|Also known as||Mimi
Sparrow from Avignon
22 July 1946 |
Avignon, Vaucluse, France
|Genres||Chanson, pop standards|
|Occupation(s)||Singer, Publisher, author|
Warner Music France
Biography and career
Mireille Mathieu was born on 22 July 1946 in Avignon, France, the eldest daughter of a family of fourteen children; the youngest brother was born after she moved to Paris. Her father Roger and his family were native to Avignon, while her mother Marcelle-Sophie (née Poirier) was from Dunkirk. She arrived in Avignon in 1944 as a refugee from World War II after her grandmother had died, and her mother went missing. Roger, with his father Arcade, ran the family stonemason shop just outside the Saint-Véran cemetery main gate. The Mathieu family have been stonemasons for five generations. Today the shop is named La Marbrerie Mathieu-Mardoyan, and is still owned and operated by the family.
The Mathieu family lived in poverty, with a huge improvement in their living conditions in 1954, when subsidized housing was built in the Malpeigné quarter near the cemetery. Then again in 1961 they moved to a large tenement in the Croix des Oiseaux quarter southeast of the city.
Roger once dreamed of becoming a singer, but his father Arcade disapproved, inspiring him to have one of his children learn to sing with him in church. Mireille included his operatic voice on her 1968 Christmas album, where it was mixed in with the Minuit Chrétiens song. Mireille's first paid performance before an audience, at age four, was rewarded with a lollipop when she sang on Christmas Eve 1950 during Midnight Mass. A defining moment was seeing Édith Piaf sing on television.
Mireille performed poorly in elementary school because of dyslexia, requiring an extra year to graduate. Born left-handed, her teachers used a ruler to strike her hand each time she was caught writing with it. She became right-handed, although her left hand remains quite animated while singing. She has a fantastic memory, and never uses a prompter on stage. Abandoning higher education, at age 14 (1960), she began work in a local stationery factory in Montfavet (a suburb southeast of town) where she helped with the family income and paid for her singing lessons. Her job was packaging envelopes into retail-sized boxes. She was too young to be allowed to run the cutting machine which paid better. Popular at work, she often sang songs at lunch, or while working. Like her parents, she is a short woman at 1.52 m (5 feet) in height. Her sister Monique (French: [mo.nikə]), born on 8 July 1947, began work at the same factory a few months later, both given bicycles on credit to commute with, making for very long days, and many bad memories of riding against the Mistral winds. The factory went out of business, so Mireille and her two oldest sisters (Monique, and Christiane) became youth counselors at a summer camp before her rise to fame, a summer where she had her fortune told by Tarot cards by an old Gypsy woman, saying she would soon mingle with Kings and Queens.
Mireille is Roman Catholic, and her adopted patron saint is Saint Rita, the Saint for the Impossible. Mireille's paternal grandmother Germaine née Charreton, assured her that Saint Rita was the one to pray to for hopeless cases. Beyond religion, like many artists, she is unabashed about superstition and luck. When asked to reveal some of her superstitions, she said: "The most important one is to never mention any of them." She has stage fright, and can often be seen making the sign of the cross before moving out on stage.
Mathieu began her career by participating in an annual singing contest in Avignon called On Chante dans mon Quartier (We sing in my Neighborhood). Photos depict the affair as rather drab with a cheap curtain and one projector light. The stage was only twenty feet square, and the singer having to share that with a large piano and musicians. One cannot help but notice the large, boisterous, and mostly young audience. The judges sat at a table in front of and below the elevated stage. Anyone who signed the contract in the weeks before the show was allowed to sing. Talent scouts made this a worthwhile event for singers within hundreds of kilometers to participate in.
Mireille's private singing lessons were by Madame Laure Collière, who was also a piano teacher in Avignon. Self-described as very stubborn in her autobiography, she wrote about singing love songs that the audience thought were inappropriate for a young girl. Thus, losing to Michèle Torr in 1962 when she sang "Les cloches de Lisbonne" at the first contest, and losing again in 1963 singing Édith Piaf's "L'Hymne à l'amour." In 1964, though, she won the event with another Piaf song: "La Vie en rose."
Her win was rewarded with a free trip to Paris, and a pre-audition for the televised talent show Jeu de la Chance (Game of Luck), where amateur singers competed for audience and telephone votes. Her participation and train fare were arranged by Raoul Colombe, the deputy mayor of Avignon. Accompanied by a pianist at the studio, and dressed in black like Piaf, she sang two Piaf songs to the audition judges and left dispirited. Non-French cannot hear it, but Parisians at the studio made fun of her Provençal accent, and her dyslexia scrambled words. For example, her sister and current manager Monique, is called "Matite" because Mireille couldn't pronounce "petite" as a child.
During a 1965 summer gala, added to the Enrico Macias concert by Raoul Colombe (her first manager), she met her future manager Johnny Stark. Mireille and her father both thought he was an American based on his name and manner, and nicknamed him l'Américain. Stark had worked with singers such as Yves Montand, and the relationship between him and Mathieu is often described as resembling that between Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley. Stark is credited with making her a star and the successor to Piaf. By 1968, under his careful management, she was France's most popular singer.
Mireille was invited to Paris by the impresario Régis Durcourt to sing on the "Song Parade" television program, on 19 November 1965. Stark promised to write to her, but after months of waiting she gave up on him, and accepted Durcourt's offer. The truth has never been revealed how, but Mireille was suddenly moved-up to compete live on the Sunday 21 November 1965 episode of "Jeu de la Chance," a talent segment of the popular French program "Télé-Dimanche." Stark's ex-wife Nanou Taddéi worked at Studio 102, and probably recognized Mireille, as she participated in her earlier pre-audition. Mathieu explained that "Song Parade" offered only one chance to sing, while "Jeu de la Chance" offered many chances to sing, but only if she won, and she intended to win. Both the studio audience and telephone voters gave her a slight lead over five-time winner Georgette Lemaire, so the producers called it a tie. Johnny Stark officially became her manager that night, and with his longtime assistant Nadine Joubert, helped prepare Mireille to win the contest the following week and bury Georgette. Stark and Lemaire had a mutual dislike for each other. In a short film called La guerre des Piaf (War of the Sparrows) Georgette and Mireille are interviewed separately, both are small and the same height. Mireille is surrounded by her sisters Monique and Christiane, with Johnny hovering in the background as she is interviewed for the first time on camera. She appears to be uncomfortable, staring at the floor during many of the questions, even looking dumbfounded once, like a deer in the headlights. Johnny finally comes to her rescue. In a later interview, she underscored the importance of the event, stating, "For me, Paris was the end of the world. I never took a train or saw a camera before. I did not know what the outcome of the adventure would be."
In the middle of her seven consecutive performances on Télé-Dimanche she performed a concert at the Paris Olympia, which propelled her to stardom. She signed with Bruno Coquatrix, the owner of the Olympia, on 20 December, and performed the only three Piaf songs she had memorized, two days later. She was hailed in the press, in France and abroad, as the Piaf d'Avignon (Sparrow from Avignon), in reference to Piaf's nickname "Sparrow of the Streets."
All was not going well at this point. Mathieu said "I was managed to such mimicry of my idol that I thought I was not able to do anything else. It was instantly one of the biggest disappointments of my life." Stark then abandoned the Piaf direction he was taking her. The Olympia performance convinced a skeptical Paul Mauriat to work with Mireille, and song writer André Pascal joined forces to develop her into a successful act. Together they wrote new modern material for her: Mon crédo, Viens dans ma rue, La première étoile and many other hit songs. Her first album En Direct de L'Olympia, on the Barclay label, was released in 1966. Highly acclaimed, along with the singles and EP's from it, the album made her a star outside France.
A regular early contributor of material was Francis Lai, who wrote two songs: C'est ton nom, and Un homme et une femme for her first album, and often accompanied her with his accordion on television. Her first record was recorded in the EMI studios, with Paul Mauriat's band. Mathieu's success led her record company, Barclay, to claim that they controlled 40% of the French pop disk market.
