While every city is unique and has its own special attractions, Paris has always had a particular magic. The leafy boulevards, the magnificent buildings and the dreamy Seine are a strong pull for tourists, but for visitors and Parisians alike, the varied and often spectacular entertainments appeal even more than the architecture. This record celebrates the singers and musicians who created that special delight in the years between the wars.
Maurice Chevalier opens the show with Paris, Stay The Same, a description of the delights of the city, perhaps made more personal for him as it was recorded in America, during his six-year stay in the 30s. Like Chevalier, Mistinguett was born and bred in Paris and like him had a very long career. Her first show was in 1895 and she was still regularly performing as late as 1951 when heart trouble finally forced her to retire. She was said to have had the most magnificent legs in show-business. In the early 30s she took the young Jean Sablon under her wing, encouraging him to continue his very French version of ‘crooning’, with so much success that by 1937 Sablon had taken his songs to New York and was competing with the Americans on their own ground.
Charles Trenet wrote several of Sablon’s early hits while still himself half of double-act ‘Trenet et Hess’. His first solo record, Je chante made Trenet a star in his own right. Using and adapting American jazz influences he created a totally French style – not only French, but immediately and buoyantly his own. He is still writing and recording and has become the grand old man of the French record industry*, replacing his his near contemporary Tino Rossi, who recorded from 1930 until his death in 1982. Rossi was born in Corsica, and many of his songs have the feel of the island and are sung in the local Italian dialect. Equally at home with romantic ballads or operatic arias, his voice was ideal for the microphone.
No one would suggest that Fernandel was a great singer, but his few records remind us of that great horsey face and the single winking eye that convulsed his cinema audiences. Lucienne Boyer was completely different. Her soft confidential style and sweet voice made her much sought after by composers. She was a star from 1930, and her daughter, Jacqueline Boyer, is one of France’s most popular singers today.
Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli are two of the small group of non-American jazz musicians who had a true creative genius. Starting out by copying Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, they soon made an international reputation with a series of highly inventive and strongly musical records. The partnership was broken by Django’s early death in 1953, but happily Stephane Grappelli is still delighting and amazing audiences with his violin virtuosity.**
Mireille wrote very classy songs and sang them with a breathless excitment that made her France’s favourite girl singer. When she was not singing the songs herself she was writing material for Chevalier, Sablon and others – like Trenet her work was very Parisian, while becoming influenced by American composers of the time. Singers tended to become more international and Leo Marjane based her approach on American role models like Frances Langford or Ruth Etting rather than French ones. She reached the peak of her fame during the Occupation and after the war worked in the United States where she was one of the earliest TV stars. Hildegarde’s influences were very similar and her career was almost entirely in America. Her neat version of Quand un Vicompte was recorded in London with a backing by Mantovani, long before he developed all those shimmering strings.
Ray Ventura led a show-band, much in the style of Harry Roy or Billy Cotton in England. Lots of clowning about on stage and always very impressive sets. Although much of Ventura’s repertoire was distinctly French, he could successfully adapt current American hits such as The Music Goes Round And Around. Most American of all was Josephine Baker – after all, she was American. She arrived in France in 1925 with the Revue Nègre and scandalised Paris by dancing the Charleston virtually naked. But the city soon took her to its heart and it became her home. The most French singer of all must be Edith Piaf. She was dearly loved and when she died in October 1963, 40,000 Parisians followed her funeral procession. Here are two of her earliest records – Il n’est pas distingue and La java de Cezique – the abrasive quality is still being developed but the passion and warmth are already startlingly clear.
Since the turn of the century, Paris has offered a continuous and glamorous parade of stars. Here are fifteen of them, in the same bright performances that nightly won them accolades at the Casino de Paris, Alhambra, Moulin Rouge, Folies Bergère, Olympia and the hundred other theatres and cabarets of Paris. Pour yourself a Pernod, light up a Gauloise and enjoy the greatest French performers of their day.
© 1989 KEVIN DALY
*Jean Sablon died in 1994.
**Stephane Grappelli died in 1997.