Sunday Times

Charles Az­navour: song­writer, the old-fash­ioned way 1924-2018


● Charles Az­navour, who has died at the age of 94, was for more than 60 years one of France’s best-known chanteurs; his bit­ter­sweet love songs, crooned in a wist­ful, sad-eyed, throaty croak, be­came an in­sti­tu­tion, not only in his home­land but through­out the world.

Dur­ing the course of his ca­reer Az­navour com­posed per­haps 1,000 songs, and sold well over 100-mil­lion records. He was also an ac­tor, ap­pear­ing in about 80 films.

It was, how­ever, as a singer and song­writer that Az­navour was best known, although he had been per­form­ing in seedy night­clubs and bars across the world for at least a decade be­fore he had his first taste of real fame. Ini­tially, it seemed, au­di­ences were re­luc­tant to ac­cept this diminu­tive fig­ure, with his husky ren­di­tions of songs that seemed to defy the con­ven­tions of sen­ti­men­tal pop mu­sic.

Carnegie Hall

The lyrics were per­sonal, com­bined irony with melan­choly in­no­cence and were oc­ca­sion­ally risqué. I Hate Sun­day, which Az­navour wrote for the chanteuse Edith Piaf, was banned from French ra­dio for sev­eral years.

But in 1956, af­ter top­ping the bill in Casablanca, Az­navour landed a con­tract at the Cinéma Al­ham­bra in Paris, fol­lowed by a spell head­lin­ing at the Olympia, also in the city. With songs such as Sur Ma Vie, Parce que and the con­tro­ver­sial Après l’Amour, his pop­u­lar­ity soared and soon his records were sell­ing all over the world.

Through­out the 1960s Az­navour toured the world play­ing venues such as Carnegie Hall in New York and trav­el­ling as far afield as Le­banon, Africa and Rus­sia. He also played in Ere­van, Ar­me­nia, per­form­ing La Mamma, which be­came one of the stan­dards in his reper­toire.

Although Az­navour’s songs were melodic, their power was in the lyrics, and he was at pains to sep­a­rate him­self from croon­ers such as Frank Si­na­tra and Mel Tormé, de­scrib­ing him­self as “a writer who sings his own songs”.

Many of his songs were based on his own ex­pe­ri­ences, or sounded as if they were — as with Reste (“Stay”), in which a man pleads with his mis­tress not to leave, or J’ai bu, about some­one who has lost his lover be­cause of his drink­ing.

‘The face I can’t for­get’

Az­navour’s mu­sic had a re­nais­sance in 1999, af­ter Elvis Costello cov­ered She — orig­i­nally a UK No 1 hit in 1974 — for the film Not­ting Hill. The song, which opened the film over a mon­tage of shots of Ju­lia Roberts’s gleam­ing smile, was typ­i­cal Az­navour: She may be the face I can’t for­get / A trace of plea­sure or re­gret / May be the trea­sure or the price I have to pay / She may be the song that sum­mer sings / May be the chill that au­tumn brings / May be a hun­dred tear­ful things / Within the mea­sure of the day.

The film­mak­ers had orig­i­nally used Az­navour’s record­ing of the song, but Costello was called in to record a ver­sion they thought would be more ap­peal­ing to the US mar­ket. For Az­navour it reaf­firmed the lim­its of his mar­ketabil­ity. “My short­com­ings,” he said, “are my voice, my height, my ges­tures, my lack of ed­u­ca­tion, my frank­ness and my lack of per­son­al­ity.”

Al­most Amer­i­can

Az­navour was born Shah­nourh Vare­nagh Az­naourian on May 22 1924 in the Latin Quar­ter of Paris. His par­ents were Ar­me­nian im­mi­grants en route to the US and await­ing a visa when their sec­ond son (named “Charles” by a nurse who could not pro­nounce his real name) was born.

The fam­ily de­cided to set­tle in Paris where his fa­ther, Misha, opened a restau­rant.

But both his par­ents came orig­i­nally from the­atri­cal back­grounds, and they con­tin­ued to per­form in Ar­me­nian plays and mu­si­cals in Paris. Charles was only three when he made his the­atri­cal de­but hav­ing wan­dered on stage at the start of a play.

Even as a child Az­navour’s voice had what he de­scribed as “a lit­tle frog”, but this did lit­tle to ham­per his am­bi­tion.

He left school in 1939 and started work­ing as a night­club dancer while con­tin­u­ing to tour with the­atri­cal troupes. Ini­tially, Az­navour had lit­tle con­fi­dence in his throaty sing­ing voice, but he was en­cour­aged by Piaf, who be­gan to in­clude some of his songs in her reper­toire.

In 1988 Az­navour, who was still per­form­ing to packed houses, took on a new man­tle when an earth­quake in Ar­me­nia killed 50,000 peo­ple. He founded “Az­navour pour L’Ar­ménie” and recorded Pour Toi Ar­ménie.

He con­tin­ued to tour into his nineties, and won nu­mer­ous awards. Health scares (and a car ac­ci­dent) put his tour­ing ca­reer on hold, but each farewell con­cert was fol­lowed by a come­back. “I can re­lax eter­nally when I’m dead,” he said. “Life has to be lived.”

He is sur­vived by his third wife Ulla, their two sons and a daugh­ter, and two chil­dren from an ear­lier mar­riage. A son pre­de­ceased him. — © The Daily Tele­graph, Lon­don

 ?? Pic­ture: Getty Im­ages/Andy Shep­pard ?? French singer­song­writer Charles Az­navour, whose hits in English in­cluded ‘She’ and ‘(Dance in) The Old Fash­ioned Way’.
Pic­ture: Getty Im­ages/Andy Shep­pard French singer­song­writer Charles Az­navour, whose hits in English in­cluded ‘She’ and ‘(Dance in) The Old Fash­ioned Way’.

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