Neil Thomas meets a cabaret star who is staging her highly-acclaimed salute to a legendary French singer in Bridgnorth.
This October marks a milestone anniversary of Edith Piaf’s death. There will doubtless be tributes and commemorations across her native France, where the legendary singer’s memory is still widely-cherished as one of the country’s greatest international stars.
Closer to home, Bridgnorth too will celebrate the life and work of the iconic chanteuse. Castle Hall will stage a one-off performance of the highly-acclaimed one-woman show ‘Piaf’ , starring Sally Jones, a cabaret and musical theatre professional who has lived in Bridgnorth for the past three years.
Sally’s performance won rave reviews on London’s West End and the show has played around the world. Now she is reviving it on October 14th, almost 60 years to the day that Piaf died, 10th October 1963.
“I wanted to stage it on the actual date but that’s a Tuesday and a midweek date might put some people off. The Saturday evening worked better,” Sally explains, as we chat in the stylish ground-floor apartment in Kings Loade that she shares with husband Les.
The show is for charity, with all proceeds going to Severn Hospice, mainly to help local terminally ill people and their families, but also to reflect Piaf’s death from cancer at the age of 47.
Sally’s self-penned show recounts the story of Piaf’s life and the background to her songs in between renditions from her repertoire. But she baulks at the idea of calling it a tribute show, not least because at 5ft 3ins and blonde she looks nothing like the 4ft 8ins raven-haired Piaf.
“I never try to do an impersonation of Edith Piaf,” Sally explains. “Nobody has ever sounded like her or ever will and I don’t resemble her, so I would never attempt to impersonate her. It’s not a tribute act or a ‘Stars in their Eyes’ kind of performance. Rather it is a salute to her. Her’s is a remarkable story, in many ways a tale of triumph over adversity but with tragedy never far away,” she adds.
Born Edith Gassion in 1915, the daughter of an acrobat/street performer father and coffee house singer mother, she was abandoned at the age of two and raised in a brothel in Normandy, where her paternal grandmother was a cook.
“She was looked after by the prostitutes there. From the age of three to seven, she was blind as a result of a rare eye disease called Keratitis and says she recovered her sight through a miracle involving Saint Thérèse of Lisieux,” Sally recounts.
How’s that for starters? Hopefully that will whet your appetite to see Sally’s show and learn more of Edith Piaf’s remarkable life – a tale of a girl who rose from singing on streets all over France with her father’s acrobatic act to international stardom. There’s murder and intrigue, addiction, failed relationships and other personal heartbreaks, two marriages, controversy amid the German occupation of France in the 1940s, friendships with top international stars of the entertainment world, fame in the USA and a tragic early death.
She was given the name Piaf, meaning sparrow, by the promoter who discovered her, reflecting her extreme nervousness at singing in public and her diminutive build. The epithet ‘Little Sparrow’ endured. Many of her songs were torch ballads about love, loss and sorrow, echoing the sadness underpinning her turbulent life. On this side of the Channel, Piaf’s music seems the quintessence of 20th century French culture, the go-to shortcut for any filmmaker, playwright, advertiser or, for that matter, restaurateur, who wants to conjure an instant Gallic ambience.
Out of interest, I asked my 20-year-old student son if he knew who Edith Piaf was. “No” came the reply. I then found Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien on YouTube. He smiled, “Oh, I’ve heard that. It’s in lots of adverts on TV.” And that is probably representative of a fair cross-section of the population – name recognition ‘no’, tune recognition ‘yes’. Sally’s show looks to redress the balance.
She agrees that the majority of her audience on October 14 are likely to be from the older generation who know the Piaf name and are enchanted by the songs.
“I realise that a great many younger people don’t know of Edith Piaf and don’t think it’s for them but they may be pleasantly surprised. I always tell them that Amy Whitehouse, Lady Gaga and Adele all name Piaf as one of their greatest inspirations.”
She mentions the 2007 French language film La Vie en Rose, which catapulted Piaf back into the limelight when its lead, Marion Cotillard, won the Academy Award for Best Actress, as well as picking up a Golden Globe and BAFTA. And Lady Gaga’s rendition of La Vie en Rose, one of Piaf’s most famous songs, in the 2018 film A Star is Born, also brought her work to a younger audience.
Sally adds: “My nephew came to see my show when he was 18 and really enjoyed it.”
She herself was a youthful convert, falling in love with the songs as a young girl growing up in York and then rural Leicestershire. “My mother and grandmother were huge Edith Piaf fans and her songs were always on the record player. I became obsessed with her from about the age of 11,” Sally recalls.
