‘Before Aznavour, despair was unpopular’. So wrote Jean Cocteau: poet, painter, dramatist and film-maker. Despite this reputation for soulfulness, the diminutive singer, now 90, has the kind of pull on an audience which has earned him global acclaim. He has written over 1,200 songs, sold 100 million records, appeared in more than 80 films and was voted Time magazine’s entertainer of the 20th century, trumping Elvis and Bob Dylan.
Life was not always so rosy. Charles was born Varenagh Aznavourian in 1924 to Armenian parents, Michael and Khar, who had fled the Armenian genocide in Turkey to take up, as they thought, temporary residence in Paris on their way to the United States. If the expected visas had materialised, life for them, and for their son’s thousands of fans, would have been very different. Though ostensibly running a restaurant, La Caucase, Michael and Khar were inexorably drawn to showbusiness – a singing engagement here, an acting one there – which made, as Charles tells us, for a culturally rich, if financially precarious, lifestyle. Inevitably their son followed suit and, between spells as a newsvendor during the war, appeared with his sister Aida at local dances, theatres, cafes and talent shows until he was spotted by composer Pierre Roche, with whom he teamed up as a duo.
Progress was steady, although for a long time Charles’ distinctive rasp was considered a handicap – deathlessly commemorated by the British comedians Morecambe and Wise in their sobriquet, Aznovoice. Handy with a pen, the young Aznavour supplied a stream of lyrics to established singers: Gilbert Becaud, Eddie Constantine, Juliette Greco, Edith Piaf – but did not perfect his singing style until, in 1946, he fell in with ‘the little sparrow’ herself. Not, like most of her men friends, as her lover – but as a sort of handyman. An irrepressible practical joker (contrary to her public image), Piaf imbued Charles with her mastery of la gestuelle – the distinctive movements of a singer on stage.
Gradually, the special writing style that we associate with Aznavour emerged. Homing in on the somewhat melancholic tradition of French chanson, his songs became soulful sagas of the everyday. Asked what distinguishes la chanson francaise from other traditions, he replies unblinkingly, “Lyrics”. And adds, “When I write a song, it is as if I am writing a scene for a movie. The writing is very precise. If I find one word difficult, I don’t sleep for nights until I find the right one.”
And it works. Classics like Tu te laisses aller (You’ve let yourself go); Bonne Anniversaire (Happy Birthday); La Boheme; Ma jeunesse, and Il faut savoir (You’ve got to learn) have encircled the world. So much so that, football crowd-like, you can rely on his followers to be word-perfect wherever he performs.
And he likes to push boundaries. When it appeared in 1972, Comme ils disent (What makes a man) – a sympathetic story of frustrated homosexual love – was one of the first of its kind to appear.
With nothing left to prove, Charles Aznavour likes to encourage those who have not yet reached that stage. He frequently works with the new generation of performers such as the Belgian singer-songwriter Stromae, the rapper Kery James and the EBBA award-winning singer Zaz.
And, in deference to his own beginnings, he enjoys performing with others of immigrant origin, such as this appearance with Amel Bent, a young female artist born of an Algerian father and a Moroccan mother. She grew up in Paris’ 18th arrondissement, ‘broke through’ to stardom in the French TV series, Nouvelle Star (Pop Idol), and made national headlines with her remark “Maybe I’ll wear the burka later!”.
Copyright April 2015 Pat Harvey