Charles Aznavour, the son of Armenian immigrants, struggled against all the odds to launch his singing career in France. Aznavour had neither stunning film star looks nor a remarkable voice, but he had two things in his favour – powerful on-stage charisma and incredible willpower!
Now in his eighties, Charles Aznavour, the international ambassador of French chanson is still going strong. Over the past 40 years, this multi-talented artist has not only recorded countless albums but also starred in numerous films. Today Aznavour remains one of the most popular celebrities in the French showbiz world.
Charles Aznavour was born in Paris on May 22 1924. In fact it was quite by chance that young Charles was born in the French capital. He should have been born in the United States, but his parents, Armenian immigrants, were temporarily based in France awaiting an American visa when their son unexpectedly arrived in the world.
Charles came from an interestingly mixed cultural background. His father Micha Aznavourian, had been born in Georgia; his mother, Anar, came from a family of Armenian tradesmen who were based in Turkey.
It was not long before Micha, a talented baritone whose father had been a chef to Czar Nicholas II, opened a small Armenian restaurant in Paris. Every evening he would perform to audiences of Central European exiles nostalgic for their homeland, while his wife Anar, an actress, attended to the guests. Charles and his elder sister, Aïda, thus grew up in the magical atmosphere of the restaurant in la rue de la Huchette, which became a favourite haunt for musicians and actors from the local theatres.
But the great recession in 1929 forced the Aznavourians to abandon their restaurant. The family moved to a flat in the rue Cardinal-Lemoine right across the road from the famous stage school where they enrolled their son Charles in 1933.
Charles’s greatest ambition at the time was to become an actor and he threw himself into drama classes with a veritable passion. It was not long before he began getting work as a film extra and he soon went on to land a few minor roles in the theatre as well as in several films. In 1939 his mother Micha volunteered to join the French army and Charles left his drama school to start earning a living. Two years later he would meet a young songwriter and composer by the name of Pierre Roche. This encounter was to change Charles’s entire career, for he and Roche teamed up as a double act and began performing the songs they had written together on the cabaret circuit. The pair proved to be an instant hit.
Aznavour meets Piaf and Trenet
By 1946 Aznavour and Roche were rubbing shoulders with the great music-hall stars of the day. Aznavour met his great hero, Charles Trenet, and the duo also met Edith Piaf who would open doors in America for them. 1946 also proved to be a momentous year in Aznavour’s personal life, for he married his girlfriend Micheline and the following year the couple had their first child, a daughter called Séda. By the end of the 40’s Aznavour and Roche’s career had really taken off and the pair flew off to tour the States, flying on to Montreal where they performed headlining concerts for several months.
In 1952 Aznavour returned to France alone, his partner Pierre Roche staying behind in Montreal with his new wife. Aznavour continued performing on the cabaret circuit, but his solo act was not a great success. However, he did begin to make a name for himself as a songwriter, composing material for famous music-hall stars such as Mistinguett and Patachou. Juliette Gréco also had a hit with Aznavour’s song “Je hais les dimanches”(which went on to win “le Prix de la Sacem” in 1950). Aznavour also began working for Edith Piaf, writing an adaptation of the American hit “Jezebel” which proved to be a great success for her.
In 1952 Aznavour’s wife Micheline gave birth to a son called Charles.
Two years later Aznavour embarked upon a tour of North Africa, and this time round his solo act proved a great success. The singer, who had a repertoire of at least thirty songs to his name now, landed a contract at the Alhambra when he returned to Paris, and followed this with a popular run at the legendary Olympia. While the critics were often rather harsh with Aznavour, audiences were charmed by his charismatic stage presence and traditional chanson style.
In 1956 Aznavour married his second wife Evelyne Plessis and later that year the couple had a son named Patrick. By this stage in his career Aznavour had established himself as one of the top names of French chanson, scoring huge hits with his songs “Sur ma vie”, “Parce que” and the controversial “Après l’amour” (which was considered far too explicit to play on the nation’s airwaves).
Aznavour triumphs at the Olympia
1957 was a year of triumph for Aznavour. The singer gave a series of phenomenally successful concerts at the Alhambra, then followed this with a headlining stint at the Olympia. His international tour later that year proved equally successful.
