Arlette Kotchounian in front of a picture she took featuring Serge Gainsbourg and Ray Charles

Arlette Kotchounian: Singer, Songwriter and Jazz Photographer


By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

YEREVAN — French singer-songwriter and photographer Arlette Kotchounian, 76, was not always called by her name. At the beginning of her career, she was also called  Arlette Avedian and Ann Grégory. In 1963, she began two-year career as a singer, recording her first single The People Say/You Laugh at me. She composed songs for Eddy Louis, Martine Clemenceau and other singers, but most importantly, Ann Grégory wrote and composed the English version of The Sun Died, which became one of the best songs in the repertoire of legendary Ray Charles. Their friendship lasted for years, they worked together on the album “Would You Believe,” and in 1976 Arlette gave birth to their child, Vincent Kotchounian, based in Los Angeles.

Ray Charles’ biographer Michael Lydon in the book Ray Charles: Man and Music (Routledge, 2004) has mentioned Arlette’s name for six times. “A classic Left Bank bohemian, small, dark and a heavy smoker, Kotchounian had translated the lyrics of a starkly beautiful song, The Sun Died, that a singer friend had recorded. She brought the record with her and pushed her way into meeting Ray at his hotel. Ray liked the song, was intrigued by Arlette…” (page 272).

My meeting last month with Arlette Kotchunian took place in one of most adorable cultural oases of Yerevan, the Mirzoyan Library, through our mutual friend Gayane Georgyan, who is active in public and cultural activities of our city…

Arlette Kotchounian with the author, Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Arlette, welcome to Armenia! Please first tell us about your roots, your family story…

It is a long story! My both parents escaped the Genocide. My grandparents were killed at the beginning, one of my grandmothers died on the way of exile. My mother, Manouchag Avedissian, was from a village near Bursa. Three of her brothers, Mardiros, Zaven and Takvor, were also survivors, and my mother was a baby, who was adopted by a Moslem family in Mosul. She was raised there up to 19 years old, then she discovered she is an Armenian, so she looked for her family. One brother was in Greece, so she put an advertisement to find him. They found each other and my mother went to Greece. The other brother was in Paris, so then she went to Paris and never returned to Mosul. My uncle, Takvor Avedissian, came to Armenia in 1947, but later my mother helped him to move to Los Angeles to reunite the other family members. My mother met my father, Simon Kotchunian, in Paris. Originally he was from Alexandrette, but he moved to France and became a soldier in the French army in Indochina.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Does your family speak Armenian?

No. Since my mother was raised as Moslem, she spoke Arabic, French and English, very little Armenian with my father. It was very confusing, because I think they were talking Turkish. My brother Serge attended the Mekhitarian Armenian College in Sèvres, so he speaks and writes in Armenian. As for me, I understand a little and speak a little, but I had no opportunity to speak, so next time I will come and stay longer (laughing).

How did you enter the musical world?

That is a long story also. A friend of my brother, Eddy Louis, was a jazz musician. He introduced me to jazz, I started to write some lyrics, and there was a possibility to have auditions with some record companies. Then I started to write songs, also singing myself and making some recordings. Later I started to work with another girl, Martine Clémenceau, and we became successful together. In 1973 we did the Eurovision contest with the song Sans Toi (Without You) with my lyrics and with the music of an Armenian composer, Paul Kulak or Kulaksizian…

The one who wrote the music for Fort Boyard TV game?

Exactly! Then I wanted to do something else, each time it changes with time. Then I met Ray Charles, we recorded songs, for which I had written the lyrics, for instance, The Sun Died. I did write some songs with music and Ray recorded one, but mainly I was a lyricist.

Topics: France, Jazz, Music

So can we call you also a poet?

I would not go that far (laughing). I use different media — writing lyrics, songs, doing photography: I like to try different things.

You met and collaborated with many eminent jazz figures — Miles Davies, Keith Jarret….

I just made their photo portraits. As songwriter I have collaborated only with Ray Charles.

As a person from the jazz world what do you think about national dispositions of jazz?

I think jazz is just international, universal. It started in America, but there are national ways of using it. Jazz is just taking a tune and improvising; anybody can do it. Here we visited Malkhas jazz club, he plays beautifully, I know also Tigran Hamasian… so these musicians surely have an Armenian way of jazz interpretation.

Are you in touch with the Armenian community in Paris?

I have connections with some intellectuals. Psychoanalyst Hélène Piralian, journalist Jeanine Altounian. I am friends with composer Vincent Baguian (Pambaguian). I always go for 24 of April commemoration; that is the main thing I do. I am not very close to the community, but whenever there is something important I am there.

The first time I heard about your son Vincent Kotchunian was in one of Charles Aznavour’s interviews, where he mentioned Ray Charles. I hope during your next visit he will accompany you.

Me too. I will adore Vincent to come with me. Next time we will come together!

He bears your family name – Kotchunian…

And also his father’s name.

Does he have any Armenian interests?

Yes, he knows few Armenian words. With his father he spoke English and with me French, but he knows he is Armenian. Recently he asked me about the story of the family because my mother’s story is so exceptional and said: “Why did you never tell me about this?” I answered: “Yes, I did, but you did not want to hear before!”

You are visiting Armenia for the first time. Why did you come?

This winter I was invited to Sorbonne University by a friend of mine who teaches there. He introduced me to different teachers, who were involved in a project on Sergey Paradjanov. I expressed a desire to participate in that project and travel to Armenia with them in April. I wanted to be here on April 24, but as my birthday is on April 27, I decided do not go in that period so that I would not be alone on my birthday. Then this revolution took place, and I was thinking: “Oh my God, if I come I will be in the middle of it!” And then I looked again and I had this time-off for 10 days and decided to come. But when I called my friend Vincent Bagian telling him I am traveling to Armenia, he decided to come too. And then I discovered my cousin Seta Djololian from Paris is also here in a part of bicycle donation project. Then I discovered that another cousin from Los Angeles is here too. So we were three cousins sitting in Stepanakert and working on our family tree! So since the beginning I have not been alone one minute!

Do you know any Armenian songs?

The only Armenian song I know is a melody that Vincent Baguian wrote lyrics in French and it concerns Armenia (Arlette sings the melody of popular Armenian song «Hovive sarum tkhrets» – The Shepherd Forlorn in the Mountains). I found a country which is beautiful! Here I met and befriended with Gayane Georgyan, the chief of Victoria Foundation, through her I discovered Dadvinak Monastery, and we spent two days in that very amazing place. I discovered some of Yerevan, some of Armenia: I wish I had more time for visiting places here. It is very strange that I have never come here before. I adore hearing the music of the Armenian language even though it is not exactly the Armenian that my parents used to speak. I hope I will come back as we have a project for a film around my music and Ray Charles, as well as organizing my photo exhibition in Yerevan…

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: