Classic French Singers (and Why We Love Them)

“Where there’s music there can be love”
French Proverb


French Playing Flute For as long as I remember, I’ve adored the sound and feel of French music. Strange, as until recently, I couldn’t understand a single lyric. Nevertheless, back then; those tiny details didn’t seem to matter. There was something about the tunes, the sound of the language perhaps, that seemed to bypass the rational self and leap at the heart. And so, for a wretched romantic like me, the songs and music induced a world of make believe, a distant memory or imagined love affair. Perhaps, too, it was a sign of things to come. A subconscious prompt telling me I’ve either lived in France in my past life or will do so in the future. Strange, how la vie throws little twists and curveballs in ones direction - and why is it that we only ever realize these things in hindsight? Cafe in FranceI understand that for some people, French music might not be their idéale cup of café, but I’m guessing if you’re interested in French culture, you may want to (at the least) listen to a couple of tunes. Let them wash over you. And maybe, just maybe, the experience will illuminate (for you) a tiny (or not so tiny) path to the heart of the nation. Either way, one can’t help but be affected in some way, shape or form.

“Music expresses that which can not be said and on which it is impossible to be silent” - Victor Hugo

To be honest, I wasn’t too sure where to begin, as there are literally hundreds of classical French singers. But I managed to introduce a short list of favorite artists, all of whom, living or not, are still around in one form or anotherIn France they linger in every nook and cranny, invisibly linking its people. Sound waves streaming through café terraces, red wine in Pigalle, cigarette fumes entwining souls in French Brasseries, the eyes of a radiant Parisienne.

Throughout the rest of the world they endure in old black and whites. Stills of life in Paris. Frozen images of a time, invoking and inspiring romantic fiction, passion, and a strange sensation of wanting to know more, feel more, experience more. If only in tiny fragments.

Edith Piaf (1915-1963)

French singer Edith Piaf

“I want to make people cry, even when they don’t understand my words.” – Edith Piaf

Born in 1915, in the working class eastern end of Paris, Edith Giovanna Gassion’s early life set the stage for her eventual self-destruction. A grey childhood, she was blind from age 3 – 7 due to keratitis, grew up in a whorehouse run by her grandmother, was adopted by the ‘working girls’ and from a young age started singing on top of café tables at her grandmother’s insistence - and afterwards in the streets at age 15.

Eventually, a nightclub owner Louis Lepléé discovered the diminutive girl at age 19, groomed her for the stage, gave her a new name and picked out her uniform simple black dress. Voila! A star was born. Ironically, the name Piaf, which literally means ‘little sparrow’, belied the power of her voice and highly lucrative talent. Not only did she have a vocal instrument like no other – she soon became one of France’s national treasures as she belted out tunes about l’amour and the working class she knew only too well. Powerful, emotive and raw, she managed to tug at the heartstrings of not only her French audience but also the world.

Marcel CedanHer private life was another matter entirely. Countless health problems, drug dependency and a messy love life casting a relentless shadow. Her string of lovers far too long to count - all of whom she dismissed (excepting, the self proclaimed ‘love of her life’, married boxing champion Marcel Cerdan), who died during the height of their romance in a plane crash in 1949.

Piaf passed away in 1963 at the young age of 48. During her funeral procession traffic in Paris came to a complete stop for the second time in history. The first time was World War II.

Some of her most famous tunes include La Vie En Rose; Non, Je ne Regrette Rien; Hymne à L’Amour; Milord; Padam, Padam; Mon Légionnaire; Les Trois Cloches; Mon Dieu; La Foule.

Monique Serf , AKA Barbara (1930- 1997)

Monique Serf

Tall, dressed in black (also known as ‘the lady in black’), with pale skin and a sadness that emanated from every pore, endeared Monique Andréé Serf (better known as Barbara) to her loving and faithful public. Born in Paris into a Jewish family, she sang melancholic songs of war, about her family’s plight and lost love.

