Did you know that the Phonautograph, the earliest known sound recording device in the world, was patented in France in 1857? So it’s no surprise that the French have forever been making waves with their sounds. From the apogee of musical genres like French Cabaret and jazz to the golden ages of the chanson française, we take you through the most iconic artists to define music in Paris.
Perhaps the most unforgettable voice of the century, La Môme Piaf (or the Little Sparrow) donned a little black dress that she asserted helped audiences focus more on her singing and less on her appearance. Ties with mobsters, car accidents, memory loss, fatigue, voice loss and drug treatment programs were just the few reasons that annihilated her well established singing career. Regardless, she never regretted anything; so attested her chart topping single ‘Non je ne regrette rien’. Discover her story at the Musée Édith Piaf in Paris.
This suave singing seducer learned English as a prisoner during World War I, which held its advantages in Hollywood and London compared to other upcoming French artists. Once the art of seduction was mastered, he donned a tux and a boater hat which earned him the title of ‘The French Lover’. With an Academy Honorary Award for the 1958 RomCom Gigi (directed by American stage director Vincente Minnelli) he is considered a major artist and contributor to France’s cultural heritage.
This 1950s Parisian jazzman and frequent entertainer at Le Caveau de la Huchette, the underground cradle of Parisian jazz music, had an immense passion for jazz. His uncle Ray Ventura was a jazz promoter in France during the 1930s and worked with French jazz reviewer Boris Vian (also an important influence in the French jazz scene). Fascinated by French jazz band guitarist – Henri Salvador, he ditched the prestigious piano lessons for the guitar. As a freshman he joined his school’s Dixieland music band – Noise Makers – that drew inspiration from New Orleans jazz bands. France was very hostile to his version of jazz music, however when the French crooner sang ‘La Belle Vie’ it went on to become France’s famous classic jazz hits. Catch Paris’ very own Jazz Fest at Jazz A La Villette annually in September.
Castigated for his voice, his height, his gestures, his lack of culture and education, and his honesty, even Charles Aznavour’s music teachers all agreed he shouldn’t sing. But ‘France’s Frank Sinatra’ didn’t let the music industry critics get the best of him. The former Personal Assistant and Manager of French singer Edith Piaf, he endeavored to sing until his throat was sore. Recurring song themes include love, nostalgia and notably sensuality – his song ‘Après l’Amour‘ (After Making Love) was banned after being deemed too immoral. After a volatile period of civil unrest in France during May 1968, his song ‘Comme ils dissent‘ (As They Say) touched on the subject of homosexuality and its taboos in 1972. Time Magazine voted him Performer Of The 20th Century.
Nicknamed Little Doe during her aspiring ballerina years at Paris’ prestigious National Conservatory of Music and Dance, she’s also known by her initials B.B. French sex symbol and fashion icon during the 1950s and 1960s solicited Serge Gainsbourg (an influential figure in French popular music) to compose the ‘the most beautiful love song he could ever imagine’. Upon his muse’s request, Serge wrote ‘Je t’aime…moi non plus’ (I love you…me neither), but the prominent pop duet with explicit lyrics and sounds of female orgasm was deemed too risqué and the single was withdrawn from release.
‘He elevated song to the level of art; he was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire’ spoke French president François Mitterrand. A disillusioned painter, Gainsbourg attended Paris’ distinguished École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (the National School of Fine Arts), and earned his living as an unknown piano player in Parisian bars. He was rejected by the public and critics for his lack of looks, but found his medium in the Left Bank’s confluence of artists, musicians, writers and philosophers. Eccentric, un-shaven, a chain-smoker and a provocateur, his songs lyrics are now studied in French schools. His Parisian residence La Maison de Serge Gainsbourg remains a celebrated shrine covered in graffiti by zealous fans.
Kicked out of clubs and cabarets for singing new American music, he introduced American rock and roll to the French and helped it conquer France. Playing at France’s first rock festival in 1961, his major hit ‘Souvenirs, Souvenirs’ (Memories, Memories) led to a near-riot with a ban on rock and roll shows for several months. American rock hits mixed with traditional French pop established him as a full-fledged teen idol. Music genres such as psychedelic rock, soul, blues, ballads, country and rhythm & blues also piqued his interest. Known as ‘The French Elvis’,he’s ranked among France’s greatest cultural icons.
Françoise Hardy received her first guitar for her 17th birthday (and for getting her high school diploma), and by 18 had quit her studies at Paris’ Sorbonne to release her European hit song ‘Find Me A Boy‘. She received the Female Artist of the Year award at the 2005 French Music Awards, and is married to Jacques Dutronc, a commercially successful French star of the counterculture movement that dominated the second half of the 1960s. She and her husband are also parents of Jazz guitarist Thomas Dutronc who received the UNAC award for the most played French single around the world in 2008.
‘Who is it who had the crazy idea to invent school?’, so goes the song ‘Sacré Charlemagne’. Written by France Gall’s father, this song sold a stunning two million copies. Her musical career is partially owed to ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son‘ (Wax doll, rag doll) composed by French Songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, which triumphed at the annual European Eurovision Song Contest in 1965. She also starred in the rock opera Starmania (with a duet alongside English singer Elton John), but later withdrew from the spotlight upon the death of her daughter.
French music mogul with a midas touch, he wrote Céline Dion’s D’eux, which went on to become the best-selling French language album of all time (selling 9 million copies worldwide). He has collaborated with other French icons like Johnny Hallyday and Patricia Kaas, and has scored numerous film soundtracks including Asterix & Obelix Take On Caesar. He also wrote charity Christmas anthem ‘Restos du Coeur’ (Restaurants of the Heart), which is the delightful French equivalent of ‘We Are The World’.