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Georges Moustaki: Musician who wrote some of Piaf's most enduring songs


The singer-songwriter Georges Moustaki, who died on 23 May at the age of 79, described himself as a "wandering Jew" and a "Greek shepherd" in his signature song "Le Métèque", French slang for a mongrel, writes Pierre Perrone. Moustaki's nonchalant delivery and the diverse nature of the 300-plus chansons he composed for Edith Piaf, Juliette Gréco, Dalida and Françoise Hardy mirrored the easy-going, multicultural lifestyle of his native Alexandria, where his Corfiot parents ran a bookshop.

Born Giuseppe Mustacchi – literally bushy-bearded, which he was – he spoke Italian at home, Arabic with his play-pals and French at the lycée where he was educated before following one of his sisters to Paris. He renamed himself after Georges Brassens, whom he met by chance in his brother-in-law's bookstore. Brassens gave him an entrée into the Saint-Germain-des-Prés cabarets and he began performing with an acoustic guitar. "My taste for music came from French songs: Charles Trénet, Henri Salvador, Yves Montand," said Moustaki, who became an in-demand lyricist, but failed to impress Piaf professionally when they first met in 1958.

Nevertheless, she invited him to a concert at the Olympia and they became lovers. The 20-year gap between "the little sparrow" and her "gigolo" fed the gossip columns of the French press while he wrote some of Piaf's most enduring repertoire, including "Les Orgues De Barbarie", "Eden Blues" and "Le Gitan Et La Fille" – "The Gipsy and the Girl" – a metaphor for their doomed relationship.

"Milord", the melodramatic chanson about the good-time girl and the British aristocrat, started out as a few words about the infamous Milord L'Arsouille cabaret, scribbled on a paper napkin. The idea, however, took Piaf's fancy and Moustaki fleshed out the lyric. Set to Marguerite Monnot's jaunty piano tune, "Milord" became one of Piaf's biggest international hits. "Milord" has been recorded in French by Bobby Darin and the British female punk band the Mo-dettes – and was adapted into English by Bunny Lewis for Cher.

Moustaki could dash off a lyric like "La Dame Brune", his languorous duet with Barbara, in an hour, and only recorded "Le Métèque" because the actor-turned-singer Serge Reggiani had declined it. Its success made him a star in his own right.

A man of the left who dedicated "Sans La Nommer" to the "nameless" revolutionary spirit of the May 1968 generation, Moustaki sang in seven languages and later incorporated the bossa nova and tango rhythms into his music. He is survived by his daughter, Pia, who is also a singer. He gave up performing in 2008 because he suffered from emphysema, and died in Nice.