The Voice of the Sparrow
The Little Sparrow of a Zillion Myths
The details seem fantastical, the stuff of myth. Edith Piaf (1915–1963) was allegedly born under a streetlamp in a poor section of Paris, was blind from age three to seven, and recovered her sight by a miracle petitioned for by the prostitutes in her grandmother's brothel. She grew up mostly on the streets, and after suffering neglect by her father (a street acrobat) and her mother (an aspiring cabaret singer), she cut out on her own at age fifteen. A few years later, she was discovered busking by nightclub owner Louis Leplée. He gave her the nickname that would stay with her—La Môme Piaf (the Little Sparrow)—and helped arrange for her to record.
Piaf mined that street-urchin upbringing throughout her career: The songwriters drawn into her orbit would write songs based on the stories she'd tell, and all sorts of myths attached themselves to her. The facts might not have always added up, but it hardly mattered: Piaf had a persuasive way about her, singing with a blend of fluttery vulnerability and brute force. Piaf used her wide, intense vibrato to push already sad songs to the breaking point. Most comfortable singing about tragedy and pain, she virtually defined French chanson, and later helped launch the careers of others who followed her approach, including Charles Aznavour.
Piaf became famous before World War II. She cowrote her signature song, "La vie en rose," during the German occupation of Paris. Piaf recorded constantly through the 1950s—one hit, the nearly overwrought "Non, je ne regrette rien," came in 1960, three years before she died. By then, she was more than an entertainer: Her swooning voice had become the de facto sound of France, a symbol and source of pride. No other singing star in the world can claim such a lock on national identity.
Released: 1991, Capitol
Key Tracks: "La vie en rose," "Toujours aimer," "C'est l'amour," "Non, je ne regrette rien"
Catalog Choice: Live at Carnegie Hall
Next Stop: Charles Aznavour: Aznavour Live
After That: Yves Montand: Montand chante Prévert
Book Pages: 598–599