Photo: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images
In his youth, Charles Aznavour was dismissed as being too short (at 5 feet 3 inches), too unattractive (he often jokes himself about his nose job), and having an unusual raspy, hoarse voice.
However, the French Armenian singer proved his early critics wrong, by building a successful career spanning nine decades, The National writes.
“They said I shouldn’t sing, but nevertheless I continued to sing until my throat was sore,” he says. His tenacity paid off – and then some.
Now 91, he has appeared in more than 60 films, written more than 1,200 songs, sung in eight languages and sold more than 180million records.
His style revolutionized the classic French chanson style, creating his own “Aznavourian” genre: a mix of French soul music, blues, jazz, ballads, pop music and lyrical poetry.
After starting his career at the tender age of 9 – when he dropped out of school and started performing with his sister Aida in plays – he is still writing and releasing new songs and albums, touring the world and performing live.
Charles Aznavour made his UAE debut with a concert at Dubai World Trade Centre on Friday, organized by Alliance Française Dubai, as part of Dubai Classics.
What keeps him going after all these years?
“My love for life,” he said, in an exclusive interview with The National. “I am very lucky to have found my vocation and met interesting people who have fuelled and nourished my curiosity.
“I was able to lead this life because I was born and raised in an artistic family with few means but rich with love and support. “
Last month, he topped People With Money magazine’s list of the highest-paid singers of 2015, with an estimated $46 million in combined earnings.
He is often described as “France’s Frank Sinatra”. He teamed up with the American legend in 1993 for a duet on You Make Me Feel So Young.
Just a tiny sample of this prolific artist’s French hits include: La Bohème(1965), his signature song; his first hit Sur Ma Vie (1956); Tu t’laisses aller(1960); Il faut savoir (1961); Les comédiens (1962); La mamma (1963); Et pourtant (1963); Hier encore (1964); For Me Formidable (1964); Que c’est triste Venise (1964); Emmenez-moi (1967) and et Désormais (1969).
His signature tracks in English are 1970s hits She, which has been covered by artists including Bryan Ferry, Il Divo and Elvis Costello, and was the theme song for the 1999 film Julia Roberts movie Notting Hill; and The Old Fashioned Way, which was also recorded by artists as diverse as Fred Astaire and Shirley Bassey.
As well as Sinatra, he has collaborated with musical greats including Julio Iglesias, Andrea Bocelli, Elton John, Liza Minnelli and Placido Domingo.
Known for his powerful stage presence and his charisma, Aznavour says a sense of humour has proved important through the years.
“Humour plays an important role in my life because it enables me to face even the most difficult of situations,” he says.
Inspired as a child by another legend, Maurice Chevalier, and having worked with Édith Piaf, whose song La Vie en rose has become a national treasure for France, it is fitting that as the last surviving artist from the golden age of entertainment, he has have earned a seat next to them.
“I have had a beautiful life, for a son of an immigrant,” he says. “I’m grateful for what life has given me. Even though I had to work very hard in my career, working makes me happy. The memories of my family and my childhood are my favourite ones.”
Born Shahnour Varenagh Aznavourian in Paris on May 22, 1924, to an artistic father and mother who had fled the Armenian genocide. The family, including older sister Aida, intended to travel to the United States but a visa never came.
Aznavour was dubbed “Charles” by a hospital nurse who couldn’t pronounce his name – and it stuck. His parents settled in Paris and opened a small Armenian restaurant, Le Caucase, to which they would invite Hungarian orchestras, and offer free lunches to the less fortunate and friends.
The family’s struggle with poverty, and life on the road as a young performer during the second world war – when his father hid several Armenian and Russian Jewish immigrants from the German Army – made their way into his songs.
“Like most Orientals, we had a very united family,” he says. “I loved my youth, even if it was sometimes a bit harsh – but we could always count on our family and on all the immigrants that were around us.
“We were genuinely happy and it had nothing to do with money or power. We were all just thankful to be alive and together in France.”
Married three times, with six children, Aznavour values his privacy.
“One of the most painful memories I have is losing my son, Patrick, in the 70s,” he says. “I don’t like to talk about it a lot and I try to keep my private life to myself.”
Besides being an artist, he is also a diplomat and a humanitarian, with a special focus on Armenia, “the country of my soul and roots”.
“My culture has traces of Armenian culture but the country of my heart and of my language is France,” he says. “I hope Armenia will finally live in peace and that all the problems will be resolved with its borders. We are all cousins and brothers, when you think about it, and it is only politics and religion that separate us.”
In 1975 Aznavour, wrote the ballad Ils sont tombés to mark the 60th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. In 1988, he launched a fund-raising campaign to help his stricken homeland after an earthquake killed 50,000 people. Unesco appointed him as their permanent ambassador to Armenia. In 2008 he was given Armenian citizenship and, a year later, he accepted the position as Ambassador of Armenia to Switzerland.
“I am not trying to boast but I have to admit that for an uneducated son of an immigrant, I could have done far worse,” he says.
His most recent album was last year’s Encores, which included tracks about his childhood, Piaf and a tribute to the French wartime resistance movement. But do not ask him to rank it against any of his previous work.
“I think of my songs as my own children, so I have no favourites,” he says. “I love them all equally the same – but there are a few songs that I am especially proud of.
“Some of them are not very well known. I could, perhaps, mention L’instant Present because it’s about the present moment, which is challenging to write about. I also like the songs on my last album, Encores, because they are recent – but really I like think of all of them as my babies.”
And if he could change anything, what would it be?
“For myself, I already had a nose job 60 years ago,” he says. “For the world around me, I know it seems a bit cheesy but if people could live together in peace and harmony that would be great.”