Charles Aznavour

After six decades, the man who reinvented the French chanson, composed more than 600 songs and sold more than 100 million records is still a star and one of the last classic pop stylists.

By Jody Rosen
July 15, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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"My shortcomings are my voice, my height, my gestures, my lack of
culture and education, my frankness and my lack of personality." So wrote the
26-year-old French singer and songwriter Charles Aznavour one night in
1950, drunkenly brooding over his stalled career. Nothing, he concluded,
could be done about his unorthodox voice, whose rasp and keening "Oriental"
quality were so different from the smooth, insouciant style of that era's
popular chansonniers. Nor was there any solution to the 5-foot-3 Aznavour's height problem: His one attempt to rectify the situation, when he wore
elevator shoes for a New York nightclub performance, had been a tragedy of clubfooted
slapstick. His frankness: another hopeless case. "I am incorrigible ... I say 'merde' to anybody, however important he is, when I feel like it."

Aznavour still has the sheet of paper on which he scrawled these
thoughts, on one of the rougher nights of his decades-long climb to the summit of
French pop culture. That was the night Aznavour decided that "to get on one
must use one's shortcomings to one's advantage" -- to embrace his
oddity, to harness his brashness and pour it into his songs. In doing so, he
transformed the French chanson, and created one of popular music's
singular oeuvres. He drew on a riot of musical influences, reinventing the
chanson as a kind of urbane Gypsy music; he injected the vivid
"language of the street" into this most self-consciously literary of pop music
styles, animating it with a new cosmopolitanism and sophistication. Today,
after six decades as a performing artist, having appeared in more than 60 movies,
composed 600-plus songs and sold more than 100 million records, Aznavour remains
a star who belongs to France and to the world: the great torchbearer of
the French chanson tradition and one of the last classic pop song stylists.

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He was born Varenagh Aznavourian, on May 22, 1924, in Paris. His
parents were Armenian immigrants who had fled to France after the Turkish
massacre, intending to go on from there to the United States. But the U.S. quota of
Armenian immigrants had been reached, and the family was denied
a visa -- an accident of fate that made a Frenchman of their second child,
dubbed "Charles" by a hospital nurse who couldn't pronounce his given name.

The Aznavourians settled in Paris, where they lived in a succession of
dim one-room apartments in the immigrant neighborhoods of the Quartier
Latin and the Marais. Though they eked out their living running a restaurant,
Aznavour's parents were, by background and disposition, performing
artists. His father was a singer and musician, his mother an actress; the pair
had met when they were both cast in an operetta, and they continued to perform
in Armenian-language plays and musicals in Paris. It was at one of these
productions, in front of an audience of 600 Armenians, that 3-year-old
Charles made his stage debut: He wandered onstage prior to the start of
the play, and recited some Armenian poems his mother had taught him,
bringing down the sold-out house. "God be praised," exclaimed
Aznavour's uncle, embracing the child after his impromptu performance. "He will
be a great artiste."

It wasn't long before Aznavour made a mission of fulfilling his uncle's
prophecy. At the age of 9, he heard Maurice Chevalier's "Donnez Moi La
Main Mamz'elle Et Ne Dites Rien" -- a tuneful, sunlit trifle, sung by
Chevalier with his trademark boulevardier's wink -- and announced that he had
found his calling: He wanted to be a chansonnier.

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Aznavour was hired for his first professional job later that year, a
bit part in a music hall revue. Soon, Aznavour had quit school altogether and
was on the road eight months a year, touring France and Belgium in a
theatrical troupe as a singing and dancing "boy actor." His teenage and young
adult years were like something out of a novel, a picaresque romp whose
struggles and rollicking spirit Aznavour would later capture in his wry "Mes
Emmerdes" ("My Troubles"). Bouncing on and off the road, in and out of song
and dance engagements, he fell in with a bunch of like-minded aspiring
chanteurs and songwriters, took the stage name Aznavour and became a fixture of
Paris' Club de la Chanson. It was there that he met Pierre Roche, with whom
he formed a performing and songwriting partnership that would last nearly
a decade. The ambitious duo took their act everywhere, jumping trains
hobo-style to seek work in provincial theaters, even venturing --
riding double on a rickety bicycle -- to theaters in the dangerous "forbidden zone"
of German-occupied Normandy.

Like so many great songwriters, Aznavour became aware of the scope of
his talent by accident: He needed something to do while the insatiable
Roche was off whoring, and would pick away at piano, making up melodies to go
with his unusually accomplished poetry. From the beginning, Aznavour's songs
were different: blunt, vividly detailed, peppered with slang and,
occasionally, curse words, darker than the typical chanson. "My fundamental reason
for writing songs was based on my conviction that the French chanson,
indeed the chanson all over the world, had insipid lyrics," he has recalled.
"I wanted to do something new, more truthful and far more to the point."
Aznavour's first major success, the noirish drinking song "J'ai Bu," a
hit for singer Charles Ulmer in 1947, was a typically inspired
vignette, filled with comically correct details: "I'm drunk/And staggering I
shout loudly/That the little cops are all my friends."

