The stories behind the songs

November 29, 2022 - 11:16 AM - 9533 views

The stories behind the songs, by Gareth Jones


On this page, discover what's behind your favourite songs, with Gareth Jones. He is an avid record collector, occasional contributor to leading music monthly Shindig! and a passionate francophile. He lives in Hertfordshire in the UK, as quietly as a record collector can, with his partner and their two beloved cats. He has published the book 'French Pop: from Music Hall to Yé-Yé'. Follow this link to buy it now!

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Milord - Édith Piaf (1959)

Mention Édith Piaf to a friend and which song immediately springs to mind? Once upon a time, it might have been ‘Hymne à l’amour’ or ‘La vie en rose’, both classic chansons and both eternally linked with the diminutive chanteuse. These days, I had assumed it would probably be ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, Piaf’s defiant anthem for the ages and a perfect summation of her life. But no. When I asked the question of a few people in recent weeks, they all gave me the same answer: ‘Milord’. And, as it happens, that is a song with an interesting back-story.

By 1959, Piaf was a superstar, feted not just in France but across the globe - particularly in the US, where she had toured relentlessly during the fifties. In her wake trailed a host of male performers - Félix Marten, Jacques Pills, Eddie Constantine, Gilbert Bécaud, Charles Aznavour. Some were her partners in life as well - at least for a short while; others owed their very careers to her patronage, while others happily wrote songs for her, secure in the knowledge that her success would in turn shine a spotlight on them as well. By the end of the decade though, all had long since moved on to other things, and Piaf was in need of somebody new. Enter Georges Moustaki.

Born in Egypt to parents of Jewish, Italian and Greek origins, Giuseppe Mustacchi arrived in France at age 17 and was taken under the wing of chanson star Georges Brassens, whose jazzy style would be an influence on the younger man, who in turn took his mentor’s name in his honour. After knocking around Paris for a while, Moustaki was introduced to Piaf, who was captivated by his songs but even more by his good looks and his charm. The two became lovers, their age difference (she was by far his senior) being somewhat scandalous for the times, but Piaf was never bothered by such things.

In early 1959, with a new release needed ahead of her return to the stage, Piaf picked up a lyric that Moustaki had just finished crafting, a touching tale of a working class woman (possibly a call girl, although it is not clear from the text) who falls for an upper class English gent (the “Milord” of the title). The scenario was perfect for Piaf, whose dramatic performances were designed to bring characters to life, and she grabbed it with both hands. To finish the job, she commissioned a tune from her longtime friend and collaborator, Marguerite Monnot, whose stage musical Irma la douce had done great business a couple of years earlier. Monnot loved the lyric and soon knocked out a stop-start melody with powerful choruses before, feeling it was not strong enough, she abandoned it and set to work on a whole new version, with a completely different feel and melody. Job done, she played it for Piaf and Moustaki, only for Piaf to reject it as substandard, deciding she would not record it after all. In desperation, Monnot announced that she had an alternate melody up her sleeve, and asked if she could play it. Piaf begrudgingly agreed, and Monnot sat down to play the earlier, abandoned version. This time, Piaf heard what she wanted, and took the song, recording it in New York in May.

Released in France late in 1959 on a two-track 45 rather than the standard issue EP, ‘Milord’ was an instant smash, soaring high into the best-sellers and staying there for several months. More surprisingly, it also exploded around the world, charting high all over Europe and hitting # 1 in Germany, Belgium and Sweden. It even charted - albeit at a lower level - in the U.K. and the U.S., while across the globe in Australia it slow-burned into consciousness before soaring up the charts in 1961. It was covered everywhere, with versions appearing in all the main European languages, by singers ranging from Bobby Darin (English) to Dalida (German) to Milva (Italian) to Anita Lindblom (Swedish). It was, by some considerable distance, the biggest commercial hit that Piaf ever had.

Sadly, it did not bring her happiness. As the royalties flooded in, Moustaki picked up his cheque and quit town, heading out in search of wine, sunshine and younger women. With her lover gone, Piaf fell back on the drink and drugs that would eventually kill her (although not before she teamed up with her latest discovery, songwriter Charles Dumont, and added yet more pages to the Great French Songbook).  ‘Milord’ though, lived on, mutating through instrumental versions by Franck Pourcel and Herb Alpert, donning folk-rock robes for Cher, punking up with The Mo-Dettes and drowning in synthesisers with Napoleon Boulevard. It was a showstopper for Liza Minnelli, a comic skit on The Benny Hill Show, a football chant for Paris Saint-Germain… the list goes on. Which just goes to show - you can’t keep a good song down.

@Gareth Jones

Le piano du pauvre - Catherine Sauvage (1954)

There has always been more to French chanson than torch singers accompanied by an accordion, but the stereotypical image remains, and it has to be said, with some reason. Although not unique to France, the accordion was and remains a typically French instrument, its portability making it as much the instrument of choice in the pre-rock era as the guitar would be in later years - after all, not everyone could afford a piano and anyway, they were impractical for making music in the streets. There are however very few classic chansons that pay tribute to this iconic French instrument, Juliette Greco’s ‘Accordéon’ and Édith Piaf’s ‘L’accordéoniste’ being rare examples. And then there is this one…

Catherine Sauvage had begun her career in theatre in the forties, studying with the likes of Marcel Marceau, although she simultaneously began to build a repertoire for cabaret, drawing on the pre-war works of singers like Marianne Oswald. She soon became a fixture at such Left Bank cabarets as Le Bœuf sur le Toit, L’Arlequin and L’Écluse but it was only when she met struggling songwriter Léo Ferré that she began to carve out a distinctive style of her own.

