Chanson Francaise was a new development in popular music where lyrics started to mean something and singing was not there just to keep the music company. The movement started in France and came to prominence during the era of the music hall. In early Vaudeville (US) and Music Hall (UK) song lyrics contained vulgar expressions which eventually polite society took exception to and public singing split into two forms; simple bland lyrics which complemented the melody but had no real depth to their meaning; or clever use of double entendre preferred by comics. In France song lyrics had deeper meaning and the singer songwriter was very much part of Chanson Francaise. In Paris the oldest music hall opened its doors in 1888 and was owned by Joseph Oller, (the creator of the Moulin Rouge). At first it was called "Montagnes Russes" then in 1893 it was renamed the Olympia. The music hall played host to a variety of entertainment including circuses, ballets, and operettas but in the thirties as the singer song writer began to take hold the Olympia became a premier venue.
Rina Ketty had a big international hit with J’attendrai in 1938 but most probably the best know act to emerge around this time was a Belgian-French actor, singer and popular entertainer, called Maurice Chevalier and both he and Rina filled the auditorium many times. During the Occupation of Paris, Chevalier was accused of collaborating with the Germans. As a communist he always denied this and become one of the most affable and well respected character actors in Hollywood. He starred in many musicals, including Gigi. After the Liberation of Paris the theatre was open to all Allied troops, free and gratis and all the shows always ended with the Can Can.
Edith Piaf worked with the Resistance and despite leading a very full life it was also a sad one. She conquered the US after the war and became the vanguard for many other European singers including Viki Leandros and Juliette Greco that would follow. Édith Piaf was responsible for introducing Charles Aznavour to the public after he had served her as her chauffeur.
By the end of World War ll, French musicians became wildly experimental and diverse integrating jazz into chanson francaise. By the early 50s a natural beauty called Juliette Gréco became the archetype pin up girl of the Beat Generation. Her physical presence was stunning and she inspired many songwriters to write love songs about her. Her fabulous complexion, high cheek bones and hair, always worn unfashionably long and free, made her a photographer’s dream. She appeared at the Olympia many times both as a singer and later as companion to Miles Davis.
The theatre fell into dis-repair until it was revived in 1954 by Bruno Coquatrix. Over the next few years it became the premier venue for rock and roll artists with Johnny Hallyday, Richard Anthony, and Claude François all becoming French rock’n’rollers. Johnny Hallyday was the Johnny O’Keefe of the French speaking world and enjoyed a long career with many hits. Something specific to chanson francaise was the singer songwriter and the rise of Lennon and McCartney was in no short measure due to a wider acceptance of this phenomenon. Ironically Paul McCartney at parties would do a little turn for the guests lampooning the stereo typical singer songwriter of the time – a solitary guitarist in the corner of the room singing a deep and meaningful love song like, Michelle. Françoise Hardy was a singer song writer and became the 60s French icon setting the pathway for other women singer song writers to follow like Carol King, Joni Mitchell and Melanie.
Jacques Brel was another a master of the genre with romantic lyricisms that revealed levels of darkness and bitter irony so suited to the French language. His tender love songs had flashes of barely suppressed frustration and resentment and his insightful and compassionate portrayals of the unsavoury side of ordinary life makes his music compelling listening. Many of his songs were translated into English and recorded by well known artists, like Terry Jacks (Season of the Sun) (1974); and Scott Walker (Jackie) (1967).
In the 60s the Olympia became the premier venue for international stars with Judie Garland, Petula Clark, the Beatles (1964), and Nana Mouskouri (1967) all appearing among many more. One particularly popular French act was Stephane Grapelli and all the more so when he appeared with Django Reinhardt.
In the early 60s, chic French people also liked to listen to records played by disc jockeys in small darkly lit cocktail lounges. The fashion caught on with the fast set in the US and the concept of the discotheque was born. A frequent visitor to the Olympia and the disco was playboy, Sacha Distel, who established himself as an international star gaining a mention in Peter Sarsted’s, ‘Where do you go to (my lovely)’ (1969). Another French singer-songwriter to appear at the Olympia was Serge Gainsbourg who began as a jazz musician in the 1950s. His adept song writing contained double-meaning with strong sexual innuendo and in 1969 Serge released what would become his most famous song in the English-speaking world, "Je t'aime... moi non plus.” Originally it was recorded with Brigitte Bardot, but Bardot took cold feet because it was so sexy and backed out. The version with Jane Birkin was eventually released and went to Number 1 all round the world, despite getting no radio airplay.
In the late sixties a group of Greek musicians moved to Paris and formed Aphrodite's Child. They scored an immediate worldwide hit with their first release, Rain and Tears. After the band split, Demis Roussos and Vangelis took completely different musical directions both succeeding in their endeavours. The Paris Olympia has over the decades showcased a wide variety of international performers, from the Beatles to Nick Cave, with many like Luciano Pavarotti, and Jeff Buckley giving outstanding performances.
Sadly the building fell into decline after Bruno Coquatrix’s death and plans were put in place to demolish it. Then in the 90s the government declared it a listed building. Consequently it has undergone extensive construction work and has been rebuilt as a perfect replica of the façade and grandeur of the famous red interior.
Worth a listen
J’ attebdrai (1938)
La Mer (1946)
Thank Heaven for Little Girls (1957)
Le vie en rose (1960)
J’aime Paris au mois fe mai
Chanson pour l’auvergnal
Rain and tears (1968)
Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin
Je t'aime... moi non plus (1969)
Raindrops keep falling on my head (1970)
Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt.