Charles Aznavour: The French Sinatra

Alan Franks

The Times
January 31, 2009

He has written a thousand songs and has as many memories, but often
it’s just better to move on, he says

It’s not quite right to call Charles Aznavour the French Sinatra,
but he’s certainly the nearest thing that they have. Never mind
his tiny stature, he’s huge all over the world after selling 100
million albums and acting in 60 films in as many years. Mention the
comparison and he shrugs it away with Gallic insouciance; Sinatra,
he says, was a singer who acted; he is an actor who sings.

His new album finds him begging the comparison again, even
if unintentionally, as the late American is one of his three
posthumous singing partners, the other two being Dean Martin and
Edith Piaf. The 84-year-old more than holds his own in this company,
his voice ranging fluently from deep valleys of tendresse to peaks
of shameless melodrama.

>From his expression when he talks about adding his voice to the
recordings, it must have been a strange and moving experience. Although
he never met Martin, Sinatra and Piaf were good friends and big
influences. He has a face that goes beetling and ruminative, then pulls
itself together as if it has been caught malingering. "Strange? Yes,
but not difficult," he says.

"Of course, it brought up strong memories. But [with Piaf] this was
not the first time I had done this, but the third. And naturally,
when she was alive, we sang many times together."

On this side of the Channel Aznavour has been taken as the essence
of Frenchness, much as was Maurice Chevalier before him. Musically,
he remains best known for his two UK chart hits of the 1970s, She
(reprised by Elvis Costello in the 1999 film Notting Hill) and The
OldFashioned Way. As an actor, his profile was never higher than in
the 1960 film Shoot the Pianist (Tirez sur le Pianiste), directed
by Francois Truffaut. He has had several successful tours here and,
moving briskly away from stereotype, says that he loves the food. "I
had a piano player from Leeds, and he took me about.

You know, the proper food, not like in restaurants, but like the
family eats at home."

His musical Lautrec, about the artist’s final years, came to the West
End in London in 2000 but lasted only ten weeks. "Very bad reviews
in London.

But in Plymouth, fantastic. In London the press doesn’t like the
French. In England, yes. In Paris, it’s on the contrary. We receive
the foreigner better than we receive the French."

This is ironic, since without that hospitality in his case he would
not have become as French as he has. Though he was born in Paris,
his birth name was Shahnour Varenagh Aznavourian. His parents were
Armenian migrants fleeing Turkish oppression. Originally French was
his second langua ge. When he talks of the family struggles to raise
him and his sister, who is now 86, his eyes come close to brimming,
but then he thinks better of it.

"They abandoned their dreams in order to raise us. They came to
France not knowing the language, and with no money. I can still see
my father with a, you know" – he lowers his arms as if to pick up
something heavy – "a charrette, a little cart. He was a good singer,
a baritone, and he got records of jazz, tango, everything. He even
took us to the movies twice a week."

You could say that this background has politicised Aznavour, but he
rejects the word. "Not political, no. I hate politics. But social." Yet
on the evidence of what he says about (parts of) Turkey’s denial
of the so-called Armenian holocaust in 1915, in which more than a
million are thought to have died, he is thoroughly engagé. "They
don’t want to recognise it," he says. "But they will need to do so
one day, not only for us, but for themselves." Two years ago he was
hailed as "a hero of the Armenian people" by President Sargsyan for
his charitable work and was granted citizenship of the republic. In
2002 he starred in Ararat, a film about the genocide directed by the
Armenian-Canadian Atom Egoyan.

Last year Aznavour found himself travelling to Brazil, where he
is officially the best-known Frenchman , on the same aircraft as
President Sarkozy and his singing wife Carla Bruni. Sarkozy was going
to a trade conference; Aznavour was going to perform. "I don’t know
Bruni’s music," he says, "but I thought she was very nice with him
[Sarkozy]. He needs that. She calms him."