Ferré, one of the three titanic figures (with Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel) of post-war chanson, was at this stage a barely-known figure, with few champions and a record deal with Le Chant du Monde that was barely breaking even. Sauvage however found something in his songs (she described their first encounter as “the meeting of (her) life”) and began adding them to her repertoire, often singing them in public even before he did himself. Her recording of ‘Paris canaille’ was a major hit in 1952 and she remained his greatest champion, even after he became a star himself. Over time, she would become Ferré’s most frequent interpreter, recording dozens of his songs, among them the award-winning ‘L’homme’, ‘Le guinche’, ‘Avec le temps’ and, in 1954, his excellent tribute to “the poor man’s piano”.

Recorded by Ferré in April 1954 for E.M.I.’s Odéon label, ‘Le piano du pauvre’ had been rejected by Édith Piaf who for once failed to recognise quality when she heard it. With its perhaps cheeky references to Ravel, Chopin and Toscanini, the song was a heartfelt tribute to both the accordion and its practitioners, Ferré’s literary flourishes  and contemporary language making it one of his most loved compositions, winning him the prize for best song from the Académie de Charles Cros that year. It was however a near-perfect cover by Catherine Sauvage that scooped most of the sales; with Ferré’s performing style still somewhat at odds with public taste, Sauvage’s more accessible delivery saw the song home in the marketplace.

Coming hard on the heels of ‘Paris canaille’ and a major hit both in France and in Canada, the song established Ferré as a songwriter to be reckoned with, the two foundation stones of a career that ran on for decades. As the years went by, and Ferré became both a star and (following May 1968) an unlikely hero to the young, his own version has come to be viewed as the classic rendition but to my ears, it is Sauvage who gets to the heart of the song and her interpretation is the version of reference. But a great song is a great song, whichever way you play it, so give either one a spin and celebrate the accordion and its rightful place at the heart of la chanson.

@Gareth Jones

La plus belle pour aller danser - Sylvie Vartan (1964)

Rightly acclaimed as a giant of French chanson - and, indeed, of popular music (not for nothing did CNN and the online version Time magazine name him Entertainer of the Century) - it is sometimes overlooked that Charles Aznavour also made a tidy living penning (or co-writing) hit tunes for the yé-yé generation, including some of the biggest and best-loved hits of the sixties. Some of these - such as Dany Logan’s ‘Donne tes seize ans’ - were songs that he also recorded himself but others were written to order, or, more often, penned for feature films starring one or more of the country’s idoles des jeunes, most notably Johnny Hallyday’s ‘Retiens la nuit’, from 1962’s Les Parisiennes, starring Hallyday alongside Catherine Deneuve.

In 1963, Aznavour and his brother-in-law, composer Georges Garvarentz were contracted to pen the songs for a quicky teen drama titled Cherchez l’idole, a fairly ridiculous crime caper that was little more than an excuse to throw half a dozen pop stars and bands in front of the camera in an effort to squeeze out a few francs from the teenage audience. Some of the songs that resulted were little more than effective throwaways and at least one, Hector’s ‘Il faut saisir sa chance’, had been recorded before (by Hallyday) but buried amid the fluff were a couple of solid gold classics - Aznavour’s own ‘Et pourtant’ and ‘La plus belle pour aller danser’, sung by the queen of the yé-yé singers, Sylvie Vartan.

Vartan had been steadily increasing in popularity during 1963 and as 1964 opened she was sharing the stage at the Olympia theatre in Paris with the Beatles, but the film - and more importantly, her contribution to the soundtrack - would take her star to an even brighter level. Aznavour’s lyric went to the heart of the teenage experience - incredibly so, as he was pushing forty when he wrote it - hitting home in the same way as Gerry Goffin’s work with the American girl groups. Garvarentz’s enchanting melody gave it the musical support it deserved, but credit too goes to the young Vartan, who got right inside the song with a performance that brings the sentiment to life every time. An undeniably pretty song, it also had an emotional resonance missing from much of the effervescent, frothy material favoured by the yé-yé performers, allowing it to cut across the generation gap and to sell across the age spectrum. And the film did the rest…

Just as Elvis (and Cliff Richard) found a massive, global audience off the back of their cinematic endeavours, so too Vartan’s appearance in Cherchez l’idole took her song around the world. Already popular in Spain and across South America, she suddenly and unexpectedly found herself with a massive hit in Japan, where it became one of the biggest-ever foreign language hits, winning her a large and still loyal fan base (Japan remains her second biggest market - after France - to this day). But it was in France that it became a veritable anthem, one of the biggest-selling, best-loved and best-remembered songs of the yé-yé era, a golden oldie to end all golden oldies and Vartan’s eternal theme song over the subsequent six decades.

Unsurprisingly, this massive international hit was quickly adapted into English for a 1965 recording by Bobbi Martin (‘I Don’t Want To Live (Without Your Love)’) but the magic of the original version was literally lost in translation and Martin’s rendition sputtered into the lower reaches of the US charts before disappearing. A Spanish version by Lita Torelló (‘La más bella del baile’) did better but in truth, nobody sang as well as Vartan did herself. While in recent years she has stepped back from the limelight after a long and successful career, for a generation and more of music lovers, Sylvie Vartan was, is and always will be ‘La plus belle pour aller danser’…

@Gareth Jones

Cerisiers roses et pommiers blancs - André Claveau (1950)

There are not many French songs that can claim to have topped both the U.K. and the U.S. charts, but this 1950 composition by Louis Gugliemi (better known as Louiguy) is one of them. (Come to think of it, are there any others?…)  Having said that, it took a Cuban bandleader and an English trumpeter to finish the job, but still, it’s the song that counts.

André Claveau had first come to attention in the mid-thirties and was a master practitioner of la chanson de charme. Suave, debonair, gifted with a mellifluous voice and a handsome appearance, he was everything a matinée idol should be, although competition being what it was, it took him a while to reach the top. The dark days of the war failed to halt his rise up the music hall bills of the country, leading to his definitive breakthrough in 1942. Diversifying into radio after the war, he expanded his audience dramatically and by the late forties he was branching out into cinema, secure as one of France’s leading post-war crooners.

Born in Barcelona to an Italian father (who had played double bass for Toscanini), Louiguy was raised in France and took to music at an earlier age. For several years, he accompanied Édith Piaf on piano, penning the melodies for several of her hits, including ‘La vie en rose’ (1948), along with songs recorded by George’s Guétary, Maurice Chevalier and - in 1950 - André Claveau, who released ‘Cerisiers roses et pommiers blancs’ on a 78 r.p.m. disc that year. With unabashedly sentimental lyrics from Jacques Larue, the song was a massive hit in France, one of Claveau’s biggest sellers and quickly became a standard.

It was however in Mexico that the song took on a life of its own and adopted the form that would conquer the world. How Cuban bandleader Perez “Prez” Prado came by the song is unknown but during a recording session in 1953 he recorded an upbeat, mambo arrangement, with the focus on trumpeter Billy Regis. Issued in Mexico, it was a massive hit, prompting a U.S. release late in 1954 as the mambo craze gathered steam. In 1955, the song exploded, topping the U.S. charts for several weeks and crossing the Channel to do the same in the U.K., sharing honours with a more sedate version by English trumpet star Eddie Calvert. All this attention prompted a reissue in France of Claveau’s original version, a massively successful cover in Canada by Les 3 Bars and a host of covers around the world.

Indeed, the song rather overshadowed the rest of Claveau’s career. Although the hits had slowed down by the late fifties (his last really big one being 1956’s ‘Viens valser avec Papa’), he remained a star throughout the decade, even winning Eurovision in 1958 with ‘Dors mon amour’, but it is ‘Cerisiers roses…’ that remains his best-known recording. The song even returned to the U.K. top ten in the eighties via a version by Modern Romance but the less said of that the better. Far better to luxuriate in the brassy swagger of Prado’s treatment, or, better still, take a listen to André Claveau delivering the song the way that Louiguy intended. Class will always win out…

@Gareth Jones

La belle vie - Sacha Distel (1964)

To a generation (or two) of British music fans, Sacha Distel was a handsome-looking chap who smiled a lot, crooned in heavily accented English and had a BBC television show. The more inquisitive might have known, or at least guessed, that he also sang in French and was something of a pop star across the Channel. But very few realised that he was also a very fine guitarist and something of a decent tunesmith - yet it was those talents that brought him international success with “La belle vie”, albeit in a roundabout sort of way.

By 1962, Distel had been knocking around the French music business for the best part of a decade, as a record label executive (it was Distel who first licensed US R&B records on Atlantic for release in France), as a jazz musician of some renown (voted best amateur guitarist in France in 1951) and from 1957 as a Sinatra-sequel singer, exploding to stardom in 1959 with “Scoubidou (pommes et poires)” and “Oui, oui, oui, oui”. Briefly a big teen idol in the months before Johnny Hallyday upended teenage tastes, in 1961 he shifted gears and targeted a more adult audience, while continuing to write songs (or at least tunes; he always used professional lyricists) and on occasion, soundtracks for films.

