Charles Aznavour - Biography
By J Poet
Charles Aznavour is an international pop star and perhaps the best-known singer of French chanson in the world. In his long career, Aznavour’s made over 50 albums of original material and written an estimated 1,000 songs in French, English, Italian, Spanish, German, and Armenian. His vocal range is limited, but he has a clear high tenor that’s able to drop down into a gruff baritone, due to a paralyzed vocal chord. He is also a successful actor, with more than 60 films to his résumé. He has been performing for more than 75 years and announced his Farewell Tour in 2006, at the age of 83—although he later admitted that the Farewell Tour might well last until 2010. Aznavour’s records became hits in countries all over the globe, exceeding 100 million sold. In his mid-eighties, Aznavour’s still on the go. In 1999, an Internet poll organized by CNN and Time magazine named Aznavour the top singer of the 20th century, ahead of Sinatra, Presley and Dylan.
Aznavour was born in Paris as Charles Aznavourian in 1924. He might have been born an American, but his parents were in Paris awaiting an American visa. His father, Micha, was Russian; his mother, Anar, was Armenian. His parents opened an Armenian restaurant in Paris, where they provided entertainment between courses, with Micha singing Armenian folk and pop songs and Anar working the room as an actress, treating the guests to dramatic improvisations. Charles and his sister Aïda grew up surrounded by the musicians and actors who frequented the eatery.
The Depression forced the restaurant closed in 1929, but the family found the money to enroll Charles in acting school. He found some success working as a film extra, but by 1939 he had to leave school to help support the family. In 1941 Aznavour met a songwriter named Pierre Roche. Growing inspired to write his own songs, they put together a cabaret act that became a hit. Aznavour and Roche were headliners by 1946, hanging out with Charles Trenet, Edith Piaf and other stars. They toured the United States and Canada for almost six years. When Roche married a Canadian woman, Aznavour moved back to Paris.
Aznavour’s solo act was not successful, but Mistinguett, Patachou, and other artists began covering his songs—in fact, Juliette Gréco scored a hit with “Je hais les dimanches.” Piaf hired him as her chauffeur and they became friends. He would translate the American song “Jézébel” for her, and it was a hit. This led to his first recordings Charles Aznavour chante Jézébel (1953 Ducretet-Thomson France), Charles Aznavour chante Le Feutre Taupe (1955 Ducretet-Thomson France), and Charles Aznavour chante Sur ma vie (1956 Ducretet-Thomson France.) In 1954, the budding star toured North Africa and started building an audience. He played the Alhambra and the Olympia in Paris and while critics panned his singing, the sold-out crowds loved his traditional singing style and low-key charisma. In 1957, he completed a successful international tour.
The next year Aznavour’s film career took off with roles in Jean Pierre Mocky’s Les dragueurs and Georges Franju's La tête contre les murs, the latter of which earned him a French Oscar for Best Male Actor. In 1960, François Truffaut gave him a leading role in Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player). The film was a hit in the States, and Aznavour became a star in America. He played Carnegie Hall in New York and followed that up with an international tour, playing Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, Africa, and Armenia. His albums included Qui (1963 Alcinter/2004, EMI France), which was a collection of singles, B-sides and new songs that contained the hit “Sylvie.” (The 2004 reissue has several bonus tracks from the same period.)
In 1965, Aznavour headlined the Olympia for 12 straight weeks, doing three shows a day with Paul Mauriat’s orchestra. He also starred in Pierre Granier-Deferre’s Paris au mois d’août, and staged his first musical, Monsieur Carnaval. When he could, he continued touring internationally.
Over the next few years, Aznavour was prolific, releasing Aznavour 65 (1965 Barclay/2007 Virgin); The World of Charles Aznavour (1965 Reprise), which was recorded live with many songs in English; Charles Aznavour: His Kind Of Love Songs (1967 Reprise); Entre deux rêves (1967 Barclay France); Désormais (1968 Barclay France); and Non, je n’ai rien oublié (1971 Barclay France).
In 1971 Aznavour won a Lion d’Or at the Venice Film Festival for his Mourir d’aimer. In 1972, he published a successful memoir entitled, Aznavour par Aznavour (Aznavour by Aznavour) and started writing topical songs such as “Le temps des loups,” about the rising tide of urban violence (the track was featured in Sergio Gobbi’s film of the same name), and “Comme ils disent,” which traces the life and loves of a drag queen. That same year Aznavour was hospitalized after a ski accident, but, always one to use his time wisely, he spent his recuperation time collaborating with Georges Garvarentz on the operetta, Douchka. He also recorded Idiote je t’aime (1972 Barclay France), Je m’voyais déjà (1973 Barclay France), and Visages de l’amour (1974 Barclay France.)
