Born Shahnour Varenagh Aznavourian on May 22, 1924, in Paris, France; son of Misha (a singer) and Knar (an actress; maiden name, Bagdassar) Aznavour; married and divorced Micheline; married and divorced Evelyne Plessis; married third wife, Ulla Thorsell, 1968; children: Seda, Katia, Misha, Nicolas, Charles, Patrick. Addresses: Agent--Fifi Oscard Agency, 24 W. 40th St., 17th Fl., New York, NY 10018.
Charles Aznavour retired from the concert stage in 2001 after five decades as one of France's best-known musical exports. Aznavour's melancholy vocal stylings, with their tales of love lost and youth squandered, epitomized the lounge style long before it gained retro credibility in the 1990s. The diminutive star--a legend in France, fondly known as "le petit Charles"--was even cast by filmmaker François Truffaut in his 1960 classic Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the piano player). Aznavour is an unlikely romantic figure, as he admitted in an interview with Rose Tremain of London's Sunday Telegraph. "If I had been born rich, blond, tall, good-looking, I would never have had anything to express in song except my own vanity."
Aznavour was born on May 22, 1924, in Paris, France, to parents who had given up professional stage careers to run a restaurant there. His father, Misha, a singer, and his mother Knar, a comic actress, were forced to flee their native Armenia when ethnic violence erupted. The Aznavourians, as the family was then known, originally hoped to emigrate to the United States, but were unable to get a visa. "They never complained," Aznavour said in the Tremain interview of his parents' decision to make the best of their life in France, which centered around their restaurant and a succession of small apartments in the Latin Quarter and the Marais neighborhoods. "Armenians are a shy, proud people, but they never forget what has happened to them and I've never forgotten what it is to have nothing," the singer asserted.
Some of Misha and Knar's stage ambition, however, was transferred to their young son, who was born Shahnour Varenagh Aznavourian, but nicknamed "Charles" by his French nurse. He grew up learning gypsy songs from Armenia, and first performed on stage at the age of three with his family by reciting an Armenian poem. He was enrolled in dance and drama classes and by the age of ten had appeared on the Paris stage in Emile et les detectives as well as in the film La guerre des gosses. At that point, he left school to pursue a full-time career, touring as a teen with a theater group through France and Belgium. He was 16 when Paris was occupied by Nazi Germany. To earn a living, he sang in cabaret clubs in Pigalle and Montparnasse, crossing from the city's Left to Right Banks on roller skates; at times, because of wartime rationing, he went without proper shoes.
Booed Off Stage
Aznavour faced additional hurdles early in his career. He was short, stoop-shouldered, and in possession of a large nose and heavy eyebrows, none of which boded well for a career as a romantic crooner. He formed a stage act with Pierre Roche and they began writing songs together. Soon he was writing on his own: "J'ai bu" (I drank) recorded by Georges Ulmer in 1947, was one of his first hits. His songs were picked up by French stars like Charles Trenet and Maurice Chevalier, and soon legendary chanteuse Edith Piaf hired him as her assistant and general factotum. When Piaf toured the United States, Aznavour was both lighting technician and the opening act, an association that boosted his career immensely. Piaf, a legend in France at the time, also introduced him to music-industry executives and even suggested he have a nose job, which he did.
In 1950 one of Aznavour's songs, "Je hais les dimanches" (I hate Sundays) was a hit for a coolly glamorous new singer named Juliette Gréco. Encouraged by Piaf, Aznavour decided to strike out on his own. Unfortunately, early reviews of his performances were harsh; once he was even booed off the stage. "When I started to sing, my physical appearance was not an appearance that would appeal to the public," he recalled in an interview with Los Angeles Times journalist Don Heckman. "It was difficult for me. I was small, I did not have a lovely face. And I had an awful voice when I started. So I had to work with what I had inside. The only way I could do that was by being somebody on the outside, looking at somebody different."
He devoted more time to his songwriting, trying to give a new, cosmopolitan twist to the traditionally maudlin French ballad, often drawing inspiration from eavesdropping or tabloid newspapers. "That's where you find real misfortune," he asserted to Times of London journalist Charles Bremner. "People who are unhappy, lovers who commit suicide, people who drink, drug themselves, destroy themselves. I read them all."
Cast by Truffaut
Aznavour's career took off in 1955 after a well received engagement at the Olympia nightclub in Paris and his first hit, "Sur ma vie" (On my life). A car accident nearly derailed his career, but then director François Truffaut wrote Tirez sur le pianiste with Aznavour in mind, casting him in the film-noir crime thriller that has since become a cinematic classic.
The movie's success helped launch Aznavour's international career; in 1963 he debuted at Carnegie Hall in a performance so successful it became an annual engagement. A 1965 gig at the Ambassador Hotel in New York City, "The World of Charles Aznavour," garnered good critical notice, and boosted his North American following immensely. Performers from Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan and even Cher covered his songs, and his world-weary style of singing influenced Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, both classic lounge performers.
Aznavour toured extensively over the next few years, and wrote scores of hit songs. One of his biggest was "Tous les visages de l'amour" (All the faces of love), which reached number one in Britain in June of 1974; a cover by Elvis Costello was later used as the title song for the 1999 Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts film Notting Hill. In all, Aznavour wrote some eight hundred songs that were recorded by himself and others. Many consider him the best writer of chansons realistes, a song style described by Variety reviewer Charles Isherwood as "clear-eyed looks at love and loss that are tinged with a uniquely Gallic form of rue."