Mireille spent all of 1966 and 1967 touring. It was then, during a car ride to another concert, that Stark advised Mireille that she was finally debt free, and worth more than a million francs ($200k USD in 1967). She had always prayed that she could get her family out of poverty, but the touring and singing were much more important at the time. In her autobiography, she stated her first major purchases were a vehicle for her father's business and a large home for her parents and siblings. Most importantly, she had a telephone installed for the family, so her parents no longer had to go to the pharmacy to talk to her while she was in Paris. Her one regret, was that she was unable to see her grandmother Germaine in the hospital before she died because of all the tour contracts.
Mireille arrived in Paris with two dresses and a change of underwear, and Johnny set her up in style, sent for Mireille's two oldest sisters, and let them go shopping for a week. He then rented her a home and a maid in upscale Neuilly after she had won, and made sure she only had her singing to worry about. Johnny recorded all the expenses though, and he was fully compensated before a franc was ever put in Mireille's account.
Mireille sang twice at the London Palladium during royal performances (before the Queen and her family). Once in 1967, and again in 1969. Following her second performance, her French cover of Engelbert Humperdinck's "The Last Waltz" (La dernière valse) generated much publicity in Great Britain and became a hit record even though the original had been number one only a few months previously. She also toured Canada and the United States, where she appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and the Danny Kaye Show. While on a visit to Hollywood, she met Elvis Presley, and in Las Vegas, Nevada sang with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.
Career 20th Century (1967–2000)
Although the popularity of Mathieu's genre has suffered, given the domination of rock and roll and the global lack of interest in non-English popular music during her most profitable years, she remained a popular artist in France and Europe. Many thousands of fans have met her before and after performances for autographs and well wishes over the years, and the common refrain is how well she treats her fans. She easily interacts with the public. While the Mathieu sisters are quite wealthy, they have also made their song writers extremely wealthy. Most of the record profits go to the authors, whereas Mireille had to tour and perform concerts live and on television.
While on tour in February 1968, Mathieu was in a car accident in which she fractured one of her vertebrae; the injury sidelined her for three months. She writes in her book, that they received a note which said "we will get you next time" but it was not proved to be anything but an accident.
In 1971, Barclay was unable to meet the demands for records. Johnny Stark then made a contract for Philips Records to issue all the Singles, and EPs, resulting in a US$1 Million lawsuit from Barclay for breach of contract. Barclay's contract was to run until 1972.
In 1972, Mathieu toured Canada and produced a live album. Johnny Stark suffered his first heart attack while making arrangements for this concert.
In 1974, Mathieu formed her own publishing company Abilene Music. Today this company is involved in publishing, printing of Music material.
In 1983, Mathieu formed another publishing company Abilene Disc. This is the company used to publish recordings, and her management agency run by her sisters Monique and Christiane.
In 1985, Mathieu joined Plácido Domingo in performing a children's show called The Tales of Cri-Cri. This television special used puppets along with fifty-years of traditional Mexican songs, producing popular versions in Spanish, French, and English. Mireille's father Roger died this same year.
In 1986, Mathieu performed a concert in Beijing, China. In her autobiography, she states she was the first Western performer to give a concert in the city, but this was in error, as at least two other Western performances preceded hers.
In 1988, W. Kordes' Sons, a German rose breeding company introduced the Mireille Mathieu Rose to match her favorite lipstick color. Mathieu also published her autobiography with co-author Jacqueline Cartier. The title is Oui Je Crois "Yes, I Believe" which is taken from the lyrics of Mon crédo, her first recording. The book was seen as a final chapter in her career. The French public had pretty much disowned her, as a conservative relic. She was considered a pre-revolution (1968) Gaullist figurehead, and hated by the left. Stark was also exhausted and overweight by this time. Pierre Delanoë wrote a passionate song about Joan of Arc in La Demoiselle d'Orléans for Mireille. The final lyric: "When I think of all I have given France... and she has forgotten me" was truly how the singer felt as she was made a caricature by the Communists in power. She used her fists in punching the air while singing the song.
