Charles Aznavour

Aznavour: A Legend in the Worlds of Art and Humanity Dies


PARIS (Combined Sources) — Thousands of people gathered in the Armenian capital of Yerevan on Tuesday, October 2, to sign a condolence book and pay their last respects to Charles Aznavour, who died on Monday, October 1.

His death at the age of 94 was announced by the French Culture Ministry.

October 1 was declared a day of mourning in Armenia, Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan announced on his Facebook page.

Aznavour, who sold more than 100 million records in 80 countries and was sometimes called the “French Frank Sinatra,” died at one of his homes, in the southeast of France.

For Armenians, he was more than a legendary singer; he was the quintessential hyphenate, successful as a Frenchman and Armenian, never forgetting either.

Born Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian in Paris in 1924, Aznavour began his career peddling his music to French artists of the 1940s and 1950s such as Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, and Charles Trenet.

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The Eiffel Tower was illuminated in honor of Aznavour. Le Parisien posted a video on its Facebook account showing the tower. Charles Aznavour’s music could be heard playing in the area.

Candles were lit at Yerevan’s Charles Aznavour Square in memory of the legendary French-Armenian crooner.

“This is truly a painful day for the history of our people and our country,” Pashinyan said, describing Aznavour as “a man who created not only national, but universal values, which for many years will accompany mankind toward love and solidarity, and will guide people for the righteous.”

“This is a great pain. But it is also a great pride (for us) that such a person was able to stun the world with his talent, skills and music for a century,” Ara Babloyan, the parliamentary speaker, told reporters after writing a message in the book.

Aznavour, named a National Hero of Armenia and whose career spanned eight decades, said only last week that he dreamed of breathing his last breath on stage.

Topics: Music

“All I can do is live, and I live on stage. I am happy up there, and you can see that,” he said.

Aznavour had had his first No. 1 hit in 1956 with Sur Ma Vie (In My Life), which was followed by one of his biggest hits, Je M’voyais Deja (It Will Be My Day).

Aznavour grew up on Paris’s Left Bank, born to a mother who was an actress and a father who was a singer and also worked as a cook and restaurant manager.

His father immigrated from Georgia and his mother from the Ottoman Empire, fleeing the Armenian Genocide.

His role in Francois Truffaut’s 1960 film “Shoot The Piano Player” brought him international fame.

In Armenia after the 1988 earthquake
Charles Aznavour, French singer of Armenian origins, speaks with an Armenian woman during his visit in Erevan, in Armenia, February 4, 1989. / AFP / TASS

After the devastating 1988 earthquake that killed at least 25,000 people in what was then Soviet Armenia, Aznavour founded the charitable organization Aznavour for Armenia along with his longtime friend, impresario Levon Sayan.

In 2009, the Armenian government appointed him ambassador to Switzerland and its delegate to the United Nations agencies in Geneva.

In August 2017, Aznavour was awarded the 2,618th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

He was also made UNESCO’s ambassador and permanent delegate of Armenia in 1995.

Aznavour wrote a song in 1975 in memory of the Armenian Genocide, Ils Sont Tombe.

He also donated profits from another song, Pour Toi Armenie [For you Armenia], to help rebuild the country after its 1988 earthquake in the town of Spitak.

Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan was to participate in the funeral of Aznavour.

“I will depart for the French capital to participate in Charles Aznavour’s funeral ceremony Thursday evening and most probably will return on Saturday,” Pashinyan announced.

A Love of Performing

At an age when most performers have long retired from the footlights and the brutal, peripatetic life of an international star, Aznavour continued to range the world, singing his songs of love found and love lost to capacity audiences who knew most of his repertoire by heart. In his 60s, even then a veteran of a half century in music, he laughed off talk of retirement.

Sept. 26, 2001 — Charles Aznavour singing an ‘Ave Maria’ in the presence of Pope John-Paul II and Armenian Catholicos Karekin II. — Image by © Gianni Giansanti/Sygma/Corbis

“We live long, we Armenians,” he said. “I’m going to reach 100, and I’ll be working until I’m 90.”

His accomplishments were prodigious. He wrote, by his own estimate, more than 1,000 songs, for himself and others, and sang them in French, Armenian, English, German, Italian, Spanish and Yiddish. By some estimates, he sold close to 200 million records. He appeared in more than 60 films, beginning with bit parts as a child.

Charles’s parents instilled a love of music and theater in him and in 1933, when he was 9, enrolled him in acting school. He was soon part of a troupe of touring child actors. At 11, in Paris, he played the youthful Henry IV in a play starring the celebrated French actress and singer Yvonne Printemps.

But his earliest inspirations were singers, notably the French stars Charles TrenetÉdith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier. “Trenet for his writing, Piaf for her pathos and Chevalier for his professionalism,” he told the New York Times in 1992, “and all three for their tremendous presence on stage.”

Also high in his pantheon were Carlos Gardel, the Argentine tango singer, and Al Jolson. “Gardel and Jolson were far apart,” he said, “but they had the same pathos.” He learned his idiomatic English from Frank Sinatra’s records, but he considered Mel Tormé and Fred Astaire his favorite American singers.

Aznavour’s career spanned the history of the chanson realiste, the unvarnished tales of unrequited love, loneliness and anomie that found their apotheosis in the anguished voice of Piaf. He wrote songs for her and for Gilbert Bécaud, Léo Ferré, Yves Montand and others. When Piaf rejected one of his songs, I Hate Sundays, he gave it to Juliette Gréco, then the darling of the Left Bank philosophers and their acolytes. When Piaf changed her mind, she was enraged to find that she’d lost the song and, according to François Lévy, one of her biographers, confronted Mr. Aznavour, shouting, “What, you gave it to that existentialist?”

He spent nearly eight years in Piaf’s entourage, as a songwriter and secretary but, he insisted, not a lover. (“I never had a love affair with her,” he said in 2015. “That’s what saved us.”) He accompanied her to New York in 1948 and stayed for a year. “I lived on West 44th Street, ate in Hector’s Cafeteria and plugged my songs,” he recalled, “with no success.”

Back in Europe, he spent years singing in working-class cafes in France and Belgium, without much success. One critic wrote dismissively of his “odd looks and unappealing voice.”

Then, in 1956, he was an unexpected hit on a tour that took him to Lisbon and North Africa. The director of the Moulin Rouge in Paris heard him at a casino in Marrakesh and immediately signed him. When he was back in Paris, offers poured in.

In Yesterday When I Was Young, an autobiography published in 1979 — it shares its title with the English-language version of one of his best-known compositions — Aznavour recalled a Brussels promoter who had ignored him for years and was now offering him a contract. He offered 4,000 francs. Mr. Aznavour asked for 8,000. The promoter refused.

The next year, he offered 16,000.

“Not enough,” replied Aznavour, now a major star. “I want more than you pay Piaf.” Piaf was then making 30,000 francs. Again the promoter refused. The next year, he gave in. “How much more than Piaf do you want?” he asked.

“One franc,” Mr. Aznavour said. “After that I was able to tell my friends I was better paid than Piaf.”

In 1958, the French government lifted a longstanding ban on allowing some of Aznavour’s more explicit songs — like Après l’Amour, which recounts the aftermath of an episode of lovemaking — on the radio. “I was the first to write about social issues like homosexuality,” Aznavour told the Times in 2006, referring to his 1972 song What Makes a Man? “I find real subjects and translate them into song.”

He returned to New York in 1963 and rented Carnegie Hall, where he performed to a packed house. (Among those in the audience was Bob Dylan, who later said it was one of the greatest live performances he had ever witnessed.) A triumphant world tour followed.

Thereafter, the United States became a second home. Aznavour performed all over the country, often with Liza Minnelli. He became a fixture in Las Vegas for a time and there married Ulla Thorsell, a former model, in 1967. She was his third wife.

Aznavour and his wife, Ulla, in 1975

Aznavour had six children.




Armenian Heritage

As a child, Aznavour watched his father go broke feeding penniless Armenian refugees in his restaurant. As his fame grew, he became a spokesman and fund-raiser for the Armenian cause. He organized help worldwide after an earthquake killed 45,000 people in Armenia in 1988. And when the country broke away from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991, it made him an unofficial ambassador. He displayed the Corps Diplomatique plaque on his car as proudly as he wore the French Legion of Honor ribbon in his lapel.

