Charles Dumont: Regrets? Too few to mention

She was France's greatest living chanteuse. He was a young composer of little reputation. Through a twist of fate, he created her most famous song. Forty years after Edith Piaf's death, the man who wrote 'Non, je ne regrette rien' talks to John Lichfield
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The Independent Culture

In October 1960, two apprehensive songwriters rang the door-bell of a living legend on the Boulevard Lannes in the elegant 16th arrondissement of Paris. They were told by her secretary to go away. Why had they come? Had they not received her many messages? Madame had changed her mind. She no longer wanted to see them.

The songwriters were retreating, in disappointment and disgust, when a voice - one of the most unforgettable voices in popular musical history - growled from a distant bedroom. Since they were here, The Voice shouted, they might as well come in. She would dress at once.

Over an hour later, Edith Piaf shuffled into the room - tiny, imperious, short-tempered. She was the most popular entertainer in France and the personality who, along with President Charles de Gaulle, most symbolised France to the rest of the world. She was recovering from one of her many car accidents; she was sick, weary, almost skeletal. Although only 44 years old, she had told her friends that she would never sing again.

"I'll hear only one song," Piaf said to the two men. "Just one."

The younger of the two songwriters, Charles Dumont, hurried to the piano. He knew that Piaf could barely stomach him. She regarded him as a jobbing songwriter of no great talent. Besides, he was not her kind of man - too plump, not sufficiently devoted to her.

Dumont played the soaring, opening chords of a song that he had originally intended to be a stirring, almost military number. He started to croon the lyrics, written by Michel Vaucaire, his co-author. Vaucaire had converted the song into a paeon, not to war, but to the redemptive powers of love.

"Non, rien de rien. Non, je ne regrette rien..."

Forty-three years later, Dumont, now a handsome, jovial 74 years old, remembers that moment well. It was the instant that changed his life.

"When I started playing the song, Piaf's attitude changed immediately," he says. "When I finished, she asked, rather rudely, 'Did you really write that song? You?' Then she made me play it over and over again, maybe five or six times. She said that it was magnificent, wonderful. That it was made for her. That it was her. That it would be her resurrection."

And so it proved - temporarily but magnificently. Within a month, Piaf had sung "Non, je ne regrette rien" on French TV. More than 100,000 copies of the record were sold in two days (more than a million by the end of the following year). In late December, the song was the pièce de résistance of her comeback show at Paris's L'Olympia concert hall (a show that saved the venue from bankruptcy).

Three years later, on 11 October 1963 - 40 years ago this Saturday - Piaf died. The 40th anniversary of her death is being commemorated in France with books, a new play, an exhibition at the Paris town hall and re-releases of her work, including five "lost" tracks that have never been issued before.

Piaf is remembered for many fine and haunting songs, including "Mon légionnaire" and "La vie en rose", which she wrote herself. The most original and the most touching is probably "Milord", the story of an encounter between a down-hearted English aristocrat and a warm-hearted Parisian prostitute.

However, four decades later, in the minds of millions of her - non-specialist - admirers all over the world, it is "Non, je ne regrette rien" that symbolises not just Piaf but the whole of La Chanson Française (French popular music). Her last and biggest hit - later recorded in English by Shirley Bassey, among others - remains one of the best-known popular songs in any language or tradition.

Charles Dumont went on to write a score of other songs for Piaf. He still writes songs to this day. After her death, he became a respected singer, in the old French popular style, and remains much loved in France, both as a writer and a touring performer.

He admits, cheerfully, however that he will always be known, first and foremost, as the man who wrote "that song". In the corner of his front room near the Odeon on the Left Bank of the Seine, there stands a battered, light-brown, baby-grand piano. It was on its keys that he first picked out the tune for "Non, je ne regrette rien".

"That song has been my burden. but also my great pride," he says. "To write a song that becomes a standard all over the world is every songwriter's dream. That success came to me very young. When that happens, there is the danger that everything else that you do becomes an anti-climax. But that song opened many doors for me. It has been very good to me.

"Until that day in 1960, when I went to see Piaf, I was a reasonably successful songwriter, but just one of many others. She was right to be wary of me. She said that I was not a songwriter but a 'maker' of songs, someone who would try to fill a niche in the repertoire of any of a half-dozen singers."

