French songbird Mireille Mathieu celebrated her 50th year in show business in 2014 with an active tour schedule, and this July she will face her 71st birthday. By then, fans will have been able to see if she and her voice are ageing well, following her performance at Papp László Budapest Sportaréna on March 17.
Bare statistics say that over such a long career, Mathieu has recorded 1200-plus songs on dozens of albums in 11 languages, with more than 150 million albums sold worldwide. But of course it has been a much more interesting journey than mere numbers.
For a start, the Mathieu family lived in poverty when Mireille was born on 22 July 1946 in Avignon, France, the eldest daughter of 14 children. The family have been stonemasons for five generations and it seems that even today their shop named La Marbrerie Mathieu-Mardoyan is still owned and operated by them. It is just outside the Saint-Véran cemetery main gate, selling flowers and funeral items.
Mireille’s first “paid” performance before an audience came at age four when she sang on Christmas Eve 1950 during Midnight Mass, and was rewarded with a lollipop.
A pivotal moment was seeing Édith Piaf sing on television, and after leaving school at age 14 Mireille saved money by working in a factory to help the family and pay for singing lessons. She dates her career from 1964, when she won her first singing contest with a Piaf song in Avignon.
This led to a trip to Paris for an unsuccessful trial for a television talent show, but in 1965 French pop vocalist Johnny Hallyday’s manager Johnny Stark noticed Mathieu’s talent and transformed her into a star with a classic urchin hairdo and loud, vibrant costumes.
Her repertoire of chansons and pop standards saw her quickly hailed as the next Piaf (who died in 1963) and her 1965 run of shows at the Paris Olympia sparked her recording relationship with Barclay Records.
Singles such as “Mon Credo,” “C’est Ton Nom” and “Qu’elle Est Belle” made Mathieu a star in Europe while achieving mild success in the Americas, and her cover of Englebert Humperdinck’s “The Last Waltz” was an impressive French interpretation that made the charts in Britain. Humperdinck returned the favour by choosing to sing Mathieu’s “Les Bicyclettes de Belsize”.
Being so inspired by chansonniere Piaf, in 1993 Mathieu retraced her roots by releasing two albums devoted to her idol, one in French, the other in German.
She has worked with singers such as Charles Aznavour, Hallyday, Julio Iglesias, Paul Anka and Frank Sinatra. An unusual tribute was when a German rose-breeding company introduced the Mireille Mathieu Rose to match her favourite lipstick colour.
In November 2008 she was a guest of then-prime minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and performed a concert in his honour. The two went to the tent of visiting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Mathieu has never been married and has no children. She does not have a publicist or feel the need to talk about her private life, but did write an early autobiography. She is a Catholic and goes to Mass with her family.
Even at 70, she apparently has a good memory and never uses a prompter on stage. She is said to treat her fans well, signing autographs before and after shows.
She is also known for some sappy quotes, such as “It is impossible to live without love. You must have the feeling of being loved”, and “Music is the best way for me to say I love you”.