Photo: Francis Vernhet

“He makes even married love seem exciting”. (Il rend même excitant l’amour conjugal). This sage reflection by Life magazine (22 May 1964) perfectly sums up the unique appeal of Charles Aznavour. In a career spanning 70 years, his compendium of songs embraced not just the commonplaces of rock and pop; but, in true chanson style, the entire spectrum of life. Or, as he liked to put it, “ C’est moi qui ai commencé à faire rimer “je t’aime” avec ‘problème’! “ (It was I who first made ‘love’ rhyme with ‘problem’!).

Shahnour Varenagh Aznavourian was born on May 22 1924 in Paris to Armenian immigrants fleeing the Turkish genocide of 1915. Together with his sister Aida he followed their parents’ bent towards showbusiness, firstly in theatre and then in ‘Le Club de la Chanson’, a band of aspiring young performers with whose leader, Pierre Roche, Charles became close friends; eventually forming a duo (Please click on the second image only. Thank you.)

They honed their act, and were finally noticed by Edith Piaf, who persuaded them to accompany her on a tour of New York and Quebec, where they triumphed.

But life in provincial Quebec did not suit Charles, and in 1950 he returned to Paris, where Edith welcomed him to her palatial residence in Boulogne but remonstrated sternly with him, insisting that, if he wished to be successful, he must do so on his own.

Hence, he dismissed Pierre Roche and became, in his own words, “L’homme la plus proche d’elle à n’avoir jamais couché avec elle” (The closest man to Piaf never to have slept with her). Instead, he became her ‘grouillot’ (handyman). Under her pet name for him, “génie con” (stupid genius) he became her indispensable daily companion, acting as chauffeur, lighting and sound man, presenter, accountant, producer – and often whipping-boy. He was 26.

Paradoxically, Edith Piaf never really believed in Charles as a singer. Whilst admitting his talent as a writer, in common with many others at the time she dismissed him as lacking the voice, physique and personality to succeed. Noticeably, in the last years of her life, when her one-time protégé’s fame was at its height, she never alluded to it in interviews.

Finally, she threw him out.  Discouraged, Aznavour reflected, “I can’t change my voice. All the singing teachers I’ve consulted are unanimous. They have advised me not to continue. But I don’t care. I’m going to carry on, despite the ‘frog in my throat’. And I can’t change my height. Five feet four is five feet four. I’m not made of rubber. I have decided to accept it and make others forget it”.

Flatly turned down by Barclay and Phillips, in 1952 aged 28 he signed with Ducretet -Thompson, a minor record company through which he released a series of 78 rpm’s; cementing his reputation as a writer, but utterly failing to realise his most cherished desire: to achieve recognition as a singer.

In 1954 following a successful tour of North Africa, he managed to land a three-month contract at the Moulin Rouge – to public acclaim.

But the press saw red. They attempted to out-do one another in attacking his looks, his physique, his supposed love of money, his nose, and, most of all, his voice. Considerable ingenuity was deployed in these attacks, the most celebrated being “l’enroué vers l’or” – a play on words between “l’enroué” (the man with a sore throat) and “la ruée vers l’or” (gold-rush).

In 1893, on the site of Paris’s first big dipper, Joseph Oller had opened the Olympia Music Hall. It closed in 1929 to become a cinema, but impresario Bruno Coquatrix re-opened it in 1954. At first, he refused to book Aznavour, but, after a visit to the Moulin Rouge, he changed his mind. In 1955, at the Olympia with Sur ma vie, the press were still lukewarm, but the public raved. It was the start of a long and patient climb.

Following this success he released Charles Aznavour Chante Charles Aznavour – an anthology of recordings for Ducretet-Thompson which included Après L’Amour, an evocation of post-coital bliss banned by French radio but designed by Charles to show that no subject lay outside the realm of chanson.

At the same time, to quote his biographer, Bertrand Dicale, “Charles Aznavour has never concealed his deep Christian roots”, and it is a measure of his commitment to the whole of reality that, in the same year, 1956, he released Le Chemin de l’Eternité: “J’ai pleuré, j’ai souffert, mais qu’importe; puisqu’à present mes peines sont mortes; car je vois qu’ils mènent à Ta porte, le chemin de l’éternité” (I’ve cried and suffered, but what does it matter? My pain is now over because I can see that the road to eternity leads to Your door).

