Memories and melodies of Edith Piaf fill the Paris air on the 50th anniversary of her death
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Memories and melodies of Edith Piaf fill the Paris air on the 50th anniversary of her death
Paintings representing late French singer Edith Piaf displayed in her apartment now turned into a museum in Paris, on the eve of commemorating the 50th anniversary of her death. France's greatest global star Edith Piaf died fifty years ago on October 10, 1963. AFP PHOTO / BERTRAND GUAY.

By: Angus Mackinnon

PARIS (AFP).- It's 50 years since she died and Paris still feels a bit more like Paris with Edith Piaf playing in the background.

It was hard not to hear that unmistakeable sound on Thursday as radio stations marked the anniversary by playing her most famous recordings, filling the capital's cafes and bistros with a throaty voice that has lost none of its power to move with the passage of time.

It was a day for remembering Piaf the woman, as well as the performer, with hundreds of fans, including groups from Japan and Switzerland, making a pilgrimage to Belleville, the still down-at-heel Paris neighbourhood where she was born Edith Giovanna Gassain to a singer mother who was soon to abandon her.

On the front of 72 Rue de Belleville, there is a plaque that declares: "On the steps of this house Edith Piaf, whose voice would later move the entire world, was born into utter destitution on December 19, 1915."

She was actually born in a hospital round the corner: the idea that Piaf literally entered the world via the streets of Paris was one of the many myths she cultivated about herself, most of which have been debunked by recent biographies.

Self-serving invention was so integral to her character that Le Monde journalist Robert Belleret entitled his recent biography of the star, "Piaf, a French myth".

Even as she lay dying from liver cancer in the southern French town of Grasse, she was planning the way her death would be presented, leaving precise instructions for her body to be whisked up to Paris and for the world to be told she had died in the city where she was born, and which inspired many of her songs.

Interred in Pere Lachaise, the cemetery that is the final resting place of dozens of celebrated artists from Oscar Wilde to Jim Morrison, Piaf's funeral cortege was followed by more than 100,000 people.

'Regal and fragile at the same time'
The turnout was testimony to the extent to which the singer, who had narrowly and perhaps undeservedly escaped the ignominy of being branded a collaborator after Paris's liberation from the Nazis, had won the hearts of a nation.

The Catholic Church, at the time, was less forgiving, the Archbishop of Paris decreeing that there would be no funeral mass for a divorcee who had, in the words of the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano, lived her life in a perpetual "state of public sin".

It was a judgement that reflected Catholic doctrine at the time, and, in today's more forgiving climate, the Church prefers to celebrate the power of Piaf's art to move the human spirit.

A memorial mass was held Thursday where the singer was baptised. "It was a way of praying for someone who is in everyone's heart, and, also a way of making amends," the parish priest, Emmanuel Tois, told AFP.

The enduring popularity of the songs Piaf made her own has been underlined by the runaway success of contemporary French singer Patricia Kaas's show "Kaas sings Piaf", which reaches the 100th date of an international tour at Paris's Olympia theatre on Thursday.

Not everyone however is ready to forgive Piaf's capricious ways. Even half a century on, fellow singing icon Juliette Greco still bears the psychological scars inflicted on her as a teenager by Piaf's sharp tongue.

"She could not stand other women who sang, she was regal and fragile at the same time," Greco, now 86, told Le Parisien newspaper.

"She'd say I was badly dressed, ugly, with hair like a drowned rat. I was only 19, just starting out."

But Charles Dumont, the composer who wrote 29 of Piaf's recorded songs, including the one that defines her -- "Je ne regrette rien" -- remembers a different woman, one who was fiercely protective of, and endlessly generous to, those who were close to her.

"How could you not like a person like that?" Dumont said. "When you worked for her, she'd do everything she could to give you anything that you wanted."

Dumont, 84, also recalled the unerring ear for a hit that was such an important element of the alchemy that made Piaf a global star.

"The first time I played 'Je ne regrette rien,' to her she went 'Was it really you who wrote that?'

"Then she said, 'You've nothing more to worry about, this song will go round the world and it will follow you to the end of your days'."

© 1994-2013 Agence France-Presse

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