There are more French songs recorded in English than any other language. Titles that use the melody and/or the translated words number into the thousands. Here is just a small sample.
“Les Feuilles Mortes” is the third most covered song (excluding Christmas songs) of all time, currently there are 1515 versions. The literal English translation is “Dead Leaves”. Originating from a composition for a Ballet written by Joseph Kosma, lyrics were later written by Jacques Prévert for his critically designated ‘flop’ of a French film titled Les portes de la nuit released in 1946. With only fragments of the song used in the movie itself, it was sung by one of the stars, Yves Montand. He recorded the song (reportedly) in 1946 and it was later released as a single in 1949. I have found a few references including a quote from the famous French singer and actor Cora Vaucaire that she was the first to do the whole song, recording it and releasing it in 1948 as confirmed by Secondhandsongs.com. On discogs.com, I did find the 78 rpm record from the French label Le Chant Du Monde, catalog number 1536, it is dated 1948-50 so I’m inclined to believe her claim. Often referred to as “the french song” it is one of the most important songs to come from France. It is a very popular instrumental song with many hundreds of versions. The English lyrics were written by the great Johnny Mercer and “Autumn Leaves” was first released by Jo Stafford with Orchestra conducted by Harold Mooney in July of 1950.
“La Mer” is by writer, performer and musician Charles Trenet who worked with composer Léo Chauliac to flesh out the song. Later the Orchestration and chorus was added by Albert Lasry. Initially the song did not seem to have audience appeal and it took three years after it was penned by Trenet before it was first recorded by Roland Gerbeau with the Orchestre Pierre Guillermin and released in December of 1945. The original song speaks of how the sea affects one’s different moods and the title translates to “The Sea”. Bing Crosby would release his french rendition in 1953.
“Beyond the Sea” is based on “La Mer” and the same melody is used. However Jack Lawrence was one to write his own words so his composition not only added the word “beyond” to the title but new lyrics and meaning. It does however, as the name implies follow the “sea” for inspiration. It is unlike Paul Anka with “My Way” where the lyrics are completely unrelated to the original “Comme d’habitude”. Wikipedia has the song first recorded by Harry James and His Orchestra on December 22, 1947. However there are two versions that were released before his March 1948 issue, Jack Owens with Eddie Ballantine and His Orchestra and Tex Beneke and His Orchestra with Vocal Refrain by Garry Stevens both came out in February of 1948. This is a great example of the purpose of the cover song in these days, find out what the others are doing, get your own musicians, put it on your label then release it as soon as possible. In this case it was Tower (not the retail store) out of Chicago, RCA Victor and Columbia Records getting on board with “beyond the sea”. It was recorded next in 1952, then 1956 and 57.
It was Bobby Darin who was the first to have a hit with this song as his 1959 version would reach #6 in the US and #8 in the UK in 1960. This was on the heels of two top 10 songs; “Splish Splash” from 1958 and another translated song “Mack the Knife” that hit #1. Including all languages and instrumentals there are currently 357 versions of the song.
There are numerous songs that many of us don’t realize came from another language. I have talked about several in the past such as the clip above. I seem to run across them regularly so separate posts seemed in order. Many prominent foreign language singers and songwriters have more or less immediately had their own songs translated into English and then had them recorded. It of course works the other was as well, for example Beyonce recorded some of her own songs in Spanish. And of course there are many bilingual and multilingual singers who record in several languages, Nana Mouskouri always comes to mind. I read the world record belongs to a young woman named Suchetha Sathish from Kannur, India who sang 120 languages in one concert! So, as interesting as these are I will try and will steer clear.
I want to focus on songs that were not necessarily written with the thought of translating them. So, perhaps it was an afterthought or a discovery by someone else. Looking at well known artists like Édith Piaf, she had”Hymne à l’amour” translated and she was the first to record it in English. However many of her songs were not necessarily translated into english for her to sing, though she may have eventually recorded the new versions. As we know, it is her original French language songs that are better known internationally. It’s it a bit of a chicken and age scenario. So I’m a bit on the fence for listing her and artists of that ilk, but as usual I shall muddle through.
The Shirelles would have their first hit with a cover of this song. It was 1959 and the year success began for the legendary group, it is also the year we began. It’s rare that I take a full personal tangent for my blog post, but it is with good reason, it’s my wife’s Birthday. No surprise here, I will tell the story with some songs!
