A tribute to Charles Trenet

Charles Trenet (born Louis Charles Auguste Claude Trénet, 18 May 1913, Narbonne, France – 19 February 2001, Créteil, France) was a French singer and songwriter, most famous for his recordings from the late 1930s until the mid-1950s, though his career continued through the 1990s. In an era in which it was exceptional for a singer to write his or her own material, Trenet wrote prolifically and declined to record any but his own songs. His best known songs include “Boum!”, “La Mer”, “Y’a d’la joie”, “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?”, “Ménilmontant” and “Douce France”. His catalogue of songs is enormous, numbering close to a thousand. While many of his songs mined relatively conventional topics such as love, Paris, and nostalgia for his younger days, what set Trenet’s songs apart were their personal, poetic, sometimes quite eccentric qualities, often infused with a warm wit. Some of his songs had unconventional subject matter, with whimsical imagery bordering on the surreal. “Y’a d’la joie” evokes ‘joy’ through a series of disconnected (though all vaguely phallic) images, including that of a subway car shooting out of its tunnel into the air, the Eiffel Tower crossing the street and a baker making excellent bread. The lovers engaged in a minuet in “Polka du Roi” reveal themselves at length to be ‘no longer human’: they are made of wax and trapped in the Musée Grévin. Many of his hits from the 1930s and 1940s effectively combine the melodic and verbal nuances of French song with American swing rhythms. His song “La Mer”, which according to legend he composed with Léo Chauliac on a train in 1943, was recorded in 1946. “La Mer” is perhaps his best known work outside the French-speaking world, with over 400 recorded versions. The song was given unrelated English words and under the title “Beyond the Sea” (or sometimes “Sailing”),

was a hit for Bobby Darin in the early 1960s, and George Benson in the mid-1980s. “La Mer” has been used in many films such as The Dreamers, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 film, and more recently in the closing scene (on the beach) of Mr. Bean’s Holiday. The song was also used in the opening credits of the 2007 film, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, which ironically used the song to highlight the paralyzing effects of a stroke that felled his fellow Frenchman, Jean-Dominique Bauby. Other Trenet songs were recorded by such popular French singers as Maurice Chevalier, Jean Sablon and Fréhel. When he was seven years old, his parents divorced and he was sent to boarding school in Béziers, but he returned home just a few months later, suffering from typhoid fever. It was during his convalescence at home that he developed his artistic talents, taking up music, painting and sculpting. In 1922 the Trenet moved to Perpignan this time as a day pupil. A water-colourist friend of the family André Fons-Godail, the “Catalan Renoir”, used to take him out painting. His poetry is said to have the painter’s eye for detail and colour. Many of his songs had references to his surroundings such as places near Narbonne, the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean coast. He hated mathematics with a passion but passed his “baccalauréat” with flying colours in 1927. After leaving school he left for Berlin where he studied art, and later he also briefly studied at art schools in France. When Trenet first arrived in Paris in the 1930s, he worked in a movie studio as a props handler and assistant, and later joined up with the artists in the Montparnasse neighbourhood. His admiration of the surrealist poet and Catholic mystic Max Jacob (1876-1944) and his love of jazz were two factors that influenced Trenet’s songs. From 1933 to 1936, he worked with the Swiss pianist Johnny Hess as a duo known as “Charles and Johnny”. They performed at various Parisian venues, such as Le Fiacre, La Villa d’Este, the Européen and the Alhambra.

They recorded 18 discs for Pathé, the most successful of which was “Quand les beaux jours seront là/Sur le Yang-Tsé-Kiang”. The Charles and Johnny records feature Hess on piano, with the two frequently singing in two-part harmonies with quickly alternating solo spots for the two. Around 1935, the duo appeared regularly on the radio on a broadcast called Quart d’Heure des Enfants terribles. The duo continued until 1936 when Trenet was called up for national service. It was after his national service that Trenet received the nickname that he would retain all his life: “Le fou chantant” (the singing madman). In 1937, Trenet began his solo career, recording for Columbia, his first disc being “Je chante/Fleur bleue”. The exuberant “Je chante” gave rise to the notion of Trenet as a “singing vagabond”, a theme that appeared in a number of his early songs and films. At the start of World War II, Trenet was mobilized. He was in barracks at Salon-de-Provence until he was demobilized in June 1940, when he moved back to Paris. There he would perform at the Folies-Bergère or at the Gaieté Parisienne (two famous cabarets) in front of a public often consisting of German officers and soldiers. The collaborationist press tried to compromise his name and published that “Trenet” was the anagram of “Netter” — a Jewish name. He was able to show his family tree to the authorities, proving that he had no Jewish origin. This act of self-defence was held against him long after the end of the war. Like many other artists of the time, he chose to go on entertaining the occupying forces rather than sacrifice his career, showing little interest in the Jewish issue. He agreed, when asked by the Germans, to go and sing for the French prisoners in Germany. It is only fair to note that, as a homosexual, (see the section Return to France below) Trenet was himself in grave danger of deportation to the camps and may have had little choice but to co-operate and keep a low profile. The refrain from the song Verlaine, “Blessent mon coeur d’une longueur monotone…”, (“Wound my heart with monotonous langour…”) from Paul Verlaine’s Song of Autumn, (popularized by Trenet) was used as the Allied code to the French “underground” signaling that the Normandy invasion in June of 1944 was imminent.

