Album review

Juliette Gréco

Songwriters Past and Present


14/11/2003 - 

Juliette Gréco. The legendary name has been enough to inspire the most creative French songwriters and musicians. This month sees the release of a new Gréco album, Aimez-vous les uns les autres ou bien disparaissez…, written in collaboration with a host of new songwriting partners (including Miossec, Benjamin Biolay, Gérard Manset and Art Mengo). To mark the event RFI Musique looks back on the songwriters Gréco has worked with over the past 50 years, honouring everyone from Jacques Prévert and Georges Brassens to Jean-Paul Sartre and Serge Gainsbourg.

Juliette Gréco acknowledges that "my career has been built on a series of significant encounters - and God knows they've all been wonderful, miraculous and exceptionally enriching!" Gréco, who has always refuted the term of icon, has attained that status almost in spite of herself, her deep, sultry vocals inspiring a team of (mostly male) songwriters to create a gem-studded repertoire for her. The following list is subjective and in no way exhaustive:

Jean-Paul Sartre. Like Gréco, the legendary French author and philosopher was a leading figure on the Saint-Germain scene in the post-war years. Sartre played an instrumental role in Gréco's career, encouraging her to perform the work of the great French poets. The legendary chanson icon thus got her career off the ground in 1949 with Si tu t'imagines (a song featuring lyrics by Raymond Queneau and music by Joseph Kosma). Later in her career Gréco would also sing Sartre (La Rue des Blancs-manteaux).

Jacques Prévert. After meeting Gréco in Saint-Paul de Vence in Provence, Prévert went on to write one of her all-time classics in 1951, Je suis comme je suis (featuring music by Joseph Kosma). Gréco's renditions of Les Feuilles mortes and Les Enfants qui s'aiment confirmed the songs as two major works in her repertoire. In fact, the French chanteuse proved to be an important champion of Prévert, helping him gain recognition on the French mainstream.

Charles Aznavour. Aznavour was 'discovered' by Edith Piaf in 1946, but Gréco was one of the first singers to perform Aznavour's songs while he was still a relative unknown. She recorded Il y avait (featuring music by Pierre Roche) in 1951. But the most famous classic Aznavour gave her was Je hais les dimanches (also recorded in 1951). The song became a huge hit and led to Gréco being one of the first artists signed to the new Philips label.

Léo Ferré. Gréco and Ferré's paths crossed in Paris after the war and she went on to perform his songs on the cabaret scene in the 50s. Gréco recorded La rue in 1955 and L'amour the following year. But it was in 1961 that Juliette Gréco created one of her most famous classics, Jolie môme. Although the chanteuse has always claimed the song never referred to her own good looks (Gréco has never considered herself a great beauty), her performance of Jolie môme is as sultry and sensual in her 70s as it was in her 30s.

Jacques Brel. The Belgian singer-songwriter approached Gréco around 1955 while he was still a complete unknown. A close friendship developed between the pair, Brel once expressing his respect in the strongest terms, declaring "Juliette's a real man!" After performing Ça va la Diable for the first time at the Olympia in Paris in 1955, Gréco went on to give equally impressive renditions of other Brel classics such as Vieille (1964), La Chanson des vieux amants (1967) and J'arrive (which she included in her live repertoire from 1970 onwards). Besides 'sharing' songs, Brel and Gréco had another important thing in common and that was their collaboration with the same pianist (Gérard Jouannest, who went on to become Gréco's husband) and the same arranger François Rauber (who has worked with Gréco from 1964 up until her newest release). Gréco was present at Brel's side right up until the singer's death in 1977. And in the 80s she paid her own tribute to the Brussels-born star, performing a series of concerts entirely based on Brel's repertoire.

Serge Gainsbourg. Gainsbourg, who suffered from terrible shyness, claimed to have been intimidated by Gréco's "arrogance" when he first met her in the late 50s. Gréco recorded a 4-track EP in 1959 entitled Juliette Gréco chante Serge Gainsbourg (featuring Il était une oie, Les Amours perdues, L'Amour à la papa and La jambe de bois Friedland). This EP would help launch Gainsbourg's career as a songwriter. Gréco also recorded other Gainsbourg songs including Accordéon in 1962 and Strip-tease the following year. But it was La Javanaise, a song Gainsbourg wrote specially for Gréco, that proved to be a huge hit for them both in 1963. The song became a key number in both Gréco and Gainsbourg's repertoires and a classic in the French chanson repertoire.

