17 September 2015

Charles Trenet

French singer and songwriter Charles Trenet (1913-2001) was 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 own material, Trenet wrote prolifically and declined to record any but his own songs. His best known songs include Boum!, La Mer, and Douce France. His catalogue of songs is enormous, numbering close to a thousand. He appeared in a dozen musical films, but his songs feature in nearly 100 films and TV-series.

Charles Trenet
French postcard, no. 408. Photo: Roger Kahan.

Charles Trenet
French mini-card by EPC.

Charles Trenet
French postcard by JPB. Photo: disques Columbia.

Charles Trenet
French postcard by PSG, no. 1261. Photo: Barclay.

The Singing Madman

Louis Charles Auguste Claude Trenet was born in Narbonne, France, in 1913. 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. 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 film studio as a props handler and assistant, and later joined up with the artists in the Montparnasse neighborhood.

His admiration of the surrealist poet and Catholic mystic Max Jacob 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, and recorded 18 discs for Pathé. Around 1935, they appeared regularly on the radio. The duo continued until 1936 when Trenet was called up for national service.

It was after his national service that he 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 (I Sing/Blue Flower). 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.

His first film appearance was in the lead of the musical comedy Je chante/I Sing (Christian Stengel, 1938). At IMDb, DB du Monteil writes: “The song (Je chante: I sing) provides the movie with its title. The plot is one of the silliest you can think of. It's actually so silly it becomes almost enjoyable. The song is still popular in France whereas the movie is forgotten.” That same year he also starred in another musical comedy, La route enchantée/The Enchanted Road (Pierre Caron, 1938), in which he sang his celebrated song Quand Notre Coeur Fait Boum (When Our Heart Does Boom).

Charles Trenet
French postcard by Edit. Chantal, Rueil, no. 508. Photo: P. Voinquel. Publicity still for La route enchantée/The enchanted road (Pierre Caron, 1938).

Charles Trenet
French postcard, no. 676. Photo: Films CCFC.

Charles Trenet
German postcard by Ross-Verlag, no. A 3194, 1941-1944. Photo: Harcourt / Schostal.

Charles Trenet
French postcard by Editions Chantal, Rueil, no. 508. Photo: R. Kahan.

Allied Code to the French ‘Underground’

At the start of World War II, Charles 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 two famous cabarets Folies Bergère and at Gaîté Parisienne 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. Wikipedia explains that “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, 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”.

Trenet continued to star in films like La romance de Paris/The Romance of Paris (Jean Boyer, 1941) with Yvette Lebon, Frédérica/Frederica (Jean Boyer, 1942) featuring Elvire Popesco, and Adieu Léonard (Pierre Prévert, 1943) starring Trenet as a village idiot. DB du Monteil calls it at IMDb “Charles Trénet's best film performance, by far.”

He co-starred with famous comedian Fernandel in La cavalcade des heures/Love Around the Clock (Yvan Noé, 1943). The refrain from the song Verlaine, "Blessent mon coeur d'une langueur monotone...", (Wound my heart with monotonous languor...) 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 1944 was imminent.

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. 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, 2003), Mr. Bean's Holiday (Steve Bendelack, 2007) and in the opening credits of Le scaphandre et le papillon/The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007).

Charles Trenet
French postcard, no. 585. Photo: Harcourt.

Charles Trenet
French postcard by O.P., Paris, no. 18. Photo: Star.

Charles Trenet
French postcard by Serp, Paris, no. 23. Photo: Studio Harcourt.

Charles Trenet
French postcard, no. 21, offered by Vénus, Menin.

28 Days in Prison

After the war Charles Trenet decided to move to the 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.

In 1951, Trenet returned to Paris and made a comeback at the Théâtre de l'Etoile. In Italy he did a musical appearance in the film Giovinezza/Youth (Giorgio Pastina, 1952) with Delia Scala and Franco Interlenghi. His songs also featured in such international films as Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti a.o., 1945), the Cary Grant comedy Every Girl Should Be Married (Don Hartman, 1948), and Love in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957) starring Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper.

In 1954 Trenet performed at the Olympia music-hall in Paris for the first time. 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.

Charles Trenet
French postcard by E. C., Paris, no. 66. Photo: Gray films. Publicity still for Frédérica (Jean Boyer, 1942).

Charles Trenet
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 865. Photo: Bernard Vauclair, Paris.

Emotional Farewell

In 1970, Charles 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 he 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 again in 1983 for a farewell concert in Montreal. As a result Trenet performed many more concerts including a series every night for three weeks at the Palais des congrès in Paris in 1986.

In 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 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.

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, as well as original drafts of the songs which had made his career. Charles Trenet passed away in 2001, in Créteil, France.

Charles Trenet sings Boum in the film La route enchantée/The Enchanted Road (1938). Source: Charles Trenet (YouTube).

Charles Trenet listens to a record of Que reste-t-il de nos amours? in the film La cavalcade des heures/Love Around the Clock (1943). Source: Charles Trenet (YouTube).

Charles Trénet sings La Mer live at the Olympia. Source: Charles Trenet (YouTube).

Sources: DB du Monteil (IMDb),  Wikipedia and IMDb.

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