One of Nana Mouskouri’s biggest musical influences was French songstress Edith Piaf. By many fans and music critics alike, Edith Piaf is perceived as the “greatest singer” that France has ever known. Edith Piaf was born Edith Gassion, being named after a nurse from the first World War [Edith Cavell], who lost her life giving aid to the French soldiers in an effort to help them escape from German occupation. Piaf, which translates into “sparrow,” would receive her nickname approximately twenty years later by a nightclub manager, Louis Leplee.
Piaf’s mother was a cafe singer, meanwhile her father was an acrobat who performed in the streets of France. For a major part of her childhood, Piaf was raised by prostitutes, where in her early years ranging from three until seven, Piaf was blinded due to a condition called keratitis; however, with much faith and prayer to Saint Therese, she was able to be cured miraculously according to tradition. In her teen years, Piaf joined her father in his street performances, which marked her first public performance, where Piaf got noticed for her talent, especially for her rendition of France’s national anthem “La Marseillaise.”
At the age of seventeen, Piaf gave birth to her only child, Marcelle, a daughter, who passed away at the age of two from meningitis.
After being discovered by nightclub owner Louis Leplee in 1935, he was able to help Piaf overcome her stage fright and advised her to wear a black dress, which would later become her signature in all her performances. Thanks to Leplee’s efforts, Piaf landed a record contract, where her first two records were produced on the same year, and France took notice of Piaf’s exquisite voice.
Piaf helped discover yet another influential French singer, Yves Montand, and formed an intimate relationship with him. They broke up when Piaf realized that Montand was approaching the same level of success as hers.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Piaf became an international phenomenon, where she would tour Europe, as well as North and South America. At one point in her career, Piaf was the highest paid female vocalist in the world. Her greatest composition was writing and recording “La Vie En Rose,” a popular song which would be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame fifty three years later in 1998.
Her greatest love interest was Marcel Cerdan, a married middleweight boxing champion, whom she had an affair with. Cerdan died tragically in a plane crash in 1949, a loss which would leave Piaf devastated.
Piaf married singer Jacques Pills in 1952 and divorced four years later; acclaimed German singer and actress Marlene Dietrich, a close friend of Piaf’s, was the matron of honor at their wedding. In 1962, Piaf married for the final time a Greek actor and singer Theophanis “Theo” Lamboukas, who was twenty years her junior; Piaf would later rename him Theo Sarapo, a surname which translates into “I love you.”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Piaf would be a regular performer at the Paris Olympia Theater, a venue she would later save from bankruptcy in 1961, upon debuting her signature song, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” This tune sums up everything in Piaf’s life where despite all the multiple hardships and successes she’s endured, she has absolutely no regrets.
Although Edith Piaf passed away on October of 1963, at the age of 47, after losing the battle with liver cancer, her vocals will live on forever. The theme conveyed in all of Piaf’s recordings showcases the significance and ability to love. Her funeral procession was massive, where a plethora of her peers and fans gathered in the streets of Paris, to pay their tributes and respects to one of the greatest French musicians the world had ever known.
In contemporary media, Edith Piaf has been depicted in many films and theater productions. French actress Marion Cotillard was honored with the Best Actress Academy Award for her stellar performance as Piaf in the Olivier Dahan film, La Vie En Rose, which depicts Piaf’s life from her early years until her death; Cotillard transforms in this performance and plays Piaf in three stages of her life: her teen years, adult life and dying days. In theater, Naomi Emmerson portrayed Edith Piaf in “Piaf: Love Conquers All,” in an Off-Broadway run at the Soho Playhouse Theater in 2008, in a solo performance that was well-received by the New York audience and garnered rave reviews from theater critics.