1. Cora Vaucaire, “Les feuilles mortes”
From: Le Meilleur de Cora Vaucaire, CD compilation, 2006.
Music: Joseph Kosma, lyrics: Jacques Prévert.
Cora Vaucaire: vocals. Unknown musicians.
First composed in 1946 for an unsuccessful movie by Carné, Les portes de la nuit (Gates of Night), “Les feuilles mortes” was then performed on stage by Yves Montand, as well as by Cora Vaucaire, without attracting any attention. A few years later, it was recorded, first by her (1948), then him (1949). It was only through that last record that the song finally became a success, even internationally (its English title is “Autumn Leaves”).
2. Georges Brassens, “Je me suis fait tout petit”
First track of the untitled 33⅓ rpm 10-inch LP Philips N76064R, 1956.
Lyrics and music: Georges Brassens.
Georges Brassens: vocals, guitar; Victor Apicella: guitar; Pierre Nicolas: double bass.
One of the subtle songs of Brassens, with many puns crafted in a strict poetic frame and an astonishingly wide vocal curve he sings in his detached and unsustained manner. The instrumental accompaniment (two acoustic guitars and a double bass) is the same for Brassens’s whole output, from his first record in 1952 to his last (1977).
3. Barbara, “Du bout des lèvres”
From: Le soleil noir, 33⅓ rpm LP Philips 844.783 BY, 1968.
Lyrics and music: Barbara (stage name for Monique Serf).
Musicians on the album: Barbara: vocals and piano; Michel Gaudry: bass; Roland Romanelli: accordion; Michel Portal: saxophone and clarinet; Eddy Louiss: organ; orchestra: Pierre Labadie, Louis Lugigliardi, Jean Lamy, Jacques Wiederker: cello; Jean-Marie Roller, Willy Lockwood: double bass; Henri Giardano: piano; Michel Sanvoisin: recorder.
Arrangement: Michel Colombier. Production: Claude Dejacques.
A typical song from and by the “longue dame brune”. Melancholy was one of her mottos and she sang with great poetry and an unforgettable voice the joices and sorrows of love. In this song, the melismas at the end of each sentence (on very nice chord changes) are particularly sweet and bewitching.
4. Barbara, “Au coeur de la nuit”
From: Bobino 1967, 33⅓ rpm LP Philips 844.742 BY, 1967.
Lyrics and music: Barbara (stage name for Monique Serf).
Barbara: vocals, piano; Joss Baselli: accordion; Michel Gaudry: bass.
This song from and by Barbara is not among the most famous, given that it was never recorded on a studio album. But this live performance in Bobino (an important Parisian music hall), which was issued on an album by Philips in 1967, gives a right idea of the emotion and perfection Barbara was able to achieve on stage. Experts of Barbara’s work agree that the lyrics are probably reminiscent of the incest she suffered from her father as a young teenager. Also, the tonal construction is typical of her music: here she goes through the keys of G, Bb Ab A (through a surprising E7 arpeggio on an extra bar), then back to G for each stance. This erratic tonal course results in a kind of musical “chaloupé” (as in many of her other songs), which I believe is a musical symbol and expression of her general affective instability.
5. Jacques Brel, “Au suivant”
From: Jacques Brel, 33⅓ rpm 10-inch LP Barclay 80 222 S, 1964.
Lyrics and music: Jacques Brel.
Jacques Brel: vocals; Gérard Jouannest: piano; François Rauber: arrangement and orchestra conductor.
The typical team of Brel’s masterpieces (Brel, Jouannest, Rauber) has produced here a jewel of pessimistic humour, enhanced by Brel carnal delivery of his funny though poetic lyrics about unsatisfactory sex experiences, and by Rauber brilliant orchestration of the initial compositional ideas. The rhythm is reminiscent of tango, one of the most frequent dance rhythms in so-called chanson française since the beginning of the XXth century.
