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In 1962 when Frank Sinatra appeared for one night at the Olympia, Charles, his Gallic equivalent on stage, screen and records, left the set where he was filming in Italy in order to introduce him. “Please don’t think I am going to insult you by introducing you to Frank Sinatra. You know perfectly well who he is already. Therefore, in a break with convention, I’m going to introduce Frank Sinatra to you. Frank, welcome to Paris!” Not long afterward, Sinatra returned the compliment in Las Vegas.
On 17 January 1963, two years after his triumph at the Alhambra, Charles returned for 6 weeks at the Olympia. But with a difference. Abandoning the music-hall tradition of “two parts”, one for a rising newcomer, the other for the “star”, he took on the formula already championed by his predecessors Charles Trenet and Yves Montand: the full-length recital. Thus, after a performance of 31 songs and 8 curtain calls, the audience rose to its feet: an audience comprised, once again, of the aristocracy of French entertainment: Johnny Hallyday, Charles Trenet, Dalida, Catherine Deneuve, Roger Vadim – et al. Amongst the new songs on offer was one which fitted exactly his by now well-known penchant for frank but feeling evocation of the miniature dramas of everyday life: Bon anniversaire.
Following this triumph at the Olympia, Charles set about implementing the next stage of his carefully-planned career: the conquest of America. Carnegie Hall, New York’s most prestigious venue, host to Yehudi Menuhin, Maria Callas, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Sviatoslav Richter, was in his sights.
So he chartered a Boeing 707 to ferry ‘le Tout-Paris’ (artists of the calibre of Johnny Hallyday, Françoise Sagan, Eddie Barclay and François Truffaut) plus his family and a bevy of journalists, to his opening night, on March 30, 1963. It was a triumph, with all 2,800 seats sold in advance, and several extra rows having to be placed on the stage. Addressing his audience in English, he sang a third of the songs in that language, joking with them about the differences between the two. Bob Dylan, who that very year had taken the American music world by storm with Blowin’ in the wind, was devastated, saying, “It is the most beautiful thing I have seen on stage”.
Charles Aznavour had started to become an American.
In October 1963, like thousands of his compatriots, Charles Aznavour lived through the last days of Edith Piaf, turning up with a group of her closest friends at her flat in the Boulevard Lannes, where her coffin, with a little window through which you could see her face, was on view in the library. Outside, hundreds of thousands of her admirers queued patiently to do the same thing.
Ironically, his next release for Barclay contained La Mamma, a lament for a dying matriarch, which in 1964 topped the hit parade alongside the ‘yé-yés’ (French rock stars) and the Beatles, allegedly selling 10,000 45rpms per day. In the same year he toured 70 French towns on 70 days and played to packed houses at the Olympia. Yet, despite topping the charts alongside them – and even writing songs for them! – Charles was ambiguous about the ‘yé-yés’. In his view the word ‘idol’ had little meaning, even if it referred to someone who had risen to fame and fortune. Only exceptional talent and long perseverance could forge real artists: “Ils effectueront à rebours le trajet que nous avons parcouru étape par étape” (They must take in reverse the path which we followed step by step).
In the same year he left for a tour of Russia and Eastern Europe, where he was greeted in Moscow by the vice-premier, Anastase Mikoyan (who happened to be Armenian) before playing to packed houses in Leningrad, Kiev and Minsk. Finally, he arrived in the Armenian capital of Erevan, where he combined official appearances with meeting members of his family whom he had never seen. He was officially received at Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the seat of the Apostolic Armenian Church, before performing at Erevan Philharmonia concert hall. There, in a gesture which anticipated what was to become one of his most celebrated stage performances, La Bohème, at the end of the song he tossed a handkerchief towards his grandmother seated in the front row who, aged 86, had never seen either him or his sister, Aida.
In April 1964 he returned to Carnegie Hall, this time without his planeload of admirers, and then to California, where the San Francisco Examiner summed him up: “He’s a sort of male Edith Piaf. A wistful, frail urban lark, barely five feet tall: relaxed, melodious and exceptionally professional. Like Piaf’s, his style is spare and unaffected. Occasionally a hand-gesture or a raise of his heavy eyebrows underlines the words of his songs which are like a small drama”.
