image effortlessly to the screen, where he appeared in a string of lightweight musicals, notably Pierre Caron's 'La Route Enchante' (1938) which featured both Boum! and Vous etes jolie. Charles Trenet cut his songwriting teeth providing jingles for radio advertising where, as in his songs, there are no suicides.
Trenet continued to work as a headliner on both stage and screen in occupied Paris throughout World War II. Given the prevailing political climate, it was in any star's interest to remain on discreetly good terms with the Germans. Charles entertained them, but discretion was not always high on the agenda. Once during a party at his apartment, one of his circle of high-spirited young Wehrmacht friends fired off a machine pistol, inadvertently putting a couple of slugs into Trenet's leg. After the Liberation he thought it prudent to construct a more politically acceptable rewrite of the incident, involving the Resistance. Needless to say, the matter was dropped and his career sailed blithely on, reaching a new high point with La Mer in 1946. The lyrics were a specific reference to the western Mediterranean shoreline near his home town of Narbonne. The song's huge international success must have been an amusing irony for someone who had spent most of the late 1930s trying to distance himself from his provincial origins.
With the end of the war there was only one significant cloud on Trenet's professional horizon. This was a rangy Marseillais ex-docker called Yves Montand (1921-1992) who had undergone a number of personal reinventions since his Italian family had fled Mussolini's fascism between the wars. The early Montand was probably the only cowboy singer in the world with a broad Marseille accent. Edith Piaf heard him and, seeing some unfulfilled potential, made him polish up his pronunciation (by putting a pencil between his teeth), sing in casual shirts and dump his pseudo-frontier material in favour of chansons realistes commissioned from her soon-to-be-ex, Henri Contet. Montand duly emoted about blind boxers, gaoled innkeepers and the statutory suicide or two, and his audience headed straight for the exit. Undaunted, Piaf continued to tinker with his career. Against all management advice she insisted on putting Montand on the bill wherever she appeared. Fortunately for all concerned, the tide gradually turned. Piaf even launched his movie career by getting him a small part in Marcel Blistene's 'Etoile sans lumiere' (1945) where she herself sang C'est merveilleux and gave the best screen performance of her career. In 1946 Montand obtained a more substantial role in Marcel Carne's 'Les Portes de la Nuit', which produced the immortal Les feuilles mortes. In 1947 Frank Sinatra recorded it as 'Autumn Leaves' with lyrics by Johnny Mercer and it rapidly achieved the status of a jazz standard. C'est si bon fared even better and was a more or less compulsory part of Montand's act for the rest of his career, particularly after Louis Armstrong picked it up in 1950.
Montand had understood that France lacked a credible post-war American-style crooner, a role in which the ebullient Charles Trenet had never been very convincing. In the early 1930s Bing Crosby's close-miked, confidential approach had been introduced to France by Jean Sablon (1906-1994) in songs such as Un Baiser, Cette chanson est pour vous and Rendez-vous sous la pluie - a cautionary tale about wet-weather romance, penned by the twenty-two year old Trenet. In 1937 Sablon landed the first of several contracts on American network radio, triumphantly returning home for a brief stay in 1939. From then on he divided most of his time between Manhattan and Rio de Janeiro, which left a considerable gap behind him in France.
Sablon's repertoire favoured sophisticated, gently witty songs and subtle, jazzy backing. In 1933 he had been lucky enough to find a virtuoso accompanist in the gypsy guitar genius Django Reinhardt (1910-1953). After working with Sablon, Django joined violinist Stephane Grappelli (1908-1997) to become the toast of the jazz world in the groundbreaking Quintet of the Hot Club of France, whose instantly identifiable sound-heard on Ultrafox and My Sweet - has been a feature of France's musical landscape ever since. Significantly, over a decade after Sablon's first records with Django, Yves Montand adopted a very similar singing style and accompaniment, even hiring one of Django's many 'cousins', Henri Crolla (1920-1960), as his guitarist. Clopin-Clopant is a clear example of this. In a curious reversal of roles, Jean Sablon then went on to popularise an English version of the song in the U.S.A.
