The renowned French singer passed away on October 1, 2018, but his influence had long since 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 should have been American. But his Armenian parents, fleeing the Turkish genocide, had their visas refused by the United States and instead moved to Paris in 1923. It was in the French capital that the young Charles made his on-stage debut as a theater actor, then a singer, before meeting Edith Piaf. In 1947, he accompanied her on her North American tour and discovered New York. He spent a year there. “I lived on West 44th Street, ate at Hector’s Cafeteria, and plugged my songs,” he recalled in a 2015 interview with the New York Times. “With no success.”
The singer returned to New York in 1950 to undergo plastic surgery — Aznavour had always been embarrassed by his large nose, and Edith Piaf convinced him to go under the knife. His first successes came soon after this period, first in Morocco, then in France. He sang at the Olympia music venue in Paris in June 1955 as the opening act for American clarinetist Sidney Bechet. In 1960 Aznavour then wrote the song Je m’voyais déjà, his first real hit, 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.
Charles Aznavour in New York, March 1965. © Jean-Pierre Laffont
Three years later, the Frenchman sang before a sold-out Carnegie Hall. Bob Dylan was in the crowd that night, 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 just blew my brains out,” he said. Aznavour went on to perform 46 more 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 English 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 Mildred Huxtetter to the sound of The Old-Fashioned Way, the English translation of Les Plaisirs Démodés. The song was later covered by Fred Astaire and even featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 movie Eyes Wide Shut.
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 victory owed in part to the Armenian diaspora and the local Francophone community. The French singer saw the United States as his third home. He 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.
In recognition of a career spanning almost 80 years during which time he recorded 1,400 songs and 390 albums, Charles Aznavour 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. Before admitting, “I don’t speak English as well as I’d like, but I enjoy singing it.”