Meanwhile Aznavour’s acting career was also taking off in a major way. In 1958 he starred in Jean Pierre Mocky’s film “Les dragueurs”, then landed a role in Georges Frange’s “La tête contre les murs” (for which he scooped that year’s Best Male Actor award).
In 1960 François Truffaut offered Aznavour a major role in his film “Tirez sur le pianiste”. Truffaut’s film soon proved a box office smash in the States, and Aznavour was suddenly catapulted to fame in America. Indeed, he was soon invited to perform at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York. Following rave reviews from the critics, Aznavour embarked upon an extensive international tour, playing dates in Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, Africa and the USSR. The singer would also return to his roots in Erevan, Armenia, where he performed his legendary song “La Mamma” which would go on to become an absolute classic in the Aznavour repertoire.
When Aznavour finally returned to France in 1965 he took his successful “One Man Show” to the Olympia, performing his repertoire of 30 songs to a packed auditorium for a full twelve weeks. That summer Aznavour went on to star in Pierre Granier-Deferre’s film “Paris au mois d’août” and at the end of the year he staged his famous musical “Monsieur Carnaval” (”La bohême”, the hit song from this musical would go on to become the best-known song of his entire career).
The following year Aznavour set off on the next leg of his world tour, performing in Canada and the French Antilles. The singer then went on to score a massive hit throughout Latin America with the Spanish version of his famous song “Avec”.
Over the next few years Aznavour would alternate his concert tours of France with international performances. The singer had lost none of his popularity in Paris, performing no less than three shows a day at the Olympia (at 5pm, 9pm and midnight !).
Aznavour gets married in Las Vegas
In 1968 Aznavour married his third wife, Swedish-born Ulla Thorsell, in Las Vegas. The couple would hold a traditional religious wedding at the Armenian Church in Paris when they returned to France the following year. 1969 was also a momentous year in Azanvour’s professional career, being the year that he won an award from the Association of American Songwriters and Composers and La Médaille Vermeil in Paris for his song “Hier encore”. Later that year Aznavour celebrated another happy event in his personal life, his new wife Ulla giving birth to a daughter named Katia.
In the early 70’s, with almost 20 years of career behind him, Aznavour began writing his memoirs (published as “Aznavour par Aznavour”) and moved to the United States. The 70’s also marked a subtle change in Aznavour’s songwriting. No longer concerned with purely personal issues, the singer began to turn his attention to what was happening in the world around him. His new material included “Le temps des loups” (a song about urban violence in 1970), “Mourir d’aimer” (taken from the 1971 film of the same name inspired by a famous fait divers) and “Comme ils disent” (a song about homosexuality).
1970 proved to be the year of Aznavour’s triumph in the States, the singer giving numerous concerts in West Coast universities then performing a sell-out show on Broadway. At the start of 1971 Aznavour returned to Paris for another successful run at the Olympia. A few months later he flew to Italy to receive a coveted “Lion d’Or” at the Venice Film Festival for the Italian version of the theme song from “Mourir d’aimer”. In May the singer celebrated another happy event in his personal life when his wife Ulla gave birth to the couple’s second child, a son named Misha.
At the start of 1972 Aznavour returned to the Olympia for another immensely popular series of concerts, and proved equally successful later that year when he performed at the legendary Paris music-hall for a full six weeks in November/December. Meanwhile his song “Les plaisirs démodés” went rocketing to the top of the charts. At the end of 1972 Aznavour was laid up for several months after a serious skiing accident. Yet he continued his prodigious output even during his convalescence, writing the operetta “Douchka” with his brother-in-law (the composer Georges Garvarentz).
1974 was the year of Aznavour’s famous hit single “She”, which earnt the singer a platinum disc in Britain (while, ironically, failing to sell at all in France). In 1975 Aznavour, whose lyrics had become increasingly committed to social and political causes, wrote the moving ballad “Ils sont tombés” to mark the 60th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Later that year he turned his attention back to his acting career, starring in Claude Chabrol’s “Folies Bourgeoises” (Aznavour would work with the famous French director again in 1983, playing a lead role in “Le Fantôme du Chapelier”).
