A Trip Back to the Gentlemen of the French Chanson

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Ever since I was a little boy, my family used to play French songs all day long around the house.

Being the son of a Spanish mother who grew up in France, my musical backdrop was quite different from what my school friends experienced. It made me feel special.

As I grew older, these singers became more than just background music. They were cherished memories of my family. Delving into their biographies, I started to admire their personal style, sensitivity, and that unmistakable gentlemanly flair they exuded.

My family frequently played Gilbert Bécaud’s “Je reviens te chercher” (I come to get you). His iconic dotted tie, made from his mother’s dress after a job refusal, became his amulet on his rise to fame in French music.

He rose to become one of the luminaries of French music, earning iconic status at the Paris Olympia.

Another constant in our musical lineup was Claude François. A titan of French music, he penned “Comme D’habitude” (As usual), which would later inspire Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”. Sadly, like some other renowned French artists, François met a tragic end, dying unexpectedly at 39.

Joe Dassin’s records also frequently spun on our turntable, with tracks like “Et si tu n’existais pas” (And if you did not exist) and “Les Champs-Élysées” evoking fond memories. Born in New York City to an American father and French mother, Dassin became a sensation in France, and later became the first French to ever sign with an American label, CBS. His life, like François’s, was tragically cut short.

Of course, there’s also Jacques Brel, the maestro of the French chanson. Although Belgian-born, he’s cherished in the annals of French music. Legends like Ray Charles and David Bowie have covered his songs. Tunes like “Ne me quitte pas” (Don’t leave me) remain my go-to on reflective days.

Serge Gainsbourg songs were often around too. Arguably the bad boy of the French scene, he was known for releasing provocative and sometimes scandalous tracks that divided the French opinion.

While living a short but intense love affair with Brigitte Bardot, one night after an argument, she asked him to write the most beautiful song he could imagine. He then wrote “Je t’aime…moi non plus” (I love you…me neither) and “Bonnie and Clyde”.

Lastly, there’s Charles Aznavour. The pinnacle of French chanson for me. Often likened to Frank Sinatra, Aznavour’s Armenian roots (born Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavouryan) enriched his artistry. By his passing in 2018, he’d sold 180 million copies. Tracks like “La Bohème” and “Tous les visages de l’amour” (covered decades later as “She” by Elvis Costello) take me back to the days when I first admired these musical gentlemen.

Listen to Pol’s Spotify playlist “A Trip Back to the Gentlemen of the French Chanson”.

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