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French Toast

29 May, 2006 By: Jessica Wolf

Raquel Bitton

The legendary but lesser-known French singer Edith Piaf — most famous for her love song, “La Vie en Rose” — will be introduced to a new generation of music fans through an upcoming DVD.

Raquel Bitton sings the legendary Piaf's songs and tells some of her fellow Frenchwoman's often tragic life story in Lionsgate's June 20 release Piaf: Her Story ... Her Songs ($26.98).

Bitton, a French jazz presence herself, has been singing for more than 20 years. But it was Bitton's father who originally turned a young girl's heart to Piaf's classic voice.

“He said, ‘You know, Raquel, you have too much of a voice and too many feelings in there to get lost in bubble gum songs. You should sing Piaf,’ Bitton said. “But I didn't want to, I wanted to sing pop songs.”

It was a broken heart that turned the key. Bitton recalls the dramatic end of her first love. She sat in a room and listened to Piaf sing: “It's love that makes you dream. It's love that makes you cry, and without tears, you cannot claim that you have loved.”

It struck a chord.

“I came out of that room wanting so much to write a little show where I could sing these songs of hers that I just loved,” Bitton said. Over the years she's done just that, performing and interpreting Piaf's music, starting in tiny cabarets in San Francisco and on to New York's Carnegie Hall in 2000.

Piaf: Her Story ... Her Songs showcases 16 of the singer's most famous tunes. Most of the music is in French, but in between songs, Bitton talks about Piaf in English. “For each song that is sung, there's a story in English. I set up the theatrical dramatic picture of the song, presenting it as a reflection of an episode of her life,” Bitton said.

Piaf was born ?dith Giovanna Gassio and dubbed La M?me Piaf (The Little Sparrow) by the Parisian nightclub owner who discovered the tiny singer. As a child, she was periodically abandoned by both parents, raised partially in a brothel, lost a baby daughter in her teens, was accused of being an accessory to murder and, after a car accident in the 1950s, battled a morphine addiction.

In 1992, National Public Radio (NPR) hired Bitton to help create a documentary on Piaf. NPR asked her to function strictly as an interviewer. Bitton made connections during the interviews with composers and contemporaries of Piaf that she tapped later for her performances and this film.

Bitton gathered these new friends at a bistro at the base of the P?re Lachaise cemetery, where Piaf is buried. As the wine flowed, so did the memories, Bitton said. Stories from this unofficial memorial show up on the DVD and had never been heard before.

“I knew what buttons to push because over the years, I made it my quest to learn and investigate her repertoire, her life,” she said.

Bitton said she found inspiration from the Buena Vista Social Club, which brought the limelight to Cuban musicians. She had that film in mind when creating Piaf.

“What's most gratifying is, I took a little dream, and it became really, really true,” Bitton said.

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