If the songs on Aznavour’s Duos double album concern themselves with
politics, it is of the emotional kind. Here is an international gallery
of singers helping him to dissect the joys and despairs of romantic
coalitions: the Greek veteran Nana Mouskouri joining in on To Die of
Love; Liza Minnelli, another "very dear friend", doing Quiet Love;
Johnny Hallyday, France’s old answer to Elvis Presley, on You’ve got
to Learn. Then there’s our very own Bryan Ferry, louche as ever on
She, and Elton John belting it out on Hier Encore. "I said he could
do it in English if he wanted," Aznavour says, "but he insisted on
doing it in French, and I thought he did it very well."

Many of these 28 recordings have been assembled over several
years. Aznavour gave a wish-list of partners to his manager, who then
contacted them, and received no refusals. "I am too shy," Aznavour
says, "it is difficult for me to ask something like that." Even though
he is so admired and old enough to be the grandfather of two of his
singing partners (the rising American Josh Groban and the powerful
Italian diva Laura Pausini). "Shy is shy," he says.

"Even if I know them well, like Elton, Sting, Iglesias, Nana."

But however strong these presences, none threatens to engulf him,
not even Plácido Domingo on El Barco Ya Se Fue. Instead, he manages
to co-opt them all into his own idiom, which is in the tradition of
such great French chansonniers as Gilbert Bécaud and Aznavour’s
own favourite, Charles (La Mer) Trenet. And Piaf. How significant
was she for him? "Well, it’s not that she helped me, but I helped
myself by learning things from her. Many things. Watching people,
you know, that’s much more instructive than asking something. That
way you know what is better for you and what is not. I used to do
everything with her – driving her car, taking care of the [stage]
lighting, writing songs.

"So yes, she was one part of the influence. It was Chevalier for the
career, how to be professional, Trenet for the writing, just because
he was so good at it, and Piaf for the pathos. Her personality, the
singing and the dancing. The living, the drinking, the having fun,
you know. She was a very funny woman. It doesn’t show that in the
movie [Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose in 2007], but she had a great
sense of humour and we were laughing always."

And yet her image is so tragic, so blighted. "Yes, but I don’t like it.

She was funny and joyful and we had a great time and we never went
to sleep before three or four in the morning."

And Sinatra; was he the influence that the comparison implies? Aznavour
gives a sudden yap of a laugh and says, "Good friend, good
relationship", while making a drinking motion with his right hand.

Ask him about his wives, or rather one of them, and the gallanterie
deserts him. He has been happily married to his third, Swedish-born
wife Ulla Thorsell for 40 years. They have three children and live
outside Marseilles.

Before that, however … he flings his arms in the air and declares:
"The moment you make a woman your wife who wants to be Missus Madame"
– his face makes a contemptuous swagger – "it’s over, finished."

He denies that he has retired from performing. "A newspaperman said
that, but it’s wrong. I said I was stopping the tours. I used to do 220
or 230 galas a year, but not any more. Now I do one day here, one day
there." He also reveals that he has written a play, his first. It is
a one-woman show, about an actress, with all the dialogue and songs
by him. He thinks he’s got the performer he wants, even though he
hasn’t heard her sing, and it is meant to open in Paris in autumn.

That is the season in which many of his songs seem to dwell. He
has written nearly 1,000, and themes of melancholy refle ction keep
surfacing. "Je n’ai pas vu le temps passer," he sings with Paul Anka,
author of Sinatra’s theme tune, My Way. Aznavour himself writes enough
retrospective numbers, but minus the triumph and self-aggrandisement,
to make you suspect that he is full of regrets.

"Non, non," he piafs. "No regrets. No remorse." Ah, but he says
that almost as if he is issuing an instruction to himself. "Yes,
you are right. But it has to be like that. You can’t always regret
something. You have to forget." Il faut oublier; it could be a song.

As for his duetting with Sinatra, bear in mind that he is singing in
English, which is only his third or fourth language, so you could say
that he’s playing an away fixture. But it’s a draw at least. Remember
Michael Caine’s remark to the very senior, very competitive Laurence
Olivier before they started filming Sleuth in 1972: "You may win,
but you’ll get hurt."

Duos is released by EMI on February 16