In December 1956 Ducretet-Thomson released a 45 rpm containing what would become one of the cornerstones of Charles Aznavour’s repertoire: indeed, a central theme of his work. A homage both to the fleeting pleasures of youth, and to the inevitable nostalgia of later years, Sa Jeunesse brought the house down during his second spell at the Olympia (February-March 1957) ; earning him a follow-up booking at Bobino, Paris’s ‘second’ premier music-hall.

Five years after leaving Edith Piaf and standing on his own two feet he had got to count as a star of the moment with a whiff of modernity. “Il a conquis le haut de l’affiche” (he had made it to the top of the bill).

He had found his cruising speed. But the press remained ambivalent, with the Communist newspaper L’Humanité complaining of the ‘facile sensuality’ and ‘negative, mystifying character’ of his repertoire; whilst France-Soir extolled ‘the pain in his voice – possibly for him and certainly for the audience – but an irresistible and exhilharating pain’.

In 1959 a major new door opened with Aznavour’s role in La Tête Contre Les Murs directed by Georges Franju, heralding a parallel career which would eventually number 60 films, including masterpieces by Jean Cocteau and François Truffaut. This dual mastery earned Charles the acclaim of Paris-Presse: “ Le phénomène Aznavour est une ré-édition du phénomène Sinatra” (The Aznavour phenomenon is a re-play of the Sinatra phenomenon).

Despite the accolades, Aznavour remained characteristically down-beat. “Le cinéma, pour moi, ces des vacances!” (For me, making movies is like being on holiday!)

But, in 1959, Ducretet-Thomson, for whom he had been recording since 1951, was in trouble. Like many before it, it was hoovered-up by the then-mighty EMI, leaving Charles without a recording company. His old friend Eddie Barclay, contrite at having turned him down previously, offered him a 20 million franc contract (300,000 euros in today’s money), triggering the golden period which produced the singer’s classic sound; and where he shared the summit of French chanson with fellow-signatories Léo Ferré and Jacques Brel. Offered the choice between the world-famous Quincy Jones and Paul Mauriat as his arranger, Aznavour chose the latter on the grounds that an American, however illustrious, could not really ‘get’ la chanson française !

It was a collaboration which would ‘set’ the classic Aznavour sound for years to come – an expert amplification of Charles’ original ideas into orchestral arrangements comprising a huge range of styles: jazz; pop; afro-cuban rhythm; lush strings; the seedy club atmosphere of St Germain-des-Près. As the singer said, “He makes his arrangements out of all my faults, and all his qualities”.

At the end of May 1960 they produced their first album for Barclay. One of its songs, Tu Te Laisses Aller (You’ve let yourself go), was to become a landmark of chanson. The portrait of a husband who, bored with his marriage, pours out his heart to his wife, is a picture of everyday life: a daring mix of positivity and poetry. For Aznavour does not abandon his characters to despair: in the last few lines there is a glimmer of hope.

In December 1960 he started a season at another high altar of  entertainment, the Alhambra, where the first night was attended by the cream of French showbusiness: Charles Trénet, Michèle Morgan, Françoise Sagan, Marcel Carné, François Truffaut . . .  Not to mention Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. His first six songs were greeted with polite applause. The seventh, the story of a failed singer, seemingly, with silence. Arriving in the wings, he hissed to his manager, “Tomorrow, I change jobs!”  Amidst the silence, he could hear the sound of stalls banging. “And what’s more, they’re leaving!” But when he returned the entire audience was on its feet, applauding furiously.

It was ‘take-off’. He had found his destiny. Charles Aznavour had entered chanson history. As the powerful critic for Le Figaro, Paul Carrière, wrote: ‘Despite having a pepper-mill for a throat he has the indisputable ability to connect with a huge audience – especially a female one’.

His third Barclay album, in 1961, opened with yet another Aznavour classic: a hymn to a broken heart.

In a gesture which was to become a pattern, that of adopting and encouraging younger singers, Aznavour befriended the young Johnny Hallyday, offering advice, lessons, even a song, Retiens la nuit (Hold back the night), which would become one of Hallyday’s first successes. Despite their radical difference in style, the pair became lifelong friends.

(to be continued)