How Did a Mistaken Translation Lead to the Hit Song “The Poor People of Paris”?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about music and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.

MUSIC LEGEND: The hit song “The Poor People of Paris” got its name through a mistaken translation.

Talking about the lyrics of a song that is most famous as an instrumental is a bit funny, but hey, it’s still a good story!

In 1956, Les Baxter and his orchestra had a #1 hit single with the song “The Poor People of Paris.”

It was an instrumental piece (back when instrumental pieces being #1 hits on the Billboard charts was not at all uncommon) and it lasted as #1 for six weeks!

A few weeks into Baxter’s run on the top of the US charts, Winifred Atwell began a three-week run of her own at the top of the BRITISH charts with a piano version of the instrumental piece…

However, the song was originally written in 1954 with lyrics by Jack Lawrence, best known for writing the English lyrics to the song that became “Beyond the Sea.”

Here, Lawrence was again writing the English lyrics to a French song. However, the name of the song (and basically all of Lawrence’s lyrics) were affected by a translation screw-up!

On Lawrence’s website (Lawrence passed away a few years ago at the age of 96), he discussed the origins of the song’s title (and lyrics)…

Marguerite Monnot was a famous French songwriter who had written practically every Edith Piaf hit, including this one. The American publisher who acquired it called me from the west coast to say he was sending me a demo instrumental and wanted me to write an English lyric. He said the song was titled: “Pauvre Gens de Paris”.

Well, in my high school French that translated as “Poor People of Paris”. Immediately I started thinking of lines I could use to make this an ironic satire: “those poor French people who had nothing to live on but love and wine and love and music!” So when the demo arrived I was ready and started to create the lyric above.

Imagine my chagrin when I finally got a copy of Ms. Monnot’s original French and it read: Pauvre JEAN de Paris! Poor Jon! Not Poor PEOPLE! However I can’t be faulted.

JEAN and GENS are pronounced alike in French. Fortunately, the publisher liked my amusing lyric and this is what this hit has remained through he years.

Pretty hilarious, no?

The legend is…

STATUS: True

Thanks to the late, great Lawrence for the information!

Lawrence, by the way, personally recommended the Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney version of the song…

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is [email protected]

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