Brothel-raised to singing icon

Like a high speed machine gun, she throws unlimited emotion in song to the public. It's a trait she sharpened when singing with her father in street performances all across France from age 7. She'd become street-smart on how to instantly engage passersby to stop, see, listen and pay. Her skill of loudly throwing her voice, with no boundary, no accompaniment, and no defect got thronging crowds to provide for their livelihood.

Her public performance heritage came from her alcoholic, drug addict mother, a café singer who abandoned her soon after giving birth in 1915 in the working-class neighbourhood of Belleville. I remember when I arrived penniless in Paris 39 years ago I made every effort to avoid living in Belleville. It's the immigrant district; Greeks, Jews and Armenians came in 1920s, then North and Sub-Saharan Africans and Chinese. But having escaped a refugee colony in India, I totally shunned landing in another neglected, crowded locale.

Her father snatched away this Belleville-born from her maternal grandmother who rarely fed or washed her, instead put her to sleep with wine whenever she cried. He sent his daughter to be raised by his mother. This paternal grandmother ran a brothel in Normandy, northern France. So the singer, who later became France's celebrated superstar and icon for passion and tenacity, spent her childhood being the obsession of prostitutes. According to her biographer, as keratitis blinded her from age 3 to 7, the prostitutes pooled money, took her on a religious pilgrimage venerating Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, and this led to miraculous restoration of her vision.

As a teenager, she left her father and teamed up with Simone Berteaut, whom she dubbed "ma mauvause genie" (my evil spirit). They sang in the raunchy, red-light quarter of Pigalle. Quite inevitably, she got mixed up with Paris' cabaret and club mafia. Several such gangster "protectors" demanded returns in kind, in addition, dipped into her small take-home tips. As biographer Carolyn Burke points out, "Her life with her father had predisposed her to having a boss who took her earnings and dictated her behaviour." At age 17 she bore a child who died of meningitis two years later.

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