Aznavour's songs didn't escape the notice of France's biggest female
star, the indomitable Edith Piaf. Like Aznavour, she was the product of a
poor, rough-and-tumble Parisian childhood; she called herself his "sister of
the pavement," responded viscerally to his iconoclastic, street-smart
lyrics and made him a member of her entourage. It was the most important
relationship of Aznavour's professional life. She brought him with her on tour in
France and the United States -- he served both as an opening act and as a
lighting man -- and encouraged him to break with Roche to pursue a solo career
singing his own material. Though they were never lovers, Aznavour lived for
years in Piaf's house, where he endured her caprices and diva's wrath, and spent
endless hours discussing the art of the chansonnier. "I learned from
her all you have to know in our profession," Aznavour has said. "She lived
with her chansons."

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In America, we associate that kind of dedication with our roots music.
The grizzled bluesman, the folk troubadour, the gospel singer -- these are
our archetypes of musical integrity, of music as spiritual practice. (For
us, pop singers are a different story altogether: They're in show biz.)
The French don't share our purist mythologies, and the chansonniers never
recognized anything odd about the idea that their top-selling popular
songs were aesthetically and philosophically sophisticated works of art. The
classic French chanson is French pop music, par excellence; but it is
also French soul music, French blues music and a form of French literature.
Though it is melodically rich, the chanson is, musically, strangely
style-less, a hodgepodge of music hall balladry, bits of American jazz,
other European idioms. The chanson prizes lyrics above all, and the
greatest of them feature meticulously crafted vernacular poetry. It's there in
Piaf's limpid "La Vie en Rose," in Charles Trenet's dream-bright watercolor "La Mer," in Georges Brassens' "Chanson pour l'Auvergnat," in
Ulmer's "Pigalle," rumbling through Jacques Brel's turbulent "Ne me
Quitte pas": melancholy, urbanity, a peculiarly Gallic kind of cafe
philosophy, all expressed with delicacy and eloquence.

To this distinguished tradition Aznavour brought the zeal of a true
believer -- and a renegade sensibility. "I was a visionary," he has not
immodestly recalled, "who believed that the chanson had to change, become more
involved, stop ignoring the different social classes, be more personalized,
and more personal too." There had always been plaintive chansons --
wistful evocations of lost love and the passage of time -- but Aznavour's songs
were a darker shade of blue. (According to Jean Cocteau, "Before Aznavour,
despair was unpopular.") In 1950, he gave the somber "Je Hais Les Dimanches"
("I Hate Sundays") to Juliette Greco, an aspiring chanteuse and a
self-styled "existentialist" who kept company with Jean-Paul Sartre in the cafes
of St. Germain-des-Pres. "Je Hais Les Dimanches" was a beautifully crafted
thing, a triumph of taut French poetry utterly unlike chansons the public was
used to hearing:

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I hate Sundays

And the ones who change their shirts

And wear nice suits ...

The ones who sleep 20 hours

'Cause there's nothing to stop them ...

And the ones who make love

As they've nothing else to do

They will envy our happiness

As I envy their happiness

To have Sundays

To believe in Sundays

To like Sundays

When I hate Sundays

"Je Hais Les Dimanches" was a huge hit, launching Greco's career; its
success prefigured the long-sought public acceptance that would be Aznavour's
just a few years later, when he returned to Paris from a North African tour to
find every important impresario in town clamoring to sign him for an engagement. His triumph was capped by an appearance in 1954 at the Olympia Music
Hall, an occasion that he marked with the introduction of a new song, the
anthem "Sur Ma Vie." After years in the commercial wilderness, Aznavour had
arrived. Soon journalists were talking about the "Aznavourization" of France.

It's not difficult to understand Aznavour's popularity. He is a
formidable live performer, and what he lacks in classic matinee-idol looks he makes
up for in charisma, with a persona that combines the brooding intensity he
projected as the star of Francois Truffaut's "Shoot the Piano Player" with a
brighter, vaudevillian rakishness. He is a populist: He was never as
self-consciously arty or avant-garde as some of his contemporaries (like Brel),
and his music has always been an immensely appealing synthesis of jazzy, Sinatra-esque American pop and a kind of
pan-European Gypsy music. The sheer range of his songs is impressive: His oeuvre
encompasses jaunty novelty tunes, Gypsy pastiches, stately ballads, bittersweet songs of aging and nostalgia, piquant little narratives and
character sketches.