Aznavour hits are covered by a host of international stars
Aznavour had by now achieved international star status and his songs were covered by the greatest singers of the day, including Ray Charles (”La Mamma”), Fred Astaire (who recorded his own version of “Les plaisirs démodés” in 1976) and Bing Crosby who recorded “Hier encore” in 1977, shortly before his death. Later in 77 Aznavour celebrated two further happy events in his personal life, when his son Nicholas was born and he also became a grandfather for the first time.
Grandfather or not, Aznavour, now in his 50’s, continued his hectic touring schedule, embarking upon another major international tour in 1978 and triumphing on Broadway once again.
The following year Aznavour devoted more time and energy to his acting career, starring in Volker Schloendorff’s legendary film “The Tin Drum” (which scooped the “Palme d’Or” at Cannes in 1979). In 1980 he concentrated his efforts on his singing career, performing several immensely popular concerts at the Olympia and embarking on a new series of international tours.
1983 was marked by Aznavour’s split from his record company Barclay. The singer would not sign another recording deal until two years later, when he signed with the Trema label who promised to re-release his early albums. The re-release of Aznavour’s early work in 1986 coincided with the release of the singer’s brand new album, entitled “Les Emigrants” – an extremely successful work which went on to sell 180,000 copies. Later that year the multi-talented Aznavour tried his hand at writing a film script for the first time, working on Paul Boujenah’s film “Yiddish Connection” (a film in which Aznavour also played one of the lead roles).
1987 was another year of non-stop touring, Aznavour embarking upon another immensely successful American tour with the American singer Pia Zadora. On his return to Paris, Aznavour performed in front of a packed auditorium at the Palais des Congrès before setting off on an extensive tour of the French provinces at the end of the year.
In 1988 Aznavour returned to the Palais des Congrès in Paris, performing his old hits and new material to rapturous applause. At the end of the year news reached Aznavour of a catastrophic earthquake in Armenia (Leninakan and Spitak), which had killed 50,000 people. Aznavour, who had always remained firmly attached to his Armenian roots, immediately launched a fund-raising campaign to help his stricken homeland. The singer founded “Aznavour pour l’Arménie”, a humanitarian association which was involved in sending food and clothes to the earthquake victims. At the start of 1989 Aznavour also teamed up with the Armenian-born film director Henri Verneuil to enlist the help of French singers, actors and musicians in their Aid for Armenia campaign. 90 French actors and singers ended up making a special single and video (”Pour Toi l’Arménie”) which sold over 1 million copies.
Unesco’s ambassador to Armenia
As a result of his committed fund-raising work UNESCO appointed Aznavour as their permanent ambassador to Armenia.
That same year Aznavour flew to London to re-record his greatest hits, which were released as a special triple album.
Throughout the early 90’s Aznavour continued to devote a great deal of time and energy to his acting career, starring in a number of television and feature films. In 1991 he also published another book, “Des mots à l’affiche”, a collection of his song lyrics and other short texts. At the end of 1990 Aznavour performed a legendary concert with his lifelong friend Liza Minelli at the Palais des Congrès in Paris.
In 1992 Aznavour invested some of his earnings in buying the back catalogue of Raoul Breton’s music publishing company. Aznavour, who appointed himself as director of the Raoul Breton collection, thus went on to own the copyright to some of the most famous songs in French music history (including the work of some of the greatest French chanson stars such as Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet).
In 1994 Aznavour signed a new deal with EMI, authorising the re-release of his life’s recording work (i.e. over 1,000 songs, more than half of which the singer had written himself). This resulted in the ‘complete works’ of Aznavour being released as a series of 30 CDs in 1996. In October the American music magazine “Billboard” paid tribute to the French star, featuring him on their cover (a rare feat for a French artist !)
In 1997 Aznavour was honoured in France at the “Victoires de la Musique” awards ceremony, where record industry professionals voted him Best Male Singer of the Year. Later that year the French president Jacques Chirac paid tribute to the singer, making him an Officier de la Légion d’Honneur at an official ceremony in Paris (on September 15 1997).
Meanwhile Aznavour continued to record new material, releasing a new album entitled “Plus bleu” (named after a famous song he had written for Edith Piaf in 1951). Benefiting from the latest technology, Aznavour was even able to record a new version of the song as a ‘virtual’ duet with Piaf, mixing his vocals with original Piaf recordings.