On the accusations of being docile, Mathieu writes in her autobiography that she and Johnny Stark understood each other. She wanted to be a singer, and he was tired of people who just wanted to be famous. They were both hard workers, and he kept her schedule filled with lucrative contracts. She also writes that she was forbidden to read the press, and, having peeked at some of it, was content to follow that rule. Stark, of course, had a heavy hand in manipulating the press. Mireille writes that her mother was often surprised to read on the front page that she was engaged to someone famous, or was going to be in a movie by some famous director. Her guiding principle was just to sing, and never have her family return to the tenements of Croix des Oiseaux.
Many photographs and films from the early years show the life around Johnny Stark's villa in Roquefort-la-Bédoule (south of France). The villa, also named La Bédoule, allowed everyone to escape from Paris and relax. The home supported Johnny's telephone addiction with 28 telephones, with each car also having a phone. Mathieu lived here with her aunt Irène, and brothers and sisters would often visit. The pool was designed to be shallow all around, and deep in the center, as Mireille has a fear of drowning, and never learned to swim. The property was sold after Johnny's divorce.
In 1989, President François Mitterrand invited Mathieu to sing a tribute to General Charles de Gaulle. Johnny Stark died the same year after his second heart attack. Divorced and estranged from his family, Johnny was entombed in the mausoleum Mathieu in Avignon. Upon Stark's death, everyone said that no one could replace him, and it proved true, but by then the entertainment press had also matured.
Johnny Stark left behind a legal "bloody mess." It took Mathieu and her lawyers years to close out and process his estate. "I was severely depressed, but I got out without needing analysis." The most controversial event of Mathieu's career, according to the media of the time, occurred when she took over Stark's office, and ended her business relationship with Nadine Joubert. She lost confidence in Nadine who tried to modernize her act after Mathieu's l'Américain album failed miserably, with the strain of Stark's legal affairs having set her back financially. Her sister Monique stepped in to become her business manager, and the two women have remained profitable in the industry ever since.
In December 1990, she gave a series of concerts at the Palais des Congrès in Paris. Many videos of the concert are available, and it shows her back on top, with a huge production. A large cast of musicians and singers, was meant to take the concert to a level even a Rock and Roll audience could appreciate.
In 1993, she released two albums devoted to her idol, Édith Piaf, essentially retracing her roots. One album was in French; the other, in German.
In January 1996, Vous lui Direz was released. Mathieu did not perform live in France to promote the album, preferring rather to go to Los Angeles, where she gave a tribute to Judy Garland. She was dressed by Christian Lacroix.
In 1999, Mathieu released a German album Alles nur ein Spiel, with Francis Lai on accordion.
Career 21st Century (2001 – present)
In 2002, Mathieu released her thirty-seventh French album: De tes Mains, followed by a series of concerts at the Paris Olympia in November.
Mathieu celebrated the fortieth anniversary of her career at the Paris Olympia on 24 November 2005, and released her thirty-eighth French album: Mireille Mathieu 2005. The performance, and an interview, were recorded and released in wide-screen DVD format in 2006; however, the DVD was in European video format only. Mathieu joined with Jean Claudric and his Orchestra for this concert, and has worked with him ever since.
In 2007, Mathieu supported presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, the mayor of Neuilly, where she has resided since coming to Paris in 1965. Sarkozy was elected President of France, and Prince of Andorra. In 2012 she did not support any candidate publicly.
In November 2010, she was awarded the Russian Medal of Friendship by President Dmitry Medvedev at a State Dinner. She was in Russia and the Baltic States throughout November, returning to Paris after a concert in Warsaw, Poland on 28 November. In January 2011, Mireille was promoted from Chevalier (9 December 1999) to Officier of the Légion d'honneur.
In November 2011, Mathieu cancelled her concert in Israel for the second time in 2011. The promoter again failed to meet the required ticket sales.