A songwriter in the tradition of Brel and Brassens. A fighter for social and women’s rights and an artist who publicly exposed her heart, soul, pain (about her father abusing her sexually when she was a girl), she was widely listened to and admired. Evidently, the sensitive, intense and troubled poet suffered scars that branded her performances. Some well-known classics of the French legend include… Göttingen, Nantes, Quand Ceux Qui Vont, A Mourir Pour Mourir, L'Aigle Noir, Dis Quand Reviendras-Tu?, Ma Plus Belle Histoire d'Amour.


Juliette Gréco (1927-2002)

Juliette Greco

"The pen-worker tracing his drab, black letters to paper eventually forgets that words have a sensual beauty. The voice of Gréco comes as if to remind him of this. In a soft, warm light she brushes against them, setting them ablaze.” - Jean-Paul Sartre

Born in Montpellier - in the South of France, the French actress and chanson grew up as a shy child who was educated in a strict environment by nuns and spent long periods of her time by herself. As a teenager she moved to Paris (with her mother and sister), took up dance classes, and began training her voice at the Paris Opera just before the World War.

She soon started to hang out with the likes of Jean Paul Sartre, Boris Vian, Camus and Jean-Cocteau and took an active interest in politics, attending youth communist meetings.

Juliette Greco magazine coverIn due course, her striking mysterious looks, rebel nature and sensual voice landed her small theatre rolls, magazine covers and the like. Eventually, too, the right people started penning some tunes that made her popular in bohemian circles, the Saint-Germain-de-Prés and Latin Quarter Districts. As one would expect, the Left-Bank legend became the darling of café society, her life played out against a backdrop of wild jazz and cabaret clubs.

Although the poetic singer/songwriter was popular in the bohemian circles, the woman whose voice “encompasses millions of poems” didn’t make her mark in the French music scene until the 60’s, which is when she became a household name. In spite of her success, the existentialist who married 3 times suffered from depression and tried to commit suicide from which she later recovered. Some of her famous tunes include: Parlez-moi d’amour, Je suis comme je suis, Déshabillez –moi, Si tu t’imagines, Sous le ciel de Paris, Strip-tease, Embrasse-moi.

Jaques Brel (1929-1978)

French singer Jacques Brel


“My trade is a lonely one. I’m a craftsman, if you like. It so happens that these days singers are better paid than blacksmiths.” - Jacques Brel

Although he was Belgian he wrote and sang in French (sometimes Flemish too). Probably his best known song, Ne me quitte pas, can break your heart in a second, during which, the artist is not exactly singing, rather, emotional-deep-sea-diving and seemingly unafraid to do so.  A man, willing to sing from a place of desperation and not intimidated by public humiliation. The ultimate in love songs, which sounds better in French, but to give you an idea, here’s a tiny translation of a verse…

“Don’t leave me now
I will cry no more
I will talk no more
Hide myself somehow
And I’ll see your smile
And I’ll see you dance
And I’ll hear you sing
Hear your laughter ring
Let me be for you
The shadow of your shadow
The shadow of your hand
The dog at your command
Don’t leave me now
Don’t leave me now
Don’t leave me now…”

Born in 1929, Brel went to a Catholic school (in Belgium). At age 16, he started a theatre group, wrote plays and in 1951 began writing and performing his songs in cabarets (in Brussels) where he was discovered by Jacques Canetti who brought him to Paris. Once there he struggled for a while because the French didn't immediately warm to the odd-looking 'Belgian'. Though slowly but surely, he ended up winning them over with his deeply emotional performances (seems the French are suckers for that kind of stuff :) and extraordinary charisma. Eventually, the American press dubbing him the "Magnetic Hurricane" virtually guaranteed his road to stardom.

Jacques Brel Amsterdam album coverBetween 1955-57 the singer/composer/poet released 2 albums and recorded 2 of his most beautiful and popular chansons. "Amsterdam" and "Le Plat Pays". In 1966, however, he left music for a while in order to pursue his love for the cinema (acting as well as directing) and traveling. He directed a couple of films, which were unsuccessful and acted in some others (commercial as well as art house) that weren’t too shabby.

In 1974 he sailed the seas on his boat with his girlfriend at the time, lived on an island, donated a lot of money to a children’s’ charity and was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died in 1978 in France, at the age of 49. The music, the man, an icon of French music, still powerful, poetic and unforgettable.

