Legend has it that Edith Piaf was born under a lamp-post in the rue de Belleville, a lively working-class district in Paris's 20th arrondissement. But Edith Gassion's birth on 19 December 1915 was decidedly less dramatic - it appears far more probable that Edith's mother gave birth to her baby in a local hospital, the address registered on her official birth certificate.
Edith had a rather lonely childhood. Her father, Louis Alphonse Gassion, earnt his living as a street acrobat and was rarely at home. Edith's mother, Anita Maillard, spent precious little time with her child either - she was pre-occupied with launching a career as a singer on the local cabaret circuit where she performed under the name Line Marsa. More often than not Edith was left in the care of her Algerian grandmother, a Kabyle woman named Aïcha. The family's fortunes deteriorated during the First World War when Louis Alphonse left Belleville to serve at the front and Anita was forced to earn her living singing on street corners. Edith was left to her own devices, and generally ran wild with other children in the neighbourhood.
However, when Louis Alphonse returned from the war two years later, he decided to send his daughter to live with his mother in Normandy. Edith would spend the happiest years of her childhood growing up amidst farm animals in the countryside around Bernay. But this country idyll soon came to an end when the young girl returned to Paris to live with her father. Louis soon had the bright idea of incorporating his daughter into his street act and while he backflipped and somersaulted away, Edith would pass the hat around the assembled crowd. The father and daughter team would tour the country together for several years, earning their living in the street.
From Belleville to Pigalle
But Edith would soon develop her own act. Discovering that she had a powerful singing voice which could hold a crowd mesmerised for longer than her father's backflips, Edith decided to follow in her mother's footsteps. She left her father at the age of 15 and began singing on the Paris streets while her friend Simone, aka Momone, passed the hat round. In spite of her scruffy street urchin appearance, Edith proved extremely popular with the crowds, her amazingly expressive voice managing to move even the most impassive listener.
In 1932, 17-year-old Edith fell in love with Louis Dupont, a local man known on the streets of Belleville as P'tit Louis. By the following year Edith had fallen pregnant and given birth to a daughter, Marcelle. Raising the child in a small apartment with barely enough money to pay for heating was hard, but Edith made a serious effort to be a good mother. She was devastated when Marcelle died of meningitis just after her second birthday.
After the death of her daughter Edith returned to the streets, singing in the squares and cafes around Belleville, then venturing up to the cabaret area around Pigalle. Edith was performing her act one cold and windy afternoon on a street corner in Pigalle when Louis Leplée, the director of a cabaret on the Champs Elysées happened to walk by. Stopping to watch Edith's act, Leplée was absolutely bowled over the young singer's voice and offered her a job on the spot. Thus it was that Edith was plucked off the streets, thrown into a chic little black dress and made resident singer of Le Gerny's, one of the most elegant cabarets on the Champs Elysées. It was Leplée who would invent Edith's famous stage name, billing his new singer as La Môme Piaf (which in street slang meant little sparrow - a perfect name for Leplée’s tiny, fragile-looking protegée).
But while Edith Piaf might have appeared tiny and fragile, when the young singer appeared on stage she seemed to tower above her 1,47 m, exerting an extraordinary power over her audience with her raw emotional, vocals. This unknown street singer proved an immediate hit with chic Paris audiences and Le Gerny's was soon full of French celebrities who flocked to the Champs Elysées to hear La Môme Piaf sing.
Encouraged by this overnight success, Leplée decided it was time to take his protegée to the studio and in 1936 Piaf recorded her very first 78 rpm single, "Les Mômes de la cloche". Yet, just as Piaf's career was on the point of taking off tragedy struck. Leplée was murdered in his home in April of that year and Piaf, together with many other of Leplée’s Pigalle 'underworld' connections, was called in for questioning. The French press obviously had a field day over the affair.