On Saturday July 12 1997 Aznavour celebrated his 50 anniversary in the music business at the Montreux Festival in Switzerland. The singer opened the show with his legendary hit “Après l’amour”, then handed over to a number of famous jazz musicians (including Rachelle Ferrell, Bobby Mc Ferrin and Manu Dibango) who performed cover versions of his most famous songs in French and English. Aznavour returned to the stage for the grand finale, giving a rousing performance of his classic “Emmenez-moi”.
The Farewell Concerts
Following a series of health problems and a major shake-up in a car accident, Aznavour decided to call a halt to his touring activities. Announcing his “retirement” from the live scene, the singer embarked on one last round of concerts, bidding farewell to his fans worldwide. In November 1999 Aznavour brought the house down when he bid adieu to fans in Quebec. Shortly afterwards, Aznavour announced that he would play his very final concerts in Paris in October 2000. But between Quebec and Paris the indefatigable French star is planning to squeeze in another 180 concerts!
As fans await his final curtain call, Aznavour has been hard at work on a new project which he has spent several years dreaming of bringing to fruition. After trying his hand at operettas in the 60s, the singer has written a musical about the life of French painter Toulouse-Lautrec. “Lautrec” premiered at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London in April 2000 and, following good reviews in the UK, it may well end up on Broadway. Aznavour, who was responsible for both the words and music in “Lautrec”, claims he has discovered a new calling in life, declaring in a recent interview that he was “made to write musicals!”
Aznavour returned to the forefront of the French music scene in the autumn of 2000, releasing an album entitled “Aznavour 2000″ which features twelve bitter-sweet ‘chansons’ in his usual style. Following the release of “Aznavour 2000″, the French chanson star announced he was to retire from the live scene and told reporters his current tour will be the last of his career. After playing a series of concerts in Switzerland and Belgium, Aznavour performed the first of his farewell concerts at the Palais des Congrès in Paris on October 24th, playing to a packed house. After performing at the Palais des Congrès until December 17th, Aznavour continued his farewell tour in 2001, playing a series of concerts all over France. Meanwhile, the singer was also busy in front of the cameras, playing a lead role in an Atom Egoyan film. On October 8th 2001, Aznavour received another prestigious award to add to his collection when President Jacques Chirac made him a “Commandeur de l’Ordre national du mérite” at a special ceremony at the Elysée Palace.
Aznavour has continued to defend social and political causes throughout his career. In January 2001, the singer voiced his appreciation of the French government’s recognition of the Armenian genocide. In April 2002, when far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen made it through to the second round of the French presidential elections, Aznavour joined other celebrities in signing the “Vive la France” petition, urging members of the public to go out and “sing the ‘Marseillaise’ for the Republic” as a protest. Later that same year, “Ararat,” a film about the Armenian genocide made by Atom Egoyan (a Canadian director of Armenian origin), hit French cinema screens. Aznavour played a starring role in it. In April 2003, the singer also attended a special ceremony marking the erection of a commemorative statue in Paris in memory of the genocide victims.
In September 2003, Aznavour published his memoirs, “Le temps des avants” (Flammarion) then, three months later, went on to release a new album entitled “Je voyage.” The album, on which Aznavour’s daughter, Katia, provided guest vocals on the title track, featured a rich mix of styles, the singer salsa-ing on “Il y a des trains,” swinging on “Quelqu’un de different” and waxing fado lyrical on “Lisboa.”
After taking a short break to play a role in a TV adaptation of Balzac’s novel, “Le père Goriot” (filmed in Bucharest), Aznavour made a stage comeback in Paris. The singer celebrated his 80th birthday with a successful run at the ‘Palais des Congrès’ (16 April – 22 May 2004).
In the course of an impressively long career, spanning six decades, Aznavour has recorded a staggering 740 songs (including 350 in French and 150 in English, not to mention eight albums in Spanish and seven albums in German). In 1999, voters in an Internet poll organised by CNN and Time magazine nominated Aznavour as one of the top singers of the 20th century, alongside Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. Judging by his on-going success, it looks like the French ‘chanson’ star may well triumph in 21st-century polls, as well!
The singer’s 80th birthday was marked in style with the release of a double album featuring the greatest hits of his career recorded as duets with French music stars including Florent Pagny, Line Renaud, Catherine Ringer, Nana Mouskouri, Corneille – and even American superstar Liza Minelli!
