When I was a kid in the late 1960s, my artist parents used to take me and my brother to Paris in the summers. My bohemian folks weren't wealthy. They had lived there in the 1950s and loved returning each year when my brother and I were off from school. We'd stay with their friends out in the Neuilly district near the Bois de Boulogne. After I got married in the 1980s, my wife and I traveled to Paris fairly routinely, usually around Thanksgiving. To me, Paris is loveliest when it's cold. The grays are deeper, the browns are richer, streetlights are moodier, and the broiled chicken tastes a lot better. All of which now is, of course, just a fond memory given the economy. Who knows when we'll be back. [Photo of Fernandel by Philippe Halsman]
But thanks to YouTube, I did visit The City of Lights in spirit over the last couple of days—without the jet lag, brutal currency exchange or street battles with nicotine-crazed drivers. The song I used to satisfy my Paris passion was C'est Si Bon, a French song from the late 1940s that when executed properly is quite catchy and very hip.
Actually, if I'm being completely honest, my C'est Si Bon drift was really Stan Freberg's fault. When I spoke to the legendary comic recently, we talked briefly about his novelty hit in 1954 shortly after Eartha Kitt made the song famous in 1953. Stan's rendition, of course, is a hoot. If you're unfamiliar with it, more in a minute. On the Capitol single, he plays a Frenchman who struggles to train his background vocalists to sing "si bon, si bon" at just the right time. Of course, there are plenty of faux pas along the way.
When I told Stan that his parody of Kitt's hit remains funny after all these years, he recalled an encounter with Kitt shortly after his version climbed the charts: "When we met, Eartha said to me, [using an Eartha Kitt-enish voice], 'Stan Free-berg. [pause] I don't know whether to slap you or kiss you.' [laughing] Eartha said my version actually helped the sale of her records."
C'est Si Bon worked wonders for nearly everyone who recorded it. Some, like Petula Clark, sang it in French, while others, like Dean Martin, used the English lyrics. The song dates back to the mid-1940s and was written by Henri Betti. The French lyrics were by André Hornez, and the English ones by Jerry Seelen. According to the Originals Project (here), the first recording of the song was made in February 1948 by the Jacques Hélian Orchestra with vocalist Jean Marco. This audio clip will give you a taste of the interpretation.
The next big hit was by singer Yves Montand [pictured], who gave it a jaunty feel in the late 1940s. By 1950, Americans had discovered the song, and dreary interpretations were recorded by Danny Kaye here and Johnny Desmond here.
Not until Eartha Kitt put her feline stamp on the song in 1953 with Henri Rene, an American-born conductor-arranger, did the song become a big hit, reaching #8 on the pop chart. Kitt's version was so expressive and definitive that the song became most closely identified with her. Stan Freberg's parody came the following year, in 1954, and many other French and pop renditions followed. What all have in common is a love for love—and for Paris.
So let me invite you now to take the same trip to Paris that I took while cruising YouTube. Here are my favorite video-clip versions of C'est Si Bon, in order of preference:
1. Eartha Kitt's live appearance on TV here (lip-synched?) in 1962 was a reprise of her 1953 hit, and it's a stunner on so many levels. First there's the mirrored set. Then there's Kitt's over-the-top camera mugging. And let's not forget that Kitt style. Watch Kitt's hands throughout. And dig those crazy French consonant rolls and gold-digger touches during the "si bon, si bon" extension. Absolutely priceless.
2. Mirelle Mathieu and Petula Clark teamed up here for a TV appearance in what appears to be the early 1970s. Mathieu is a celebrated French cabaret singer and Clark is the renowned British pop star. Many people are unaware that before Downtown and other rock-pop hits, Clark was a child singer whose early command of French made her a hit there in the 1950s. I just love how Mathieu steams up the camera to such an extent that the producer can't decide what angle to use. Two Euro-gals having a blast.
3. Yves Montand had hits with C'est Si Bon twice. This brief version looks to be from the late 1940s and gives you a great sense of the ingredients that made French male singers special. The music hall style and highly emotive acting-singing approach turned singers like Montand, Charles Aznavour, Serge Gainsbourg and others into national treasures.
4. Louis Armstrong has two clips on YouTube of C'est Si Bon. This one is the better version (the other is taken way too slow). Louis, of course, gives the song a Dixieland spin and like everything Louis touched, it works wonderfully.
5. Yves Montand's second hit sounds as though it's from the late 1950s or early 1960s. He's joined here by a sort of Double Six of Paris-sounding French choir and big band. Best of all are the images of Paris that accompany the YouTube clip.
6. Jean-Claude Pascal was another basso-voiced actor-singer who was popular in France in the 1960s. This version is a bit more conversational but royal in its laid back, hammock-swinging sensibility.
7. Stan Freberg's version here should make perfect sense now that you've heard some of the best straight-up versions. The first song you'll hear is Sh-Boom, arranged by Billy May. It's a 1954 novelty knockoff of hit versions by the Crew-Cuts and the Chords, which hit earlier that same year. The single that follows on the clip is C'est Si Bon, with the George Bruns Quintet. Despite the fact that these Capitol singles were recorded more than 50 years ago, they retain their ticklish sense of humor. (Bonus: Here's a gut-splitting rendition of Elvis' Heartbreak Hotel in 1956, with Freberg's fabulous tongue-in-cheek line about the piano playing: "That's close enough for jazz.")
8. Eartha Kitt. Here's part of her original appearance singing C'est Si Bon in New Faces of 1952, a musical revue film released in 1954.
While the eight versions of this song above cannot compare to snowy strolls along the Seine, a hike to the top of the Arc de Triumph on an overcast day, and a ride on an empty merry-go-round, I'm afraid it will have to do. For now.