In Parisian working-class slang, a piaf is a sparrow. The proper term is moineau, which means “little monk.” But in the song “Comme un moineau,” the moineau is a prostitute who ekes out a living in the gutter where she was born and where she expects to die (“Elle est née comme un moineau/Elle a vécu comme un moineau/Elle mourra comme un moineau.”) This was the song that the diminutive nineteen-year-old Édith Gassion was belting out to passersby in October 1935 on a street near the Champs-Élysées when she was discovered by a nightclub owner called Louis Leplée. He was enthralled by the untrained voice that could penetrate the noise of the street (her “assaultive vibrato,” Carolyn Burke calls it), but also by the girl’s charismatic lack of sophistication. A few days later, the terrified waif was introduced by Leplée to the wealthy audience of his nightclub, le Gerny’s, “as she was when I first saw her: no makeup, no stockings, in a cheap little skirt.”
She stood rigidly on the stage, an incongruous specimen of Paris street life, trying to hide the unfinished sleeve of the sweater she had been knitting for the occasion. The guttersnipe’s powerful lungs won the audience over, and she became almost instantly famous. For the following twelve weeks, “La Môme Piaf” (Leplée had dubbed his protégée “Kid Sparrow”) was heard every Sunday morning on the popular program Radio-Cité. She acquired a black dress, some lipstick and mascara, and learned to match her gestures to the songs she was singing. It is a mark of Piaf’s professionalism that, from then on, practically every performance was a triumph.
One of her first reviewers, Pierre de Régnier, had been writing a newspaper column for years and had seen everything that Paris had to offer, but even he struggled to explain how La Môme Piaf could make the crummiest old song so moving. She seemed “embarrassed at being so small”; she was thin and “poorly coiffed,” but there was that voice “the color of oysters,”
that indescribable voice, which is both harsh and ample, ordinary and unique…still childlike and already full of despair, that voice that hits you in the stomach just when you’re not thinking about it.
Leplée decided that Édith would specialize in the chanson réaliste. She already knew the songs; she had the accent; she was, in the trade term, “authentic.” Chansons réalistes were mawkish, drunkenly depressing songs, written in easily comprehensible argot, about prostitution, drug addiction, hopeless love affairs, drudgery, and inescapable poverty. The singer herself was supposed to have experienced—or to be living through—all these obnoxious travails, but to have found, deep within, the courage or the brazen good humor to struggle on. The song for which Piaf is now best known—“Je ne regrette rien” (1960)—was a much later, upmarket version of these funereal ditties …