March 1962 saw the release of the film Les 7 Péchés Capitaux, better described perhaps as seven long sketches, each from a different director and each based on one of the “seven deadly sins” of the title. Music for the film was composed variously by Michel Legrand, Pierre Jansen and Distel, who composed the music for the fifth sketch, “L’orgeuil” (“Pride”). The two tunes duly appeared on a 45 on the Philips label, credited to Sacha Distel et son Ensemble, with the slow, ballad-like piece “Marina” as the topside, to very little fanfare and only minimal commercial success, his fans clearly preferring Distel the singer to Distel the guitarist. The story might well have ended there, but…

Perhaps through its inclusion in the film, the tune was picked up in America and a lyric was commissioned from Jack Reardon, under the title “The Good Life”. It was recorded by Billy Eckstine on the 1963 album Billy Eckstine: Now Singing In 12 Great Movies but the song found its perfect home in the repertoire of Tony Bennett, whose 1963 single was a top twenty hit in the US and a best-seller in much of the world.  Realising that he had let a potential hit slip away, Distel promptly commissioned a French lyric from Jean Broussolle, borrowing the theme from Bennett’s version, and recorded it as “La belle vie”. This was released in France in January 1964 on a best-selling EP, although radio tended to favour the folk-pop sounds of “Un air de banjo” (a cover of The Village Stompers’ “Washington Square”) over Distel’s lovely version of Bennett’s hit.

Time however was kind, and as the years passed, “La belle vie” came to be seen as one of Distel’s best recordings, while “The Good Life” became a standard, recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ann-Margret, Tony Orlando, Ray Charles and many, many others. Bennett would return to it throughout his career, recording it again for his 1994 “comeback” appearance on MTV Unplugged and then again in 2006 as a duet with Billy Joel (for his part, Distel would record it with Dionne Warwick in 2004). Not a bad result for a piece of incidental music from a long-forgotten film!

@Gareth Jones

Tout va très bien, Madame la Marquise - Ray Ventura (1935)

There is a rich tradition in music hall - both in France and in England - of comic song (something that sadly seems to be less and less common these days). Usually - and rightly - the emphasis is on the words, with the tune almost an afterthought, but not always. In the hands of a great team of musicians, comic songs can work on both a musical and a humorous level - and when they do, they tend to withstand the test of time, too.

Ray Ventura - uncle of future croon idol (and jazz guitarist) Sacha Distel - led one of the finest swing orchestras in France. Although heavily influenced by the sweet music sound of American bandleader Paul Whiteman, it was the humorous approach of British jazzman Jack Hylton or the German band, the Comedian Harmonists that were his greatest inspiration. As the leader and principal arranger for Les Collégiens, Ventura built a repertoire mixing jazz tunes with comic sketches, enabling the band to escape the rather closeted world of jazz and to find success on the wider music hall circuit. With a band full of singular talents (saxophonist Alix Combelle, guitarist/composer Loulou Gasté and pianist/composer Paul Misraki would all go on to success on their own, as would a later addition, singer-guitarist-funnyman Henri Salvador), the band could blow hot when the need arose, they swung like crazy and most notable of all, they made people laugh.

Their best known song - ‘Tout va très bien, Madame la Marquise’- is also the best example of their style. The lyrics take the form of a telephone call (a rich tradition in American comic song) between the absent Marquise of the title and her valet or butler. During the conversation, the latter reveals, in piecemeal fashion, a series of “very minor problems”: the death of her horse, in a fire that destroyed her stables, caused by a fire that destroyed her castle, triggered by the suicide of her husband, ending each revelation with a jaunty “apart from THAT, Madame, everything is fine!”. The idea, to be fair, was not particularly original - the title had already been used for a comic sketch by Bach et Laverne and there had been a fairly similar American record (“No News” by Frank Crumit) a few years earlier - but the band’s performance put fresh breath into an old idea. Not only is this tale of woe delivered in an inappropriately jolly tone of voice, it sits atop a joyous jazz/swing arrangement, making for a wonderfully amusing record that still sounds great today.

Born out of desperation during a series of shows where the audience paid little attention to the band, Paul Misraki’s composition transformed the band’s fortunes and was a major smash. It was also swiftly adapted to become a sort of commentary on the news of day, sung variously as ‘Tout va très bien, Monsieur Hériot’ (1936) and, following the Munich agreement, as ‘Tout va très bien, mon Führer’ (1938), although perhaps fortunately, it is the original version which has proved the most durable (and which was brilliantly translated by American satirist, Tom Lehrer). Ventura’s band became the biggest French band of the thirties and maintained their popularity during the war before branching out into cinema in the forties. Ventura became a successful music publisher and record label boss (he was responsible for releasing the early Atlantic label recordings in France), while many of his musicians went on to lead successful bands of their own. Their greatest recordings remain in print, but none quite continue to hit the spot in the way that this one does. The world as we know it may be falling apart right now, “mais à part ça, Madame, tout va très bien, tout va très bien”.

© Gareth Jones

Jolie môme – Juliette Gréco (1961)

While the songs of Jacques Brel are still widely known around the world, both in French and via English adaptations, those of his great rival, Léo Ferré, have by contrast largely faded from earshot, although there are occasional exceptions. Ferré, together with Brel and Georges Brassens, was one of the three giants of la chanson française during the 1960s, although his record sales generally lagged far behind those of the other two. Nor have his songs been covered anywhere near as often – at least, not since the sixties – with one significant exception: ‘Jolie môme’.

