The singer, who was actually christened Ivo Livi, was born in the village of Monsummano in Tuscany, Italy, on 13 October 1921. His father, Giovanni Livi, was a militant communist who was forced to flee the Italian fascist regime in 1921. Giovanni and his wife Giuseppina escaped with their children Ivo, Lydia (born in 1915) and Giuliano (born in 1917) to the South of France, where they made their home in Marseilles. After several years living in France, the entire Livi family were awarded French citizenship in 1929.
But this did not help solve the family’s financial problems. Subsisting on Giovanni’s meagre income, the Livis struggled to make ends meet and the two older children were forced to drop their studies and go out to work. Giovanni pinned all his hopes on Ivo, who continued his schooling, but his youngest son disliked his studies and spent his time daydreaming.
By 1932, the Livi family were living in even more straitened circumstances, after Giovanni’s broom-making business had been declared bankrupt. The family relied on Lydia’s hairdessing business for a while then Giuliano (who had adopted the French version of his name, Julien) supplemented the family income, finding work as a waiter.
At the age of 11, Ivo was taken out of school and sent to work in a local factory. Meanwhile Lydia’s hairdressing salon was doing a roaring trade and when Ivo turned 14 he started working with his sister. Young Ivo displayed a certain talent in the salon, even passing a hairdessing exam.
But Ivo’s real passion lay elsewhere, his imagination caught up in the dreamworld of actors and actresses portrayed on the silver screen. Young Ivo was particularly fascinated by Fred Astaire and his famous tap-dance routines. Ivo was a rather shy teenager himself but when he heard that the manager of a local music-hall was looking for a "warm-up artist" he was determined to overcome his stage fright and make a success of the job. Ivo spent three arduous weeks rehearsing and changed his name to Yves Montand (legend has it that his stage name was inspired by his mother Giuseppina who used to call her son in from play shouting "Ivo ! Monta !"). When Yves Montand finally appeared on stage at the music-hall in 1938 he brought the house down, the audience applauding him for several minutes and shouting for an encore. That night in Marseilles a new French star was born.
After gaining valuable experience performing at small local venues, Montand was ready to hit the big time. The singer gave his first major concert in Marseilles on 21 June 1939, headlining at the famous Alcazar. It was here that Montand made a decisive step away from performing covers of other singers’ hits, singing his own original song "Dans les plaines du Far West".
Yves Montand’s career was just starting to take off in earnest when the Second World War put a stop to Yves Montand’s rise to fame. The young man was forced to leave the cabaret circuit behind and go and work as a manoeuvre aux Chantiers de Provence.
In the spring of 1941, however, Montand got his singing career back up and running and this time there was to be no stopping the young singer. Berlingot, the music-hall manager who had given Montand his first break as a warm-up man organised a tour for him in the Marseilles region. Meanwhile, Montand was sharpening up his stage act by taking dancing lesson sin his free time. After the tour Montand got himself a new impresario and began perfoming at an increasing number of galas, where his good looks and natura charisma proved a huge hit (especially with the female fans who accompanied him to dinner after the show!).
Montand somehow managed to escape the clutches of the local militia who were rounding up young able-bodied men for the "S.T.O." (Service du Travail Obligatoire) and in January 1944 he headed off for Paris. The young singer performed his first major concert in Paris at L’ABC in February of that year, once again proving a tremendous hit with the audience. Montand followed this success with a whole series of concerts, appearing at the Bobino, les Folies-Belleville and performing as a support act to Edith Piaf at the legendary Moulin Rouge.
Piaf, who had at first been rather reticent about performing with a relative unknown from Marseilles, was immediately won over by Montand’s good looks and natural charisma. And Montand soon grew equally enamoured of Piaf. Overcoming his fierce sense of pride, Montand opened up and let Piaf teach him how to perform on stage and the pair would spend hours every day reherasing together. It was Piaf who helped create the legendary stage persona which would transform Montand from a minor Marseilles celebrity into an international star. Piaf also worked hard at improving Montand’s cultural knowledge, dashing out to bookshops to buy him novels and poetry anthologies. Following the success of the show at the Moulin Rouge, Piaf and Montand set off on tour together, forming a famous couple on stage as well as in their personal life.
