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.
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.”
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