During an interview in Moscow, Mathieu mentioned that the group Pussy riot had committed a sacrilege in the church by having a political demonstration against President Putin. French television program "On n'est pas couché" edited out the second half of her statement, and called her a tool of President Putin. Her lawyer André Schmidt sued the station for defamation. The suit was dismissed at trial in July 2014. The part that was edited out was "as a woman artist and a Christian, I beg the indulgence of these three girls." The group of three women were convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for being hooligans, and inciting religious hatred.
In October 2012 Mathieu announced on her Web page that she is re-releasing her Chante Piaf, with two new recordings added, in celebration of her 50th year as a singer, and the 50th year of Piaf's death. Also that month, she had to cancel some of her shows in Russia (Rostov, Volgograd, Samara, and Ufa). She had contracted these shows through a Yekaterinburg company called Mix Art, through her Malta agent Foresa Investment Ltd. She stated that Mix Art "acted in a highly unprofessional and even fraudulent way." She was able to salvage the tours on 3 November 2012 in Moscow, 5 November 2012 in Saint Petersburg and 7 November 2012 in Krasnodar. She also performed the rescheduled concert in Ufa on 7 March 2013.
In December 2013, her lawyers won a lawsuit from MGM Home Entertainment for failing to compensate her production company Abilene Disc for the 1967 song Les Yeux de l'Amour (The Look of Love), used in the German version of the movie Casino Royale.
From 2009 to 2015, she has been the main guest star of the international festival of military orchestras "Spasskaya Tower", held in Moscow's Red Square. On 5 September 2013, during her concert event of the festival, she sang in a light dress under an icy rain and a gusty wind, refusing to take an offer for a coat as disrespectful to the people freezing in the stands. Russian TV's Culture channel praised her performance on that day as a feat.
Mathieu had an active tour schedule for 2014, celebrating her 50th year in show business (she dates her career from the year she won her first singing contest in Avignon). Her first concert was going to be in Kiev, and she held out hope it would go on, but finally cancelled it seven days before "due to the instability." Her France 50th Anniversary tour ran from October to November 2014.
Mathieu performed her 50th Anniversary tour in Germany and Austria from 1 to 16 March 2015, singing in twelve different cities to sellout crowds. She credits her sister-manager Monique for keeping the general audience ticket prices reasonable.
In March 2015 she announced on her web page that all the concerts in Russia were cancelled "due to the economic situation." On the concert web site, it states that the Russian currency had collapsed, and it was no longer possible to finance the concert and travel arrangements.
On 26 May 2015, Mathieu sang at the "Culture Without Borders" (Culture sans frontière) project at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. A concert titled The Allies of the Great Victory: A Musical Story. With the participation of: Jazz Band of Igor Butman (Russia-USA), other soloists are: Allan Harris (USA), Sanya Kroitor (Israel), Yakov Yavno (USA), Igor Butman, Mikhail Gluz (Russia), Polina Zizak (Russia) and other celebrities.
On 30 July 2015, she returned, after 41 years, to Byblos, Lebanon for the Byblos International Festival. Her sisters (manager) Monique, and Marie France accompanied her mother on the trip, who then made a brief appearance with her on stage, escorted by the family servant Hervé-Marc.
On 20 March 2016, Mathieu's mother died at the age of 94 from a pulmonary embolism. She was entombed in the mausoleum Mathieu at the Saint-Véran cemetery in Avignon.
Mathieu has never been married and has no children. She has a very close circle of friends and family. In public events she was surrounded by her mother Marcelle, her talent manager Monique, and her servant Hervé-Marc Ballou. Unlike other superstars, she does not have a publicist, or feel the need to expand on her private life. She is a devout Catholic, and still participates in Catholic Mass with her family. Mathieu stated in an interview that she did not think a career was incompatible with marriage, it is not a choice to make, and she has plenty of nieces and nephews. She also thinks growing up in a large family, and seeing how much work it was for her mother, may have had an effect.
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