Legend of chanson Juliette Gréco turns 90

8 great chanson singers

Juliette Gréco

Known for her song "Parlez-moi d'amour," the grande dame of French chanson has had an eventful life. During World War II her family joined the resistance and faced much hardship. She later joined existentialist circles and was supported by Jean-Paul Sartre. She never became as famous as Edith Piaf - perhaps because her songs were too political. Click through the gallery for more chanson greats.

8 great chanson singers

Edith Piaf

"Non, je ne regrette rien" became an international hit. The "litte sparrow of Paris," as the petit Edith Piaf (1915-1963) was affectionately called ("piaf" is slang for "sparrow"), had a very big voice. The singer was already 44 years old when she achieved her breakthrough with the song that became the epitome of French chanson.

8 great chanson singers

Barbara

"Göttingen" - of all things. The small town in the German state of Hesse was honored in a chanson by the French singer in 1964 - an attempt to reconcile France and Germany. Barbara (1930-1997) sings of her memories, as well as her visit to the birthplace of the Brothers Grimm. After meeting musicians Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens in the 1950s, she sang their songs as well.

8 great chanson singers

Françoise Hardy

Love, pain, solitude - the major chansons themes were also touched on in the songs of Françoise Hardy (*1944). Her hit "Tous les garçons et les filles" shot her to fame when she was just 18 years old. In the late 1960s, she performed a song by German singer Udo Jürgens. From the 1970s onwards, she gave only a few performanes - due to her stage fright.

8 great chanson singers

Brigitte Bardot

The chanson singer and actress damaged her reputation by joining the France's right-wing political scene. Brigitte Bardot (*1934) became successful as a singer in the 1960s after performing with Serge Gainsbourg. Her biggest hits were "Harley Davidson" and "Je t'aime... moi non plus." Bardot stopped performing and acting in 1973.

8 great chanson singers

Patricia Kaas

The singer from Lorraine can look back on a successful career. The late 1980s saw the release of Patricia Kaas' (*1966) debut album "Mademoiselle chante..." that sold more than 15 million copies. She was discovered by actor Gérard Depardieu, who produced her first single "Jalouse." Her album "Kaas chante Piaf" was released in 2012.

8 great chanson singers

Carla Bruni

Italian-born Carla Bruni (*1967) became famous as a model and a singer. At age 19, she dropped out of her studies in art and architecture. To the surprise of many, her album "Quelqu'un m'a dit" turned out to be a huge success in 2002. Six years later, she married then French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

8 great chanson singers

Zaz

Isabelle Geffroy (*1980), better known as Zaz, once started out as a street musician to become a superstar on Montmartre reviving French chansons. She achieved international fame with her song "Je veux," which is a protest against the bourgeoisie. Geffroy internationalized the "Nouvelle Chanson" movement, which marked the comeback of chansons in the 1990s.

The muse of existentialists celebrates her 90th birthday on February 7. Here's a look back at French singer Juliette Gréco's impressive 70-year-long career.

The Parisian concert hall Olympia was filled with thousands of excited fans in May 2014. They were there for Juliette Gréco, who was already 87 at the time. Everyone was well aware that it might be their last chance to get to see the artist who has been dubbed "the high priestess of existentialism." The grande dame of French chanson showed up on stage, greeted by thunderous applause. For many, it felt like they were meeting a good old friend again.

Culture | 01.03.2016

Youth afflicted by World War II

Juliette Gréco was born on February 7, 1927 in Montpellier on the French Mediterranean coast. Her father, a police commissioner from Corsica, left the family early on. Her mother moved to Paris with her two daughters and became active in the resistance movement against the German occupiers. Juliette and her sister Charlotte were mainly raised by their grandmother in Bordeaux.

In 1943, her mother and sister were arrested by the Gestaspo and were deported to the concentration camp in Ravensbrück. Both survived the ordeal until liberation in 1945. Juliette, too young to be deported, was kept for three weeks in the women's prison Fresnes.

Melancholy as a trademark

After the end of the war, Juliette started singing in cafés in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. In 1946, she was among the founders of the cellar club Le Tabou, a famous haunt of French existentialists.

Philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre, film director and actor Orson Welles and Berlin film diva Marlene Dietrich were among the café's regulars.

Juliette Gréco was fascinated by the unconventional style and mindset of these new intellectuals. In turn, they were also inspired by the singer.

"Her voice carries millions of poems that haven't been written yet," Sartre once said. He felt that she made people aware of the sensual beauty of words. Gréco became friends with Sartre and painter Bernard Buffet.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus also wrote lyrics for her songs, describing the post-war generation's hunger for life.

Juliette Gréco with Serge Gainsbourg (right)

Gréco had long black hair at the time and wore black make-up and black men's trousers. It was her way of demonstrating her affiliation to the existentialists. Her dark voice made her the perfect interpreter of such melancholic songs. She would quickly be celebrated as the "black muse of Saint-Germain-des-Prés." "Black provides space for the imaginary," she told the German weekly "Die Zeit" in 2015.

Multiple lovers

Her friendships with poets and intellectuals were more lasting than her love affairs, which she had with both men and women. In her 20s, she had a relationship with jazz musician Miles Davis.

"What do I care what other people think?," she'd typically answer to anyone who'd ask. 

She married three times and had a daughter with her first husband, actor Philippe Lemaire. Her second husband was actor Michel Piccoli. Since 1988, she has been living with her third husband, pianist and composer Gérard Jouannest.

Singer and actress: Juliette Gréco in London in 1965

'The stage is my home'

Her songs "Si tu t'imagines" and "L'éternel féminin" became hits at the end of the 1940s. She would also sing some of the chansons of her colleagues, like Jacques Brel or Georges Brassens. She was a celebrated performer in France, Germany, the US and Japan.

Gréco also obtained film roles, performing for author, filmmaker and painter Jean Cocteau in "Orpheus" (1959). Further roles would follow.

To this day, Gréco feels the words she sings: "Even if I tell the story of a 16-year-old girl, I believe what I'm singing. I am that girl." She manages to do that even at an advanced age. It only requires a lot of energy.

Building trust in Germany

Her first performance in Germany after the war was in 1959. She initially hesitated to go to the country responsible for her family's traumatizing experiences. She sang with tears in her eyes that night; she later said she was thinking about the time her mother and sister spent in Ravensbrück.

After the hesitant start, she kept returning to Germany. She would perform often in Berlin. In Hamburg, the revue "Marlene" combined songs by Marlene Dietrich with her own material. She was a guest of honor at the German Schwetzingen Festival. In 2005, she even released an album in German, "Abendlied."

Farewell tour

Two years ago, the existentialists' muse launched her emotional farewell tour, "Merci." With concerts around the world, she fulfilled the fans' expectations, singing hits such as "Déshabillez-moi," "Sous le ciel de Paris" and "Amsterdam" by Jacques Brel. Her singing was accompanied by the gestures which became her trademark over the nearly 70 years of her career.

She said "au revoir" to her fans in Frankfurt in 2015; they thanked her with a long ovation.

However, in March 2016, she had a stroke and had to cancel her concerts to recover.

"I am not afraid of dying," she had previously told "Die Zeit," "I'm only afraid of having to stop singing. But you have to know when something is over."

Now celebrating her 90th birthday, she can proudly look back at a remarkable and influential career.