Maurice Chevalier, Mistinguett, Josephine Baker

 & Paris Music-Hall.

by Ian Whitcomb

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at



Paris, October 1925: the sensationalist art deco posters* proclaiming Le Revue Negre are everywhere in this elegant old lady, The City of Light, whose language sounds like ripples of the finest wine.  The poster, an art deco work of art, is screamingly beaming a potent fantasy of exoticism for the chic and the trendy: Two big black male faces crowned with tilted derbies, with huge poached egg eyes, engorged red lips, and laughing teeth stretching from ear to ear. But more excitingly, more tingly and tempting, is the scantily-dressed black dancing girl behind them, arms akimbo and torso contorted extraordinaire.


         This teenage dancer, Josephine Baker, was to be the talking point of the revue. Previews had proved it. Word was getting out: “Quel cul elle a!” (No need to translate)… Come see her at the renovated Theatre de Champs-Elysees, which only recently featured ballet and good music but is now an up-to-date music-hall. The producers are out to entice the fashionable crowd into indulging in a heady cocktail of the ultra-modern (from the skyscraper city) mixed with a mysterious primitiveness (from the heart of darkness). Of course it has to be American because America was the In Thing and Black, via jazz bands, was becoming Beautiful.


        From opening night the producers were immediately rewarded by a press and public gone ape in over-excitement. For the avant-garde art crowd the image of Miss Baker was the apogee of all that they admired in African art—nature in the raw, a body blow to over-dressed, over-civilized Western Europe.

         Wearing nothing but rings and a pink flamingo feather, Miss Baker made her stage entrance upside down on the back of a giant black hunter, his captured prey; then they went into a new kind of pas de deux, far from classic ballet, in which she exulted in her predicament, breaking away to exhibit a shimmy, a Charleston, a fore-and-aft bump and grind and all at top speed.



The reactions of the movers and shakers of Paris were mixed. For dance critics her rubbery contortions were the opposite of the age-old European terpsichorean ideal:  the tippy-toes beauty of a straight line reaching heavenwards to God and glory. Here was the contrary: Baker’s feet, turned grotesquely inwards, beating the stage flat-footed, applauding the mud.  “An ear-splitting hammering punctuated by unexpected syncopations”, wrote the premier dance critic. But at least, he, like the embryonic jazz fans, noted the way that Baker worked in tandem with the saxophonist (Sidney Bechet), leaning in to each other, inspiring improvised art on the spot. This art is pure Cubism, decided the avant-garde.

        Critic Pierre de Regnier was ecstatic, almost manic in his bemused, confused appraisal: “Is this a man? Is this a woman? Her lips are painted black, her skin is the color of a banana, her hair, already short, is stuck to her head as if made of caviar, her voice is high-pitched, she shakes continually and her body slithers like a snake….” Aha, added another critic, “This is in fact the quintessence of the modernism of the music-hall”.

         Lovers of that precious Le Music-Hall, a venerated French institution of trillingly beautiful chanson, protested that Baker and her gang did “dishonor to a grand tradition” with this “imported American article”, this “triumph of lubricity” starring “The Queen of Ugliness”. The whole affair complained Le Figaro (the voice of proper Paris) is a case of “lamentable transatlantic exhibitionism”. Le Soir went further: “Are we still in Paris? Are we still in a civilized country?”

        Nevertheless Josephine Baker soon became a star, a new kind of old-fashioned “toast of Paris.” She was nicknamed ”La Perle Noire”,  “La Venus Noire” and, most warmly, “Our Fifine”.


        At the party following the first preview some of Le Revue Negre chorus danced on tables shaking with champagne and caviar. Mistinguett, the biggest and highest-paid star in all music-hall clambered up to join the jam session, ostentatiously showing off legs that had been insured for half a million francs back in 1919. After being helped off the table by her ex-lover/ ex-dance partner Maurice Chevalier (now as big a star as she), the Queen of Revue exhaustedly told him: “For a moment I thought I was black”. Chevalier responded, with his famous insouciance, sweetly, “No, my cherie, you were green with jealousy—but I could still detect the blue of Paris skies in the grace and charm of your movement.” He went on to sum up the situation: “You see, she is America sauvage but you are Paris douce!”