Georges Brassens. Gréco was a great admirer of Brassens and she included his Chanson pour l'Auvergnat as part of her live act from the 50s onwards. In 1961 the chanson star from Sète gave Gréco Le Temps passé, before he had even recorded his own version of the song. Gréco supported Brassens at the Théâtre National Populaire in Paris in 1966, but Brassens made the gallant gesture of putting Gréco's name above his own on posters. Gréco went on to record another Brassens classic, La Marche nuptiale, in 1968.

Guy Béart. Guy Béart emerged on the Parisian cabaret scene in 1954, performing his own songs. His songwriting talent was soon spotted by the likes of Patachou, Zizi Jeanmaire and Juliette Gréco, who recorded her own version of Chandernagor in 1957. In 1960 Béart gave Gréco Il n'y a plus d'après, which remains a firm favourite with fans nostalgic for the good old days of Saint-Germain.

2003, Aimez-vous les uns les autres ou bien disparaissez. Gréco’s new album is completely in keeping with the spirit of her old offerings, bringing together as it does a host of songwriting talent. In fact, the eleven artists who collaborated on the album are all well-known in their own right. Some of them such as the late Serge Gainsbourg have been close to Gréco’s heart for a long time. Gréco’s latest album includes a new version of the Gainsbourg song Un peu moins que tout à l'heure (which she originally recorded in 1971), as well as Louis Aragon’s poem La Rose et le réséda (set to music by Bernard Lavilliers), a song by Jean-Claude Carrière (songwriter on the album Un jour d'été et quelques nuits in 1998) and a composition by her husband, the pianist and composer Gérard Jouannest.

But the principal interest of Aimez-vous les uns les autres ou bien disparaissez lies in the (rather unexpected) choice of new songwriting and composing talent it has enlisted, beginning with Gérard Manset. Manset, a French singer who has kept an extraordinarily low media profile to date, has contributed the song Je jouais sur un banc (a lyric from which gave Gréco’s new album its title). Then there’s Art Mengo who composed the music for Pour vous aimer, a song penned by two French authors, Marie Nimier and Jean Rouaud (who won the Prix Goncourt in 1990). Brest-born singer Christophe Miossec contributed three subtle and sober texts (set to music by Gérard Jouannest). Gréco appears to have been particularly pleased with Miossec’s contributions, declaring in a recent interview that she "would love to have had a son like him!" (Le Monde, 4 November 2003). And, last but not least, there’s Benjamin Biolay whom Gréco insisted on meeting in 2001 after hearing what the young singer-songwriter had done for Henri Salvador. Biolay has written five songs on Gréco’s new album (three with Jouannest) including L'Amour flou with its superb Middle Eastern-style intro. Gréco appears to have been more than happy with the young songwriter’s work and now refers to him as her "little Biolay."

Fans will be delighted to learn that Juliette Gréco is keeping up the live side of her work, too. The French chanson star is currently touring Germany and will be appearing at the Olympia in Paris in February 2004. At this concert she will be performing songs by new songwriters such as Mano Solo and Bénabar, proving that while her icon status was acquired in the past her eyes (and ears) are very much open to the present. Gréco’s new album not only rejuvenates her image, but establishes her as an artist who is eternally curious about the world. The 76-year-old chanteuse with the half-innocent, half-femme-fatale charm and the deep, sultry vocals – not to mention a dream team of songwriters – seems intent on keeping the spirit of French chanson alive and well.

Aimez-vous les uns les autres ou bien disparaissez… (Polydor/Universal)

Juliette Gréco is currently on tour in Germany. Dates include Munich 14 November, Dortmund 15 November, Stuttgart 16 November, Berlin 26 November and Dortmund again 27 November. She will be at the Olympia in Paris between 27 and 29 February 2004.

Catherine  Pouplain - Pédron

Translation : Julie  Street