First recorded by Ferré himself and issued on his late 1960 LP (untitled at the time, but generally known as Paname, after its opening track), it was also released on an EP (along with ‘Paname’, ‘Les poètes’ and ‘Merde à Vauban’) early in 1961. An unusually structured song, built on a series of cheeky, three-syllable images, it was also a surprisingly catchy tune. This helped disguise the misogynist tone of the lyrics, which were nevertheless among Ferré’s best, replete with the Parisian argot that fascinated him at the time. With an orchestral arrangement directed by future easy listening king, Paul Mauriat, the song was a real earworm and quickly attracted the attention of other, better-known singers.

Among those to pick up on the song was Catherine Sauvage, always Ferré’s most loyal interpreter (she would record around 100 of his songs during the course of her career). Sauvage would give it a respectable treatment, but the version that really stood out was that by Left Bank chanteuse, Juliette Gréco. Issued (on her 7th LP, and then on EP) only a few weeks after Ferré’s own rendition, Gréco’s reading turned the song inside out. As she herself later described, “(It) was the most misogynist song ever. I flipped it over. I made it an object of provocation, rather than submission. Out of respect for women, I upended it…. It was a misogynist song, and I sang it so that it wasn’t one (anymore)”. And indeed she did.

Both Ferré’s and Gréco’s versions made the French top twenty, but while Ferré’s reading sold better at the time, it is Gréco’s more sympathetic treatment that became the classic version. It was a pillar of her live performances for decades – she delivered a superb version when I saw her at the Barbican in London in the late nineties – and remains one of her best-known and most-loved recordings. In subsequent years it has been covered by Jacques Higelin, Eva Lopez, Florent Pagny and several others, but none of them have come close to Gréco’s re-imagining of what the song could be. Abd she still sounds great today. Take a listen.

© Gareth Jones

La mer - Charles Trenet (1946)

Sometime in the mid-nineties, I was working behind the counter of a record store in Kensington when a fifty-something bloke came in and asked me if we had the music from the P&O advert. I hadn't seen the advert but I did a bit of digging and worked out that it was called "La mer" and was a French version of Bobby Darin's "Beyond The Sea". I dug a bit deeper, found a CD and ordered it for him. When it arrived, I worked out that the chap singing it - Charles Trenet - had actually written it, so Bobby Darin was actually covering him, and not the other way around. Intrigued, I ordered another copy for myself and took it home.

As it happened, Trenet was a master at combining jazz rhythms and melodies with the poetry of French chanson and so it was no big jump to go from one version to the other. Chanson had always been open to foreign influences - think of all those chansons set to a tango rhythm - but jazz, although popular in France, had always been cut from a different fabric, until Trenet came along in the mid-thirties to stitch the two together. Unlike most French singers of the era, Trenet had swing (not as much as Charles Aznavour, who would emerge a decade or so later, but more than good enough), making him the perfect prophet to lead chanson into a brave new world. Songs like "Boum!" were even picked up by British dancebands and turned into UK bestsellers - not an everyday occurence for French songs, then or now - and his songs were also eagerly snapped up by the leading French singers of the day. Still, nobody sang them quite as well as he did himself.

Trenet had actually written "La mer" during the Second World War, a time when it was common for chansonniers to present new works onstage several weeks, or even months before laying them down in a studio. As it happens, although Trenet wrote the song in 1943, it made little impression on audiences and he was not the first to record it, being beaten to market by Roland Gerbeau, whose version appeared in late 1945. It is however Trenet's own 1946 recording that is deservedly acclaimed as the classic. (There is also a charming post-war version by the reunited Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, although few outside of jazz circles will remember that one.) From there, it crossed the Atlantic to become a hit for Benny Goodman as "Beyond The Sea" in 1948, just as the big band era was fading out and the crooners were coming in. That version - a best seller in its day - is now largely forgotten too, although it laid the path for Bobby Darin to take the song around the world in 1960.

While it is easy to join the dots from Trenet to Darin, their respective versions could not be more different. Darin's rendition was the follow-up to his chartbusting version of "Mack The Knife", a big, brassy, Sinatra-like swinger, bold, brash and right there in your face. By contrast, Trenet's version is gentle, understated, floating through the ether above a soft-as-a-feather-bed, danceband arrangement. Reflective and nostalgic where Darin's reading is optimistic and forward-facing, Trenet imbues the song with a bluesy, wistful resignation, for all that the celestial choir behind him couldn't be further from the blues if it tried. It is however easy to hear what appealed to both Goodman and Darin - whatever the lyrics might be saying (and the French lyrics are very different from those in the American adaptation), the song has a gorgeous, timeless melody that lends itself equally well to both arrangements, and has been much recorded since (by Cliff Richard, Stevie Wonder, Julio Iglesias, Demis Roussos, Patricia Kaas, Mireille Mathieu and countless others). Trenet wrote many magnificent songs in his career, but none, perhaps, as timeless as this one. Take a listen.