        In the late 19th century beginnings of French music-hall  (inspired by the earlier British model but soon having a sauciness and vigor all its own) it wasn’t all sweetness and light. There was a lot of sour in the crucible. There were hurdles to jump before a performer might graduate to big-time palaces of fun like the Moulin Rouge, where the can-can began, the Casino de Paris, creator of the revue, or the Folies Bergere, pioneer of the bare-breasted chorus line. Away from perfumed fashion streets, were the café-concerts, crude cabaret for the lower classes, with audience participation as the house rule.

        Here a hopeful act was in the lion’s den: working from a wooden crate stage, surrounded by tables of noisy laborers and artisans armed with insults as well as rotten fruits and vegetables, a performer had to be prepared to do battle. Apart from sentimental waltz songs and patriotic march airs, the most popular acts were the so-called “Idiot Comics” and “Agitated Singers, applauded for their vulgar grimaces, for sticking out their tongues and for rapidly twisting like eels. Coarse lyrics were a must.

         Maurice Chevalier had the right credentials. Born in seedy slummy Menilmontant on a hill near Montmartre, he was still a boy when he braved the café-concerts dressed as a tramp and shrilly shouting ribald songs concerning big-chested milkmaids. He learned how to show who was in charge even as he addressed the potentially unruly mob as special individuals—and they appreciated that. He winked at them and them alone; he shoved out his lower lip; he skillfully paused and then attacked. And he survived, soon boosting his masculinity by training as a boxer and an acrobat. And showing off a certain gamin prettiness. His widowed mother, pushed him on, advising him to drop the dirty stuff, and perhaps try a chanson of charm like the lady singers, to cry like them—but not quite.

        In 1902 at age 14 Boy Maurice had an agent. Soon he had moved up into the music-hall proper and was learning stagecraft as well as better songs from his fellow superiors:  The boulevardier Monsieur Mayol, evening-dressed and always adorned with a bunch of flowers, taught him the language of delicate hand and finger movement as exemplified in “Les Mains de Femmes”; Fragson, immaculate Anglo-French entertainer at the piano, showed how to smoothly transition from a romantic waltz ballad like “Fascination” to a rag like “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey?”. Use material from overseas, advised Fragson, but remember to always maintain a rapport with the paying customers, even those poor ones up in the gallery. Maurice made careful note…

        In 1909 he cracked the Folies Bergere, the first Paris music-hall in 1869, but now specializing in the latest craze for up-to-date spectaculars called Revue, fast-paced, sassy, sexy. Open to entertainment from abroad. It was here he was paired with Mistinguett in a comedy dance called “La Valse Renversante”: she slaps his face, they fall into an embrace, they dance crazily, knocking the scenery every whichway; finally they roll themselves up in a rug and climax with a big kiss.

         The kissing continued off-stage and soon they were sweethearts. Maurice’s dream had come true: for years he had been in love, from the audience, with this sweet street urchin with the great legs (much admired and commented on by Rodin) and he was amazed and flattered that a woman who had been pursued ardently by both King Edward VII of Great Britain and King Alphonso XIII of Spain was now cooing to him of feeling like “that little stage flower girl” when snuggled in his arms.


        Born Jeanne Bourgeois, thirteen years before Chevalier, she too went through café-concert hell, getting by as a “chanteuse epileptique”, shaking all her little but lithe body and leaping and hopping in a frenzy. But she was soon calmed down by canny impresarios who, while doubtful about her beauty (she had a full-featured peasant face with lots of mouth and piano key teeth) realized she was a talented dancer with oodles of coquetry. In a rather shrill and often off-key voice she also had a nice way with risque songs. Before the end of the 1890s, La Belle Epoque, as Mistinguett, she had played all the big music-halls, beckoning her audiences to come closer and be magnetized. By the early 1900s she was well on her way to being recognized as the very essence of the street life of gay Paree—a bubble of wit, charm, and titillation, with a body to match.

        Her animal magnetism was displayed at its fullest when she demonstrated the notorious Apache dance in a Moulin Rouge revue of 1908. Her partner, the dark and devilish Max Dearly, played the savage Apache--a borrowed word for a French hoodlum. How he punched and slapped! How he swung her around in a circle! How he slung her over his shoulder to deposit her at the back of the stage set! And how she loved it—crawling back to blurt out her undying love. Then they consummated by going into a whirling waltz to an opera tune by Offenbach, composer of the can-can.