Some of his famous tunes (apart from Ne me quitte pas, Amsterdam and Le plat Pays), are La valse à mille temps, Mathilde, Quand on n’a que l’amour, Marieke, Le Moribund, Bruxelles, Rosa, Le Vieux, Jacky, La chanson de vieux amants, Les Bourgeois.

 Georges Brassens (1921-1981)
French singer Georges Brassens


"I would like everyone to understand that they can be creators, that they are creators. The context isn't important, it's to help a world to exist, to be born." Georges Brassens

A poetic master, his unique style crafted around simple melodies has earned him a place in the French artistic heritage. Born in Sète, a town near Montpellier, the man who is known as a sort of “universe of soft anarchy”, is as well known in France as the Beatles are in the UK (maybe that’s because 85% of his songs are about women :)

The stuff of Brassens is witty, deep and humble, it is, however, not easy to translate, which is why, for non-French speakers it’s difficult to get a good translation of his work. How does one translate subtext, emotion, dark humor anyway? And you can forget about ‘Google’ translate.

Last testamentIn any case, his songs reached far beyond language, gender and color. A libertarian, his songs spoke of freedom as he continually challenged the “accepted” ways and “traditions” most people have taken as a given. Brassens died of cancer in 1981. Here’s a quote from one of his songs ‘Le testament’, ‘Last will and testament’.

"J'ai quitté la vi' sans rancune, j'aurai plus jamais mal aux dents, Me v'là dans la fosse commune, la fosse commune du temps." / “I've left this life with no rancour, I'll never have toothache again, Now I lie in the communal grave, the communal grave of time."

Some of his well known songs include: La mauvaise reputation, Les copains d'abord, La Cane de Jeanne, Les amoureux des bancs publics, Le gorille, Mourir pour des idées.


There are of course more. More French artists I’d like to tell you about, but it’s impossible to include the following names and do them justice without writing an entire encyclopaedia (now there's a million dollar idea!). For this reason, I hope you will consider the above to be an aperitif to what’s actually out there. Still, if you’d like to know a little more, check out some of the following names:

  • Yves Montand – French actor/singer and once lover of Edith Piaf who pretty much promoted his career
  • Charles Aznavour – one of France’s most popular singers (also one of my favorites
  • Nino Ferrer – renowned French/Italian singer, actor and jazz musician
  • Maurice Chevalier – popular actor, singer and vaudeville entertainer
  • Léo Ferré – singer, poet, composer (a melancholic anarchist)
  • Mireille Mathieu – the French chanteuse hailed as the new Edith Piaf and achieved enormous commercial success
  • Michelle Jonasz – singer, songwriter and composer who started as a pianist
  • Alain Barrière – well known French singer who once participated in the 1963 Eurovision song contest (only the French could forgive something like that)
  • Jaques Dutronc – singer, songwriter, actor, guitarist, composer married to Françoise Hardy (another legendary singer/actor)
  • Tino Rossi – French cabaret star and romantic idol with an operatic voice - also a movie star
  • Dalida – gorgeous, world famous singer, born in Egypt but naturalised in France, she sang in 10 languages
  • Hugues Aufray – well known for his French covers of Bob Dylan songs
  • Marie Laforet – French, folk, pop and rock singer and actress
  • Gilbert Becaut -  singer, composer and actor also known as “Monsieur 100 000 volts” due to his high energy performances
  • Jean Ferra - singer-songwriter and poet who specialized in singing poetry

“When you write a song, most of the words you use are in black and white, and then, from time to time, you use one that’s in color. These words in color are part of ourselves, because we give them a meaning. If you like, we give them a third dimension.” - Jaques Brel

A exclusive by Tanja Bulatovic


And Anne Sylvestre ?

Great but where is Anne Sylvestre ?

Other singers

Come now, Lucienne Delyle should be up there with Piaf!

Excellent listGreat to be

Excellent list
Great to be pointed in the right direction

What about Georges Moustaki?

What about Georges Moustaki? One of my favorites!