© Gareth Jones

Syracuse - Henri Salvador (1962)

Henri Salvador was many things during his long career – jazz guitarist of renown, crooner, television presenter, funnyman. From his debut alongside Ray Ventura during the war to his amazing comeback in the 21st century, he left a string of classic records and often hilarious Scopitone video clips, ranging from jazz to blues to bossa nova and from parodies and pastiches to some truly lovely ballads. Fans of a certain age remember him disguised as Zorro or dressed as a peasant woman for “Juanita Banana”, or as a giant mouse for “Minnie, petite souris”.  Others recall his gentle children’s song, “Le loup, la biche et le chevalier", or his Antillais classic, "Maladie d’amour". Some look back to the rock ‘n’ roll parodies he made with Boris Vian, others fondly recall his penultimate, massively successful album, Chambre avec vue. What is often forgotten, among all his other achievements, is that he was also a very fine songwriter…

It is almost impossible to boil the multi-faceted Salvador’s appeal down to one song, but if pressed, then the heart of his appeal (aside, perhaps, from his humorous side) can be found in this one. Salvador often used outside lyricists, and for “Syracuse” he worked with the great poet and author, Bernard Dimey, for many years a fixture in Parisian life (his words have been sung by Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand, Juliette Gréco, Patachou, Mouloudji and dozens of others). Both Dimey and Salvador recall it being created one night after dinner, although their recollections differ in the detail. Salvador claimed that Dimey had “emptied three bottles” and then, completely drunk, declared that they would write “the best song, with the best lyrics, in the world”, after which he turned out the lyrics while Salvador at the piano attempted to fit them to music.  Dimey on the other hand, described coming up with the opening couplet, after which they worked on it together for an hour until it was done.  Which account is true doesn’t matter – the result was a truly beautiful song.

The jumping off point was the title – Syracuse – a town in Sicily that sent Dimey off on an imaginary world tour of places he had never seen and never would see. Easter Island, Verona, Fujiyama, the gardens of Babylon, each are invoked in turn, with the narrator wondering aloud about these exotic, faraway places. But the song is more than just a song of longing – there is fantasy here, certainly, and a dreamlike state of wonder, but the tale of long voyages masks a slightly melancholy mood that reminds listeners of travails of daily life from which the singer/narrator seeks to escape, if only for a while. It is indeed a remarkable lyric, and Salvador’s tune, gentle, seductive, dreamlike, suited it to perfection.

Surprisingly, Salvador originally offered the song to François Deguelt, who turned it down (although he would eventually record it in 1970). Instead, it was picked up by veteran crooner Jean Sablon, who was then well past his commercial peak although it was still a hit of sorts in late 1962, prompting Salvador to record it himself, in a vastly superior recording, the following year. Initially lost as the fourth on an EP highlighted by a hilarious take on the Ran-Dells’ “Martian Hop” (“Le Martien”) and the lovely tribute “Count Basie” (“Lil’ Darlin’”), it nevertheless found its audience and endured to become both a standard and a classic in Salvador’s repertoire.  There have been more than forty versions recorded to date, by artists ranging from Juliette Gréco to, bizarrely, Iggy Pop, although Salvador’s version remains the rendition against which all others must be judged. As for the town that gave the song its name, as Salvador often recalled, “I’ve never been there. But I caused lots of other people to visit!”. Take a listen and understand why…

© Gareth Jones

Les roses blanches - Berthe Sylva (1926)

Born in 1885, Berthe Sylva was one of France’s greatest chanteuses réalistes of the twenties and thirties, a star of enormous proportions, in a sense, perhaps, the Édith Piaf of her day. Like Piaf, she was taken before her time, passing away in 1941 at the age of 56, but her memory long endured, in large part thanks to “Les roses blanches”, one of the archetypal chansons of her era. Composed by accordionist Léon Raiter with lyrics by Charles-Louis Pothier, the song was a melodrama in three minutes, telling the tale of a poor Parisian who every Sunday presented his mother, his only family member, with white roses, her favourite flowers. His mother was hospitalised and he was broke so he stole the flowers from a florist, who caught him. After explaining his plight, the florist gave them to him, he rushed to the hospital only to be told that his mother had died. He left them with her, so that she could take her favourite flowers with her to heaven. Sentimental it certainly was, and more than a little contrived, it was far and away the biggest hit she ever enjoyed, although oddly, she was not the first to sing it.

Sylva had been performing in the cabarets and music halls of France and Algeria for several years before her breakthrough but by the dawn of the twenties she had begun to build a following for her tear-drenched style. A chance meeting with Raiter led to her first recording contract, with the small Ideal label, although she swiftly transferred to the bigger Odéon label, but while record sales were important, it was the newly emerging medium of radio that made her a star. Over the course of a decade, she made countless appearances on the airwaves for Radio Tour Eiffel, her deeply emotional style making her an absolute idol to the young teenage girls who formed her core audience (who said that teenagers did not exist until the fifties?). A steady stream of hit songs followed – “Du gris”, “Fleur de musette”, “Monte-Carlo”, “La prière des petits gueux”, “On n’a pas tous les jours 20 ans", but it was in “Les roses blanches”, a song already in the repertoires of singers such as Mary Ketty, Antonin Priolet or Emma Liebel (all sadly forgotten today), she found her perfect match.

It is difficult today to appreciate just how enormous a star she was. A single appearance on Radio Toulouse resulted in the station receiving 15,000 fan letters, begging for her to make further broadcasts. By the thirties her live appearances were causing stampedes as fans surged forward to be closer to her, with the reports of damage to theatre seats eerily foreshadowing similar stories in the rock ‘n’ roll explosion of the fifties and sixties. Sylva’s fans though were there first. And yet for all that, she died in relative poverty, brought down, as Piaf would be, by a self-destructive lifestyle.

