French songs translated into English
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.
Charles Trenet and Léo Chauliac would team up for another translated song, Charles would record it himself in 1947 “Que reste-t-il de nos amours ?‘ but the first release in 1943 was by Roland Gerbeau who would do several of his songs.
The english lyrics say “I Wish You Love” and was first recorded and released by the amazing Keely Smith with Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra in June of 1956. This time the English lyrics were by Albert Beach. Since then it has been recorded another 225 times. All versions including instrumentals total 484.
“Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” has english lyrics by Mack David , the original song was “Cerisier rose et pommier blanc” Music written by Luís Guglielmi and Lyrics written by Jacques Larue and there 132 versions combined. An instrumental version by Perez Prado was the Billboard #1 song in 1955.
“The Good Life” popularized by Tony Bennett’s 1963 version was a translation of “La Belle Vie” written by Jean Broussolle, english lyrics were by Jack Reardon.
The great Charles Aznavour was the source for many songs such as his “Heir Encore” from 1964 that was translated by Herbert Kretzmer and became a hit song (#9) for Roy Clark in 1969 as “Yesterday, When I was Young“. Aznavour had a #1 in the UK in 1974 with his own English version of “Tous les visages de l’amour” titled as “She”(Kretzmer), there is an amazing cover by Elvis Costello (1999) that was used in the closing credits of Knotting Hill that reached #19 in the UK. There are now 147 versions of the song. Several more of Aznavour’s songs have been translated into English, “Les plaisirs démodés” in 1973 was recorded as “The Old Fashioned Way” by Helen Reddy, Shirley Bassey and others. “Que c’est triste Venise” was recorded as “Venice Blue” by Bobby Darin in 1965.
I could easily dedicate several posts to the Belgian singer/songwriter Jacques Brel. Some 106 of his works have been covered and dozens of them translated into many languages. One of the most prominent French recordings is “Le Moribond”(1961) or the literal translation of “The Dying Man”. It would be translated by American poet Rod McKuen and he released it as “Seasons in the Sun” in 1963. It would be recorded seven more times before the Canadian Singer Terry Jacks took the song to #1 in the US, UK, Canada and over a dozen more charts around the world in 1974 with sales exceeding 8 million copies. Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas” has the most versions at 392 and was also translated by Rod Mckuen as “If You Go Away” and recorded in 1966. Terry Jacks again would chart #8 in the UK with his 1974 rendition. There are now 106 versions of the song. Next there is “La chanson des vieux amants” with Gérard Jouannest helping with the music. Judy Collins was the first to cover the song in 1967 and she sang it in French. Patti LaBelle sang it as “Song for Old Lovers” in 2017, translation by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman who had created the successful off Broadway show “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris”. They translated a number of his songs that have gone on to be covered many dozens of times in English, an album was released in 1968 the year the musical debuted.
Gilbert Bécaud is another singer, composer, pianist and actor that is responsible for some very well known songs. “Et maintenant”(with Pierre Delanoë) from 1961 became “What Now My Love” and Nelson Riddle appears again, this time producing a hit with Shirley Bassey in 1962. Rod McKuen would do some of his songs and he recorded “The Importance of the Rose (C’est la rose)” in 1968. Bobby Helms recorded his “Marie, Marie” in 1965.
Best known is “Je t’appartiens” written (again with Delanoë) by Gilbert Bécaud and released in 1955. The English lyrics as “Let It Be me” were written by Manny Curtis and the song was first recorded by Jill Corey with Jimmy Carroll (1957). We perhaps know the song best from the next version which is by The Everly Brothers in 1959. The same year she hit #6 with the “The Shoop Shoop Song” (1964) Betty Everett teamed up with Jerry Butler where it reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100.
I Spoke of Édith Piaf in the introductory post, one of her original songs, written by Jean Villard morphed it’s way into a #1 hit on the Country Charts in the US. It’s a long story but “Les trois cloches” first recorded by Edith Piaf & Les compagnons de la chanson in 1946 was translated by Austrian Bert Reisfeld and “Three Bells” was recorded by The Melody Maids in 1948. Paif would do the next English version in 1950. The new protagonist had gone from Jean-Francois Nicot to Jimmy Brown. Quite coincidentally by name anyway, it was the 1959 version by The Browns that became a hit song and helped put them into the Grand Ole Opry. The song reached #1 on both the Hot 100 (10 weeks) and the Country & Western Sides (#1 Year end) charts in August. The original melody was also used for “While the Angelus Was Ringing” first released by Frank Sinatra in 1949. There are 139 versions including all languages and variations.
The Browns would lose the Best Song Grammy Award in 1959 to another translated song that I will talk about in the post featuring German language songs.
8 thoughts on “A Cover from another Mother (tongue) Part 2”
I had no idea some of those songs originated as French tunes.
There are so many, a few surprises for me as well
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Didn’t know the Everly one. On Chuck Aznavour I recall Spike Milligan doing a perfect lampoon of Aznavours style. I could never listen to him with a straight face after that!
Can’t say I know the Spike reference but I can almost picture it.
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Interesting list! I knew about ‘Seasons in the sun’ but some of those were surprises (or totally unknown songs to me). It would be tough to do, translate French lyrics to English keeping the melody, given how many different words have quite different numbers of syllables in the two languages and how some phrases don’t really translate at all. On a similar-ish subject, The Stranglers (London based) once put out a French language single, ‘La Folie’. I’ve read the record company wasn’t too amused but put it out anyway.
Thanks Dave, there are just so many translated songs and as you note may groups and singers have done songs in another language.
Edith Piaf morphing into Country music, now that is something! Great post.
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Thanks North, gotta love music history!
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