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Bitton Sings Piaf

World's foremost interpreter captures the heart and voice of late singer

by Naomi Pfefferman

December 2, 1999 | 7:00 pm

Raquel Bitton was 22, her first love affair over, when she reached into her father's dusty old box of 33's and pulled out an Edith Piaf album. "I thought I would never fall in love again," says the chanteuse, now 38, who previously had spurned what she perceived as her father's "old-fashioned" music.

But while locked in her room with a broken heart, Bitton avidly listened as the late French icon sang of love and resilience. I thought, 'My God, she is talking about me,'" recalls the Moroccan-born Jew. "And I knew I had found my voice."

Today, after nearly two decades of research, Bitton is perhaps the world's foremost interpreter of Piaf's music. She has traveled the world to discover Piaf, strolling the singer's old neighborhoods, perusing archives, interviewing her lovers and songwriters. The result is Bitton's intimate one-woman show, "Edith Piaf -- her story...her songs," which comes to Los Angeles Dec. 11 at the Wilshire Theater.

Bitton will sing 26 of Piaf's songs, explaining how each relates to a period of the singer's tempestuous life. "T'es Beau tu Sais" ("You are so Handsome") recalls a quirky incident from the singer's childhood in her grandmother's bordello: when the little girl suffered from temporary blindness, the prostitutes took a night off to pray to St. Therese de Lisieux while dressed in their gaudiest red gowns and feather-boas. Piaf's sight returned, but, Bitton says, she never escaped the pain of her early life.

Nee Edith Giovanna Gassion, Piaf was born on a policeman's cape in the doorway of an apartment building in the poorest section of Paris. Her mother, a street singer and morphine addict, abandoned her at birth; after living for seven years in her grandmother's bordello, the child went off to live with her father, a street artist, acrobat and contortionist. For nine years she sang on the streets, in her father's act and then on her own, sleeping in doorways of the Menilmontant slums. At the age of 15, she bore a child out of wedlock, but the girl died of meningitis at the age of 2.

Piaf never got over the loss, even as fame and fortune came her way. In 1937, the owner of a swank Paris cabaret discovered the 4'10" singer and gave her the name, Piaf, which means "street bird" in French. But it was the Jewish composer Raymond Asso who literally took her off the streets and taught her the discipline of learning songs and choosing repertoire. The much older, married composer became her lover and helped launch her career.

Over the years, Piaf breezed through lovers and repertoire, but she could not outrun tragedy. Her first promoter was murdered; the love of her life was killed in a plane crash; and Piaf herself survived alcoholism, morphine addiction, two automobile accidents and four major operations. She died at 47, the same age as the mother she never knew.

Bitton's throaty, passionate delivery resembles Piaf's, but her personal life has been vastly different. The happily-married mother of two was born to a Jewish family in Marrakesh, where she made her professional debut, at age 11, in the same casino where "Casablanca" was partially shot. In 1970, she moved with her parents to San Francisco, where she discovered Piaf and the French songwriters who would define her career.

When Bitton produced a National Public Radio documentary on Piaf in 1992, she met the composer Henri Contet; he described how Piaf used to lock him in a room for days, without food, until he wrote a song based on a story she had told him. Bitton learned how Piaf herself scribed one of her signature songs, "La Vie en Rose," on a napkin in an outdoor cafe; and how grateful she was to two of her favorite songwriters, the Jewish composers Raymond Asso and Michel Emer.

Piaf helped Emer flee Nazi-occupied France and was instrumental in freeing many Jewish members of the French Resistance from German P.O.W. camps, Bitton says. Typically, she would sing at a particular camp, where her accomplices clandestinely photographed Jewish prisoners to place on forged documents. Piaf would then insist that the prisoners were musicians who belonged to her orchestra and rally for their release. The Germans, who loved Piaf, often complied, says Bitton, whose latest CD, "Raquel Bitton Sings Edith Piaf: The Golden Album," has been highly acclaimed.

Indeed, before Contet died last year, he told the Marin County-based singer that she had captured the "'Climat' Piaf." "The Voice, the heart and the talent would have pleased [Edith] so," Contet said.

For tickets to Bitton's Dec. 11, 8 p.m. concert, with full orchestra, call (213) 480-3232.

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