From Piaf and Brassens to Brel and Gainsbourg
If you're a fan of classic French chanson-- lyrical, passionate songs about love, loss, bitterness and joy that are delivered by some of the great vocalists of the 20th century-- you should know that Paris is haunted with chanson history.
From Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel to Serge Gainsbourg, Juliette Greco and Alain Bashung, countless artists emblematic of the genre lived and performed in the French capital, marking it with their own distinctive sense of mystique and glamour.
An Inspiring Self-Guided Tour of "Chanson" History
Whether you discovered the records of Gainsbourg at 18 (long before he was rediscovered by young hipsters) and never looked back, or dusted off your parents' dusty old recording of Jacques Brel live at the Olympia to acquaint yourself with heart-wrenching renditions of songs like "Ne me Quitte Pas" and "Voir un Ami Pleurer", many places in Paris transport you straight into the heart of some of these classics.
And even if you have only a cursory knowledge of Piaf, Brel and the others, taking this self-guided tour may just inspire you to delve into their discography once you get home.
Without further ado, here are 5 places in Paris that bring back to life the legacies of the great French chanson artists.
The Olympia Theatre: A Legendary Concert Hall for French "Chanson"
The first stop in your self-guided tour of French chanson haunts in Paris is the Olympia concert hall. This is quite possibly the city's most famous modern music venue, owing especially to its storied history of hosting chanson greats including Edith Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel, Juliette Greco and the much-beloved Italian-Egyptian singer Dalida (see slide number 6.)
Whether you simply admire the facade and its timeless red-lettered sign, read up on tidbits of history and take in the historic pics displayed in the partially covered area around the box office, or actually bite the bullet and book a concert here, the place is drenched in musical legend.
Iconic Performances From "The Little Sparrow"
Edith Piaf gave many acclaimed performances here to rapturous crowds, including some of her last ones before passing away at only 48 in 1963. She notably debuted her famous song "Je ne regrette rien" in 1961 here, in an effort to help save the venue which was struggling financially at the time.
This event was, of course, portrayed in the biopic film about Piaf, "La Vie en Rose"-- with Marion Cotillard portraying the famed "little bird" Piaf.
Even if you're not a huge fan of the celebrated musicians who once haunted these halls and stages, it's a fascinating emblem of a certain modern, glamorous era in Parisian history. There's even a secret underground "street" running below the hall, which was designed to discreetly usher performers straight from their cars to the backstage area.
Location and Getting There
- Address: 28 Boulevard des Capucines, 9th arrondissement
- Metro: Opera or Madeleine (Lines 3, 8, 9)
- Tel: +33 892 68 33 68
After visiting the Olympia, why not stop in for coffee or dinner at the nearby historic brasserie, Cafe de la Paix (at 5 Place de l'Opera)- an establishment frequented for decades by famous musicians, artists and writers?
Serge Gainsbourg's House and "Graffiti Wall"
Serge Gainsbourg, often compared to Bob Dylan for his iconoclastic, mercurial self-stylings and poetic, gritty visions of the world, lived in a house near the Eiffel Tower from 1969 until his death in 1991.
The house itself isn't accessible, unfortunately, but the wall outside has become something of a homage site to the writer of songs like "Je t'aime, moi non plus", "La Chanson de Prevert" and "Bonnie and Clyde" (the latter was sung as a duo with none other than Brigitte Bardot). It's plastered with street art (most noticeably a portrait of the musician smoking, something he was rarely seen not doing).
For those who want to get a peek inside the house, Vanity Fair managed to gain access and published an intriguing, narrative-heavy profile that included interviews with Gainsbourg's former partner Jane Birkin and daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Location and Getting There
The house is located at 5 bis, rue de Verneuil, 6th arrondissement (Metro: Rue du Bac or Solferino).
The most dedicated fans can also go visit Gainsbourg's gravesite at Montparnasse Cemetery.
Edith Piaf Memorial (and Nearby Museum)
For die-hard fans of Piaf, affectionately referred to as "La Mome" (roughly, "the kid"), a visit to this obscure corner around the Porte de Bagnolet metro stop in northeast Paris may be in order. Commissioned by a local sculptor, the memorial has as many detractors as it has admirers.
Les Trois Baudets: Gainsbourg and Brel Performed Here
Much less famous than the aforementioned Olympia, Les Trois Baudets is a theatre and music venue that's nevertheless legendary in its own right for having hosted some great chanson performers.
Most notably, perhaps, it helped the young Belgian artist Jacques Brel launch his career, acquainting Parisian audiences with his throaty, rapturous vocal stylings and remarkably lyrical narratives. Later, the venue hosted a dreamy double-billing of Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg.
Georges Brassens, Juliette Greco, and Henri Salvador all debuted or gave legendary performances at this iconic nightclub, too.
Location and Getting There
Les Trois Baudets is located at 64 Boulevard de Clichy in the 18th arrondissement, not far from the seamy Pigalle area and its dance and sex clubs (including, of course, the legendary Moulin Rouge).
Metro: Blanche or Pigalle
Place Dalida in Montmartre: Homage to the Italian-Egyptian Songstress
Last but not least in your self-guided tour of legendary spots for chanson in the French capital is Place Dalida, an unassuming but lovely square hidden away in a residential corner of the otherwise packed-with-tourists district of Montmartre.
Named after the legendary Italian-Egyptian singer, who is lesser-known outside of France and Europe than fellow chanson performers such as Piaf and Brel, Place Dalida was inaugurated in 1997 near the singer's former house. She is buried nearby at the lovely Montmartre Cemetery, where dedicated fans can visit her tomb.
Unfortunately, as you can see from *certain* areas on the statue that appear worn, not everyone has given the bust the respect it merits. In recent years, some have called for city officials to restore it and protect it from vandalism.
Whether you've never heard of Dalida or frequently wake up in the morning with her stirring voice singing "Gondolia" or "Le Temps des Fleurs" running through your head, this little square is a worthwhile stop off the Parisian beaten track.
Place Dalida is situated at the corner of Rue Girardon and rue de l'Abreuvoir (18th arrondissement)
Metro: The closest metro station is Lamarck-Caulaincourt, but if you get off at Anvers to see the Sacre Coeur and other famous sites in hilly Montmartre, you can also wend your way through some of the area's lesser known-streets to find the quiet square (recommended for those who can).