VOCAL HEROES / Out there on the street, up on the stage: She talked when she sang and sang when she spoke. In the fifth of our series on great voices, Patrick O'Connor discusses Edith Piaf

Click to follow
THE IMAGE of Edith Piaf that remains fixed in the collective memory is a sad one. It's of a small figure, twisted with arthritis, sunken- cheeked and haggard through years of drink and drugs, singing of endless woes into a microphone that magnified her voice to eerily large proportions. Backed by larger and larger orchestras, echo effects and sometimes choirs, she became the all-purpose export of Parisian popular song - of 'Non, je ne regrette rien', and 'Le droit d'aimer'.

Some of these performances are thrilling: above all the recital recorded on 29 December 1960 at the Paris Olympia, which concluded with the terrifying song 'Les Blouses Blanches', set in a psychiatric ward. Piaf's appearances at that time were stimulated by a pre-performance injection of a circulatory drug, coromine. Here the nuances of the text, in which the patient's rambling words are made more sickly by the romantic melody, seemed to accentuate the thinness of Piaf's voice, ready to crack at any moment.

Like the later efforts of Garland and Holiday, however, Piaf's voice in these last years was a caricature of what it once was. She grew up in the streets; her father was a travelling performer and she learned to deal with the public on tour with him - safer the authorities felt, than in the brothel where her grandmother worked as a cook. Her mother, who abandoned her daughter when the child was two, was also a singer. The French actress Arletty (who played Garance in Les Enfants du Paradis) remembers seeing her perform. The voice was the same, she told me, the difference was in the singing. The mother, who used the name Line Marsa, sang from the heart, but Piaf sang from somewhere deeper down.

Piaf's early appearances were promoted by ritzy night-club owners in Paris who presented her as a city waif 'just as she had been discovered', singing at a street corner. Certainly, what one can hear on her earliest records, made when she was 20 (she was born on 19 December 1915), is the combination of open-air spontaneity, mixed with the intimacy that occurs when singing for a small group.

At this early point in her career, she sang the repertory of the established chanteuses realistes Damia, Frehel and Marie Dubas. These three represented the extremes of the chanteuse style. Damia, in her little black dress (that's where Piaf and later Greco got the idea), drew on poetry and images of a lurid melodramatic theatre. Her voice, she told interviewers, was the result of smoking three packs of Gauloises a day. At turns tender, raucous and nasal, Damia sometimes put over numbers that had hardly a thread of a melody: all was dependent upon her diction and the rhythm of declamation. Marie Dubas in contrast was the very spirit of the suburban bal musette, while Frehel, who had no pretensions to artiness, sang with the sound of some great wind machine. It was a number from Frehel's tour de chant, 'Les Momes de la Cloche', that was Piaf's very first record.

Featuring an accordion, a solo piano, or a guitar, these early discs preserve the full impact of Piaf's young style. The voice is sensual, she sounds much older than 20. The story-telling method alternates between speech and song sometimes on the same word; tiny bursts of acceleration juxtaposed with a decrescendo and coup-de-glotte worthy of Bernhardt. Her accompanists were the greatest musicians of the Paris nightclub scene in the mid-1930s - Jean Wiener, Django Reinhardt, Wal-Berg. The songs are romantic, saucy; 'La Fille et Le Chien', the lament of a homeless girl talking to a stray dog, displays her art in all its simplicity. But it is the simplicity of genius: each word is given a weight that seems right, the occasional half-whispered tone, the voice suddenly singing out full, then speaking again. No years with a repetiteur in a conservatory could teach this.

Similarly in those songs which depend solely on a swinging java or waltz tempo, the tension with which she sings just behind the beat, giving the impression of improvisation, is the very essence of true vaudevillian timing. In a chanson like Jean Lenoir's 'J'suis Mordue', the insistent accompaniment for which is one long, accelerating crescendo, the obvious relish with which Piaf pronounces the slangy words, lingering here on a simple rhyme ('Cafe creme / J't'aime') or gurgling on the final 'J'suis mordue' suggests what the American composer Ned Rorem described in his famous Paris Diary as 'the secret of popular song, expressivity through banality, the secret of knowing what must be added where'.

For all her celebrity as a voice, a force of nature, Piaf's chief idol was neither Frehel nor Damia, but Marie Dubas. Significantly, Dubas had little voice - she was essentially a diseuse, the logical successor to Yvette Guilbert. Piaf's biggest pre-war hit was a song she recorded in 1937 which was also released by Dubas; the first of the many numbers to be composed for her by Marguerite Monnot (who later wrote 'Hymne a l'amour', 'Les Amants d'un jour' and 'Milord'). Called 'Mon Legionnaire', it drew upon that most alluring of Franco-North African fantasies, the mysterious attractive Foreign Legionnaire.

'Il etait mince, il etait beau

Il sentait bon le sable chaud'

Dubas, on her award-winning recording of it, turns it into a miniature drama, a pendant to the Dietrich-von Sternberg Morocco. Piaf's performance is more direct. She seems to sing as if from her own experience or memory. Later she claimed that it was just this, that she had had the experience as a street-girl with just such a tattooed stranger. By then her memory had so confused the lyrics of her songs with her own experiences that it is difficult to know what to make of her assertions.

Either way, her approach is fearless and untouched by the mawkish sentimentality that - for me - mars her late records. The song begins simply with the slow bugle call, then Piaf begins to narrate the story with the urgency of a girl telling her friend a story. When the refrain begins, the band swinging in the style typical of the late 1930s, a solo violin echoing the repeated bugle call, Piaf's use of the natural, fast vibrato in her voice, her rallentando at the end, with just the hint of a sob at the word 'soleil' as she describes the boy being buried in the sand.

Piaf's recordings from the years 1935-1946, up to and including her most famous disc of all, 'La Vie en rose', maintain this wonderful mixture of melody and drama. Once her fame had spread and the lurid details of her private life drew to her an audience that seemed to encourage her death-wish, her repertory reflected more and more the sensational triumphing over what had once been a much purer and essentially Parisian style. In My Life, her harrowing memoirs, Piaf defined her own singing: 'My songs are myself, my flesh, my blood, my head, my heart, my soul.'

(Photographs omitted)