Piaf claimed to have been born on the street in 1915. She was raised in her grandmother's brothel. By the time she was 18, she'd had a child who died aged two. A new French language movie about her life — "La Vie en Rose" — captures those beginnings when Piaf sang on the streets to survive. It is now in limited release in the United States.
The film, written and directed by Olivier Dahan, tells the tale of how a nightclub owner found her and began to craft her legend. He gave her the name "Piaf," French slang for "little sparrow," and as the "singing sparrow," the French took her into their hearts. It was a long way from the gritty streets of Paris to Carnegie Hall.
Piaf was a genius at finding songs that spoke to her soul, that she could make her own and dramatize on stage.
"There was nothing separating her from her music, her life from her music," film and cabaret critic for The New York Times Stephen Holden told CBS News correspondent Sheila MacVicar. "And when people feel that, when people sense that, it's electric."
For fans, Piaf is up there with Janis Joplin and Judy Garland — women of astonishing strength and fragility. Her rags-to-riches story (much of which she invented herself), her powerful voice, her passion, which was so evident on stage, are all reasons why her music still endures.
And Piaf has helped to provide French flair in Hollywood movies. American GIs listen to a warbling recording in "Saving Private Ryan."
Singer Charles Aznavour, at 83, is still one of the best-loved French artists. He was one of Piaf's protégés.
"I used to watch Edith every night, every performance," he said. "In every performance I used to find something a little different. She was a little different every day, depending on her mood. She was a great artist, a great singer."
Piaf lived life large and had a huge appetite for friends, food and, eventually, alcohol and drugs. In post-war New York, she was a symbol of European sophistication. Her stage presence was enough to make her audiences forget that she most often sang in a language they did not understand.
"She's such a magnetic performer," Holden said. "The way she used her hands and the way she emoted, sort of cut through the language barrier more than would happen with most singers."
"She loved America, she loved New York," Aznavour (who has been called the French Frank Sinatra) said. "She had been in love with three or four Americans. She wanted to learn English not to be able to sing in English but to communicate with the people. She used to teach them French. It was easier."
More than anything, Piaf lived her life and her turmoil on stage, and through her music.
"She lived for love and that's very understandable," said French actress Marion Cotillard who plays Piaf. "She sang love and all those things that are universal."
"A Hymn to Love" is one of her signature tunes. Aznavour remembers one night in New York, the first concert after the love of her life, boxer Marcel Cerdan, died. Piaf sang only in French.
"I can tell you that at the end of the song, emotion was thick," he said. "And the applause — I thought it was the kind of applause they can hear on Broadway."
In the end, life and Piaf's addictions caught up with her. Aged beyond her 47 years, stooped in pain, Piaf had one last, great defiant anthem, "Non, je ne regrette rien," or in English, "No Regrets."
"She was a real French Parisian little girl," Aznavour said. "She always was a little girl. And we were all of us in a different way in love with her."
When she died, 44 years ago, denied a funeral mass by a disapproving Catholic Church, her fellow Parisians made their feelings known. They poured into the streets and brought the city to a standstill. It was a fitting farewell for a legend who became an icon — and whose music goes on.