By this point Montand was beginning to make a real name for himself on the French music scene, and in the autumn of 1945 he was invited to appear at the prestigious Théâtre de l'Etoile in Paris. Montand’s performance, which included two new original songs "Battling Joe" and "Les Grands Boulevards", was met with rapturous applause.
In the spring of 1946 Montand suffered a setback in his personal life, when Piaf announced she was putting an end to their relationship. The singer, who was renowned for her unpredictable behaviour, never explained the reasons behind her sudden change of heart.
Montand threw himself into his work, performing a series of recitals at L’ABC and Le Club des Cinq cabaret. After a difficult period trying to break into the cinema, Montand returned to the Théâtre de l'Etoile in 1947 where he performed a successful six-week run. It was at this point that Montand began working with a pianist called Bob Castella, who would accompany him right up until the end of his career.
Montand made another important encounter in 1948 when a friend drove him down to Saint Paul de Vence in Provence to meet the legendary French poet Jacques Prévert. Montand, who was a great fan of the poet’s work, decided to include Prévert’s classic "Les Feuilles Mortes" in his new repertoire. Ironically, Prévert had written "Les Feuilles Mortes" (the music was composed by Joseph Kosma) in 1945 to coincide with the release of " Les Portes de la nuit", a film starring the young actor Yves Montand which had, rather unfortunately, flopped at the box office.
In August 1949 Montand was to make another encounter in Saint Paul de Vence which would change the course of his life. The young singer was invited to meet the famous French actress Simone Signoret and the couple fell head over heels in love. The following year Signoret would go on to divorce her husband, the film director Yves Allégret (by whom she already had a young daughter Catherine). Signoret moved in to live with Montand in his apartment on the Place Dauphine in Paris and in 1951 they decided to get married, thereby becoming one of the most famous showbizz couples in French history.
In May 1950, Montand was one of the most famous figures to put his signature to the "Stockholm Appeal", the Soviet Union’s petition against the use of atomic weapons. Montand, who came from a fiercely Communist family, would go on to support the French Communist Party, he and Simone Signoret signing numerous petitions on its behalf.
Meanwhile Montand’s career continued to go from strength to strength. In March 1951, the singer returned to the prestigious Théâtre de l'Etoile to perform his first proper "one-man show". Montand’s brilliant performance of his set which included 22 songs and 2 poems proved that the singer had now honed his stage act to absolute perfection. Needless to say, Monatnd’s one-man show proved to be a phenomenal success.
Montand was not simply content to be a huge success as a singer, the naturally talented performer also dreamt of breaking into movies. At the beginning of his career, Montand had starred in several films but none of these had really allowed him to stretch his acting talent to the full. It was not until Henri-Georges Clouzot offered him a lead role in his legendary film "Le Salaire de la peur" (in 1952) that Montand really got the chance to prove himself as an actor. Clouzot’s film was hailed as a masterpiece by the critics who also praised Montand’s performance. In 1953 "Le Salaire de la Peur" was awarded the coveted Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.
Yet, despite his new-found popularity in the film world, Montand did not abandon his singing career. On the contrary, he chose to pursue his acting and singing career in parallel and make a success of both professions. In October 1953 Montand returned to the Théâtre de l'Etoile where he threw himself into his performance body and soul. His show opened with an unpublished poem by Jacques Prévert and ended with an emotional rendition of "A Paris", a song written by Montand’s close friend Francis Lemarque. Montand brought the house down and the audience’s rapturous applause rang out for several minutes at the end of the show. The singer, called back for an encore, finally returned for a grand finale reciting Prévert’s "Les Feuilles mortes". Yves Montand’s show at the Théâtre de l’Etoile proved to be an absolute sensation. Originally booked for a three-week run, Montand ended up staying at L’Etoile for a full six months, performing over 200 shows to 200,000 spectators ! The Etoile also went on to become a best-selling live album. By the end of that year Yves Montand had become the most popular star on the French music scene.
In 1954 Yves Montand and Simone Signoret bought a country house in the village of Autheuil-Anthouillet in Normandy. The house became a popular meeting-point for the couple’s wide circle of friends which included Serge Reggiani, the actor Pierre Brasseur, film director Luis Bunuel and the writer Jorge Semprun.
That same year the celebrity couple would perform together in the theatre in a production of Arthur Miller’s "Les Sorcières de Salem". The play proved so successful that its run was extended until Christmas 1955.
In the autumn of 1956, Montand was preparing to set off on an extensive tour of the USSR. But when the Russians sent their tanks rolling into Budapest on 24 October Montand, like a number of other French artists and intellectuals with Communist leanings, was faced with a huge dilemma. Montand’s conscience was torn in two. He certainly did not support the action of the Soviet government, but nor was he ready to make a political break from the Communist party and his own family. In the end Montand reluctantly agreed to go ahead with his Russian tour. His decision provoked a hail of criticism in France, but Montand received an enthusiastic welcome in Moscow. During his stay in the Russian capital Montand was invited to meet President Kruchtchev and the pair became involved in a heated debate about the Soviet invasion of Budapest. Their violent head-to-head confrontation lasted a full four hours, with neither side giving in. Montand returned to Paris, his conscience relieved by the fact that he had at least voiced his disapproval of the Russian Communist Party.
In the spring of 1957 Montand set off to perform in Poland, thus kicking off an extensive tour of Eastern Europe. The French singer proved extremely popular throughout the Eastern bloc, tens of thousands of fans flocking to his concerts and buying his records. When he returned to France Montand took care to play down his political opinions, distancing himself from the French Communist Party.
The following year Montand turned his attention to his film career once again, beginning shooting on Jules Dassin’s film "La Loi" in June 1958. Montand co-starred in "La Loi" with Marcello Mastroiani and Pierre Brasseur, but, much to Montand’s disappointment, the film flopped at the box office. Despite the fact that his singing career had already made him a celebrity, Montand still desperately wanted to establish himself as a successful film star.
From Russia to America
After finishing the film Montand picked up his singing career again, performing at the Théâtre de l'Etoile between October 58 and March 59. Montand prepared a tender, romantic repertoire for the Etoile show, which featured 16 new songs including "Le chat de la voisine" and the famous "Sir Godfrey". Yet, the show did not prove as phenomenally successful as Montand’s earlier concerts - his public image had been slightly tarnished by recent events and he appeared to lack the exuberant on-stage confidence of his earlier days.
Montand’s Communist leanings also led to the singer being declared "persona non grata" in the United States. Nevertheless, in 1959 an American agent contacted the French singer inviting him to perform in New York. Montand thus took his Paris show to the USA, scoring a great triumph at his New York première on 21 September 1959. The American critics showered Montand with rapturous reviews and the singer was immediately booked to perform a further series of concerts.
During their stay in New York, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret were to meet the playwright Arthur Miller and his wife Marilyn Monroe. As soon as his concert tour ended, Montand jetted off to Hollywood and San Francisco, before returning to France at Christmas. After a short break in his country house Montand was back on the road again, flying to Japan for a series of concerts in Tokyo and Osaka.
Now that he had achieved international stardom through his singing career, Montand was convinced that he could transform himself into a major film star. Sure enough, following the success of his concerts in America, Montand was contacted by a Hollywood producer who offered him a lead role in "Milliardaire" alongside Marilyn Monroe. Soon after shooting began in February 1960 Montand had started a passionate affair with his co-star. When the international media discovered their liaison, the story was splashed across the front pages of newspapers and magazines around the world. Montand’s much-publicised affair with Marilyn Monroe threatened to tear his marriage apart at one point but he finally chose to remain with Simone, flying back to France to be near his wife .
