The story goes that after her mother died Edith Giovanna Gassion went to live with her grandmother who ran a brothel in Normandy. When she was between the ages of 3 and 7 she was struck blind and it was only through the prayers of the prostitutes working for her grandmother that she regained her sight. It continues with her moving back to Paris to live with her alcoholic father. By the age of fifteen she was living on the streets supporting herself as a singer.
It was there she was discovered by Louis Leplee whose nightclub attracted all of Paris, and it was he who is credited with naming her La Mome Piaf, The Little Sparrow. When he was murdered a year latter, she was charged with being an accessory, but was acquitted. Some facts are verifiable, like that she was born on December 19th 1915 and died on October 11th in 1963, and maybe somewhere in the dusty archives of the Paris police force lies an old arrest report, but Edith Piaf's early life has become the stuff of legend over the years.
If anyone has ever deserved legendary status, perhaps it was this waif from the streets of Paris who captured the hearts of her countrymen, and after World War Two, North America and Hollywood fell at her feet. She stayed in France during the war, and while her public face was that of a willing performer for the occupation troops her assistance to the resistance was so well known that never has there been the faintest hint or suggestion that she was a collaborator. She would have pictures taken of herself with French prisoners of war, who in turn would cut their image out of the photo to use on forged identity papers to help them escape.
While all of this has added to her reputation and her legend, it was her singing that really mattered. It was her voice that saved her from the gutter and carried her up to the stars, and it's her voice that still lives on in the hearts and minds of people all over the world. A tribute album released in 1994, Tribute To Edith Piaf, featuring signers ranging from Donna Summers to Willy DeVille offering up their renditions of her music, showed just how far her influence spread.
Of course Europe has always been where she was first appreciated and where her influence has run the deepest, so it shouldn't be of much surprise that the renowned Montreux Jazz Festival would stage a tribute concert in her honour. Now as part of their Live At Montreux series of DVD presentations Eagle Rock Entertainment has released A Tribute To Edith Piaf that was presented in 2004.
Supported by a four piece Jazz combo led by French pianist Baptiste Trotignon, six singers from points of the world as diverse as Benin, Switzerland, the United States, Germany, and of course France, came to show their appreciation. No matter what they sing now, no matter what country they hailed from, all six proved time and time again just how much this one woman changed the shape of popular singing. It wasn't that she wrote any of the material she sang, it was her manner of singing, the way she turned a phrase, how she would pour her heart into every note as if her life depended on it, and the way she could appeal to audiences across all social and class lines by singing in the language of the people, that made her so popular.
Of the six performers; Michael von der Heide, Ute Lemper, Regine, Barbara Morrison, Catherine Ringer, and Angelique Kidjo, two stood out in my opinion for the manner in which they approached the music and their performances. That's not to say the others weren't good or competent, it's just that Ute Lemper and Catherine Ringer seemed to capture more of the spirit and jois de vivre that made Piaf so special.
Perhaps Ute Lemper had the advantage of being a stage performer, and years spent singing the songs of Kurt Weill had given her the understanding of what it takes to connect to an audience. With an earthy voice and an equally earthy presence, she easily captured the "singer of the people" spirit that was the trademark of Piaf, while at the same time imbuing the songs with the passion that brings the music to life. While not trying to sound like Piaf, she did try to present the songs she chose to perform in the style of Piaf to great success.
Catherine Ringer may not have had the best voice of the singers who appeared on stage that night in Montreux, but she more than compensated for it with performance and elan. While a couple of the other performers seemed to think it appropriate to treat the material with a reverence approaching the worshipful, Ringer understood that this was the music of a flesh and blood woman who had loved, cried, and laughed just like the rest of us do. If she felt that some lyrics needed to be spoken instead of sung she did so, and if she needed to sustain a moment for effect she'd do that too.
I think what I appreciated most about Ringer and Lemper, was their efforts to make their presentations performances, as if they were actors playing a character rather than just singers singing songs that someone else made famous. While the others all did wonderful jobs of singing the songs they selected, these two women managed to bring a little bit of "The Little Sparrow" to life on a stage more then forty years after her last performance. I doubt if either Ringer or Lemper ever saw a live performance of Piaf, but watching them on this recording you would swear they had just come from watching her performing at the Olympia in Paris.
While there is probably more myth than reality regarding the early life of Edith Piaf, there can be no doubting the respect and honour her talents are held in. When she died in 1963 the Archbishop of Paris refused to allow her a Catholic funeral because of her lifestyle, but her funeral procession was so large that it brought the streets of Paris to a standstill for the first time since the liberation in 1944. She belonged to the people, and the people didn't give a fig for what the authorities thought of their beloved Edith.
That type of spirit is almost impossible to recreate, yet there are moments during the DVD Live At Montreux 2004: A Tribute To Edith Piaf where you can catch glimpses of what she was, what she meant to the people of France, and what she has meant to the singers that have come after her. That in itself makes this a treasure worth owning. Edith Piaf will not come again, but if occasionally we can catch glimpses of her in someone else's performance, those are glimpses to be held on to and cherished.