The French Frank Sinatra bids adieu
French singer, songwriter, and actor Charles Aznavour, one of France’s most popular and enduring singers, and one of the most well-known French singers abroad—on par with Edith Piaf—will be give his final American performance at Radio City Music Hall next Monday and Tuesday. The 82-year-old Parisian-born son of Armenian immigrants who sings in six languages still remembers his first performance here in New York.
“When I came to America for the first time in my life,” said Aznavour, “I performed at Café Society Downtown during Christmas with my singing partner Pierre Roche,” he said over the phone from Paris. The year was 1948.
While the Radio City event isn’t the first time the artist has billed his final performance, now, after nearly 60 years, he says this is really it.
“For the first time I’m stepping back, because in a few years I will not be able to do the same show with enthusiasm and strength. I think it’s fair while I am still strong to be honest with the public and myself. I told my management that we’re going to do the countries according to language—America, England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and so forth, and then all the others. Because I can’t do what I did before, jumping from one language to another as fast as before, from English to Spanish to French. Let’s face it, I’m 82. Not that I don’t have the memory, but I’ve seen some performers who… and I want to finish honorably and good.”
Charles Aznavourian—he dropped the -ian early on—was almost born in America.
“My parents Micha and Anar Aznavourian arrived in France after the genocide. They applied for visas to the United States. There was of course a quota on Armenians and Greeks. ‘Come back next year.’ So my mother and father stayed in France. That’s why I’m not American, and that’s why I speak broken English but beautiful French!”
Until the Depression hit, the Aznavourians ran a small Russian-Armenian restaurant in the rue de la Huchette, a hangout for actors and musicians. It was “a good family, my parents, my sister, and I, poor but not miserable;” one that found life and inspiration in “music, poetry, art, the things that make children grow up intellectually and happily.”
He himself was placed in a theater school in 1933, at age nine, and was on stage at age 13, in 1937, when a young man named Charles Trenet came around to present some songs he’d written to someone in the play.
“That is how we met, and a year after, he took France by storm, as you say in America. He was the biggest star we ever had. It was the quality of his songs, the poetry of his songs.”
We heard the romantic strength of that voice, those songs, on records and radio, even here in Greenwich Village, well before the unknown Charles Aznavour made it into Café Society Downtown at Christmastime in ’48.
“The first time I heard Trenet’s songs,” said Aznavour, “I said to myself if this is what songwriting is, then it’s what you have to do. I was in his entourage for several years, and we were very close friends all his life until he died [at 88, in 2001]. At the end of his life I was his [music] publisher. I bought his catalogue. People are now working on it, putting it into a computer.”
And then there was Piaf… for whom Aznavour wrote one of the most famous of his incredible output of more than 700 songs, ”Plus bleu que les yeux,” which, when audiences called out for it, he would continue to sing in duet with her long after she left us in 1963. Among living ladies with whom he has teamed in concert are close friend Liza Minnelli and, somewhat incongrously, Pia Zadora, among others.
“I met Piaf on a radio show in 1946. On the same night there I saw her and Trenet and Raoul Breton, a publisher of songs, only good songs, which is not true of many music publishers. I signed a contract with him.”
“I didn’t work much with Piaf. I was much more her friend. That first time I came to America in 1948, it was with her. I was then in a duet [a two-man act] with Pierre Roche.” As singer-songwriters, the team of Aznavour & Roche began to hit it big in the States and Canada.
“But Piaf and Trenet told me I should sing alone, so I break up with my partner [who got married and stayed in Montreal]; no aggravation, no hard feelings.”
And Aznavour’s star kept rising as he toured North Africa and then returned to Paris to acclaimed solo stands at the Alhambra and the Olympia.
The young Francois Truffaut, an aficionado of Trenet’s, also used to come to Aznavour’s shows. The singer recalls when the director introduced himself.
“That was a good meeting. Two timid people deciding to make a movie. He said, ‘I would like to make a documentary on you,’ but when he came back a few weeks later he said, ‘I’ve found a book, and the man in the book reminds me of you.”
The book was “Down There,” by the American writer David Goodis, and the man in the book was Charles Kohler, the pianist with a secret life and another name, Edouard Saroyan. An Armenian name, be it noted. It took five or six weeks to shoot the film “Tirez sur le Pianiste” (“Shoot the Piano Player”) in Paris and Grenoble.
“It made my career in America, because until then, nobody in America knew who I was.”
Aznavour has appeared throughout that career in no fewer than 60 motion pictures, working with directors from Truffaut to Volker Schlondorff (“The Tin Drum”), to Canadian-Armenian Atom Egoyan (“Ararat”). That film, which put the Armenian Genocide under a burning glass, was closest to the heart of the singer/actor who had flown to Armenia and raised millions for that doubly stricken country after the earthquake that killed 50,000 people and left 500,000 homeless in 1988.
“A funny thing, careers,” the performer reminisced. “You can have a public without having a name. The first time I want to come to America [early 1963], my manager said there is no theater that wants you in New York. I said, so rent a theater… Carnegie Hall! It was during the strike of the newspapers. We sold 3,000 seats without advertisements. Jack Paar on the television talked with Genevieve about ‘somebody named Aznavour’ but he didn’t know who I was. I was ready to ruin myself”—not just by renting Carnegie Hall but by flying 150 journalists over from Europe to cover the concert.
“The beginning of a career is amazing. The coincidences are amazing. I have been lucky,” said Charles Aznavour. “You must have the guts to be more than routine. You have to be adventurous.”
Aznavour has been married four times. “Four marriages, four children, and four grandchildren.” His daughter Katia will be on stage with him for his final adventure at Radio City.