A live cover of “Au suivant” by M (Mathieu Chedid) in 1998 shows how a more recent rock orchestration and feel transforms the song without “killing” it at all. Furthermore, the audience enthousiasm in singing along “au suivant, au suivant” (“next one, next one”), if certainly due to the singer’s well-known stage charisma, also reveals how French people, thirty years later, still know and cherish the repertoire of the 1950s and 1960s.
6. Anne Sylvestre, “Mouchelette”
From: Fabulettes, 45 rpm 7-inch EP Philips E1E9183, 1962.
Lyrics and music: Anne Sylvestre.
Anne Sylvestre: vocals; Barthelemy Rosso: arrangement and orchestra conductor.
One of the first among many and many songs Anne Sylvestre wrote for children: here it describes how nicely flies “dance” in the sun. The fast pace tarantella feel accompaniment demands a flutist with great technical and musical skills. In addition to Anne Sylvestre’s talent as a singer songwriter, “Mouchelette” also proves the Sixties to be a golden age for orchestral song arrangement in France.
7. Anne Sylvestre, “Les gens qui doutent”
From: [untitled 11th studio album], 33⅓ rpm 12-inch LP A Sylvestre 558058, 1977.
Lyrics and music: Anne Sylvestre.
Anne Sylvestre: vocals; François Rauber: musical direction; unknown musicians.
A song with simple acoustic guitar accompaniment and generous lyrics, as is often the case with Anne Sylvestre: «I love people who doubt [...], people who will not possess things, even less possess other people, people who only wish they are windows for children to look through [...] I love their little tune, even if they are considered as dummies».
(on the live album Vincent Delerm, A la Cigale, Tôt Ou Tard, 2007).
A touching live cover (2006) by Vincent Delerm, Jeanne Cherhal and Albin de la Simone, three notorious singer-songwriters from the 2000s. Here again appears the admiration of a younger generation of song artists towards a former one, and the ideology of altruism and solidarity which characterizes much of the French song scene.
8. Charles Aznavour, “Comme ils disent”
From: Idiote je t’aime, 33⅓ rpm 12-inch LP Barclay 80458, 1972.
Lyrics and music: Charles Aznavour.
Charles Aznavour: vocals; Christian Gaubert: arrangement and orchestra conductor.
One of several live performances of this famous song available on the web, probably in the 1970s, by the look of Aznavour. Sound quality here is imperfect. But the way Aznavour plays the role of a gay person (on the model of a collaborator of his he appreciated a lot), leading his audience to admire and love the character he is impersonating, is astonishing. It was an important and uncommon choice from a very popular singer in a pre-AIDS time, when defence of LGBT people was not a current topic, far from it. «Et je précise / Que c’est bien la nature qui / Est seule responsable si / Je suis un homme oh (homo), comme ils disent» («homo» in French means «gay»): «And I must add that nature alone is the cause of my being gay».
9. Charles Aznavour, “La bohème”
From: [untitled album], 33⅓ rpm 12-inch LP Barclay 80 296 M, 1966.
Music: Charles Aznavour, lyrics: Jacques Plante.
Charles Aznavour: vocals; Paul Mauriat: arrangement and orchestra conductor.
A most famous French song, which exemplifies every feature of French variété at that time: a classical orchestration and harmony, a rhythm and feeling untouched by the modernity and “Americanity” of rock, an ample melody supported by a sustained and vibrated vocal legato, and lyrics expressing every bit of sentimental clichés about Paris and la vie d’artiste in a timeless Montmartre.
10. Claude François, “Comme d’habitude”
From: Comme d’habitude, 45 rpm 7-inch EP Disques Flèche/Philips 424 550, 1967.
Music: Jacques Revaux and Claude François, lyrics: Gilles Thibaut and Claude François.
Claude François: vocals; David Whitaker and his orchestra.
One of the most famous songs from the 1970s France variété, by one of the most famous singers of that time. It expresses the usual amount of bitter and sweet sentimentality, through Claude François’s quite particular voice, which was widely popular at the time. That song was then made famous internationally, due to its adaptation, a few months later, by Paul Anka (“My Way”), then to its success as a Frank Sinatra’s signature song.