Yet Piaf somehow managed to survive the scandal and within several months she had her career up and running again with the help of a man named Raymond Asso. Asso, a former legionnaire who had decided to make a career for himself in the Paris music world, was totally besotted by Piaf and devoted all his time and energy to helping her perfect her stage act. Working with the French songwriter and composer Marguerite Monnot, Asso would go on to write one of Piaf's earliest hits, "Mon légionnaire" (a song which, before it became part of Piaf's legendary repertoire, was performed by Marie Dubas).
Meurisse and Cocteau
In 1937 Edith abandoned her old stage name, La Môme Piaf, and started billing herself as Edith Piaf. Meanwhile, Raymond Asso had been making use of his contacts in the French showbiz world and had managed to persuade the director of the ABC, one of the most famous Paris venues of the day, to sign Piaf as a supporting artist. When 23-year-old Piaf took to the stage she absolutely brought the house down, earning as much applause as the headlining stars on the bill. Later that same year Piaf would also launch a film career, starring in Jean Limur's film "La garçonne". A few months later Piaf appeared at the Bobino, another famous Paris venue. This time round Piaf was not billed as the support act - by now young Edith Piaf was a star in her own right !
In 1940 Piaf met and fell in love with the French actor Paul Meurisse. Meurisse, an elegant and rather reserved man, was the complete opposite of the extrovert Piaf and yet the couple's passionate relationship lasted two years. Meurisse acted as a kind of Pygmalion figure in Piaf's life, educating her about French culture and teaching her how to behave in society.
By this point in her career Piaf had left her street urchin origins far behind. Indeed, by 1940 the singer had become the darling of Paris's intellectual elite. Piaf would go on to become a close friend of Jean Cocteau and in 1940 the famous French playwright and film director would write a play especially for Piaf and Meurisse. "Le bel indifférent", which gave Piaf the occasion to reveal the full extent of her acting talent, proved to be the hit of the season and, following their remarkable success in the Paris theatre world, Piaf and Meurisse were offered leading roles in Georges Lacombe's film "Montmartre-sur-Seine" (in which the couple starred alongside the famous French actor Jean-Louis Barrault). It was while working on the set of "Montmartre sur scène" that Piaf would end her relationship with Meurisse and embark upon a new love affair with Henri Contet, a man who would be responsible for writing many of Piaf's later hits.
During the Second World War Piaf continued her career, engaging in her own form of resistance by employing Jewish musicians to accompany her on tour. By the time the war ended in 1944, 30-year-old Piaf was at the height of her fame in France and she began using her name to help launch the careers of young up-and-coming artists.
In the summer of 1944 Piaf would meet a young singer from Marseille by the name of Yves Montand. Impressed by Montand's film star looks and his easy-going charm, it was not long before Piaf fell head over heels in love with the young singer. At the start of their relationship it was very much Piaf who played the dominant role. Indeed, Piaf would become a kind of Pygmalion figure in Montand's life, taking time off from her own career to help him rehearse his stage act and advising him on everything from his hairstyle to his stage suits. Piaf also persuaded Henri Contet to write new material for Montand's set and Contet would pen a number of the singer's most famous hits including "Battling Joe" and "Luna park".
In 1945 Piaf and Montand would form a famous double act in Marcel Blistène’s film "Etoile sans lumière".
From Yves Montand to Marcel Cerdan
Later that same year Piaf would try her hand at songwriting, composing "La vie en rose". Piaf's friends and songwriting team were initially rather dismissive of the song, considering it to be weaker than the rest of her set. At first Piaf bowed to their judgement, putting the song to one side, but a year later she decided to perform her own composition at a concert and "La vie en rose" proved an instant hit with the audience. (This song, which would go on to become one of Piaf's most popular hits of all time, was originally registered as being written by Louiguy. At that time Piaf did not have the necessary qualifications to copyright her own work with the SACEM). Encouraged by the phenomenal success of "La vie en rose", Piaf would go on to write 80 more of her own songs throughout the rest of her career.
In 1946, Piaf was introduced to a group of young singers known as Les Compagnons de la Chanson. Taking charge of their career, just as she had done with her young protegé, Yves Montand, Piaf would record a single with the group, entitled "Les trois cloches". The song soon proved to be an enormous hit, selling over 1 million copies, and Piaf decided to invite Les Compagnons de la Chanson to accompany her on her first American tour the following year.
