Abandoned by her mother at birth and raised by her grandmother, it was her acrobat father who encouraged her to sing. She started her career by singing in the streets, graduating to cabaret and becoming known as Piaf, from the Parisian slang for ‘sparrow’.
She appeared in plays and films, but it was for her songs, with their undercurrent of sadness and nostalgia, that she became legendary, travelling widely in Europe and America. Among her best-remembered songs are 'Milord', 'La vie en rose', and 'Non, je ne regrette rien'.
Piaf's singing reflected the tragedies of her own life. Her mother, a cafe singer, abandoned her at birth, and she was reared by her grandmother. She became blind at the age of three as a complication of meningitis but recovered her sight four years later. Her father, a circus acrobat, took her along on tours and first encouraged her to sing.
At the age of 16, she fell in love with Louis Dupont and bore his child - a girl called Marcelle who died at the age of two from meningitis.
In 1935, Piaf made her theatrical debut, and within a few years she was singing in the large music halls of Paris. During World War II, she would only entertain French prisoners of war and aided several in their escapes.
The subsequent years were spent in tours of Europe, South America, and the United States. Her simple yet dramatic style and throaty, tender voice with its tragic overtones brought her wide acclaim and never ceased to move her audiences.
Despite her phenomenal success, her life was marred by unhappiness and illness. The love of her life, married boxer Marcel Cedan, died in a plane crash on October 1949.
Their affair had made international headlines as he was the former middleweight champion of the world and a legend in France in his own right. He was flying from Paris to New York City to meet Piaf when the plane crashed, killing everyone on board.
In 1951, Piaf was seriously injured in a car crash and became addicted to morphine and alcohol, with two near-fatal crashes making the situation worse. She was even taken to rehab three times by her husband Jacques Pills, a singer. They married in 1952 and divorced in 1956.
She later married Theo Sarapo, a Greek hairdresser turned singer and actor who was 20 years younger than her in 1962. They sang together in some of her later engagements.
Piaf died on 11 October 1963 from liver cancer at the age of 47. She had been drifting in and out of consciousness for days.
Her funeral procession attracted tens of thousands of mourners, while a ceremony at the cemetery was attended by more than 100,000 fans. She was buried next to her daughter.
Marion Cotillard won the Best Actress Oscar in 2007 for portraying Piaf in the film 'La Vie en rose.'