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Great European Lives: Charles Trenet

French actor, singer and songwriter Charles Trenet singing in Giovinezza. Italy, 1952 (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio by Getty Images) - Credit: Mondadori via Getty Images

Remembering of the life of the French actor, singer and songwriter.

One night in 1948 the French singer and songwriter Charles Trenet walked into a New York bar and heard the resident pianist playing his song La Mer. Released by Trenet in 1946, La Mer was his greatest success and would go on to sell more than 70 million copies, not to mention being covered by other artists a remarkable 4,000 times.

La Mer had always been special to Trenet and not just because of its runaway success. The lyrics were based on a poem he’d written as a teenager and the tune had popped into his head in 1943 as the train on which he was travelling skirted Étang de Thau, a lagoon in the south of France. He’d scribbled the melody down on a piece of paper and that same afternoon knocked the song into shape with his pianist Léo Chauliac.

When, five years later, Trenet walked into that Manhattan bar and heard that same song performed he felt like he’d truly arrived. The work whose creation and gestation had taken place over many years and would be the largest and most enduring aspect of his legacy had grown so big it was now firmly ensconced in the repertoires of jobbing lounge musicians an ocean away from France.

As the last notes died away and a ripple of applause washed around the room the Frenchman walked proudly over to the pianist and asked: ‘Tell me, do you know who wrote that song?’

‘Sure I do,’ came the reply. ‘Irving Berlin.’

As a Francophone artiste in an Anglophone world Charles Trenet was always going to struggle to achieve the fame and heights he enjoyed in France. A large number of those 4,000 cover versions of La Mer have featured English lyrics written by Jack Lawrence titled Beyond the Sea, recorded by a range of artists including Bobby Darin, Helen Shapiro, Robbie Williams and Rod Stewart. Yet for all the English-speaking world’s general antipathy to songs in other tongues Trenet’s version has more than held its own, even if a Manhattan cocktail bar pianist did try to claim it for the Great American Songbook.

It’s a measure of Trenet’s standing in France that on his death in 2001 at the age of 87, radio stations across the country cleared their schedules to launch lengthy and impassioned tributes. The following day’s issue of Le Monde included no less than eight pages of coverage and president Jacques Chirac led a range of politicians and celebrities in eulogising the singer in heroic terms. There was something unquestionably, unshakably French about Charles Trenet.

His playful baritone voice was as adept at cheerful, jaunty numbers packed with fast-talking wordplay as it was more traditional romantic ballads, making him a central figure in la chanson francaise along with Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour.

Instantly recognisable thanks to the dark suits and light ties he wore with a carnation in his buttonhole and a rumpled, narrow-brimmed fedora pushed back on his head, Trenet was still performing well into his ninth decade, releasing an album of entirely new material at the age of 82 and giving three sold-out concerts in Paris when he was 86, about which he quipped, ‘anyone who comes to these shows is excused from attending my funeral’.

For all the jokes, however, and for all he revelled in the nickname Le Fou Chantant, ‘the singing fool’, Trenet’s contribution to France’s musical landscape was enormous.

‘Without him,’ Brel once remarked, ‘we would all be accountants.’

Born in Narbonne to a lawyer father and a violinist mother who ran off to Russia with a soldier when Trenet was four (the mother and son later reconciled), the promising poet and painter studied first at Perpignan and then at art school in Berlin, where he befriended a young Marlene Dietrich.

Returning to the south of France, his talents with words and brush were noted by the poet and editor Albert Bausil, who suggested Trenet try his luck in Paris and helped him to secure a job there as a stagehand at Pathé. Trenet spent much of his spare time in the clubs and bars of Montmartre and Montparnasse and soon counted the likes of Jean Cocteau and Max Jacob among his friends.

There he also met the Swiss pianist Johnny Hess with whom he formed the duo Charles et Johnny, writing and performing their own material and aided greatly by an endorsement from no less a Parisian giant than Josephine Baker.

Before long Trenet was writing songs for more established artists such as Maurice Chevalier (Y’a de la Joie), Jean Sablon (Vous qui Passez sans me Voir) and the then up-and-coming Yves Montand (C’est la Vie qui Va). Just when he was building some impressive Parisian momentum, however, in 1936 Trenet was called up for military service and posted to Marseille.

It brought to an end his partnership with Hess but his early solo performances in the port city, where he established his carnation-and-fedora persona and honed his warmly eccentric stage show, gave him the confidence that he could make it as a solo performer.

‘He was so young, so fresh that the venue yielded to a rustic decor,’ said Jean Cocteau of Trenet’s early years on stage, ‘the projectors became the stiff branches of a cherry tree, the microphone a hollyhock, the piano a cow.’

For Charles Aznavour, it was ‘thanks to him that the public was introduced to surrealism in song’.

Trenet’s combination of an engaging personality and extraordinary artistic gifts made him hugely popular in France, so much so that on rare occasions when the whiff of scandal wafted towards him it barely ruffled the affection in which he was held.

Controversially, he chose to remain in Paris during the Second World War, performing in exclusive venues where the audiences were made up largely of high-ranking Nazi officials and from which Jews were prohibited.

Trenet’s defence was that despite being fluent in German since his time in Berlin he never spoke anything but French, and that he arrived just before he was due on stage and left immediately afterwards, refusing to meet or mix with Nazi dignitaries.

He did make an unlikely sympathiser: his homosexuality, love of jazz and circle of Jewish friends frequently sailed Trenet close to official disapproval, not least through persistent suspicions that he was Jewish himself (during the occupation he carried a copy of his family tree with him wherever he went).

When, after the war, the British launched an investigation into whether Trenet had indulged in collaborative activity by performing for the Nazi hierarchy he was soon cleared.

Indeed, Trenet’s 1943 song Douce France, meaning ‘gentle France’, became, during the occupation, almost an unofficial anthem, a totem of Frenchness for the oppressed population. After the war de Gaulle even quoted Trenet’s lyrics in speeches.

In 1963 Trenet was accused of ‘immoral and unnatural acts with persons of his own sex under 21 years of age’ at his home near Aix-en-Provence, another controversy that couldn’t dent his popularity. Indeed, during his time on remand Trenet wrote a song for his prison warder and went on to receive a suspended sentence that was removed on appeal and a fine subsequently reduced by half.

Trenet attempted to withdraw from the stage several times from the mid-1960s onwards but always returned. In 1965, for example, he made the first of a series of comebacks for a run of Paris concerts in which he performed 342 different songs in alphabetical order. ‘I don’t want to become a specialist in comebacks but I need to take up with the public again,’ he said after another failed attempt at retirement in 1975, ‘not least because I have learned that my songs are always new to someone hearing them for the first time.’

Indeed, even now nearly two decades after his death his albums are still big sellers in France and beyond.

As he wrote in his 1951 song L’âme des poètes, ‘the poets’ soul’, for his friend Max Jacob, who was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944, ‘Longtemps, longtemps, longtemps, après que les poètes ont disparu leurs chansons courent encore dans les rues’.

‘Long, long, long after the poets have gone, their songs are still walking the streets.’

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