Montand returned to New York in October 1961, however, to perform on Broadway. The French star’s show at the legendary Golden Theatre proved a phenomenal success, running for a full eight weeks. He then embarked upon an extensive international tour which took him to Japan and England. In 1962 Montand, now one of the most famous music-hall stars in the world, returned to Paris and immediately launched straight into a series of concerts at the Théâtre de l'Etoile (his show carrying on well into the following year).
The cinema years
Yet, in spite of his phenomenal success as a singer, Montand still insisted on devoting an increasing amount of time and energy to his film career. After working on Costa Gavras’s film "Compartiment tueur" in 1964, Montand abandoned his concert tours and concentrated all his efforts on acting. He went on to star in Alain Resnais’s "La guerre est finie" (in 1966), René Clément’s "Paris brûle t'il ?" (in 1967), working with Costa Gavras again in 1968 on his film "Z".
Later that year Montand did pick up his singing career again, performing at the legendary Olympia in Paris for six weeks in September 1968. Montand was by now one of the most respected figures on the French music scene, but he had also gained a reputation as an outspoken ‘militant’. Sympathising with the general strike and student revolution of May 68, Montand chose not to become directly involved in politics again. Indeed, it was around this time that Montand broke off his links with the French Communist Party, a symbolic act which upset certain members of his immediate family. After his father’s death in October 1968, Montand distanced himself from politics even further.
Meanwhile Yves Montand was about to fulfill his long-cherished dream - proving himself as a major French actor. In 1970 his friend Costa Gavras offered him the role of Arthur London in his new film "L'Aveu" . Montand’s impressive performance was highly acclaimed by the critics and when the film went on general release in April of that year the general public also recognised the singing star’s formidable acting talent. Over the next ten years Montand would go on to work with the top French directors, starring in a wide range of action films, art films and comedies. (The highlights of Montand’s acting career include a lead role in Gérard Oury’s 1971comedy "La folie des Grandeurs ", in which he co-starred with Louis de Funès, and an impressive performance in Claude Sautet’s 1972 classic "César & Rosalie").
Devoting all his time and energy to his film career in the 70’s, Montand performed only one concert, giving a benefit show in 1974 to raise funds for political prisoners in Chili. Music fans had to wait until the end of 1981 before Montand resumed his singing career. But when he did return to the Olympia on 7 October his show was a phenomenal success, tickets selling out long in advance. Montand performed at the Olympia up until 3 January 82, but three months were not enough to satisfy his adoring public and the singer was obliged to give another series of concerts (20 July - 14 August 82). It was on the occasion of his comeback at the Olympia that Montand premièred "Les Bijoux", one of his most famous songs based on a poem by the 19th century French poet Baudelaire. After celebrating his successful French comeback, Montand set off on an extensive international tour, which was greeted with a chorus of standing ovations all the way from Rio to New York.
In the 80’s Montand became involved in politics again, championing human rights causes and signing a petition in favour of the Polish trade union Solidarnosc in December 1981. Two years later Montand was back in the spotlight once again, denouncing the rise of the Front National and campaigning against extreme right-wing politics with his wife Simone Signoret and a host of other French stars. Montand was not reticent about voicing his political opinions. Indeed, in the course of a television interview in 1988 Montand began evoking possible solutions to France’s rising level of unemployment.
In September 1985 Simone Signoret, who had been suffering from cancer for several years, died at the age of 64. Montand was greatly upset at the loss of his wife but he soon began a new relationship with his personal assistant Carole Amiel, who had been working with him since his 1982 tour. Carole gave birth to Montand’s first child, Valentin, on 31 December 1988 while the actor was in the midst of shooting a new film with Claude Berri’s ("Manon des Sources", adapted from the famous novel by the French author Marcel Pagnol).
When the shoot was over Montand settled down to a peaceful life in the Autheuil country with his new family. The singer was planning to perform a a mega-concert at the Bercy Stadium (the largest concert venue in Paris) but, unfortunately, Yves Montand never got to make his comeback. He died on 9 November 1991 after suffering an heart attack.
With his instantly recognisable voice, his good looks and his incredible personal charisma, Yves Montand was one of the greatest French stars the international music and film world has ever seen.