Piaf's tour of the United States proved to be a real challenge. While the young street singer from Belleville had managed to forge a career for herself amidst Paris's beau-monde, American audiences were less receptive to Piaf's melodramatic style. Piaf's first concerts at the Playhouse cabaret in New York failed to attract large audiences and the singer was on the verge of giving up and returning to Europe when she came across a rapturous review of her concert in a major New York paper. Encouraged by this one favourable review, Piaf decided to stay and conquer America. She signed up for a week of shows at the Versailles, an extremely elegant cabaret in Manhattan, and threw herself into her concerts body and soul. Needless to say, Piaf ended up bringing the house down in New York and her run at the Versailles was soon extended from a week to four months ! Piaf achieved her ambition of becoming a star on both sides of the Atlantic, and she would return to perform sell-out concerts in America on several occasions.
During her stay in New York Piaf would make two important encounters, striking up a friendship with Marlene Dietrich (with whom she would remain in close contact right up until the end of her life) and falling in love with boxing champion Marcel Cerdan. Piaf and Cerdan's whirlwind romance soon made the international headlines, newspapers around the world picking up on the fairytale story of "The Queen of French music and the King of the Ring". The celebrity couple appeared blissfully happy, leading their own respective careers without the slightest trace of rivalry. After so many years of personal tragedy, Piaf appeared to have finally found happiness and she paid tribute to Cerdan in her classic "L'hymne à l'amour" (a song she wrote in collaboration with French songwriter Marguerite Monnot).
But Piaf's life was soon to be blighted by tragedy once again. On 28 October 1949 Marcel Cerdan was killed in a plane crash over the Azores islands. Piaf, utterly distraught by this new loss, spiralled into a deep depression which she would never manage to climb out of, in spite of the fact that she bravely battled on with her singing career.
Charles Aznavour and Gilbert Bécaud
Mourning the loss of Cerdan, Piaf began visiting mediums and dabbling in spiritualism. The singer also threw herself into her work more than ever before, expressing her personal suffering through the tragic and increasingly melodramatic songs she performed on stage. In 1950, barely a year after Cerdan's death, Piaf was back on stage in Paris, singing at the prestigious Salle Pleyel.
It was around this time that Piaf would meet another young up-and-coming French singer by the name of Charles Aznavour. Although Piaf would never take charge of Aznavour's career as she had done for her former lover Yves Montand and Les Compagnons de le chanson, she did help the young singer get his first bookings. In return Aznavour, who would remain utterly devoted to Piaf right up until the end of her life, would act as the singer's chauffeur and private secretary as well as becoming Piaf's most intimate confidant. He would also write a number of hit songs for Piaf including "Jézébel" and the legendary "Plus bleu que tes yeux".
In 1951 Piaf would fall in love again, throwing herself into a passionate relationship with Eddie Constantine, a young American singer and actor. Later that same year Piaf would demand that her new protegé be given a lead role in Marcel Achard's operette, "La p'tite Lili", which Achard was staging at the ABC with the French composer and songwriter Marguerite Monnot. Piaf got her way and helped Constantine launch his career. But after La p'tite Lili’s successful seven month run at the ABC, Piaf and Constantine's relationship also came to an end.
1951 proved to be a year of tragedy for Edith Piaf, for later that same year the singer was involved in two serious car crashes. Amazingly, the singer managed to survive both accidents without sustaining any serious injuries, but while Piaf was in hospital recovering from the second crash, she was given heavy doses of morphine as a pain-killer. Piaf would become addicted to morphine after her hospital stay and, combined with her increasing drinking habit, the drug would gradually begin to destroy the singer's mental and physical health.
