Small Wonder: Charles Aznavour

Small Wonder
by Emily Bearn

May 16, 2004, Sunday

When Charles Aznavour started singing, no one thought he’d last long.
At 5 ft 3 in, he seemed an unlikely pop idol, and one of his vocal
chords was rumoured to have been paralysed. As one critic wrote: “To
put oneself before the public with such a voice and such a physique is
pure folly.” It has proven to be one of the most magnificent follies
of all time. Sixty years down the line, Aznavour’s melancholy love
ballads have spawned sales of more than 100 million records. He
has houses in Geneva and St Tropez, he has had relationships with
Edith Piaf and Liza Minnelli, and it takes him 52 days a year to sift
through his fan mail. His devouringly raspish voice has made him one
of the world’s greatest music-hall troubadors and few quibbled when,
in 1998, Time magazine pronounced him “The Entertainer of the Century”.

He has frequently expressed his indifference to fame (“I am not a star,
I am just the man next door”), and his dressing-room at the Palais des
Congres in Paris betrays few trappings of it. The room is furnished
with a couple of hard chairs and an antiquated television, while his
dressing-table is bare save for a photograph of his grandchildren.

He says he does not wear make-up on stage, as it makes him look like
“a Peking duck”. As it is, he is dressed in a brown tweed suit and
his shortness is striking, but less so when he is standing against
his manager, who comes up to his shoulder: “He is shorter than me,
but don’t write that!” he pleads, hissing with delight. “I don’t want
him going craz-eee!” Aznavour himself appears to have no qualms about
his height: “I tried elevator shoes once, in America,” he recalls.
“But they were stupid. I felt like an idiot. A taller idiot.”

Aznavour claims to be unsure of his English, yet he appears to be as
fluent as the melancholy prose of his lyrics – as he muses in one song,
“You’ve got to leave the table when love’s no longer being served”,
and his conversation is strikingly practical. It gallops between
the iniquities of French taxation – he is furious that he is not
allowed to offset the cost of the handkerchiefs he drops on stage
during his signature song, La Boheme – with the career prospects of
his grand-children.

Oh, come on Charles! Parlez-moi d’amour! But as he politely explains,
that is not his wont: “People believe that in life I am somebody who
talks like I write, but it’s not true. I talk like anybody else.”

In France he is known as the “love pixie”, but he doesn’t entirely
act the part. He is effortlessly charming – his face animated with
what at times looks like a suppressed giggle – but his immediate
concerns seem to be less with love than with survival. He tells me
he would like to be remembered as “the oldest man in the world” and
enthusiastically outlines his dietary regime. Breakfast is a 10in
baguette, cheese on one side, jam on the other. Lunch is cooked,
dinner is cold, and occasionally taken with one-and-a-half glasses
of wine. “I’ve been a good drinker,” he explains. “I used to go out
every night; and I used to smoke four packets of cigarettes a day,
but now I tread water in the pool for 30 minutes every morning.”

His boulevardier days may be over, but he still appears as vital as
a cheetah. At times he seems so resonant with energy that I marvel he
can endure our 58 minutes sitting still. He still performs regularly,
and is about to give one of a series of 24 concerts held to mark his
80th birthday next Saturday (he looks nearer 60). It is only 90 minutes
before the curtain rises on an audience of 3,800, which Aznavour,
accompanied by a 20-piece orchestra, will entertain for two hours.

It is a prospect that does not appear to unnerve him: “I shave,
I change my suit, and then I am ready,” he says. “One of the good
things about getting old is that the critics run out of things to
criticise. What can they say any more? All my concerts are sold out.
I have become a sacred cow.”

The pandemonium outside suggests that this is so. A dozen or so
young Frenchwomen are at the stage door, clamouring for an autograph;
at the entrance a queue snakes around the block, hoping for ticket
returns. When the doors finally open, there is a further stampede for
the concert-hall shop, which swiftly sells out of T-shirts and posters.

I later watched the show, in which Aznavour left little doubt that he
is still worth queueing for. He performed 21 songs without a hint of
flagging, his voice so forceful that his three back-up singers were
rendered virtually inaudible. For his more doleful songs, he simply
cradled his microphone; during the faster ones he cavorted around
the stage like a tap-dancer.

He has a strong female following, but the audience was at least
half-male and, for the most part, fairly venerable. The woman on my
left looked about 50; the man on my right was nearer 90. Either way,
he was greeted with youthful fervour. He bowed out to a six-minute
standing ovation and a shower of red roses.

Since the passing of Piaf, it is Aznavour who has probably done most
to keep the tradition of the French chanson alive. His songs range
from cliched evocations of lost love to more off-beat themes, such
as a husband lamenting that his wife is fat. One of his most famous
songs is She, which reached number one in Britain in 1974 and, more
recently, was used in a cover version by Elvis Costello as the theme
to Notting Hill. His songs are wistful, but he rebuts the suggestion
that they are sad: “They are realistic. But they can be a little
melancholic. I was a visionary in that I believed that the chanson
had to change and be more personal. I came up with things nobody had
written before. Nobody had the guts to do so, and I’m proud of that.”