With former President Serzh Sargsyan at the opening of the museum in his honor

President Emmanuel Macron of France said in a statement on Monday: “Profoundly French, viscerally attached to his Armenian roots, famous in the entire world, Charles Aznavour accompanied the joys and sorrows of three generations. His masterpieces, his timbre, his unique influence will long survive him.”

With Armenian children in Jerusalem

In 2006, at the age of 82, le Petit Charles, as the French called him (he was 5 feet 3 inches tall), began what some — although not Aznavour himself — called his farewell tour. After several months in Cuba that year, recording an album of his songs with the pianist Chucho Valdés, he moved on to a 10-city swing through the United States and Canada, beginning at Radio City Music Hall. It was just the English-language part of the tour, he said, with England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to follow.

He continued performing almost to the end. He had broken his arm in May, but at his death he had concert dates booked in France and Switzerland for November and December.

Sheltering Jews During World War II

In 2017 he and his sister were awarded the Raoul Wallenberg Award for sheltering Jews during World War II. During the German occupation of France during World War II, Aznavour and his family hid Jews and “a number of people who were persecuted by the Nazis, while Charles and his sister Aida were involved in rescue activities,” according to a statement issued in 2017 by the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin. In that year, he and Aida received the Raoul Wallenberg Award for their wartime activities. “The Aznavours were closely linked to the Missak Manouchian Resistance Group and in this context they have offered shelter to Armenians, Jews and others at their own Paris flat, risking their own lives.”

Messages of Condolence

Notable artists, politicians and friends from around the world issues messages of condolence.

Italian singer Andrea Bocelli expressed condolences on the death of Charles Aznavour.

Singer Celine Dion wrote, “Today we say good-bye to Mr. Charles Aznavour, a child of Armenia, who became the most famous ambassador of love songs à la Française. As an artist, the stage was his home until very recently. His romantic ballads were part of so many generations that the entire world is now mourning him. Monsieur Charles, you will always remain ‘For me formidable.’ Love and condolences to the family.”

French President Emmanuel Macron wrote, “Deeply French, viscerally attached to his Armenian roots, recognized throughout the world, Charles Aznavour has accompanied the joys and sorrows of three generations. His masterpieces, his timbre, his unique shine will continue to have a long life.”

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo noted, “It is very painful to hear the news about Charles Aznavour’s passing, a Parisian who has become a true symbol of French songs and Armenia’s passionate ambassador worldwide. I extend condolences to his family and friends.”

“Charles, you have always amazed us with your art and brilliant irony. Just a few days ago on my birthday you told me: “60 years old, you are so young Andrea! I was once 60 too… but that was 30, actually 34 years ago. I hope to see you soon!”

Bocelli added, “The truth is that you were the youngest of us all and despite a career that spanned almost a century, you were always ready to perform in concert, anywhere, anytime. My fondness and respect for you will never diminish and your passion for this job will always lead by example for me,” Bocelli said on Facebook.

Spanish singer Julio Iglesias posted a photo of him together with Aznavour in their younger years on Instagram and wrote: “My dear mentor, we are left with eternity to sing together, rest in peace.”

Former French President François Hollande wrote on Twitter, “In all the cities of the world from Yerevan to Paris he used to sing about love and freedom. A bit ago Charles Aznavour left us, but for us he will always remain on the stage.”

Former President of France Nicolas Sarkozy posted a video of Aznavour performing a song at the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, and wrote: “The Great Charles passed. His death both surprised and angered me, because I imagined him to be unbreakable and immortal. He leaves us his words, melodies and voice: those of an absolute genius, of a poet of the French song.”

With close friend Liza Minelli

Liza Minnelli, a close friend, wrote, “Charles was my mentor, my friend, my love… I will miss him forever… Love, Liza,” on Facebook, posting a photo of her with Aznavour.

Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo wrote “Légende! Rest in peace my dear Charles! Your existence has given us so much joy and your beautiful artistry will be missed and never forgotten. May God bless your soul and keep you. Au revoir Charles.”

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