Song-writer remembers the day he gave Piaf 'Je ne regrette rien'

14th February 2007, Comments 0 comments

One of the 20th century's most famous songs -- "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" -- might never have been recorded had the ailing Edith Piaf not woken from her sleep one day in 1960 to overhear a conversation at her front door.

One of the 20th century's most famous songs -- "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" -- might never have been recorded had the ailing Edith Piaf not woken from her sleep one day in 1960 to overhear a conversation at her front door.

"Her secretary told us she was very ill -- that she couldn't receive anyone," recalls composer Charles Dumont, 77, who with lyricist Michel Vaucaire had just written the celebrated French anthem to human resilience.

"But Piaf heard us and said we might as well come in. We waited for an hour while she got herself ready. When I played the song, her reaction was instantaneous. She said, 'It's providence. This is the song I have waited for all my life. This song will go round the world!'"

Within weeks Piaf was back on stage at Paris's famous Olympia theatre, where "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" was the show-stopper. The song did indeed travel the world, and after her death in 1963 it came to symbolise the tiny singer's indomitable triumph over adversity.

"She told me that it was thanks to this song that she got a new burst of life. It gave her an extra three years of living," says Dumont.

Edith Piaf's biopic opened the Berline Film Festival

The scene where Dumont first plays Piaf the notes of "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" on the piano features prominently in "La Mome" (The Kid), a biopic which is released this week in France amidst a resurgence of interest in one of the country's best-loved performers.

Directed by Oliver Dahan, the 140-minute film, to be released internationally under the title "La Vie en Rose", has had mixed reviews but there is unanimous praise for its lead performer. Marion Cotillard, who appeared recently with Russell Crowe in "A Good Year," required hours of daily make-up and lip-synchs Piaf's performances with uncanny exactness.

"Cotillard achieves definitive greatness by stooping and stiffening into her character, letting herself be possessed by Piaf's depths ... What presence, what labour, what joy!," said reviewer Carlos Gomez in Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper.

"La Mome" takes us from Edith Gassion's 1915 birth in a working-class area of Paris, the daughter of a circus contortionist and a half-Algerian mother. She was given her new name -- "Piaf" means little bird -- after she was spotted singing popular songs for money on a street corner.

Marion Cottilard resuscitating Edith Piaf

Her career took off in the late 1930s and after World War II she became an international star. Audiences marvelled at the extraordinary voice that emerged from her frail physique. Jean Cocteau said that every time she sang, "it was like she was tearing out her soul for the last time."But Piaf's life was one of suffering. She lost her two year-old child to meningitis, she had permanent poor health, her love affairs were legion and doomed, and as she grew older she fell victim to alcohol and morphine.

"Towards the end we would have to almost lift her out on to the stage. She was not just ill -- she was prostrate. But then the curtain went up, and she would sing for an hour. She had extraordinary powers of recuperation, and like with all artists it was the audience that gave her strength," says Dumont.

Marion Cotillard as herself

Dumont himself went on to write some 30 songs for Piaf and was with her constantly till the end of her life.

"There was nothing sexual about our relationship. She was simply in too miserable a physical condition for that to be an issue. But there is no question that we loved each other," he says.

"'Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien' was her testament. It synthesized everything. At the end of her life, she was saying that despite all she had been through, she was glad to have lived it. People responded because the song spoke to them in a philosophical, almost literary way."

Dumont went on to have a long and successful career as a song-writer and performer, with several gold discs to his name. But everywhere he goes it is "that song" which has blazed

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