11. Yves Montand, “C’est si bon”
From: Théâtre de l’Etoile. Récital, 33⅓ rpm 12-inch LP Odéon OSX 101 / 102, 1953.
Music: Henri Betti, lyrics: André Hornez.
Yves Montand: vocals; Bob Castella et ses rythmes (“and his rhythms”), which seems to mean here Bob Castella: piano; Henri Crolla: guitar; Emmanuel Soudieu: double bass; Roger Paraboschi: drums.
Composed in 1947, the song was first recorded by Montand in january 1948, on a 78 rpm record (Odéon 281 936), with an arrangement by Bernard Hilda (Polydor 560.049), then by lots of other French artists. Montand recorded it once more in 1948, in an arrangement by jazz pianist Bob Castella, Montand’s usual pianist and conductor: this can be heared on
But the most lively and witty version is probably the one we can hear on the important live album Théâtre de l’Etoile. Récital, an album which keeps track of a series of concerts in 1953, where Montand met a huge success, and his jazz partners were at their best.
“C’est si bon” was of course given an international audience by Louis Armstrong cover in 1950.
Another version by Montand was recorded in 1964, on his Le Paris de…. There, the arrangement by Hubert Rostaing includes backing vocals, a usual device at that time: they give the song a romantic and perhaps somewhat soppy taste. Widely present on YouTube, that 1964 version may be listened to for example here.
12. Benjamin Biolay, “La toxicomanie”
From: La superbe, double CD album Naïve NV818612, 2009.
Lyrics and music: Benjamin Biolay.
Benjamin Biolay: vocals, piano, flugelhorn; Pierre Jaconelli: bass; Magnus Persson: drums, vibraphone; Dieter Limbourg: saxophone.
In Biolay’s songs, with their poetic and hermetic lyrics, jazzy accompaniment is often a signifier of deep nostalgia. La superbe was one of the most celebrated albums by Biolay and is a milestone in French chanson recent history.
13. Nino Ferrer, “Mirza”
From: Z’avez pas vu Mirza?, 45 rpm 7-inch EP Riviera 231 114 M, 1965.
Lyrics and music: Nino Ferrer.
Nino Ferrer: vocals, bass; Bernard “Le Baron de Mehouilles” Estardy: organ; Richard Hertel: drums; Clyde Borly: horns orchestration and direction (unknown musicians).
Nino Ferrer got a stream of hits from 1965 to 1967, due to the humor and character of the artist, and certainly to the irresistible drive of his vocals and of his instrumental accompaniment («Mirza», «Oh! Hé! Hein! Bon!», «Les cornichons», «Le téléfon», «Madame Robert»…). Appreciate the organ solo, the horn riffs à la Memphis Horns, the reasonably convincing imitation by Ferrer of soul voices (growl, belting), on a 12 bar blues chord progression, all probably coming from an enthusiastic knowledge and admiration for Stax hits of the mid-Sixties, with their spicy organ parts and delightfully tense Memphis Horns head arrangements. Even the absurd lyrics, about looking for a dog called Mirza, evoke “Walking the Dog”, a Stax signature hit by Rufus Thomas in 1963. The videoclip, realized in the Bruxelles-Midi railroad station (Belgium), shows French spirit of the time, with its kitsch and tongue-in-cheek falsely stupid shots.
14. Camille, “Ta douleur”
From: Le fil, CD album Virgin 7243 5 63878 2 9, 2005.
Lyrics and music: Camille (stage name of Camille Dalmais).
Camille Dalmais: vocals and arrangement; MaJiKer: arrangement; Sly: beatbox; Martin Gamet: bass.
A huge success for a great and excentric album, “Ta douleur”, single from the studio album Le fil, revealed Camille Dalmais’s talent, in composing and singing, as well as in generous and clever lyrics and a striking stage presence. The album was awarded several times, twice in the 2006 Victoires de la musique (Music Victories), a French equivalent of Grammy Awards. That year, Camille was invited to perform “Ta douleur” during the ceremony, a performance presented in this youtube videoclip. Her bare feet, symbols of simplicity, humanism and altruism, are part of her stage persona.