        Mistinguett’s relationship with Chevalier was not stormy at first. He was her willing partner in dance and song, always admiring. And always reporting home later to his adored mother. As love birds they popped over to London in 1913 at the height of the ragtime invasion.

        He was electrified by the syncopation frenzy exhibited by the Americans and later he practiced fashioning their Tin Pan Alley tales of high jinks down on the old levee into his own act, re-telling them in that cynical but light-hearted way, with the characteristic crack in the voice and a conspiratorial wink to the listener. Dixie made Parisian.

         She was fascinated by the loose-limbed dancing and louche manner of the black ragtimers. The French had been taken with black performers for decades: slinky, hip-shaking Chocolat, famous clown of La Belle Epoque, had amused Parisians with his dog-like and eccentric imitation of his white master Footit’s dance steps across the stage; the cakewalk had been a Paris sensation in 1902 with local composers momentarily abandoning their waltzes and marches to turn out rags, cakewalks and plantation intermezzos.

        The only barrier to French absorption of American pop culture was the lingo and the accent. Ragtime slang made an ugly fit with the mellifluousness of the French language. And after Chevalier and Mistinguett returned home, there developed a revue style that was the opposite of American jerkiness.


        These sumptuous but static extravaganzas did away with the earlier idiot songs and satirical comment stuff about Parisian life society. The focus was now on a charismatic (female) star, surrounded by stimulating and adoring chorus girls and boys, who was ensconced in lavish sets and scenes—tableaux that ranged from Pompeii on fire to Napoleon in battle; for the all-important women in the audience there would always be a dress feature such as “Fashion through the Ages”. It was all slow and even stately (in its own way). And visual—music played only a supporting role.

        King of the new high-speed revue was Jacques-Charles. He was to play an important role in the careers of Chevalier, Mistinguett—and Josephine Baker.

        A dapper fellow with long flickering eyelashes and a pencil-thin mustache, Jacques-Charles (like French music-hall he was forever hyphened) ran theatres, micromanaging the shows, carefully choosing costume material to the distraction of his costumers. Mistinghett was to be his finest creation. He’d starred her in a show back in 1910 but now he made her into the grande dame of revue. The little girl urchin who had been calling herself Titine onstage, and munching grilled pig’s tails backstage, was built up into a gorgeous living statue.

        Appearing at the end of the revue, following the fire and fashion scenes, La Miss would typically pose at the top of a grand and golden staircase dressed up to the nines in ostrich feathers. Twenty feet of them made her train, five feet of them made a mountainous headdress radiating out for more footage, like frozen fountain spurts. Progressing royally and with great skill down the staircase our star smiled out bravely to the great beyond—for she was carrying a heavy burden of costume. One false move and the fantasy world would come tumbling down.


        Where was Maurice Chevalier in all this melage? Well, he’d been serving his country in the army and during the war which had started in 1914 he’d been captured by the Germans. La Miss used her connections with King Alphonso of Spain to get him released and from 1916 he was back on stage as her admiring dance partner—and fiancé. He was starting to get a little tired of being her man, her second in command. Audiences loved his songs and his style.

        Jacques-Charles (with his new partner Leon Volterra) leased the Casino de Paris from 1917 for a series of timely revues starting with Laissez-les Tomber! (or “Let ‘Em Fall!”— meaning German bombs on Paris). He starred the well-bodied Gaby Deslys (Mistinguett’s deadly rival) and her dance partner Harry Pilcer, backed by his brother Murray’s raggy “American Sherbo” band. “Jazz” was not yet quite the buzz word but one reviewer was horrified by the racket: “They let out cries, whistles, grunts, howls… and deafen us by slapping, blowing, pulling out of their bizarre instruments a tempest of appalling, enervating, cramped, crushed sounds…” If this wasn’t jazz—as recognized by the French in those early days—what was?

        The word was used in the Casino de Paris revue that followed the war: Paris Qui Jazz starred Mistinguett and Chevalier, with a few songs by George Gershwin. Meanwhile, in the basement nightclub a genuine black jazz band was entertaining the customers. Jacques-Charles and Leon Volterra were wide open to anything novel and commercial from overseas.

