Aznavour, the “French Sinatra” in America

The renowned French singer passed away on October 1, but his influence stretched beyond France, his native country, and Armenia, the land of his ancestors. He was known as the “French Sinatra” in the United States, where he represented a romantic and slightly old-fashioned image of France.
Charles Aznavour and his wife Ulla Thorsell in New York City, October 1966. © Jean-Pierre Laffont

Charles Aznavour should have been American. But his Armenian parents, fleeing the massacres carried out by Turkey, had their visas refused by the United States and instead moved to Paris in 1923. There, the young man made his on-stage debut as an actor, then a singer, and met Edith Piaf. He went on to become her driver, secretary, and composer. In 1947, he accompanied her on her North American tour and discovered New York. “I lived on West 44th Street, ate at Hector’s Cafeteria, and plugged my songs,” he said in a 2015 interview with The New York Times. “With no success.”

The singer returned to New York in 1950 for plastic surgery. Seeing him so embarrassed by his large nose, Edith Piaf convinced him to go under the knife. His first successes came later. He sang at the Olympia music venue in Paris in 1955 as the support act for American clarinetist Sidney Bechet. In 1960 Aznavour then wrote the song “Je m’voyais déjà,” which launched his career, and starred in François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. The movie was adapted from an American crime fiction novel and was enormously successful abroad. Aznavour was particularly praised for his role as Edouard Saroyan, a pianist with a checkered past.

Three years later, the Frenchman sold out Carnegie Hall. Producer Eddy Barclay organized an American-style publicity stunt as part of the show, with Aznavour arriving in New York City accompanied by 150 friends and journalists aboard an Air France Boeing 707 renamed in his honor. The press loved it, and the other artists discovering the singer for the first time were impressed. Bob Dylan was one of the 3,000-strong crowd, and later declared that it was one of the greatest live performances he had ever witnessed. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” he said. “He just blew my brains out.” Aznavour went on to perform 46 times at Carnegie Hall, and Bob Dylan covered several of his songs including “The Times We’ve Known,” the English translation of “Les Bons Moments” (1986).

Aznavour translated and sang a number of his other standards in English. “La Mamma”(1963) became “For Mama” and “Tous les visages de l’amour” (1974) became “She.” The song “Yesterday When I Was Young” – the American version of “Hier encore” (1964) – has been covered some 100 times, including by Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley. In 1976, Aznavour was invited onto the Muppet Show, where he waltzed with the puppet Mildred Huxtetter to the sound of “The Old-Fashioned Way,” the English adaptation of “Les Plaisirs démodés.” The song was later covered by Fred Astaire and even featured in Stanley Kubrick’s movie Eyes Wide Shut.

Charles Aznavour outside Rockeller Center in New York City, March 1965. © Jean-Pierre Laffont
Charles Aznavour in his room at the Americana Hotel in New York City, March 1965. © Jean-Pierre Laffont

The United States, a Third Home after France and Armenia

In 1998, when CNN and Time asked the American public to vote for their “Entertainer of the 20th Century,” Aznavour came out on top ahead of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley! A success owed in part to the Armenian diaspora and the local Francophone community. The French singer saw the United States as his third home – he even lived in California and Connecticut for a time, had a secret love affair with singer Liza Minnelli, and married his third wife in Las Vegas.

“Charles would call me every time he came to New York,” says French photographer Jean-Pierre Laffont, who met Aznavour three times between March 1965 and October 1966. “That was before stars started hiring press managers. I used to pick them up at the airport, show them around the city, and take photos of them. Charles enjoyed walking around at night. We would grab a burger and go to take photos on Broadway. He was famous in France at the time – he had just written “La Bohème” – but always let me photograph him without posing.”

Aznavour’s producer was a big fan of Jean-Pierre Laffont’s shots, and purchased two images for the singer’s album covers. On the first, Aznavour is standing in front of the TWA terminal at JFK airport. The photo was taken in 1965 while he was in New York promoting his latest film, Taxi for Tobruk. The second photo is from the same period, this time in front of Rockefeller Center. Aznavour is pictured standing up straight in his gray two-piece suit, as if squashed by the skyscraper behind him. “He was always great to photograph,” says Jean-Pierre Laffont. “With him, all of New York City was like a photo studio!”

The man described by U.S. music critic Stephen Holden as a “French pop deity” passed away at the age of 94. His coffin was draped with the French flag and placed in the courtyard of the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris as part of a national homage. The procession entered the building to the sounds of a duduk, an Armenian woodwind instrument. When the cortege left, the Republican Guard struck up “Emmenez-moi,” one of Aznavour’s most famous songs, known in the United States as “Take Me Along.”

In his 72-year career, Charles Aznavour recorded 1,400 songs and 390 albums, and acted in more than 80 movies for cinema and television. One notable appearance was his role as a lewd, hunchbacked thief alongside Marlon Brando, John Huston, and James Coburn in Candy, a niche 1968 movie partly filmed in Central Park! The French singer was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1996, and was given a star on Hollywood Boulevard in August 2017. At number 6225, his plaque is next to the star for actress Bette Davis. “The United States and I have shared a longstanding love affair,” said the “French Sinatra” in an interview with France-Amérique in 2009. “I don’t speak English as well as I’d like, but I enjoy singing it.”

Article published in the November 2018 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.