French-Armenian singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour, best known for songs such as “She,” “Yesterday When I Was Young” and “For Mama,” has been called a Gallic Frank Sinatra, and has been lauded by such fellow performers as Bob Dylan, who considered Aznavour “one of the greatest live performers” he’d ever seen, recalling a 1960s Carnegie Hall concert. “He just blew my brains out.” On Aug. 24, he receives his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which he will attend.
Aznavour’s career started when he was 9 years old as an actor in Paris; now, at 93, he continues to perform around the world. One of those who helped him reach a global audience was Edith Piaf, who took him with her on a tour of France and the U.S. 70 years ago. For eight years, he was part of Piaf’s entourage, and wrote several songs for her.
Piaf, whom he describes as “intelligent, instinctive, very funny… [with] a wicked sense of humor,” taught him “to love and respect your audience,” he says. “To be loved by the public you have to be honest, not cheat; you have to give all, without trying to fool or shortchange them.”
He sees his audience as confidantes. “For nearly two hours, I’ll take them on a journey. I tell them different stories in songs,” he says. “Sometimes new songs, with difficult or unexpected subjects, can surprise or even shock them, but that’s [part of] the rapport I have created with my public over the years.”
Aznavour’s frankness about relationships and emotions, his willingness to tackle the unglamorous aspects of ordinary life, and look at the lives of minority communities have helped him to stand out. It was a quality that appealed to Piaf, he says.
“What she liked in my writing was the fact that I was different, that it was a new way of writing, that I was expressing myself differently, and at the time it was very unusual, and sometimes she used to say, ‘You are going too far.’”
In 1972, he released a song about the life of a homosexual man, “Comme ils disent,” titled “What Makes a Man a Man” in English. His entourage had tried to dissuade him, claiming that it could jeopardize his career due to the prevailing climate of homophobia, but he went ahead nonetheless.
|Charles Aznavour performs at a concert June 2014 in the Congress Hall at the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw. Turczyk/Epa/REX/Shutterstock|
Aznavour says his approach to songwriting comes from a natural curiosity about people. “I have always been interested in observing human behavior,” he says. He was keen to emulate “the freedom that painters, sculptors and writers had. They could [depict] characters, landscapes and nudes without being vulgar, and that’s what I tried to achieve with my songwriting: total freedom to tackle any subject, use any word if needed.”
It was Aznavour’s partnerships with South African-born British lyricist Herbert Kretzmer that helped him break into the English-speaking market, with songs including “Yesterday, When I Was Young” and “She.” It also aided Kretzmer’s career: Cameron Mackintosh’s admiration for those two songs prompted him to ask Kretzmer to write the lyrics for “Les Miserables,” which earned him a Tony and a Grammy.
Many Aznavour songs have been covered by other singers, such as Roy Clark with “Yesterday, When I Was Young,” Ray Charles with “For Mama,” Dylan with “The Times We’ve Known” and Minnelli with “What Makes a Man a Man.” Aznavour has sung duets with many singers, including Sting on “Love Is New Everyday,” Celine Dion on “Toi et Moi” and Sinatra on “You Make Me Feel So Young.”
As well as being a singer and songwriter, Aznavour has acted in more than 90 films and TV dramas, including Francois Truffaut’s seminal “Shoot the Piano Player,” Volker Schlondorff’s foreign language Oscar-winning film “The Tin Drum” and Atom Egoyan’s “Ararat.” Even the legendary French poet-artist-filmmaker Jean Cocteau was a fan, casting him in his 1959 film “Testament of Orpheus.”
Frederic Boyer, artistic director of the Tribeca Film Festival, praises Aznavour’s skill as an actor, lamenting that he didn’t have more leading roles in films of the caliber of Truffaut’s movie.
“He was a super-talented actor,” Boyer says.
France’s Academy of Cinema Arts and Techniques was of the same mind, and in 1997 feted Aznavour with an honorary Cesar.
Aznavour’s stagecraft was honed from a young age as both his parents were actors, and it has fed into his songwriting and singing. “I learned every aspect of stagecraft: dancing, acting, mime. I use to write music based on classical sonnets written by Corneille or Racine, as I felt that all this would give me the freedom and the tools to tell the stories in my songs and made them believable.”
Singing can be a form of storytelling, in his view. “I think I became one of the first singer-songwriters to write songs like little plays or movies and act them on stage,” he says.
His method when performing is to assume the characters he has created in his songs as an actor would, getting into their minds. “I become the hero of each of my songs,” he says.
As well as his achievements as a singer, songwriter and actor, Aznavour has also earned praise for his humanitarian work. In 1989, he gathered more than 80 showbiz friends, including Minnelli and Dionne Warwick, to record “For You, Armenia,” which raised funds for victims of the Dec. 7, 1988 Armenian earthquake.
He has continued to raise funds for Armenia, and founded the Aznavour Foundation to help “Armenians all over the world, so they in turn help Armenia to become a self-sufficient country.” He also serves as Armenia’s ambassador in Switzerland, and its representative at Unesco in Paris.
“I have great hopes that Armenia, through its creative, artistic and technical skills, will become a very important country,” he says. “We have very talented and brilliant minds.”