He had not even wanted to go to see Piaf. It was the lyricist Michel Vaucaire, who died many years ago, who insisted that their creation must become a Piaf song, even though Piaf was no longer singing.

"There was something fated about that song from the beginning. Something out of all our hands. I wanted something grandiose, something revolutionary, something that would make me famous. I played the notes and Vaucaire just started saying 'rien de rien' and it became a song about the triumph of love, the everlasting hope of love. That is the mystery of songwriting. And fate.

"Piaf left dozens of messages telling us not to come to her home that day," he continues. "Neither Vaucaire nor myself went to our homes that night and we missed all the messages. Fate again."

Without Piaf, Dumont says, the song might have been successful but it would never have been the triumph that it became. The song, as she instantly recognised that day in her apartment in the Boulevard Lannes, is Piaf. It encapsulates, in two minutes, 19 seconds, a life in which extraordinary talent and a voracious appetite for l'amour triumphed (mostly) over destitution, drink and drugs.

(There is also something mesmeric about the concentration of all those guttural, Parisian "Rs": "Hrrien de hrrien. Non, je ne hrreghrrette hrrien.")

Dumont was an almost constant companion of Piaf in her final three years. He insists that some of the stories of her alcoholism, drug-addiction and debauchery are "much exaggerated". The singer's own autobiography, re-issued this month, suggests that they were not very exaggerated. Charles Aznavour, who was Piaf's secretary and Monsieur Fix-it before he became a singer, says in a new preface to another book about Piaf: "No one else combined such joie de vivre with such a capacity for self-destruction."

The extraordinary thing about "Non, je ne regrette rien" is that it came so late - so late in Piaf's career and life and so late in the history of La Chanson Française as the mainstream form of popular music in France. In 1960, when the song was written, Elvis Presley had been a chart-topper for four years in the United States, The Beatles were already performing in Liverpool and - more to the point - a teenager called Jean-Philippe Smet (Johnny Hallyday) had just started his career as "Le Rocker Français".

"Non, je ne regrette rien" was the end of an era. Despite its success, and its continuing popularity, it led nowhere much. The American popular music tradition, and its British and European variants, conquered the French airwaves and record charts over the next decade. So much so that the French government had to pass a law in the 1980s which forces French radio stations to this day to play a fixed quota of songs in the French language.

Is Dumont angry that the French tradition of popular music has failed to survive as a powerful art form in its own right? Is he dismayed that there are no worthy successors to Edith Piaf and the great Belgian singer and song-writer, Jacques Brel, who died 25 years ago this week?

He smiles. It is true, he says, that there was a French style and philosophy of popular music that was different to American or British music. La Chanson Française was - and is - more dependent, he says, on the quality of the words, than the Anglo-Saxon tradition of pop. In the French tradition, the lyrics had to be poetic or tell a story. There was not the same reliance on raw musical power. There was rarely much in the way of drums.

"The American and British style has conquered. Of course that is true," Dumont agrees. "The French style remains, but as something more artisanal, something more of a special taste. But you know popular music has always been influenced by styles elsewhere." (He himself came to music through jazz. He was originally a trumpeter.)

"What matters in the end is sincerity. There is much in the best of popular music since the 1960s that I enjoy very much. There is also much rubbish, but there was always rubbish, in all styles. What matters is authenticity and talent. That will always distinguish excellent popular music from the commercially-driven rubbish, in all styles and traditions."

Against all expectations, perhaps, Dumont is a great admirer of Johnny Hallyday. He says that France's rocker national, who turned 60 this year, owes his longevity to creating a "clever blend" of rock and La Chanson Française. "I know that you mock him abroad but, if you see Johnny on stage, you see that he has talent and he has sincerity."

Forty years after Piaf's death, is there nothing that Dumont regrets?

"I regret that, once in London when I went to a play supposedly about Piaf's life, I did not stand up and denounce it for the falsehood that it was. Of course, Piaf was impossible. All great artists are impossible. But she was also, when you knew her, a gentle person, a loyal person, a generous person.

"For the rest, of course, I have lost many loved ones and I regret that. But, sincerely, I can say that I have had a good life and that, in particular, I never regretted having met Madame Piaf. I can say, honestly: 'Je ne regrette rien'."