While Britain and the United States have been awash with centenary celebrations for Frank Sinatra in December, it’s safe to say that it is mostly in France that there will be commemoration of the birth – exactly a week after Francis Albert’s – of its most beloved singer, Edith Piaf. But although we may not be treated to the wall-to-wall radio play and TV specials that the French can expect, there will be some classy new CD sets to buy, featuring for the first time, her classic songs remastered in high definition using original vinyl pressings and master tapes.

She may have been dead for over 50 years, but Piaf has never really left the popular consciousness; her recordings of such signature songs as Non Je Ne Regrette Rien and La Vie en Rose never out of vogue, and her turbulent life story as compelling to writers and performers now as it was to the public as it unfolded on front pages when she was alive.

One person for whom Piaf lives on vividly in her mind – and her heart – is Christie Laume, whose brother the singer married precisely a year and a day before her death. Laume may only have known Piaf for maybe 21 months, but the star made a terrific impression on her and the intensity of their close relationship belies its shortness.

Laume was the younger sister of Theo Lamboukas, the 26-year-old hairdresser and aspiring singer whom 46-year-old Piaf married in October 1962. A wide-eyed young girl from the Parisian suburbs, Laume was flabbergasted when Theo had asked his parents if they would like to meet Edith Piaf, whom he had met when a mutual friend had taken him up to one of the star’s all-night get-togethers early one morning after he had missed the last train home.

Laume recalls: “They said ‘yes’ – they would like to meet Edith Piaf, and Theo said ‘She’s waiting in the car outside.’ So we went to the door, and a white Mercedes pulled up and stopped in front of the gate to the yard. My brother opened the car door, and she didn’t even come out! She stayed in the car.”

The following Sunday, Piaf was invited back for tea. “My parents were very nervous. We had imagined a big star with a big personality, that she would talk with great self-confidence – but she was not like that all. I was surprised because although she had that big power onstage, she was little and timid and very shy – a totally different person – but as we got to know her better, she opened up more.”

Laume isn’t sure whether Theo and Edith were an item when Piaf was brought home to meet the family – but it certainly wasn’t mentioned or even suspected. “He had only known her a couple of months. The only thing that seemed strange was that he sat in the back with her, while one of her oldest friends was in the front seat. Theo let my parents get to know Edith before he announced that he was with her.”

Almost immediately, Theo was also announcing wedding plans –and those didn’t go down at all well with his parents. “Oh-la-la,” shudders Laume. “My father was furious. He objected to the age difference and the way she was – you know, the life she had.

“They loved Edith as a singer, and they respected her, but to be the wife of their son - that was another story. But she was a very intelligent woman, Edith. Slowly she charmed my father. She talked to him and she said: ‘You know your son has a lot of talent? I will help him to grow this talent. I have Yves Montand, Charles Aznavour whom I’ve helped. Now I want your son to go to the top because he has so much talent and personality.’ And she and my brother loved each other so much that I think that as the months went by, everyone – even the public – could see it. It’s something you don’t see every day: it was a really big love between them.”

Theo was a dashing young man; Edith was a frail middle-aged woman whose body and soul had taken many batterings during a tough childhood and an adult life blighted by such tragedies as the sudden deaths of her toddler daughter (her only child) and the love of her life, boxing champion Marcel Cerdan. Beyond her fame and fortune, what was the appeal?

“My brother was drawn to her through their love of music and the way she cared about people without judging them. He loved the person she was. When he talked with her, he knew she understood him, he felt understood, he felt accepted. He felt love as a man. He had had many affairs with women of his own age and he was not satisfied – he didn’t feel anything strong enough. But when he met Edith Piaf, he felt a solidity of protection that he had never felt before. And I think this is part of loving.”

Theo had come back a changed man from doing his military service in Algeria during its war for independence. “He had seen horrible things, he had seen death close up. When he came back he didn’t have the timeframe we have where we think ‘Okay, I’m getting older.’ He didn’t think he was going to get older; he didn’t have that impression. Edith was the same. She had a strong feeling that she wasn’t going to live much longer. So they loved each other in the moment. Edith told me that she wanted to make a star out of Theo before she died; she had a sense that she wouldn’t be around for long.”

The wedding was a phenomenal media event, and not long afterwards Piaf and her new husband – by way of giving Laume the independence from her over-protective parents which she craved – invited her to live in their vast apartment near the Bois de Boulogne. Despite their age difference, Laume became one of Piaf’s last confidantes. “She would sometimes wake me at 5am because she couldn’t sleep and we would sit together in the library, with blankets round us on the big armchairs. She would talk about her early life. She was very caring and understood how homesick I was – and she was like a motherly friend to me.”

At the time of their marriage, Piaf and Theo were celebrating their romance every night in concerts at the Olympia where they would sing their hit A quoi ca sert l’amour? (What’s the Point of Love?). Piaf had given Theo the surname Sarapo, Greek for “I love you”. Laume, who had got to know Piaf the person before seeing her perform in front of an audience, was bowled over by the experience.

“She was so, so charismatic. She came on just a little woman in a little black dress and there would be an immense ovation, for half an hour. And then when she started to sing, and that huge voice came out – that charisma, that power – she could reach each heart because she was talking about love, and people felt that. It was so important for her to fall in love – and she could make people feel that way.”

Sometimes the public’s love for Piaf and her magnetic appeal could produce scary situations. “One time in the south of France, she finished singing and we got into the car to leave and there were so many people around that they carried it – they carried the car! Crowds scared her, and she was very little. That’s why there were always lots of policemen around.”

Not only did Piaf coach her husband in singing and performing, she also encouraged the ambitions of his sister – and it was she who gave Christie the surname Laume. Was she controlling? “No. When she saw talent in a person, she tried to nurture that talent. She asked me to sing and thought she could help me. If I hadn’t been able to carry a tune, she would have found some other talent which she could help to blossom.” Laume was soon part of the act, singing a few pop songs and introducing Piaf and Sarapo onstage.

When the end did come, just as Piaf knew it would, she had indeed helped Sarapo who was on his way to establishing himself as a singer to be taken seriously in his own right. Sadly, though, his career was also cut short by premature death – a car accident in 1970. In return, his love – as Piaf’s friends and fans could see – had revitalised the ailing singer, who confided to Laume that she might not have continued singing as long as she had if she not met him.

* Warner Music France releases a limited edition box set to mark the centenary of Piaf’s birth on December 18, plus a double “Best of” CD.