On 2nd October 1925 an all-black show called 'La Revue Negre' opened at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees to almost instant acclaim, mainly due to the antics of a stunning nineteen-year-old dancer from St. Louis, Missouri, called Josephine Baker (1906-1975). Her blend of rubber-legged athleticism, heart-stopping beauty and hilarious face-pulling completely floored the audience. Parisians expected half-naked dancers to be nominally artistic or openly naughty, but a gorgeous black clown doing the Charleston topless was something quite new. In 1930, after five years of growing celebrity, Josephine was booked to appear in a Casino de Paris revue whose producer, Henri Varna, wanted to present her in a more mainstream context. He duly commissioned veteran songsmith Vincent Scotto to come up with a suitable vehicle. However, by the time Scotto was supposed to present his song two days later, he was still completely stumped for an idea. Walking dejectedly towards the Casino with lyricist Geo Koger, Scotto looked around him and suddenly came up with the title, J'ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris. He scribbled down a tune in a doorway while Koger sketched out a lyric and twenty minutes later they had sold the song to Varna. These days the words seem mildly disingenuous. True, Josephine had every reason to love Paris, but as an Afro-American in 1930 she would have scarcely had much reason to moon about Missouri. Anyway, Parisians were flattered and loved her atrocious accent. The fact that she was virtually unintelligible did not seem to matter - Josephine Baker had truly arrived. Recorded three years later, Si j'etais blanche (If I Were White) threatens heavy social comment but is in fact pure whimsy, played very much for laughs.
Tino Rossi (1907-1986) was born in the Corsican capital Ajaccio and first appeared at the Alcazar music hall in Marseille in 1927. His early stock-in-trade was the romantic Italianate ballad (usually by Vincent Scotto) delivered in his pleasing light tenor which had huge appeal to his mainly female fans. Moving to Paris in 1930, he achieved national renown via his many records and somewhat forgettable films. As he openly admitted to L'Ecran Francais magazine in 1947, ÒI've made some fairly second-rate pictures, I agree. But my excuse is that I had no control over them. The producers would hire me on the basis that whatever I did made money, so they didn't worry too much about production valuesÓ - an all too familiar story in the movie industry. J'attendrai was an Italian song with new French lyrics, which were due to be recorded by Jean Sablon. However, in 1938 Sablon was in America and so the two most successful versions were by Tino Rossi on Columbia and the delightful Rina Ketty on Pathe. In other parts of the world the song was later to be identified with Jean Sablon, after he made his own HMV recording in Paris in April 1939.
Edith Piaf turns up like a sort of leitmotiv throughout this album, as she cast a long shadow and also had a rapid turnover in men. The first time that she actually made it as far as the altar, however, was with singer-songwriter Jacques Pills at their much-publicized New York wedding in September 1952. Until that year Pills had been married to Lucienne Boyer (1901-1983), a charming singer who had the distinction of winning the first-ever Grand Prix du Disque with Parlez-moi d'amour in 1930.
Georges Ulmer (1919-1989) was born J’rgen Ulmer in Copenhagen but went to the French Riviera as a child. When he made his Parisian debut in 1943 at the A.B.C. theatre, he was actually living in Pigalle. Thanks to Ulmer's first-hand local knowledge, Pigalle combines wry affection for the district's rich tapestry of cafes, street girls and shady deals with the hard edge of the chanson realiste. Curiously, although Edith Piaf was firmly associated with the Pigalle area in the public mind, she never recorded this song.
One of Ulmer's most ardent fans was Maurice Chevalier (1888-1972), who knew a true professional when he saw one. Chevalier's own remarkable career began in the Victorian era and he gave his farewell Paris performance in the autumn of 1968, his eighty-first year. Appearing in silent movies from 1908 onwards, he was still a major movie star over fifty years later. His cocky, straw-boatered stage persona was always assumed to be based on the archetypal Parisian man-about-town, when in fact - not unlike Charles Trenet some years later - his main inspiration had been the raffish American music-hall acts of his youth. Toi et moi came hard on the heels of Chevalier's early Hollywood movie success in Paramount's 'Innocents of Paris' (1929) and 'The Big Pond' (1930), while Bouquets de Paris pursues one of Chevalier's perennial themes: the glory of women - anticipating the better-known 'Thank Heaven For Little Girls', featured in Vincente Minnelli's 'Gigi' (1958). Paris could not have hoped for a more effective ambassador.
The extraordinary richness of the chanson between the 1920s and the 1950s was no accident. The carnage of the 1914-18 war had changed the social fabric of France forever and the advent of the cinema, the gramophone and, later, radio drastically altered the nature of entertainment. Suddenly the tired music-hall traditions of the Paris cafe-concert were being revitalized by dynamic outside influences. For Tino Rossi it was the Italian ballad, but for most French performers the crucial leavening was provided by American jazz and dance music, brought across the Atlantic by the doughboys in 1917. The resulting mutation was utterly indigenous but had a new hybrid vigour that lasted until the U.S. and British rock industry finally swamped the world of French popular song in the late 1960s, reducing it to a string of lacklustre clones and laughable cover versions.