1952 proved to be a happier year for Piaf. In July she married the French singer Jacques Pills at a private town-hall ceremony in Paris, then the couple jetted off to the States for Piaf's fifth American tour. Piaf and Pills would celebrate their wedding amidst great pomp and ceremony in New York, where Piaf finally got the glamourous church wedding she had always dreamt of. While Piaf returned to the prestigious Manhattan cabaret "Le Versailles", Pills would also perform a series of concerts at a smaller cabaret in New York. He was accompanied on the piano by a young up-and-coming French star by the name of Gilbert Bécaud (who would later team up with Pills to write Piaf's legendary hit "Je t'ai dans la peau").
But as Piaf continued her dizzy rise to international stardom, drugs and alcohol were beginning to take their toll on the singer's increasingly fragile health. In the early 50's Piaf would begin a long series of treatments in a private health clinic, in an attempt to wean herself off alcohol and morphine. Yet, ironically, while her health continued to decline, Piaf's voice appeared to go from strength to strength. The singer's studio recordings in 1952 and 1953 were absolutely magnificent, and her concerts those same years surpassed may of her previous performances. Meanwhile, Piaf's close friends rallied round and hid her tortured private life from the press, encouraging the singer to keep out of the limelight. Piaf would disappear from the French music at the end of 53, shutting herself away from the world for most of the following year.
But in 1955 Piaf made a triumphant comeback, giving the performance of a lifetime at L'Olympia, the most famous venue in Paris. Despite her waning health, Piaf's voice was as raw and powerful as ever, washing over her audience in a tide of incredible emotion. Piaf's concerts at the Olympia proved a huge success. Indeed, the audience would leap to their feet at the end of each performance to give their idol a rapturous standing ovation.
Later that same year Piaf would set off upon another extensive tour of the States, which would culminate in an enormously successful gala performance at New York's Carnegie Hall at the beginning of 1956. (Piaf would go down in history as the first variété singer to perform at this prestigious classical music venue, just as she had been when she gave a memorable concert at the Salle Pleyel in Paris in 1950).
From Moustaki to Théo Sarapo
Exhausted by her American concerts, Piaf would nevertheless set off on another tour in January 1956, playing a series of dates across Latin America over the next four and a half months. Piaf returned to Paris on 14 May. Ten days later she was back at the Olympia for a new series of concerts, premiering two new hits, "L'Homme à la moto" (a cover of a famous American song) and "Les Amants d'un jour" (which would go on to become another Piaf classic).
The Olympia concerts finally came to an end in July, but after a short summer break, Piaf resumed her gruelling schedule in September, jetting back to the States for yet another tour. By the end of the year Piaf was back in her private health clinic, undergoing another long drying-out period. This time the cure worked - Piaf would not touch a drop of alcohol for the rest of her life (but, unfortunately, drugs and alcohol had already irrevocably damaged the singer's health).
In 1958 Piaf returned to L'Olympia for the third time in her career, giving a memorable series of concerts where she premiered "La Foule" - a melody which Piaf had brought back from South America and would transform into another international hit. The singer's successful three-month run at L'Olympia would also produce "Mon manège à moi", another legendary classic in the Piaf repertoire.
Later that same year Piaf would begin another passionate love affair, this time falling for the French singer/songwriter Georges Moustaki (who at that time was still known as Jo Moustaki). Moustaki and Piaf both had equally fiery tempers and their relationship was not always a calm one, but the couple shared a mutual passion for music, and Moustaki would go on to write many of Piaf's later hits (including "Milord", a song he wrote in collaboration with Piaf's loyal friend Marguerite Monnot). In September 1958 Piaf and Moustaki were involved in another serious car crash, which would only serve to weaken Piaf's declining health still further. Just a few months after the accident Piaf would collapse halfway through a concert in New York and had to be rushed to hospital for an emergency operation.