The Top 25 Artists with the most Tributes (Recorded Songs/Albums/Concerts)
The Beatles. No surprise to anyone I am sure. There isn’t much of a question here, for those wishing to give hommage à nos héros musicaux (tribute to our musical heroes) that’s from Google Translate, probably bad French but “hommage” didn’t seem pithy enough. The Beatles offer plenty of choices to be celebrated. According to The Beatles Bible there are 41 complete discographies from around the world. Why so many? The release of singles and albums was often different from country to country so the source material varies, not to mention the language translations and artwork. Yes the songs are the same but to your average discophile it’s a dream come true. The important point here is it really shows their international reach. They appeared in five major movies, there are at least 20 documentaries, and over 40 films that were either inspired by them or have some fictional account. I read there may be over 2,000 books about them, I saw a list titled 100 Best Beatles Books of All Time, this gives you an idea as to how many might be out there. What this means is that there is a wellspring from around the world available to inspire a producer, artist or a group of artists to make a tribute song, a complete album or a concert/show dedicated to The Beatles. Not to mention the theatrical shows, Cover Bands, and Symphonic performances around the world, these numbers are untolled. In fact I had recently planned on attending one such show with some of my siblings, my health had other ideas but apparently it was magical. Recording artists as well want to sing The Beatles songs. Secondhandsongs.com lists 204 songs that have been covered by 9,154 artists with 21,896 covers. They are also the world’s most covered performers and individually; John (#31) and Paul (#44) are on this same tribute list. Plus they both lead all songwriters of any genre for the most covered songs. Doing a cover of an original song is a tribute of another kind. All these things offered enough incentive for the creation of a total of 801 Tributes. You can check this Wiki link for more info.
Elvis Presley 383. Surprise! The King of Rock & Roll is #2. “Jailhouse Rock”, “Don’t Be Cruel”, just one example, The Embassy Records Story – A Tribute To Elvis Presley.
Duke Ellington 259. A prolific composer,”It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”
George Gershwin 233. Composer of such classics as “Summertime” and “Embraceable You”
Bob Dylan 229. Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, “The Times They Are a Changin'”
Cole Porter 194. American composer of “Night and Day”, “Love for Sale”, “True Love”
Thelonious Monk 189. Iconic Jazz artist and the King of be-bop. “Straight No Chaser”
Antônio Carlos Jobim 149. Brazilian legend, “Girl from Ipanema” and “Corcovado”
Frank Sinatra 122. Because he is Frank. “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” his biggest original hit
Burt Bacharach 111. So many iconic songs with lyricist Hal David, “The Look of Love”
Frank Zappa 108. Experimental artist, R&R Hall of Fame, “Peaches en regalia”
The Rolling Stones 107. Iconic Rock and Roll band, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
David Bowie 109. Songwriter, performance chameleon, “Space Oddity”, “Heroes”
Evert Taube 97. Sailor and Swedish Balladeer and a cultural icon.
ABBA 96. Swedens biggest export and one of world’s leading groups “Dancing Queen”, “SOS”
Irving Berlin 93. Born in Belarus, settled in New York, “White Christmas”, “Cheek to Cheek”
Kurt Weill 91. German composer that created The Threepenny Opera and “Mack the Knife” with Bertolt Brecht who is #65 on this list with 49 Tributes.
Billie Holiday 90. Iconic voice and symbol, “Strange Fruit”, “God Bless the Child”
Scott Joplin 90. The son of a Slave became the King of Ragtime, “The Entertainer” from 1902.
Johnny Cash 88. The man in black, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “I Walk the Line”, “Big River”
Depeche Mode 88. Another export from England, Synth-Pop and Dance “Enjoy the Silence”
Hank Williams 85. Country Music icon and Songwriter, “Jambalaya”, “Your Cheatin’ Heart”
Queen 84. Still going strong without Freddie, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “We are the Champions”
Pink Floyd 82. One of the most influential Rock bands, “Wish You Were Here”, “Money”
There were not a lot of surprises on the list and the only name I didn’t recognize was Evert Taube who was Sweden’s foremost troubadour. If you go down to #100 on the list it is Andrew Lloyd Webber, and as the list continues you find these are all very well known artists and composers. It’s hard not to notice there are only two mentions of women on the top 25 list, one half of ABBA and Billie Holiday. Working down the list; Joni Mitchell is #35, Madonna is #50, Taylor Swift #70, Édith Piaf #81, The Carpenters (Karen) #98 and Fleetwood Mac (Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks) #99. So that’s 11 names out of 100. The next 100 has 12 women. What is unseen and often uncredited are roles women played in the success of men. One example is Helene Weigel who was a long time “silent collaborator” with Bertolt Brecht, as to what extent we do not know, later she would become his second wife but only received one writing credit that I could find. Just an observation. I mean, no one has control over this list, it is however a reflection of the historic culture that surrounds music.