The singer with 'no voice, no looks and no luck'
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“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,” said Charles Aznavour.
Those born without privilege tend to appreciate success more than those on whom privilege is bestowed. Raised without a safety net they are also conscious of how quickly success can be taken away too, prompting many to work ever harder even when success delivers the trappings of fame.
When Charles Aznavour died at the age of 94 it was barely two weeks after performing a sell-out show in Osaka. A fortnight later he had been due to perform in Brussels. Three days before his death he had told the French television show C á vous: "I cannot not live, and I live on stage. I am happy on stage, and that shows”.
Having first appeared on a stage at the age of nine Aznavour’s career spanned an astonishing 85 years, during which he recorded 91 albums, sold 200 million records and composed more than 1,200 songs. He also found the time to appear in 60 films.
At just 5’3”, not conventionally handsome and with a voice that many could take or leave – one British critic christened him ‘Aznovoice’ and Sammy Davis Jr described listening to him as “a waking nightmare” – Aznavour’s success as a heartthrob crooner was remarkable. But what he had was something the snootier critics and more conventionally gifted colleagues would never fully appreciate: authenticity.
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“He sings of love as no one did before, with a new vocabulary which is that of the physical gestures of love,” said Maurice Chevalier. “Aznavour is the first singer who dares to sing of love as one feels it, makes it - and suffers from it.”
His repertoire was rinsed in ordinary feelings: the joys, hopes, failings and disappointments of life as lived by ordinary people and he did more than simply recite the lyrics. An Aznavour performance, whether in front of an audience of thousands or in a recording studio, immersed itself in the material, inhabiting the character of the song and delivering it with intensity, intimacy and authenticity in equal measure whether singing in French, English, German, Italian or even Yiddish. As Jean Cocteau put it, “he sang with his heart”.
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Even when the subject matter wasn’t his own lived experience he convinced the listener this was a performance hewn from the depths of his soul. The material wasn’t always conventional either: his 1972 song Comme ils disent (‘What Makes a Man’) was one of the first mainstream songs to deal openly and sympathetically with homosexual love. “Nobody has the right to be, the judge of what is right for me," he sang.
“I don’t write stories like novels,” he said in 2006. “I don’t invent anything. I bring language to existing facts and events. I read all the newspapers. I watch all the news programmes on television. I was the first to write about social issues like homosexuality. I find real subjects and translate them into song.”
One of these real subjects was particularly close to his heart. In 1975 he co-wrote Ils sont tombés (‘They Fell’), a song commemorating the victims of the Armenian genocide to mark 60 years after it began. It was a poignant topic because Aznavour was himself born to Armenian parents who arrived in Paris after fleeing Ottoman oppression. “I have that tragedy in my blood,” he said.
He was born Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian in Paris as his parents waited for news of their applications for US visas. When they were turned down the family chose to remain in the French capital and open a restaurant on the Left Bank offering food from the Caucasus to give fellow refugees at least a taste of the home they’d been forced to flee. In later life Aznavour would say that the business failed partly due to the Great Depression but also due to his father’s insistence on giving free meals to displaced Armenians facing hardship.
While his career thrived on a persona that seemed archetypally French Aznavour retained his Armenian identity to the end. “I am 100% French and 100% Armenian,” he said, and these were not empty words. When in 1988 an earthquake in the region killed up to 50,000 Armenians, Aznavour released Pour toi, Arménie (‘For you, Armenia’) and donated the profits to relief and reconstruction. In 2008 he was granted Armenian citizenship and a year later was appointed Armenian ambassador to Switzerland, having made his home in Geneva. Six months before his death in an open letter to the people of Armenia, he wrote, “We, Armenians from the diaspora, are extremely proud to show the world that there is a small country whose citizens demonstrate exceptional wisdom and humanism, proving that violence is not the only path to peace and agreement”. A square in the Armenian capital Yerevan carries his name.
With a father who was a gifted singer and a mother who had been an actress of some talent before being forced to flee, it was not surprising that young Charles showed early aptitude as a performer. By the time he was nine he was performing songs from the old country for emotional gatherings of Parisian Armenians and his charismatic renditions prompted his parents to enrol him at a drama school. Within two years he was playing Henry IV but already regarded singing as his true calling. He had a rich repertoire of traditional Armenian songs that dripped with tragedy and pathos, but he also absorbed the American-style material sweeping Paris thanks to artistes like Josephine Baker.
During the war he honed his voice and stagecraft by performing in nightclubs and at cabarets - bringing in cash that allowed his parents to become a key node in a network hiding Jews and helping them escape France – and watching French performers who would go on to greatness ahead of him. The three who influenced him most were, he revealed in a 1992 interview, “Charles Trenet for his writing, Edith Piaf for her pathos, Maurice Chevalier for his professionalism and all three for their tremendous presence on stage”.
From his late teens he was writing songs for other performers that were so good Piaf became his mentor, effectively engaging him as an assistant, songwriter, support act and even housemate.
“We had many things in common: the street, the songs, the way of life, the love and the drink. We drank everything,” he said. “We really loved each other but we were like cousins, it was never sexual. That’s what saved us.”
He accompanied her to New York in 1948 and stayed for a year. “I lived on West 44th Street, ate in Hector’s Cafeteria and plugged my songs with no success,” he recalled. Piaf encouraged him to persevere, even paying for a nose job, but while others performed his songs to great acclaim, as a performer he couldn’t seem to break out of the cycle of support spots and minor venues.
It was the unlikely circumstances of a 1956 vaudeville show in Casablanca that somehow turned the tide. Aznavour went down a storm, not least with Je Me Voyais Déjà, a song he’d had rejected by Yves Montand about a failed singer fantasising ruefully about being top of the bill. Word got back to Paris, Aznavour was booked into the prestigious Alhambra theatre and suddenly he was on his way.
His film career took off in 1960 when he played the enigmatic pianist in François Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (‘Shoot the Piano Player’), a role Truffaut had written specifically with Aznavour in mind and one for which he received wide praise for a performance of enigmatic understatement.
Three years later he took the risky step of booking himself into Carnegie Hall in New York. While French performers had achieved minor success in the US they’d been hampered by American audiences finding songs in other languages than English challenging. Aznavour had learned English from listening to Frank Sinatra and gambled that he could include enough English material to win over Manhattan. It worked: he performed to a sell-out audience that included Bob Dylan, who regularly cites Aznavour at Carnegie Hall as the greatest live performance he’s ever seen.
That concert and the world tour that followed built the foundations of Aznavour’s phenomenal international success, success that blossomed further during the 1970s thanks, he said, to some outstanding translations of his lyrics from French into English. One of his biggest hits in the UK, for example, was She, a song that remained in the charts for nearly four months but barely registered in France.
Becoming one of the world’s most popular performers did not reduce Aznavour’s work ethic one iota. When he died, not only did the 94-year-old have a string of bookings in his diary he was even starting to plan a huge concert to mark his 100th birthday in 2024. It would have taken place nearly 70 years after a struggling Aznavour had told a Parisian music publisher that he’d identified the three key disadvantages holding him back: “No voice, no looks and no luck”.