Who would be a serious contender for the female vocal voice of the twentieth century? Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald would certainly be prime contenders in the field of jazz with Bessie Smith for blues, Aretha Franklin for soul and Maria Callas for the classical world. However, another contender, outside the English language, would have to be considered with Edith Piaf and in December 2015, we celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of Piaf’s birth being on 15 December 1915. To coincide with this celebration Warner Brothers France have brought out a major re-issue programme, the pièce de résistance of which is a sumptuous 20 CD box set with separate individual vinyl re-issues of classic albums. For those on a more modest budget, the two CD set contained within will serve as an ideal introduction to the work of Piaf and, with forty songs, there are the essential songs for the first-time listener.
As with the box set, this smaller anthology is presented in a mock 1940/1950s design and, along with the music, serves to conjur up something of that era. Piaf was closely associated with the music hall culture when people danced along to the music in a live musical setting and this is very much the atmosphere conveyed on a song such as ‘La goualante du pauvre Jean’ from 1954. To this writer’s mind, it brings up images of the early French new wave films with Truffaut’s second full feature, Tirez sur le pianiste’ (‘Shoot the pianist’), the obvious comparison. A favourite of this writer is the homage to ‘java’ style dancing in ‘L’accordéoniste’ which conjurs up the dances that took place in the more popular, suburban districts of Paris
Piaf was an excellent balladeer and on ‘Avec ce soleil’ her power and the sheer emotion in the voice is on full display while she was capable of great subtlety as illustrated on ‘Les amants d’un jour’. In an intimate vein accompanied by accordion, ‘Sous le ciel de Paris’, offer an alternative reading to the more famous rendition by her former partner, Yves Montand. Some of the all-time great songs for which Piaf is adored are included and her quasi-signature tune, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, is included along with ‘La vie en rose’, and ‘Milord’, composed by singer-songwriter Georges Moustaki. What is less known about Piaf is that she could write songs, often co-written, and that proves to be the case on ‘Les amants’.
There is a Tati-esque old-school charm to several of the songs with the everyday life of the French recounted and raised to an art form as on ‘Salle d’attente’. The cinematic quality of Piaf’s singing is in evidence once again on ‘La fête continue’. Factor in the folkloric ‘Bal dans ma rue’, the passionate ‘Hymne à l’amour’ and ‘Les trois cloches’, both accompanied by angelic choir and strings and you have a fine overview of the music of arguably France’s greatest interpreter. Some might dispute this and argue in favour of either Montand or Charles Trenet, or prefer the polemics in the prose of Georges Brassens that challenged the social habits of the time. Such contenders to the throne unquestionably have their merits. That said, none scaled the same heights globally as Edith Piaf and the mere fact that she is invariably referred to by her surname speaks volumes for her exalted status. A fine introduction that builds on the previous anthology, ‘L’Accordéon’ from 2003.