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Aznavour is proudest of this last category, especially his many "faits
de societe" songs, which dramatize social issues. "Comme Ils Disent" (its
English-language version is titled "What Makes a Man?") is a famous
example, a sensitive portrait of a gay female impersonator that was
years ahead of its time. He continues to write such songs: about AIDS,
traffic accidents, divorce; strange slices of life about a husband
despondent over his wife's weight problem; a song about a man in love with a
deaf-mute woman. Taken together, these chansons make up a fairly ambitious,
Balzac-like effort to capture in song the colors and contours of that 19th century thing,
"society."

His Comedie Humaine
may be distinctly French, but Aznavour is an
international phenomenon. He taught himself English and began working
with translators, recording English-language versions of his songs (he soon did the same with
Spanish and Italian). In 1964, he sold out Carnegie Hall; he did the same three
years later in his London debut, at the Royal Albert Hall. Eventually,
Aznavour would sell millions of records in the Anglophone world, and see
everyone from Ray Charles to Liza Minelli record his songs. In 1972, he had a
No. 1 hit single in the U.K. with the gentle "She," a song that has recently
been rerecorded by Elvis Costello for the soundtrack of the Julia
Roberts-Hugh Grant romantic comedy "Notting
Hill."

Aznavour's taste isn't impeccable. A broad purple streak runs through
his lyrics: They are always skillfully wrought, but the words to his songs
can be maudlin. One of his biggest hits, the million-selling single "La
Mamma," is pure kitsch, depicting an Italian family's reunion at the bedside of
a dying matriarch in crude, made-for-TV movie terms (children play in
silence around the deathbed; Georgio, the "bad son," returns, repentant;
everyone sings "Ave Maria"). Worse yet are the arrangements of Aznavour's
songs, which can be astonishingly vapid. He has a tendency to swathe his
songs in musical goo -- tinkling elevator piano, explosions of banal
brass, queasy strings arcing over the whole mess. Aznavour, alas, has never
found the Nelson Riddle to his Sinatra.

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Today, Aznavour is a fighting-fit 75 years old. He still acts in movies,
writes songs and records (his latest album is "Jazznavour," featuring new
versions of Aznavour classics recorded with a group of talented young
American jazz musicians). He is at work writing songs for a musical comedy
based on the life of Toulouse-Lautrec, which is scheduled to be produced on
the London stage sometime next year. The singing voice that he used
to fret over -- it "often gave the impression that a piece of Gruyere cheese
with its many holes was wedged in my throat" -- has become a superbly agile
instrument. Aznavour can croon and burr, and burst into wonderful cantorial
ululations; he has sung a Gounod aria with Luciano Pavarotti and performed
his songs in a duo with the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. He packs
concert halls all over the world; in the fall of 1998, he had sold out runs
in New York and Los Angeles. He recently appeared with Sting, Elton John,
Billy Joel and other pop stars in Sting's annual rain-forest benefit concert
at Carnegie Hall. Last year, he was chosen "Entertainer of the
Century" in
an online poll sponsored by Time magazine, edging out Sinatra, Elvis
Presley
and Bob Dylan (a professed Aznavour admirer, who has covered Aznavour's "The
Times We've Known").

It's impossible to consider Aznavour today without asking the question,
whither the French chanson? Is Aznavour a figure in a continuing tradition,
or does he represent the end of that tradition? Aznavour himself has
suggested, as have several French critics, that the chanson might be carried
forward by talented French rappers like MC Solaar and NTM, whose songs have
Aznavourian lyrical sophistication, wit and narrative spunk. Whatever the
chanson's fate, there can be little doubt that Aznavour embodies
certain bygone musical values -- chiefly a commitment to the song itself, an
anomaly in today's personality-obsessed musical culture. For Aznavour,
the singer is merely a medium; the song is the important thing, and
indeed, the singer has to make a grand effort to avoid dissolving
completely into the song. This song-centric ethos, Aznavour explains
in his autobiography, is behind the famous mime-like gesticulations
that are a fixture of his performance style: "The singer (according to
our ideas and principles) has to make gestures for the audience to
realize that there isn't only the song but the singer too." It's a
startling idea, something completely foreign to those of us who, reared
on MTV and rock 'n' roll, have always operated the other way, starting
with the performer and working back through his images and
associations, his "style" and haircut and clothes and "attitude," to
get to that thing called the song. It is the essence of Aznavour, and his best guess as to why he has enjoyed such enormous
popularity for so long. "The public and the critics ... sensed my
passionate devotion to my profession. My love of the chanson towered
above my other loves."


Jody Rosen

Jody Rosen is a Manhattan writer. He is currently working on a cultural history of the song "White Christmas."

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