In 2005, Aznavour resurfaced on the French music scene with “Insolitement vôtre”, a studio album featuring songs from “Lautrec” (the singer’s musical based on the life of artist Toulouse-Lautrec which has never been staged in France). The album featured an impressive list of guest stars duetting with the great Charles. These included Annie Cordy, Serge Lama, Lio, the Cape Verdean singer Maria Andrade, Isabelle Boulay and his own daughter, Katia Aznavour.
Later that year, the director Edmond Bensimon paid his own cinematic tribute to the singer with “Emmenez moi”, a fictional film about the adventures of a Charles Aznavour fan. What’s more, Aznavour got to play himself in the film.
2006: the first adieux
2006 was largely taken up with Aznavour’s farewell tour outside France. Even though the singer is still ridiculously sprightly for 80, the pressures of international touring were beginning to take their toll on him and he had decided to start calming things down. His international farewell tour included dates in Germany in February and concerts in North America in September (Montreal, Toronto, Washington, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, etc.).
On 30 September 2006, Aznavour performed a major concert in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, inaugurating the cultural season “Arménie mon amie” in France. The French president Jacques Chirac, who was on an official visit to Armenia at the time, and the Armenian president Robert Kotcharian were in front-row attendance. Warm-up acts at the mega-show included many of Aznavour’s closest friends such as Nana Mouskouri, Line Renaud, Danny Brillant, Isabelle Boulay, also Hélène Ségara and Michel Legrand (both of whom are themselves of Armenian origin). Aznavour has remained deeply attached to his homeland throughout his career and his compatriots have returned his love, adopting him as their national hero.
2007: “Colore ma vie”
While Aznavour had officially embarked upon his farewell tour, bidding adieu to fans outside France, the singer showed no sign of stopping his formidable recording career. Far from it, in fact. In October 2006, Aznavour flew out to Cuba to record a new album, spending an intensive ten-day period at the legendary Egrem Studio in Havana. Here, he worked with the renowned Cuban pianist and composer Jesus “Chucho” Valdès who took care of orchestration and arrangement on the album. Recording in the studio with Chucho’s quartet, the pair perfected twelve vibrant upbeat tracks alternating between cha-cha-cha, calypso, mambo and Latin jazz. Aznavour’s warm, generous vocals worked wonderfully well with this mix of Caribbean rhythms.
Aznavour’s new album, “Colore ma vie”, released in February 2007, featured a series of ’songs with a message’. On a haunting ballad entitled “J’abdiquerai” (I’ll Abdicate), the singer railed against death, “that filthy whore”. Meanwhile, he proved he was also perfectly in touch with topical social issues, raising the subject of immigration and integration on “Moi, je vis en banlieue” (Me, I Live in the Suburbs) and the idea of accepting personal responsibility for environmental problems on “La terre meurt” (The Earth is Dying). Aznavour remained true to two of his favourite themes, evoking the three phases of love on “Avant, Pendant, Après” (Before, During and Afterwards) and paying tribute to his native Armenia on “Tendre Arménie.”
The singer paid homage to Armenia once again on 17 February 2007, taking to the stage at the Opéra Garnier in Paris for another fundraising concert on behalf of his homeland. The show, entitled “Aznavour et ses amis” (Aznavour and Friends), aimed at raising funds for “Jeunes Ambassadeurs pour l’Arménie” – an organisation which invites Armenian children studying French to spend time in France – featured appearances by a number of major music stars including Patrick Bruel, Florent Pagny, Grand Corps Malade and Bénabar.
In December 2008, Aznavour released a bumper double album of duets with international music stars. The two-volume album, “Duos” – based on an idea by the singer’s artistic advisor and personal manager, Lévon Sayan – fell neatly into two linguistic halves. Volume I featured duets of French hits while volume II revolved around songs in English, German, Spanish and Italian. A star-studded cast joined the famous French chanson crooner in the studio including Elton John, Sting, Laura Pausini, Herbert Grönemeyer, Johnny Hallyday, Paul Anka, Liza Minnelli, Nana Mouskouri, Josh Groban, Julio Iglesias, Carole King and the opera singer Placido Domingo. Aznavour also recorded three ‘virtual’ posthumous duets with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Edith Piaf.