Classic Aznavour tunes include "Les plaisirs démodés" (Old-fashioned way) "Hier, encore" (Yesterday, when I was young), and "Comme ils disent" (What makes a man), a daring 1972 homage to a gay life. Other songs that were successes for Aznavour were "Je bois" (I drink), a paean to drinking; "Mon emouvant amour," in which a man declares his love for his mute girlfriend; and "Sa jeunesse," about an aging lover's fascination with his youthful paramour. Not all of them translated well from French to English, and Adam Sweeting of the Guardian noted that Aznavour's "songs are riddled with heart-rending evocations of lost love, wasted lives and the bitter encroachments of age, but at least there is a little light relief to be savoured in wacky Anglicisations like ... 'I've known delight, I've known disaster, the caviar, the humble pie.'"
Dropped by Label
By the 1980s Aznavour had attained cult status: his concerts sold out weeks in advance and ardent female fans would scramble to retrieve the signature white handkerchiefs he would toss into the audience at each performance. With 37 gold records to his name, Aznavour was, therefore, duly stunned when his longtime French label, Polygram, decided to sell his catalog; he bought it from them for just three million francs. It was a wise financial move for the singer whom some had dubbed past his prime. "I have often been written off," he told Sweeting in the Guardian. "I always heard said about me, 'His time is over.'" He would eventually sign with EMI France in 1995, and his first release on the new label was a recording of a live concert he gave with Liza Minnelli. In 1996 Aznavour released 28 albums, both new and compilation material, more than any other artist that year.
Aznavour was married and divorced twice before settling down with his third wife, Ulla, in the late 1960s; the couple has three children together, and Aznavour has several more from his previous marriages. Over the years, he has acted in films, appearing in 1979's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film,The Tin Drum, and in Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan's 2003 release Ararat, a movie-within-a-movie whose story centers around the 1915 Armenian genocide.
Aznavour has written numerous film scores as well as a stage musical, Lautrec, which played in London's West End in 2000. Later that year he embarked on his farewell concert tour, which ended in Nice, France, a year later. He has penned two volumes of memoirs, Aznavour by Aznavour in 1972 and Yesterday When I Was Young, published later that decade. He told International Herald Tribune writer Mike Zwerin that he had no plans to write a third tome. "I am interested in the construction of a man and of his career. After success, what is there left to say? You can tell about all the famous people you meet and how much you love all of them and how much all of them love you.... But all of this is really not very interesting. After the fame and money arrive, there is no more drama."
by Carol Brennan
Charles Aznavour's Career
Made Paris stage debut in Emile et les detectives, and film debut in La guerre des gosses, 1933; one-half of a cabaret duo, Roche and Aznavour, 1940s; served as Edith Piaf's assistant, lighting technician, and opening act for eight years; first hit as a songwriter, "J'ai bu," recorded by Georges Ulmer, 1947; first solo hit, "Sur ma vie," 1956; Carnegie Hall debut, 1963; Broadway debut, 1965; composed film scores for Thou Shalt Not Kill, 1961, Le diable et les dix commandements, 1962, Les quatres verités, 1962, as well as several songs used in other soundtracks; retired from live performance, 2001. Feature-film debut as an actor in Adieu chérie, 1947, and has appeared in dozens of films since, including Tirez sur le pianiste, 1959; The Tin Drum, 1979; and Ararat, 2003.
Charles Aznavour's Awards
French Victoires de la Musique, Male Singer of the Year, 1997; named "Officier de la Légion d'Honneur," 1997; Time 100 Online, Entertainer of the Century, 1998.
- Selected discography
- La Mamma EMI, 1963.
- Charles Aznavour Sings His Love Songs in English Reprise, 1965.
- '65 Angel, 1965.
- The World of Charles Aznavour Reprise, 1966.
- I Have Lived Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1972.
- A Tapestry of Dreams Barclay, 1974.
- We Were Happy Then DRG, 1978.
- Yesterday When I Was Young Alex, 1992.
- Toi et moi Alex, 1994.
- Je M'Voyais Déja Angel, 1995.
- Idiote je t'aime Angel, 1995.
- La Bohème Angel, 1995.
- Il faut savoir Angel, 1995.
- Paris Palais du Congrès (live), Alex, 1996.
- Aznavour Live: Olympia, 1978 EMI, 1998.
- Selected writings
- Aznavour by Aznavour translated by Ghislaine Boulanger, Cowles, 1972.
- Yesterday When I Was Young W. H. Allen, 1979.
- "Charles Aznavour," Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2003.
- Knopper, Steve, editor, MusicHound Lounge: The Essential Album Guide to Martini Music and Easy Listening, Visible Ink, 1998.
- Billboard, January 7, 1995, p. 36.
- Guardian (London, England), November 12, 1996, p. 4; April 5, 1999, p. 9; November 11, 2000, p. 6.
- Independent (London, England), December 28, 1996, p. 3.
- International Herald Tribune, September 30, 1998, p. 24.
- Los Angeles Times, November 19, 1998, p. 6; November 20, 1998, p. 6.
- New Republic, December 16, 2002, p. 26.
- Observer (London, England), April 9, 2000, p. 7.
- Sensible Sound, August-September 2001, p. 73.
- Sunday Telegraph (London, England), April 22, 2001, p. 6.
- Time, March 28, 1983, p. 72.
- Time International, April 28, 2003, p. 92.
- Times (London, England), November 27, 2000, p. 6.
- Variety, October 26, 1998, p. 134.
- "Charles Aznavour," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 10, 2003).
- "Charles Aznavour," Salon, http://www.salon.com/people/feature/1999/07/15/aznavour/ (December 10, 2003).
- "Time 100: The Online Poll," Time 100, http://www.time.com/time/time100/chat.html (December 10, 2003).