Watch Édith Piaf Sing Her Most Famous Songs: “La Vie en Rose,” “Non, Je Regrette Rien” & More

On the 100th anniver­sary of Édith Piaf’s birth last Decem­ber, writes Jere­my Allen at The Guardian, “cel­e­bra­tions… were low key…. Piaf is a lit­tle out of fash­ion with today’s jeunesse dorée.” That’s a lit­tle hard to believe, but if Piaf has fall­en out of favor with wealthy French youth, her star has con­tin­ued to shine, year after year, for much of the music- and film-lov­ing world.

Her sto­ry has been told in numer­ous doc­u­men­taries and biopics, includ­ing the mul­ti­ple-award-win­ning La Vie en rose in 2007, whose lead actress, Mar­i­on Cotil­lard, received the first Oscar giv­en for a French-speak­ing role.

Cel­e­brat­ed in song, in print, in pho­tographs, and in many a stage tribute—such as Lady Gaga’s per­for­mance of her sig­na­ture song, “La Vie en rose,” at last year’s Gram­my awards—Piaf has “influ­enced every­one from Mar­i­anne Faith­full to Anna Calvi, and Elton John,” not all of whom are them­selves in fash­ion these days.

And yet, writes Allen, “to para­phrase an old foot­balling cliché, fash­ion is tem­po­rary, class is per­ma­nent.” If there’s any­thing Piaf’s voice and pres­ence have exem­pli­fied over many decades, it is that inde­fin­able qual­i­ty of “class,” which tran­scends eco­nom­ic divi­sions and the ram­blings of tacky would-be politi­cians and encom­pass­es rather a mix of grace­ful self-pos­ses­sion, artis­tic integri­ty, and time­less ele­gance.

She cer­tain­ly would not have been mis­tak­en, in her youth, for one of those fash­ion­able jeunesse dorée. The daugh­ter of a street singer who aban­doned her, Piaf learned her craft by also singing on the streets, “in a Bellevil­loise argot appar­ent­ly not dis­sim­i­lar to a Parisian ver­sion of old cock­ney,” Allen writes. The dra­mat­ic cir­cum­stances of her life were “a punk opera decades before the genre explod­ed….. From grow­ing up in a bor­del­lo, to spend­ing four years blind­ed by ker­ati­tis in her infan­cy, to join­ing her acro­bat father on the road in her teens, to shoot­ing up mor­phine, cor­ti­sone and falling into alco­holism to alle­vi­ate a dodgy back sus­tained in a car crash as an adult (pre­cip­i­tat­ing what she described as her ‘years of hell’).”

Through it all, writes Open Cul­ture’s Mike Springer, “Piaf man­aged to hold onto a basi­cal­ly opti­mistic view of life.” Such a view, always tinged with rue­ful sad­ness, comes through in her per­for­mances of, for exam­ple, “La Vie en rose” (which rough­ly trans­lates to “life through rose-col­ored glass­es”). See her per­form the song at the top of the post on French TV in 1954. “She was 38 years old,” writes Springer, “but looked much old­er” due to her alco­holism and var­i­ous treat­ments for her drink­ing and arthri­tis. Below this video, in a filmed per­for­mance of “Non, je regrette rien” (“I regret noth­ing”), Piaf’s hard life seems etched on her expres­sive­ly sor­row­ful face, but her voice did not suf­fer for it, nor her will­ing­ness to per­form until the end of her short life (she died in 1963 at age 47).

Piaf ded­i­cat­ed “Non, je regrette rien”—composed for her in 1956 by Charles Dumont and Michel Vaucaire—to the French For­eign Legion, who adopt­ed it as their anthem. Its title becomes par­tic­u­lar­ly poignant in light of Piaf’s sto­ried life, espe­cial­ly giv­en the accu­sa­tions after the Nazi occu­pa­tion that she had col­lab­o­rat­ed with the Ger­mans. Instead, it was revealed, writes a New York Times pro­file, that while she per­formed for Ger­man troops, she “was instru­men­tal in help­ing a num­ber of pris­on­ers escape,” ren­der­ing “aid that lat­er saved her from any charges of col­lab­o­ra­tion.” Piaf became an emblem of Parisian cul­ture, and appeared in sev­er­al films, such as 1951’s Paris Chante Tou­jours (“Paris still sings,” above—she sings “Hymne à l’amour.”)

She also became—after sur­viv­ing a first, dis­as­trous 1947 appear­ance in New York—a star in the U.S. in the 50s. In 1959, she appeared on The Ed Sul­li­van Show and sang “Milord” (above), part­ly in Eng­lish, a song that briefly reached the Bill­board top 100. Piaf would appear a few times on Sul­li­van’s pro­gram through­out the decade. In 1952, she held her own with Amer­i­can audi­ences in a line­up that includ­ed the huge­ly pop­u­lar Bob­by Darin and the fiery Ike and Tina Turn­er. Despite her diminu­tive stature (she stood just 4′8″) and often frail phys­i­cal con­di­tion, Piaf’s world-weary demeanor and smol­der­ing voice stood out in any com­pa­ny. She was a true orig­i­nal and there has nev­er been anoth­er per­former quite like her.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Édith Piaf’s Mov­ing Per­for­mance of ‘La Vie en Rose’ on French TV, 1954

Watch Clas­sic Per­for­mances from Maria Callas’ Won­drous and Trag­i­cal­ly-Short Opera Career

Bertolt Brecht Sings ‘Mack the Knife’ From The Three­pen­ny Opera, 1929

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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