Charles Aznavour preferred not to pick a favourite from the more than 1,000 songs he wrote because “the last one I’ve written is always the one I think is the best”.
Charles Aznavour who died last week at 94, had a special affection for “La vie est faite de hasard”, a deceptively breezy track about the whims of fortune. “That’s what I feel about existence,” he explained in 2014.
It was by a twist of fate that Aznavour grew up French. He was born in Paris in 1924 to Armenian parents fleeing Turkish persecution who wanted to emigrate to the US. But US visas for Armenians were no longer available so the family remained in Paris. His father was a singer and restaurateur, while his mother was an actor who worked as a seamstress. Family life was artistically rich but financially meagre.
Shahnourh Aznavourian — dubbed “Charles” by a maternity nurse unable to pronounce his name — performed as a boy with his sister as a musical duo. At nine he appeared in his first film. Ahead lay enthronement as one of France’s best-loved idols. But riches and fame, viewed from the perspective of the family home in Rue Monsieur-le-Prince, were not obvious prospects.
Aznavour was drawn from an early age to chanson, the distinctively French style that emerged from cabaret, music hall and lyric poetry. He began working with the pianist Pierre Roche in 1941 during the Nazi occupation of Paris, scraping together whatever opportunities they could. Meanwhile, he and his family took the risk of hiding Jews and members of the Resistance.
The end of the war brought a patriotic resurgence of interest in chanson, whose dominance had been challenged in the 1920s by jazz.
Aznavour and Roche had their first success with the song “J’ai bu”, about a romantic loser in the “roulette of life”, which the singer Georges Ulmer recorded in 1946. Aznavour would later make the song his own. But initially his attempts to sing his and Roche’s songs met with mockery.
His nose was too big, critics complained, and his body was too scrawny. His love songs were considered excessively frank, while his singing had a keening, wild edge, the legacy of a vocal paralysis in his childhood. He referred regretfully to his voice’s “Oriental” quality, as though “a piece of Gruyère cheese with its many holes was wedged in my throat”. The “son of emigrants, stateless people”, as he later called himself, was in danger of choking on a treasured symbol of Frenchness.
Aznavour’s salvation lay overseas. He was encouraged by an important mentor, Edith Piaf, a fellow outsider from a penniless Parisian background who called herself his “little sister from the streets”. He left Roche and went solo. News of a rapturously received series of concerts in the Moroccan city of Casablanca in 1956 filtered back to Paris. Acceptance in the French metropole followed with an acclaimed residency at the city’s celebrated Olympia concert hall.
His breakthrough record was 1960’s “Je m’voyais déjà”, the jauntily comic story of a failed singer. That year he also played a down-on-his-luck musician in François Truffaut’s film Shoot the Pianist, which turned him into a film star. His acting skills were vital to his musical performances, with Aznavour using dramatic gestures and props as he sang. “I wanted to be an actor who sings, which was new at the time,” he said.
He was a fixture in the French charts in the 1960s. The likes of “Hier encore”, “La bohème” and “Emmenez-moi” flew the flag for chanson during the era of pop and rock. He toured ceaselessly throughout the world. Bob Dylan, who saw him play in New York in 1963, said: “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. He just blew my brains out.”
Aznavour’s biggest hit in the UK was “She” in 1974. Its cloying arrangements revealed his musical weakness — a taste for syrup. But the song’s English lyrics were proof of a sharper appetite, his hunger for new audiences.
He sang in multiple languages and was open-minded towards new styles of pop. His stamina and longevity were remarkable: he died in the south of France just weeks after returning from a tour in Japan.
“If I quit the stage, I shall die,” he said in one of his last interviews. He is survived by his widow Ulla Thorsell, his third wife, and five of his six children. He was proud of his Armenian background, the land of his parents. But it was woven into his experience of Frenchness, of the stateless child who struggled and succeeded in implanting himself at the heart of the nation’s most cherished musical tradition.
Rest in Peace