“My other idol was Judy Garland who also led a turbulent life, had trouble with men and addiction. Like Piaf, she died aged 47, which is an odd coincidence. You could say I’m drawn to doomed women,” she says with a broad smile. “I was probably quite odd. When other kids were into T-Rex, Abba and The Osmonds, I was singing along with the 1961 double album of Judy Garland live at Carnegie Hall.”
Sally loved entertaining from an early age. “I had tap dancing lessons from the age of five and at family parties I’d get on the table and sing songs like Barbra Streisand’s Second Hand Rose. I probably sound like an awful child,” she says, laughing. She made her stage debut at the age of five in a revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music and a career in the business was her ambition from an early age.
“The natural progression was drama school, but my parents pressured me into getting a ‘proper’ career so I took a degree in marketing and spent a year in advertising.”
This was after Sally went to live in Paris at the age of 18 to study French for a year, organised through European connections of her father who was a senior executive at brewers Bass Charrington.
“That was a wonderful year. I loved it. I was always top of the class at French at school, partly because of the Piaf songs, but that doesn’t prepare you for speaking it every day so I had to learn as I went along.”
After her marketing degree she followed her heart and she did what she’d always wanted to do, enrolling in a post-graduate course in Musical Theatre at Leeds Conservatoire.
“I had at one time considered studying languages with the idea of being an interpreter but performing had always been my dream.”
It turned out to be a happy decision for a wonderful career has followed in musical drama and cabaret. Sally has appeared in shows like Into The Woods, Stepping Out, and Michael Frayn’s Noises Off.
She then met a Canadian and moved with him to live in Toronto. Many roles in musical theatre in Canada followed including the national tour of Les Miserables.
Sally also utilised her stage skills to develop a one-woman show of comedy and music. From these solo performances stemmed the idea for writing a celebration of the life of Edith Piaf, which she toured with great success around Ontario, which has a sizeable French-speaking population. Then, through an agent, the opportunity arose to entertain on a cruise ship and a whole new exciting chapter opened which saw Sally travel the world aboard high end luxury liners such as Seabourn, Regent and Silversea. Her one-woman performances, with their economical scale, were the perfect fit for the 45-minute slots favoured by cruise operators.
“I was initially signed for six weeks in Tahiti in French Polynesia to sing my French songs. It went well enough for them to keep me on for an extra three weeks,” she recalls. It was the beginning of a 15-year career on cruise ships, in between land gigs, which took Sally across the world including an unforgettable trip in the South Atlantic reaching Antarctica.
“I had a wonderful time, saw so many different places and made so many friends,” she reflects.
Sadly, like much else, it all came to an abrupt end because of the Covid pandemic in 2020 when Sally reluctantly decided to retire.
“The industry more or less imploded and it was pretty obvious that, even when it returned, things would never be the same,” she explains. “My music, theatre and comedy show in particular relies on interaction with the audience and it seemed that was no longer going to be possible. The idea of being an aloof figure on stage while audiences sat there wearing masks just didn’t appeal to me.”
At around the same time Sally and Les moved to Bridgnorth to be closer to Les’ mother, who is now 91. He decided to sell his successful financial services company to retire after 40 years in the industry, enabling the couple to spend more quality time together. They stay fit with daily visits to the gym, as well as regular games of tennis, squash and golf. They love to travel – they recently returned from three weeks in the USA, stopping in
New York, Washington and Philadelphia amongst other places, visiting some of the vast network of international friends that Sally built up from her cruise ship days.
Their shared love of music sees Les playing the baby grand piano in a corner of their living room, while Sally rehearses for the occasional shows she still puts on. In July, for instance, she was invited to sing at an Anglo-French wedding in Bridgnorth, while she already has a booking next April to appear at Bilston Town Hall in the Black Country where the manager, who is in her 30s, turns out to be a huge Edith Piaf fan. Then, of course, there is her Bridgnorth date on October 14. Castle Hall is the ideal venue for the show, which benefits from an intimate theatrical setting. In recent years Sally has staged it at the Walker Theatre at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn as well as winning rave reviews at Leicester Square Theatre in London’s West End, one critic describing it as ‘a masterclass in how a tribute to a music legend should be crafted’.
Sally and Les love their life in Bridgnorth and, after years on the high seas, she’s happy to be on dry land in one of Shropshire’s most attractive towns. “Bridgnorth is a lovely town with so much to do. I’ve absolutely fallen in love with it,” she beams. As Edith Piaf herself might have declared – no regrets.
Sally Jones’ ‘Piaf’ is on at Castle Hall on October 14 at 7.30pm. Tickets, £15, are available at ticketsource.co.uk/sally-jones and Tanners Wine Shop on Bridgnorth High Street.