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Charles Aznavour’s Collaborators Sing His Praises

Charles Aznavour has earned the respect of those who have worked with him across his eight-decade long career, during which the singer-songwriter has written more than 1,400 songs and sold more than 180 million records.

British TV producer John Steed has known him since the late 1960s, when he was given carte blanche to film Aznavour for a documentary as he toured the U.S.
Steed notes Aznavour’s determination and talent. “He is without doubt the hardest-working performer that I have ever come across,” he says. “He also has an extraordinary ability to tune into the emotions we tend to deflect.” Steed emphasizes Aznavour’s single-mindedness. “He follows his own path,” he says. The star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is well-deserved, Steed says. “He is a giant among performers, but he is very modest about it.”

Marcel Stellman, former Decca Records executive and the English lyricist on many Aznavour songs, including “You’ve Got to Learn,” says: “He’s an artist rather than just a singer. He paints a picture with the song.”

Dee Shipman has worked as an English lyricist with Aznavour for more than 40 years. “He is a great storyteller, and has great insight into human nature. He is not afraid to tell it as it is,” she says. “Every generation can find something in what he says. It resonates with everybody.”

“If Marlon Brando had been a singer, he’d have been Charles Aznavour.”
Don Black

Broadway producer Mike Merrick worked with Aznavour on the musical “Lautrec,” which premiered in London in 2000. Although the British critics were “not that kind to us,” Merrick says, “it was one of the most wonderful experiences in my life.” He adds, “The score was brilliant.” Aznavour’s songs moved the story forward, Merrick says. “The songs flowed into the dialogue.”

Lyricist Don Black, who won an Academy Award for “Born Free,” and was Oscar-nominated four other times, says he loves Aznavour’s work, and describes him as a “phenomenal performer.” He adds: “He doesn’t just sing the songs, he lives them. … If Marlon Brando had been a singer, he’d have been Charles Aznavour.”

Aznavour is part of an “endangered species, songwriters who say something that is thought provoking,” Black says. Aznavour writes about real life, and his subjects are “everyday people, living everyday lives.” The songs are not always cheerful. Black quotes the French cultural icon Jean Cocteau, who observed decades ago that “before Aznavour, despair was unpopular.”

When Black delivered the English lyrics for “For Mama,” Aznavour “didn’t think it was sad enough,” Black says. “In French it is about a son who is holding his dead mother’s cold hand, and he wanted that. Mine was heart-breaking, but it is not as specific. In English there are some things you just don’t sing.”

Herbert Kretzmer, who wrote the English lyrics to some of Aznavour’s most beloved and successful songs, concurs, noting, “He gives the impression he is a melancholy man.”

Aznavour explained his introspection to The Telegraph: “Before presenting yourself to the public, you have to know who you are. Your faults and your abilities — and often you should keep the faults, which can be very spectacular, and avoid some of the good things. Even now, I’m in search of who I am.”

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