After the war he decided to move to United States where he lived for a few years and where he quickly became a success.  After a few triumphant concerts at the Bagdad in New York, Trenet became a big hit and was approached by Hollywood. He met the likes of Louis Armstrong and began a long-lasting friendship with Charlie Chaplin. On 14 September 1951, Trenet returned to Paris and made a comeback at the “Théâtre de l’Etoile”. He incorporated ten new songs into his act, including “De la fenêtre d’en haut” and “La folle complainte”. In 1954 he performed at the “Olympia” music-hall in Paris for the first time. The following year he wrote the famous “Route nationale 7” (a tribute to the introduction of paid holidays). In 1958, Trenet was the headlining act at the “Bobino” and the “Alhambra”. In 1960 he returned to the “Théâtre de l’Etoile”, appearing on stage for the very first time without the famous trilby hat which had for so long been part of his act. In 1963, Trenet spent 28 days in prison in Aix-en-Provence. He was charged with corrupting the morals of four young men under the age of 21 (they were 19). His chauffeur claimed that Trenet was using him as a pimp. The charges were eventually dropped, but the affair brought to public light the fact that Trenet was homosexual. He was never particularly public about it and spoke of it rarely. In his authorized biography of Maurice Chevalier, author David Brett claims that Chevalier and Mistinguett were the ones who first “shopped” Trenet to the police for consorting with underage boys, around 1940.  Trenet never learned of their action. In 1970, Trenet flew to Japan to represent France at the Universal Exhibition in Osaka. The following year he left Columbia, his long-time record label, and recorded Fidèle and Il y avait des arbres. He also made a memorable appearance at the “Olympia”. In 1973, Trenet, who had just celebrated his 60th birthday, recorded a new album, Chansons en liberté. The twelve songs on this album were an interesting mix of old and new compositions.

His 60th birthday was celebrated in grand style by the French media. Trenet made a surprise announcement in 1975, declaring that he was retiring from the music world. At the end of his final concert at the “Olympia” he bade his audience an emotional farewell. Following the death of his mother in 1979, he shut himself away from the world for the next two years. Nevertheless, in 1981 Trenet made a comeback with a new album, devoted to sentimental memories of his childhood. Trenet then returned to his peaceful semi-retirement in the South of France, occasionally rousing himself to give a special gala performance in France or abroad. After giving farewell concerts in France, Trenet was persuaded out of retirement by a French Canadian lawyer, Gilbert Rozon, in 1983 for a farewell concert in Montreal. Rozon became Trenet’s manager thereafter and as a result Trenet performed many more concerts including a series every night for three weeks at the Palais des Congrés in Paris in 1986. On 21 May 1999, he returned to the forefront of the music scene with a brand new album entitled Les poètes descendent dans la rue (Poets Take to the Streets). Nearly sixty years after writing his legendary classic “La mer”, Trenet proved that he was capable of coming up with fourteen inspired new tracks. Following the success of the album, Trenet returned to the live circuit. His concerts proved a huge success, fans in the audience breaking into rapturous applause. In April 2000 old age began to catch up with Trenet, however, and he was rushed to hospital after suffering a stroke. The singer was forced to spend several weeks in hospital recovering, but by the autumn of that year he was well enough to attend the dress rehearsal of Charles Aznavour’s show at the Palais des Congrès (on the 25th of October). However, this was his final public appearance. In November 2000 the Narbonne house in which Trenet was born — which had become 13 Avenue Charles Trenet — was turned into a tiny museum. Visitors were able to view souvenirs from Trenet’s childhood and family life (especially those belonging to his mother, who had spent most of her life in the house), as well as original drafts of the songs which had made his career.


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