Friday, September 13, 2013

The Sparrow who has never been silenced

A friend challenged me a few years back to name the 10 greatest popular singers of the 20th century. After we compared rankings, only three names had made both our lists: Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Edith Piaf.

Piaf was the first to die -- she passed away 50 years ago this fall -- was the one with the shortest career and is the least remembered today. Yet her voice, which throbbed with emotion, had the power to shake you even when it was all but shot at the end of her career. In that way, she was like Billie Holiday with more vocal energy. Here's a sample of Piaf singing her late-life anthem, "Je Ne Regrette Rien" ("I Regret Nothing"):

If you've seen Marion Cotillard's Oscar-winning performance as Piaf in the 2007 movie "La Vie En Rose," you know a little about her life. She began as Édith Giovanna Gassion but was nicknamed "La Môme Piaf" ("The Little Sparrow") by a nightclub owner, who also told her to wear her trademark black dress. Her life was a whirlwind: Though she married just twice, she had numerous affairs, including one with actor/singer Yves Montand and another with former middleweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, who died in a plane crash while flying from New York to Paris to reunite with her. Liver cancer claimed Piaf at 47. You'll find her unostentatious but much-decorated grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, overshadowed by the monument to Oscar Wilde and the shrine-like tomb of Jim Morrison.

She appeared in seven obscure French films and one in Spanish, where she sang her famous "La Vie en Rose" in that tongue. At her best, with careful coiffure and makeup, she was modestly attractive but never beautiful. She sang slightly under pitch at times, like Holiday. But she feels every number so deeply that you do, too, even if you have only a one-sentence synopsis of the words. (She re-recorded most of her famous numbers in our language, and an anthology called "Hymn to Love: All Her Greatest Songs in English" deserves a listen.)

Here's a link to "Milord," one of her strongest numbers, with English lyrics displayed as she sings. It's about a streetwalker who encounters a man in a bar whose woman has just left him; she has often seen him from afar, and now cheers him up with no hope of getting him for herself:

Piaf frequently sang about underdogs: poor people, sick people (lovelorn or physically ill), people struggling and often failing to express themselves or make themselves heard. Perhaps, if she'd lived a more comfortable life, she'd have found lasting joy. But I doubt she'd have left behind such a moving catalog of songs.