        But La Miss, sensitive to attention to rank outsiders, called on her producers to come up with something typically Parisian for her to sing in this “jazz” revue. That summer of 1919 Mistinguett and Maurice holidayed on the Normandy coast, closely trailed by Jacques-Charles and two of his house writers—composer Maurice Yvain and lyricist Albert Willemetz. Harking back to the days of the macho Apache dance the revue men came up with “Mon Homme”— about a tough guy who, the singer admits, isn’t good, isn’t true and, what’s more, he beats her too. “What can I do?” But she loves him—“Oh, my God!”. The sheet music announces it’s a “Fox Trot Song”, going on to add it’s also  “Moderato de Schottische Espagnole”. So here we have the American ragtime dance remembering that 19th century jog trot so beloved of the French, with some Spanish tinge thrown in for good measure.

        The song was to have international appeal. A hit for Misinguett in Paris Qui Jazz, it went on to score in the Ziegfeld Follies as “My Man”, interpreted by Fanny Brice. The torch song flame had been lit. A melancholy train of female sufferer-singers would carry that torch into the 1930s and further.

        Meanwhile Mistinguett was singing her song as a requiem for lost love: Maurice. He had broken free and was now established as the premier boulevardier in straw hat at a jaunty angle and a knowing twinkle in both eye and voice. In 1924 he was the main attraction in a massive extravaganza at the Empire entitled La Revue Olympique. Music-hall at its grandest and fattest: three thousand watched not only Chevalier but also Sophie Tucker (the Red Hot Momma from New York), Jack Hylton & His Band (Hot Jazz from London) as well as a full ballet and forty horses. Unbeatable!


        Next year a motley bunch of black performers arrived in Paris with a tatty vaudeville mixture of tap dance and minstrel cross talk. The chorus line was too precise, too European, not black enough. The sets were as old-hat as the show. The red hot momma was overweight and her blues sounded religious….

        The Theatre des Champs-Elysee called for help from Jacques-Charles. What could he do with Le Revue Negre to make it more alluringly jazzy?

        The only performer he liked was the eccentric dance girl Josephine Baker. True she was a bit on the pale side but her body was fantastic. He would create for the teenager a routine emphasizing the primitive nature of her forebears. The Picasso crowd with their interest in African masks would love it; the average male would have his fantasy dreams materialized. This was can-can in color!

        So it was that the Jacques-Charles’ “Danse Sauvage”, with his girl bare-breasted and only slightly feathered, became the sensation of the revue. The Moulin Rouge veteran had Frenchified a foreign mess and yet also made a Jazz Age exotic spectacle. His good friends Florenz Ziegfeld and Irving Berlin cabled their congratulations.


        In the end there was no cause for alarm, no need for fear of music-hall’s falling to American jazz dance. Josephine Baker, the savage teen, willingly assimilated into Parisian life. By the early 1930s, while Chevalier was becoming an international star through his Hollywood movie musicals, Baker was descending the revue staircase, in full-length gowns, as gracefully as Mistinguett. The Black Venus had become a little French lady. Her voice was now tuneful and at its best when, for the umpteenth encore, she rendered her signature song: “J’ai deux amours”. How they loved hearing her tell them that she had only two loves! —France and her home country, the U.S.A.

        During World War Two she did heroic war service with the Resistance, cementing her reputation as a great patriot. The same could not be said of Chevalier and Mistinguett. Their war record was a little murky—but they survived. All was soon forgiven and forgotten.

        In the late 1940s Sidney Bechet, the hot sax player in “La Revue Negre” who had been deported two decades earlier for shooting a Frenchwoman, returned to Paris to a hero’s welcome. For the rest of his days he lived in Paris as a hot jazz legend and a local ladies man.

         In the early 1950s, as rock & roll lay aborning, our living legends—Chevalier, Mistinguett, Baker and Bechet—kept soldiering on until it was time for them to take their places as pillars of the Pantheon of Paris.

        In 1966 I was a rocker, appearing on a bill with the Rolling Stones at the Olympia Music-Hall where once Jacques-Charles had worked and Edith Piaf had performed. Pathe-Marconi, my record label, had sent their best man to cater to my every need. “What would monsieur like for enjoyment?”

I told him I’d like to visit a bal musette and hear some real French chanson. “Quelle horreur!”, he said. “That is yesterday’s music! Nowadays we enjoy Les Four Tops, Les Supremes—and Les Rolling Stones!”


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at