Today marks the 97th birth anniversary of Charles Aznavour.
The legendary French Armenian singer, who wrote more than 800 songs, recorded more than 1,000 of them in French, English, German and Spanish and sold over 100 million records, was born Chahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian on May 22, 1924, in Paris. He was the younger of two children born to Armenian immigrants who fled to France.
He took his first theatrical bow in the play “Emil and the Detectives” at age 9 and within a few years was working as a movie extra. He eventually quit school and toured France and Belgium as a boy singer/dancer with a traveling theatrical troupe while living the bohemian lifestyle.
“Live now. Tomorrow, who knows?”
A popular performer at the Paris’ Club de la Chanson, it was there that he was introduced in 1941 to the songwriter Pierre Roche. Together they developed names for themselves as a singing/writing cabaret and concert duo (“Roche and Aznamour”).
After World War Second Charles began appearing in films again, one of them as a singing croupier in Goodbye Darling (1946).
“French is my working language but my family language is always Armenian”
Eventually Aznavour earned a sturdy reputation composing street-styled songs for other established musicians and singers, notably Édith Piaf, for whom he wrote the French version of the American hit “Jezebel”. Heavily encouraged by her, he toured with her as both an opening act and lighting man. He lived with Piaf out of need for a time not as one of her many paramours.
“I had the chance to know very young what I wanted to do with my life, I assumed myself and I assumed the directions I had set for myself. Coming from nowhere, or coming from below, I wanted to graze the peaks. I had nothing, and even less than nothing, I was interested in everything, I never stopped learning, improving my knowledge, not with the aim of astonishing people, but to amaze myself,” Aznavour would say.
My shortcomings are my voice, my height, my gestures, my lack of culture and education, my frankness and my lack of personality.
In the late 50s, Aznavour began to infiltrate films with more relish. Short and stubby in stature and excessively brash and brooding in nature, he was hardly leading man material but embraced his shortcomings nevertheless. Unwilling to let these faults deter him, he made a strong impressions with the comedy Une gosse sensass’ (1957) and with Paris Music Hall (1957). He was also deeply affecting as the benevolent but despondent and ill-fated mental patient Heurtevent in Head Against the Wall (1959).
Dubbed the “Frank Sinatra of France” and singing in many languages (French, English, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, Armenian, Portuguese), his touring would include sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall (1964) and London’s Albert Hall (1967).
Aznavour’s chart-busting single “She” (1972-1974) went platinum in Britain. He also received thirty-seven gold albums in all. His most popular song in America, “Yesterday When I Was Young” has had renditions covered by everyone from Shirley Bassey to Julio Iglesias. In 1997, Aznavour received an honorary César Award. He has written three books, the memoirs “Aznavour By Aznavour” (1972), the song lyrics collection “Des mots à l’affiche” (1991) and a second memoir “Le temps des avants” (2003). A “Farewell Tour” was instigated in 2006 at age 82 and, health permitting, could last to 2010.
Aznavour sang for presidents, popes and royalty, as well as at humanitarian events. In response to the 1988 Armenian earthquake, he founded the charitable organization Aznavour for Armenia along with his long-time friend impresario Levon Sayan.
In 1989 Charles Aznavour composed the song “Pour toi Arménie,” which was recorded by a group of French singers popular at the time. This charity single was intended to raise funds to help the Armenians who experienced the 1988 Spitak earthquake. It sold more than 1 million copies.
Aznavour would say: “Every day of the year, I am active, never completely at rest. My motto is borrowed from Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. At any point and at any time, the artist cried out: Long live life!”
In 2009 Aznavour was appointed Armenia’s Ambassador to Switzerland.
“First I hesitated, as it is not an easy task. Then I thought that what is important for Armenia is important for us. I have accepted the proposal with love, happiness and feeling of deep dignity,” Aznavour said.
On 24 August 2017, Aznavour was awarded the 2,618th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
On 17 September 2018, his last concert took place in Tokyo.
Charles Aznavour passed away aged 94 on October 1, 2018. France paid him a national tribute at Hôtel des Invalides. The ceremony was chaired by French President Emmanuel Macron and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
Charles Aznavour was laid to rest in the family vault outside Paris after a private funeral at the city’s St John the Baptist Armenian cathedral.