Until 1960, several of his songs were considered sufficiently risque to
be banned by French radio. The biggest rumpus came in the 1950s when,
years before gay liberation, he scandalised France with a lament about
a struggling homosexual. “Every time people wrote about homosexuality,
they were making fun,” he says. “It was a form of segregation and
I hate segregation. I’m not a homosexual, but someone had to defend

He says that he has not lived through all the anguish conveyed in his
lyrics (“If I had, I’d be mad”) although he has certainly weathered
the odd romantic gale. He has had three wives, and his relationships
include an affair with Liza Minnelli when she was 17. “Of course I
had some love affairs with known or unknown people,” he concedes. His
eyes suddenly light with mischief: “But I am a man who will never
talk about that. Some of my girlfriends might have children, or maybe
husbands, so it’s not nice to talk about it. I am a very discreet
man.” He is clearly also a playful one. At times he looks as naive
as a choirboy, but he appears to remain fairly confident of his adult
appeal. When I allude to his womanising days he dismisses the subject
with a nonchalant shrug, as though I were enquiring after something
as mundane as his latest cold.

The actress and singer Juliette Greco once commented that he was also
“a man of extremely stormy and unhappy love affairs. Women adore
Charles, and it’s perfectly natural”. What does he think they see in
him? “I’m not fresh enough to know,” he says, adding that he might
have been more forthcoming had I asked him 20 years earlier. Today,
he is disarmingly modest as to his selling points: “What is love?
Beauty is not the only thing in life – money, power, intelligence,
humour – those are forms of beauty, too. I am known, and that appeals
to people.”

Among those to whom he appealed before he became famous was his
mentor, Edith Piaf, with whom he lived in the 1950s for several
years. He served as her chauffeur, handyman and bottle-washer but
not, as he has repeatedly stressed, her lover. “We were very close.
We had less than love, but more than friendship.

“I learned everything from her. I learned that you must do your work
with love, not because you have to do it. I learned how you have to be
humble on stage, too. I am not a star, I’m a craftsman. And I learned
that from Piaf.” She also persuaded him to have his nose fixed. “It
had been broken when I was a child and I trusted her that this might
improve it.”

He gets upset at some of the rumours fanned about Piaf. She was not
a drug addict (“only things to help her sleep”), and she never peed
on the floor, but he admits that she wasn’t deft with a duster. “She
was terrible with housework. Terrible. She couldn’t cook an egg. But
she had nothing, so there wasn’t much mess. She just had a piano and
a bed.” And an awful lot of clothes: “She used to buy lots of hats,
which she never wore. And when she was in love she’d buy new dresses.
She didn’t wear those, either.”

Like Piaf, who called herself his “sister of the pavement”, Aznavour
was poor. His parents were Armenian actor-singers who fled to Paris
shortly before his birth to escape massacre by the Turks. He made
his stage debut at the Theatre du Petit Monde, at the age of nine.
“People say that they put me on the stage, but I put myself there. It
was natural. It was what I wanted to do.”

At 10 years old he was singing in nightclubs, but it was not until
he started touring with Piaf in his thirties that he discovered the
sort of popularity he now enjoys. He had his first solo success in
Casablanca, which was swiftly followed by top billing at the Moulin
Rouge. “When I started, my height was a disadvantage,” he concedes.
“Everything was. But I proved that even with my kind of voice, with
my kind of look, and as the son of an immigrant, I could make it.
That’s the lesson I give to people.”

He tells me twice that he is “a happy man”, and he certainly looks
it. He attributes this less to his commercial success than to his
third wife, Ulla, a former Swedish toothpaste model who is 17 years
his junior. They married in Las Vegas in 1967 with Petula Clark as
matron-of-honour. Nearly four decades on, they are living “quietly,
and perhaps a little boringly” in Switzerland. For one of her recent
birthdays, he gave her a vacuum cleaner: “She likes to have one in
every room, so I thought it would please her.”

How does she please him? “Because she sees me as Charles Aznavour,
the family man, not Aznavour, the singer. We store my music trophies
in the basement.”

By now it is after 7pm, and fans are converging on the Palais des
Congres to hear the family man sing. Perhaps after 750 songs and
the sale of his 100 millionth record, Aznavour might have started
making plans for his retirement. “Not yet,” he says, bustling down
the corridor in search of his toy-sized manager. “I used to work 24
hours a day, but now I work only 12, so I’m on half-time. But if I
worked any less, I’d die of inactivity.”

Charles Aznavour is in concert at the Palais des Congres, Paris,
until Saturday