Ignoring the advice of her doctors and her closest friends, Piaf still refused to abandon her singing career. In spite of the fact that she would frequently relive her New York disaster, collapsing on stage several times in mid-performance, Piaf could not imagine life without her music. In 1960 Piaf began working with the young French songwriter Charles Dumont who would offer the singer the most famous song of her entire career, "Non je ne regrette rien". Piaf was totally bowled over by the song and promised to premiere it at her next major concert, which happened to be L'Olympia. (Piaf had promised Bruno Coquatrix that she would appear at L'Olympia at the beginning of 1961, to help the director save the famous Paris venue from bankruptcy). Piaf threw herself into the lyrics of "Non je ne regrette rien" body and soul, and her performance at the Olympia that night would go down in music history as one of the most legendary concerts of all time.
In the summer of 1961 Piaf would meet a young Greek singer by the name of Theophanis Lamboukas. Theophanis, or "Sarapo" as Piaf preferred to call him ("Sarapo" being Greek for "I love you"), would be the last in Piaf's long line of husbands and lovers. Just as she had done with so many of the previous men in her life, Piaf would take charge of Sarapo's career, using her name to launch the young unknown.
In June of that year French music critics paid tribute to the country's most popular singer, presenting Piaf with the Prix du disque de l’Académie Charles-Cros for the outstanding contribution she had made to French music.
The longest day
In September 1962 Piaf returned to L'Olympia to give her final series of concerts at the legendary Paris venue. On 25 September the singer was a special guest star at the international premiere of the film "The Longest Day". Appearing on a stage erected on the top floor of the Eiffel Tower, Piaf gave the performance of a lifetime, singing her greatest hits to a massive audience which included royalty, heads of state and a crowd of international celebrities.
A few days after this triumphant concert, Piaf went on to marry Theo Sarapo at a private orthodox ceremony on 9 October 1962. After an extended honeymoon, the couple would return to the music scene, performing their famous duo "A quoi ça sert l'amour ?" at the Bobino in February 1963.
Two months later Piaf would fall into a coma. The singer would spend the last months of her life, slipping in and out of consciousness in her villa in Plascassier near Cannes. Piaf would finally pass peacefully away in her home in the South of France on 11 October 1963, dying on the same day as her old friend Jean Cocteau.
The news of Piaf's death caused a national outpouring of grief and tens of thousands of fans flocked to Paris on 14 October to follow the singer's coffin to its final resting-place in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Today Piaf's tomb remains one of the most visited sites at Père Lachaise, thousands of fans making an annual pilgrimage to the cemetery to lay flowers on her grave.
Meanwhile, more than thirty years after her death, Piaf's legend continues to inspire the French music scene. In 1996 the phenomenal success of the Paris stage musical "Piaf je t'aime" proved that thousands of Piaf fans old and new were still eager to relive the dramatic events of the singer's incredible lifestory.
Since Piaf's death in 1963 a host of international stars - including Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich, Johnny Hallyday, Serge Gainsbourg and Liza Minnelli - have been lining up to record their own versions of Piaf's legendary songs. French pop star Etienne Daho recently recorded a modern upbeat version of "Mon manège à moi" and in 1997 Charles Aznavour, one of Piaf's closest friends and most fervent admirers, recorded a new version of the Piaf classic "Plus bleu que tes yeux". Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, studio technicians were able to resurrect Piaf's voice from old recordings and mix it with Aznavour's vocals, producing a stunning virtual duet.
Piaf’s musical legacy continues to live on today and the French ‘chanson’ icon remains a legendary figure worldwide. A number of musicals and stage shows based on the Little Sparrow’s songs and her turbulent personal life have been created in recent years. In February 2007, French director Olivier Dahan adapted Piaf’s rags-to-riches story for the cinema screen. His biopic "La Vie en rose", starring the young French actress Marion Cotillard as Piaf, proved to be a box-office hit at home in France. Renamed "La Vie en Rose" for international audiences, Dahan's film also won critical acclaim in many other countries around the world including the U.S. In January 2008, Marion Cotillard won a coveted Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Movie Musical. Then, in February 2008, Cotillard went on to scoop a prestigious Bafta award in London from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Cotillard’s stunning performance as Piaf has also led to an Oscar for Best Actress at the glitzy awards ceremony held in Hollywood on 24 February 2008.