As for “Les roses blanches”, it simply kept on selling. Sylva recorded in more than once, with her 1937 version generally seen as definitive, and it remained in print for years. 78s gave way to EPs, EPs gave way to singles, and still it kept on selling, even if the actual sales figures have been overstated. it was revived in 1957 by both Georgette Plana and Tino Rossi; a decade later, it was picked up by Les Sunlights and was a hit all over again. On through the decades it continues to find new audiences, with versions by Mireille Mathieu, Michèle Torr, Céline Dion and many, many more. Indeed, as late as the nineties, it was still topping polls of France’s favourite songs! Take a listen and find out why.

© Gareth Jones

Tous mes copains – Sylvie Vartan (1963)

In January 1963, French radio programme Salut Les Copains – the premier “youth” programme on popular independent station Europe No. 1 – began playing a new song – “Tous mes copains” - by one of the young singers who had emerged over the past eighteen months. Sylvie Vartan had first been heard giving the thin, weedy reply to rock ‘n’ roller Frankie Jordan on his big 1961 hit “Panne d’essence” (a cover of Floyd Robinson’s “Out Of Gas”), which sold well enough for RCA to offer her a deal of her own. Her early records had seen her marking out a position on the edge of the country’s rock ‘n’ roll boom, with covers of hits by Ray Charles and Elvis Presley rubbing shoulders with tunes drawn from the girl group sound then convulsing America. Sales had been reasonable, but nothing to write home about until late in 1962, when her version of Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion” (“Le locomotion”) kicked things up a gear, establishing the young, blonde singer as something of a star. What kind of star was not yet clear – the word “ye-ye”, which would usefully describe her and her contemporaries, would not be coined for a further six months – but a star, nevertheless. This new record though, was rather different…

Issued at the end of 1962 on a four-track EP (the standard format in France until 1968), “Tous mes copains” was never intended to be a hit. Indeed, it was buried at the very end of the EP, with the first side being taken up with covers of Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” (“Moi je pense encore à toi”) and Chris Montez’ “Let’s Dance” (“Dansons”). The latter had picked up what airplay was going over the Christmas period and the record was selling well, although nowhere near as well as those that had catapulted Françoise Hardy to the top. If RCA wanted a record to take Vartan to the next level, this one was not going to be it. And yet…

Songwriter Jean-Jacques Debout had written the song for Vartan after reflecting on the young men who had been called up to fight in the recently concluded Algerian war, on those who would never return, on those who returned to find that their friends at home had moved on. Flipping the concept over, he then wrote about those who stayed at home, unable to pick up the pieces when their friends returned. The resulting lyric, a gentle lament for friendships curtailed by military service, was hardly a finger-pointing protest song, although it was still a breakthrough of sorts, the first French pop song (as opposed to politically charged chanson) to challenge the military service that was still the fate of every teenage boy. Richard Anthony had inadvertently opened up the market a few months earlier with “J’entends siffler le train” (adapted from the folksong “500 Miles”), with its whistling train motif representing the departure of those called away, but this was more explicit, expressly targeting the army as the source of the disruption that clouded the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

This was more serious territory than the frivolities (quality frivolities, but frivolities nonetheless) that Vartan had delivered on her earlier records and consciously or not, she responded to the material with a vocal delivery that dropped her usual teenage-friendly style toward a more mature approach. If her early records had got by on good arrangements and a bubbly personality, this one showcased something else – the fact that, whatever her critics may have thought, Vartan could really sing. The combination of her performance and the song’s simple but sincere message hit home in a way that none of her earlier material had done. Salut Les Copains presenter Daniel Filipacchi’s instincts were right – this was a song that needed to be played. Vartan’s teenage fans lapped it up, while the adult audience was also seduced. The result was Vartan’s biggest selling hit to date, a smash across the generations that established her as the queen of what would, within months, become the ye-ye generation. Many, many hits would follow, several of them very good indeed, but few would be as special as, or have the emotional pull of, this one, a record that both captures the time of its creation and yet remains apart from it, a classic for the ages. Take a listen.

© Gareth Jones

La Madrague - Brigitte Bardot (1963)

In the 1960’s, the world’s most famous living Frenchman was probably President Charles de Gaulle, but even he had to take a back seat to the most famous living French woman. Since rocketing to stardom with her sensual performance in Roger Vadim’s Et Dieu… créa la femme (1956), Brigitte Bardot had become the world’s leading sex symbol and one of France’s biggest box office attractions, even though, as she herself put it in later life, she “started out as a lousy actress and stayed that way”. To each their own opinion, Brigitte… I am sure that your fans disagree.