In 1974, Aznavour’s song “She” went platinum in Britain The album A Tapestry of Dreams (1974, RCA US) included “She” and other songs in English. In 1975, he wrote “Ils sont tombés” to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, starred in Claude Chabrol’s Folies Bourgeoises, and completed yet another ambitious international tour. The following year Aznavour made Voilà que tu reviens (1976, Barclay France), the two-LP set 24 songs in English (1976, Barclay France)—with translations of some of his biggest French hits—and Je n’ai pas vu le temps passer (1978, Barclay France.) He won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1979 for his role in Volker Schlöndorff’s, The Tin Drum.
In 1985 Aznavour signed with Trema Records. The label released his back catalogue in time for the debut album, Les Emigrants (1985 Trema France). The LP was an immediate hit. That same year he penned his first screenplay, Yiddish Connection, for director Paul Boujenah, and recorded Aznavour (1986 Trema France.) In 1988, Aznavour created the charity organization called Aznavour pour l’Arménie, in efforts to aid earthquake victims in Armenia. He also helmed the production of the benefit single and video, “Pour Toi l’Arménie.” Over 90 French actors and singers contributed to the project, and it raised millions of dollars for the relief effort. UNESCO appointed Aznavour as special ambassador to Armenia.
Aznavour would sing with Liza Minelli at the Palais des Congrès in Paris in 1990. He spent much of the subsequent decade acting in films and television movies and manning business interests. By 1992, his publishing company bought the rights to his old friend Raoul Breton’s music, as well as the copyrights of tunes by Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet. That same year made Aznavour ’92 (Trema France).
By the mid-1990s, Aznavour had signed with EMI International and personally supervised the reissue of his back catalogue. A few years later, in 1997, French president Jacques Chirac made Aznavour an Officier de la Légion d’Honneur for his contribution to French culture. His album Plus Bleu (1997 EMI France) included the title track, an early hit he wrote for Edith Piaf. Using digital technology, Aznavour was able to sing a duet with Piaf on the tune. He celebrated his 50th year in music with a headlining concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival with guests Rachelle Ferrell, Bobby McFerrin and Manu Dibango.
Following a major car accident in 1999, Aznavour launched his first Farewell Tour, which went on for two years and celebrated with Aznavour 2000 (2000 EMI France)—an album of entirely new compositions. In 2003, Aznavour published his second volume to his memoirs, Le temps des avants, and released the album Je voyage (2003 EMI France), which included salsa and fado arrangements. In 2004, he was back on stage to celebrate his 80th birthday with a month-long run at the Palais des Congrès. He was joined onstage by Florent Pagny, Line Renaud, Nana Mouskouri and Liza Minelli, and recorded the concerts for a DVD and live CD called, Bon Anniversaire Charles (2004 EMI France.)
Lautrec (2005 EMI France) debuted songs from Aznavour’s musical based on the life of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In 2006 he started his second Farewell Tour, performing all over Europe and performing stops in Armenia. He also recorded Colore ma vie (2007 EMI France) in Cuba with pianist Jesus “Chucho” Valdès contributing arrangements that jumped between cha-cha, calypso, mambo and Latin jazz. The double-album, Duos (2008 EMI France), included songs in French, English, German, Spanish and Italian with guests such as Elton John, Sting, Paul Anka, Liza Minnelli, Nana Mouskouri, Julio Iglesias, Carole King and Placido Domingo.
Aznavour closed the year by overseeing another huge box-set, Integrale Arc de Triomphe (2008 EMI France). This massive 42-CD collection includes all the songs from 44 Aznavour albums as well as a CD with an interview, all in a large display box that’s a replica of the Arc de Triomphe.
Throughout his career, Aznavour and his labels have reissued and repackaged his albums. He has more Greatest Hits packages in print than original albums, and has re-recorded his early songs multiple times. American and British albums are often duplicates of French releases, so shop carefully. In 2009 he released Charles Aznavour and The Clayton Hamilton Orchestra LP, and in 2011 he released a new LP called Aznavour Toujours, touring throughout 2012.