“We live long, we Armenians,” Charles Aznavour once said, “I’m going to reach 100, and I’ll be working until I’m 90.” Well he was right about one of them, he was over 90 when he stopped working and that was after 80 years in the business. In a day and age when you can’t imagine any of the pop acts of today being around more that about 20 or so years after their career began, Aznavour has never stopped.
He was born Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian in Paris in May 1924 to Armenian parents. During the Second World War the Aznavour family hid Jewish people in their home from the Nazi-occupied territory in France. His father used to sing in restaurants and when Charles was 10 his father introduced him into his act which he enjoyed so much that he adapted his surname to Aznavour. By the time he was 11 he began performing at the Théâtre Marigny in Paris. He began writing songs which led to a partnership with the French actor Pierre Roche who together wrote for the like of Gilbert Becaud and Maurice Chevalier.
During his long career he wrote more than 1,200 tracks. “The French approach to writing songs is much more serious than in the English-speaking world,” Charles told my colleague Spencer Leigh. “A song is more than just an entertainment. Writing is a serious matter and listening is a serious matter too. Jacques Brel’s songs are about death, George Brassens’ are about death, Leo Ferré’s are about the past and I am about the past too. But my background is not French. My background comes from Oriental poetry mixed with French poetry.”
Aznavour launched his solo career in 1950 where he sang his own songs and, with an ability to sing in more than six languages, it helped raise his profile as it would appeal to a worldwide audience.
He had two UK hit singles, the first, The Old Fashioned Way (Les Plaisers Demodes) reached number 50 in 1973 but the follow-up, She, went to number one and was co-written by Herbert Kretzmer. London Weekend Television were filming a drama series, The Seven Faces of Woman, and they asked Herbert for a suitable theme song. He told Spencer, “What they needed was a song to link the seven plays and the producer thought I might write something for Marlene Dietrich as she represented the ageless woman. I didn’t like that idea much as if you’re going to write about a woman’s mystique, it would be better if it were not sung by a woman. If she sang about her own mystery, the song would be too calculated and knowing. I said, ‘It should be a song about a woman as seen by a man, and what better man than Charles Aznavour, who sings about love and romance? I brought him into the project and it turned out terribly well.”
During the eighties and nineties he continued to tour the world and collaborate with many singers including Dusty Springfield, Elton John, Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra and Shirley Bassey.
In 1988 the tragic Armenian earthquake struck and Charles set up his own charity, Aznavour for Armenia to raise money for the victims. He wrote the song Pour toi Arménie which he recorded with a number of French musicians and it topped the chart in France for 18 weeks. Following the devastation a statue of Aznavour was erected in the city of Gyumri where the most lives were lost.
In 1998, he was named Entertainer of the Century by CNN and in 2017 was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1986 he became a member of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival.
In 2018 he was touring again including a stint in the UK, but during some shows in Japan he strained his back and broke his arm which forced him to cancel the remainder of the tour.
Charles, who was married three times and had six children, died at one of his homes in the south east of France. Only recently he said in the Hollywood Reporter, “I sing about the ordinary things of life. My ideas are everyone’s ideas. My problems are theirs so the audience accepts me. I am not a handsome, talented man. My voice is froggy and everything about me is common. They identify with me.”
Charles Aznavour was the oldest living male singer to have had a UK number one hit, that honour now goes to Tony Bennett who is 92.