What was less well known, at least outside of France, was that Bardot was also an avid music lover, with a surprisingly broad appreciation for contemporary pop sounds. After the gentle “Sidonie” (from Louis Malle’s Vie privée) had given her a surprise hit record both in France and in Japan, the powers that be at the Philips label saw dollar signs (or franc signs, anyway) and offered her a record contract, with her first album surfacing at the start of 1963. Issued as both a 30 cm (12”) LP and in a shorter version on a 25 cm (10”) release, Brigitte was a mix of styles, from the jazzy “C’est rigolo” to the mock-Latin “Invitango”, with the yé-yé-styled “L’appareil à sous” (penned by Serge Gainsbourg) standing out from the pack. It was however the gently nostalgic “La Madrague” that was closest to Bardot’s heart.

The word “madrague” refers to a technique for catching tuna, although there is no hint of that in the song. Rather, the composers (Jean-Max Rivière wrote the words and Gérard Bourgeois the music) took their inspiration from the St. Tropez mansion of the same name, which had been Bardot’s home and her refuge from the world since 1958. Hounded by the press wherever she went, Bardot needed a bolthole where she could feel safe and La Madrague had turned out to be the perfect hiding place.

Although the house is not mentioned in the song itself, you can gauge how much the property meant to her by the emotion that she puts into delivering the downbeat, reflective lyrics. Bardot was not a great singer and would never become one, although as an actress she knew just how to put across the meaning of a song. Much of her material was written to play upon her public persona (“Je me donne à qui me plait”, “Nue au soleil”) but with “La Madrague” she opened up to the world, offering a rare glimpse of the woman behind the facade. The Bardot of “Harley Davidson” was an icon, a living embodiment of the swinging sixties but the Bardot who sang “La Madrague” was a real woman, with all the fragility and vulnerability that her superstar status always required her to conceal.

Bardot would have bigger hits – her biggest chart strike came in 1970 with “Tu veux ou tu veux pas” – but none of her recordings have quite the emotional resonance of this one – the real Bardot stepping in front of the curtain for a brief, tantalising moment before slipping away again. Perhaps as a result, the song has only grown in popularity in the sixty years since its release, even as Bardot’s screen career recedes further into history. Her more upbeat material has a certain kitsch value – it's enjoyable and fun to listen to today – but if you want to understand Bardot, and you only ever get to hear one Brigitte Bardot record in your life, then make it this one.

© Gareth Jones

For me… formidable - Charles Aznavour (1963)

In 1974, Charles Aznavour became only the second French singer (after Serge Gainsbourg) to hit number one on the UK pop charts, staying there for four weeks with the theme from the TV series Seven Faces Of Woman, an exquisite ballad called simply “She”. This remains the song for which he is best known in the UK, its huge success creating an indelible image of Aznavour as the ultimate Gallic crooner. The problem is, Aznavour was a far more multi-dimensional performer than his hit would suggest, and the success of “She” has left most UK listeners in ignorance of his real musical leanings. While he did record many melancholy love songs, to get to the real Aznavour, we need to look – and listen – elsewhere. And where better to start than this 1963 toe tapper?

Small of stature, not particularly distinguished looking and with a less than powerful voice (he was routinely referred to by UK comic legends Morecombe and Wise as “Charles Az-no-voice”), Aznavour had one thing going for him that few of his French contemporaries could match – he sang with genuine swing, like an American. While he was not the first to take the feel of jazz into the chanson – Charles Trenet was at least decade ahead of him – he was the first to sound completely at home singing jazz. Indeed, his approach is often compared to that of Frank Sinatra, a singer whom he respected greatly (Aznavour introduced Sinatra at the latter’s 1962 Paris concert) and the admiration was clearly mutual – check out their sparring on “You Make Me Feel So Young” on Sinatra’s 1993 Duets album - and it is this swinging approach that makes “For me… formidable” come alive.

Of course, Sinatra was only an interpreter. Aznavour was also both a composer and a lyricist of considerable merit. On “For me… formidable”, the tune is his while he worked on the lyrics with Jacques Plante, but the results are pure Aznavour. Continually switching between French and English, the lyric makes fun of the idea that French is supposedly the “more romantic” language, with the singer singing in French to woo a supremely disinterested woman and then reverting to English as he tries to explain why. Using a mix of languages in the same song was not (and is still not) common (although Gainsbourg would occasionally lapse into Franglais) but Léo Ferré had just enjoyed a moderate hit with “La langue française”, in which he railed against the incursion of English words into French, so Aznavour’s choice to do so here was timely.

The lyric is full of delightful bi-lingual puns, as an English word mutates into a French one (very – veritable; Daisy – désirable) or the reverse (canaille – can I), while the nods to both Shakespeare and Molière make it clear that this song is as much about language as it is about love. While Aznavour could be a serious writer, he also enjoyed more lighter hearted moments and here he plays an amusing lyric off against what is actually a fairly unhappy scenario and comes up trumps – both the song and the delivery are superb.

The lyric here is very clever but it is Aznavour's performance that makes the song a classic. If you can imagine Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett sashaying around the Seine in Paris, then you are pretty close to what Aznavour is up to on this record. No French singer ever swung quite so effortlessly or sounded so relentlessly upbeat while delivering such a downbeat, desperate plea. Compare it with Annie Cordy’s jovial interpretation – Cordy, as always, plays it for laughs, and does so successfully, singing with an audible wink in her eye, but Aznavour takes it somewhere else again. Over a bra


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