In November 1964 Aznavour became only the fourth chanson artist (after Léo Ferré, Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel) to be published in the prestigious series, ‘Poètes d’Aujourd’hui’, by Seghers. He was also created Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres – the first of many decorations.
Also in November, Barclay released an album containing yet another Aznavour classic – a bitter lament for a lost and miss-spent youth – which would become an international standard. An instant success, at the Olympia in 1968 he tied it in with La jeunesse: continuing to do so for many years.
Following this success the journalist and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer translated it into English, setting a huge precedent for Aznavour’s songs. As Yesterday when I was young it conquered the globe at the hands of Bing Crosby, Dusty Springfield, Shirley Bassey, Marc Almond, Johnny Mathis, and Mel Tormé. When touring the States, Charles liked to capitalise on this linguistic difference, joshing with his audience, and explaining that, while he would sing half his songs in French and half in English, one (For me, formidable) would be in both!
On January 15 1965 Aznavour started a three months non-stop appearance as sole attraction at the Olympia with 70 concerts and 140,000 spectators – which remained a record for 30 years – during which he wore out 2 suits and six shirts, and received 6,000 fan letters.
In September that year he left to consolidate his success in America, appearing on Broadway, and in Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Las Vegas, where his fee equalled that of Frank Sinatra, and he became the first French singer to sign with Reprise – Frank’s own label since 1961, and that of Judy Garland and Sammy Davis Jnr.
In December 1965 Charles embarked on an adventure which would culminate in the most famous song of his career.
But it had a tangled history. Maurice Lehmann, director of Le Châtelet, a theatre renowned for its musicals, hired a writer (Frédéric Dard), a lyricist (Jacques Plante) and composer (Charles) to create Monsieur Carnaval, the story of a diamond theft. The three men worked for a year to prepare the musical, which was scheduled to open at Christmas. But by the autumn, Lehmann felt there was something missing. It needed one more number to really ‘land’. Had Charles anything suitable in his back drawer? The singer scratched his head. As it happened, he had. Written by Jacques Plante, and composed by himself, he had been saving it up for his next album. It was called La Bohème.
The white handkerchief, crumpled and tossed aside by Charles at the end of each performance, became an indispensable hallmark. Stealthily retrieved by a fan each time the lights went down, it became the subject of an ironic claim by him against tax: the cost of 250 handkerchiefs!
In 1966 his portrayal of the sufferings inherent in everyday life continued with Et toi dans ton coin; an almost cinematic portrayal of the end of a love affair.
Despite being idolised on the Continent and in America and having sung in Berlin, Amsterdam, Moscow, Argentina and all over the world, Charles Aznavour had never performed in Britain. Describing him as “an intense little Armenian with huge piercing brown eyes who sings sadly and passionately about ‘love and other worries’, and whose voice makes you want to clear your throat”, The Times shared the general caginess about his forthcoming appearance at the Royal Albert Hall on September 4, 1966. It need not have worried. The 7,000 seats were booked solid for weeks in advance and others had to be added on the stage. At the end of the performance (17 songs in French and 11 in English) there were countless curtain calls; with the audience continuing to demand the singer’s return after the lights had come on in the auditorium, and a policeman was begging them to leave.
In December 1967 he returned for three weeks to the Flamingo Hotel Las Vegas, where he pulled in the same salary as the leader of the ‘Rat Pack’, and explained to a French journalist, “Pour eux je suis un chanteur triste, mais je les fais rire”. (I am a sad singer who makes them laugh). Like his fellow immigrants Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy davis Jnr. he understood the public’s appetite for a mixture of glamour and pain.
But the Flamingo Hotel took on huge new significance when, following a transatlantic proposal to his long-time Swedish girl-friend, Ulla, it became the setting for their civil wedding ceremony, on 11thJanuary 1967, where the witnesses were Sammy davis Jnr and Petula Clark, and Charles replied to the traditional question of whether he would take Ulla as his wife with the words, “Oui, I do”.
But almost exactly one year later, at the Apostolic Armenian Church in Paris, the couple underwent a religious ceremony, which Aznavour explained thus: “Ulla has changed my life. All the other women I have known were simply stages in my life. Ulla is my wife. At the age of 43, I am at last 20!”
This was followed by 5 weeks at the Olympia, extended to 7, which was the first Aznavour performance to be recorded live on an album. It contained one of his signature songs.\
To be continued