French-Armenian singer-songwriter-actor Charles Aznavour, best known for songs such as “She,” “Yesterday When I Was Young” and “For Mama,” has died. Aznavour, who was 94, died in his sleep from a cardiac arrest in his home in Mouries, France, according to his agent.
Aznavour sold more than 180 million records and appeared in more than 60 films. Bob Dylan considered Aznavour, sometimes referred to as a Gallic Frank Sinatra, to be “one of the greatest live performers” he’d ever seen. CNN named him Entertainer of the Century in 1998, and he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last year.
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted Monday: “Charles Aznavour was profoundly French, deeply attached to his Armenian roots and known throughout the world. He has accompanied the joys and pain of three generations. His masterpieces, the tone of his voice, his unique radiance will long survive him.”
Aznavour, who continued to perform to packed stadiums around the world almost to the end of his life, started his career when he was 9 years old as an actor in Paris. 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. 71 years ago. For eight years, he was part of Piaf’s entourage, and wrote several songs for her.
Piaf, whom he described as “intelligent, instinctive, very funny…[with] a wicked sense of humor,” taught him “to love and respect your audience,” he told Variety last year. “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 saw his audience as confidants. “For nearly two hours, I’ll take them on a journey. I tell them different stories in songs,” he said. “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 to look at the lives of minority communities, helped him to stand out. It was a quality that appealed to Piaf, he said. “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 gay 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 because of the prevailing climate of homophobia, but he went ahead nonetheless.
Aznavour’s approach to songwriting came from a natural curiosity about people. “I have always been interested in observing human behavior,” he said. He tried 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,” Minnelli with “What Makes a Man a Man,” and Elvis Costello with “She,” for the soundtrack of the Julia Roberts film “Notting Hill.” Aznavour sang 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 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.”
Speaking to Variety last year, Frederic Boyer, artistic director of the Tribeca Film Festival, praised 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 said. 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. He was born Shanoun Varenagh Aznavourian in Paris on May 22, 1924, to Armenian parents who had fled to the French capital. Both parents were actors, and it fed into his songwriting and singing. “I learned every aspect of stagecraft: dancing, acting, mime,” he told Variety. “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 could 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 said.
His method when performing was to assume the characters he had created in his songs the way an actor would, getting into their minds. “I become the hero of each of my songs,” he said.
Aznavour 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 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 said. He served as Armenia’s ambassador to Switzerland, and its representative at UNESCO in Paris.