is one of the greatest singers of all time, and her appeal was widespread, crossing over the boundaries of language and culture. Though many of her contemporaries never achieved the same level of international fame as Edith Piaf did, their music is equally timeless, and quite wonderful. If you like Edith Piaf, be sure to check out some of these CDs from other amazing vintage French singers.
Frehel (born Marguerite Boulc'h in 1891) was, like Edith Piaf, a woman with a tragic life story. Under her original stage name, "Pervenche", she became a darling of the French music halls. After two lovers in a row left her for other music hall stars, she left Paris, moved to Eastern Europe, and developed severe drug and alcohol addictions. Upon returning to Paris over a decade later, she took on the new stage name and renewed her career. She became quite famous, but though she achieved widespread success, her addictions eventually overcame her, and she died destitute. Her most well-known song was the accordion
-driven La Java Bleue
Berthe Sylva is a perfect example of an artist who is considered legendary and essential to many French music fans, but who is barely recognized at all outside of France. Born in 1886, Sylva was a successful music hall and radio performer for well over 30 years. In fact, hers was one of the first voices broadcast from the Eiffel Tower
when radio transmitters were built on top of it. Sylva was known for her jolly personality and love of food, drink and arts - her general joie de vivre
. She died in 1941, just as Edith Piaf was beginning to become famous. Among her greatest songs are "Les Roses Blanches" (Listen/Download
) and "Du Gris" (Listen/Download
Mistinguett, the stage name of Jeanne Bourgeois, was quite unlike some of the aforementioned singers in that her life was actually not so bad. She was born in 1875, lived to be 80, was highly successful for pretty much the whole time. Sure, she was a bit scandalous - she was a dancer and "entertainer" as well as a singer, and became famous for her stage shows at places like Le Moulin Rouge
and Les Folies Bergeres
, and she was one of the first people in history to take out an insurance policy on her legs. She was also notorious for her highly-scandalous affairs. But all-in-all, her life seemed to be a joyful one, and her legacy most certainly lives on. Her most famous song was "Mon Homme" (Listen/Download
Josephine Baker has easily one of the most glamorous, exotic and fantastic life stories of any artist in the 20th century. A singer, exotic dancer and fashion icon, she managed to make her mark on the Harlem Renaissance, the Art Deco design movement, the French Resistance, and the Civil Rights Movement. She mingled with Princess Grace and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. Long before Angelina Jolie or even Mia Farrow, she adopted 12 children from multiple ethnic backgrounds. Josephine Baker became a permanent French citizen in 1937, and remains a beloved figure in both French and African-American cultural history. Among her most beloved songs are "J'ai Deux Amours" (Listen/Download) and "Sur Deux Notes" (Listen/Download).
Damia, the stage name of Marie-Louise Damien, was Edith Piaf's immediate predecessor as the queen of sad, intense French pop songs. Like Piaf and other stars of the day, she got her start in the music halls of Paris, particularly those of Montmartre
, where chanson
blended effortlessly with classy burlesque. Damia's voice is particularly intense and lovely, a fact that she attributed to smoking three packs of strong French cigarettes per day. Her most beloved songs include, among dozens of others, "Tu ne Sais pas Aimer" (Listen/Download
) and "Les Goelands" (Listen/Download
If Edith Piaf's intense sadness is what appeals to you about her music, Jacqueline Francois may actually not be your favorite. Born of a middle-class family and classically trained, her roots are far from Piaf's street-urchin background. Where Piaf's songs are often morose, Francois tackles the lighter side of life, but they share the same intensity and passion for that fantastic mid-century Paris sound. Jacqueline Francois's most popular song was the dreamy anthem "Mademoiselle de Paris" (Listen/Download
Barbara, nee Monique Serf, was a later contemporary of Edith Piaf. She got her start in the music halls in the '50s, but didn't really make her mark until the mid-'60s. Unlike Piaf, Barbara wrote the majority of her songs, most of which were painfully sad torch songs - conveniently placing her right in the niche that Piaf left when she died. Barbara was not only an extraordinary singer, but a highly-skilled pianist. Her performances were significantly more subtle than the spotlighted, dramatic music-hall performances of the previous generation, but her understated stage performances amplified her intensity. Among her greatest songs are "Nantes" and "Ma Plus Belle Histoire d'Amour... c'est Vous".
Lucienne Boyer and Edith Piaf had a great deal in common, including (oddly enough), an ex-husband - Boyer was married to singer Jacques Pills in the '30s and '40s, and Piaf was married to him (briefly) in the '50s. Boyer began singing as a teenager, and by the mid-'20s, had become a major music hall star. Her career lasted through WWII, and well beyond - she remained popular for at least another thirty years, at which point she passed the torch to her daughter, Jacqueline, who became as popular as her mother ever had. Boyer's legacy includes some of the most beautiful recorded work of the 20th century, particularly the magnificent "Parlez-moi d'Amour" (Listen/Download
), easily one of the best recordings ever made.
Hardy is of the next generation of music hall stars - the ones who performed on television variety shows instead of in cabarets. Her style is quite different than Piaf's; it's much softer and sparser, and much more modern. However, Piaf's influence is more than evident - she truly changed the way French singers approached songs - and Hardy is lovely and elegant in her own right. Francoise Hardy is very much still alive and still recording to this day, and the French view her as an icon of pop culture and high fashion. For die-hard Piaf fans, Hardy's earlier work will be more appealing, including songs like "J'suis d'Accord" and "Le Temps de l'Amour", both of which have touches of rock-and-roll but still maintain a vintage French feel.
Mireille Mathieu, like Hardy, didn't begin her recording career until after the death of Edith Piaf. Mathieu's voice and style, though, are much closer to Piaf's, and when she debuted in 1965, comparisons were immediately drawn between the two women. Known as "Mimi" to her legions of fans, Mireille Mathieu is one of the most prolific and popular singers the world has ever known. In her career, which spans from the mid-1960s to today, she has recorded over 1200 songs and sold over 150 million copies of her albums. Among her hundreds of hit songs are the iconic "Mon Credo" and "C'est Ton Nom".