Entertainment

French singing legend Charles Aznavour dead at 94

Aznavour was named an honorary officer of the Order of Canada in 2008

Posted: October 01, 2018
Last Updated: October 01, 2018

Singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour appears at a ceremony honouring him with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles on Aug. 24, 2017. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

Charles Aznavour, the French crooner and actor whose performing career spanned eight decades and who seduced fans around the world with his versatile tenor, lush lyrics and kinetic stage presence, has died. He was 94.

One of France's most recognized faces, Aznavour sang to sold-out concert halls until the end, resorting to a prompter only after having written upwards of 1,000 songs by his own estimate, including the classic La Bohè​me.

The singer's death was confirmed by his producer, Gerard Drouout Productions, and the French Culture Ministry. "Thank you, M. Aznavour," government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux tweeted.

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Often compared to Frank Sinatra, Aznavour started his career as a songwriter for Edith Piaf. The French chanteuse took him under her wing. Like her, his fame ultimately reached well outside France: Aznavour was named entertainer of the century in an online poll by CNN and Time magazine in 1999.

In a career that spanned 80 years, Aznavour sold more than 180 million records, according to his official biography.

He broke an arm last May but was set to start a new tour in November in France, starting in Paris.

BFMTV, the French news station, said he had just returned from a tour of Japan.

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Aznavour was one of the Armenian diaspora's most recognized voices and vocal defenders, but he sang in numerous languages, particularly English. His reputation in the United States spanned generations.

In a 2013 interview, Aznavour suggested he would sing until the age of 100.

Throughout his career, Aznavour wrote for Piaf and other popular French singers. The love ballad She topped British charts for four weeks in 1974 and was covered by Elvis Costello for the film Notting Hill.

Liza Minnelli, who met Aznavour when she was a teenager and he was in his 40s, described following him to Paris. "He really taught me everything I know about singing — how each song is a different movie," she said in a 2013 interview. The two remained close through the decades, often performing together.

Aznavour and Liza Minnelli perform together in Paris in 1991. (Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)

He resisted description as a crooner, despite his torch songs that are now firmly fixed in the French lexicon. "I'm a songwriter who sometimes performs his own songs," was his preferred self-description.

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The teachers I consulted all agreed I shouldn't sing, but nevertheless I continued to sing until my throat was sore. - Charles Aznavour

"What were my faults? My voice, my size, my gestures, my lack of culture and education, my honesty, or my lack of personality," the 5-foot, 3-inch performer wrote in his autobiography.

"My voice? I cannot change it. The teachers I consulted all agreed I shouldn't sing, but nevertheless I continued to sing until my throat was sore."

Family of artists

Shanoun Varenagh Aznavourian was born in Paris on May 22, 1924, to Armenian parents who fled to Paris in the 1920s and opened a restaurant. His singer father — whose own father was a chef to Russian Czar Nicholas II — and actress mother exposed him to the performing arts early on, and he acted in his first play when he was 9.

Aznavour, who cut the Armenian suffix from his stage name, decided to switch to music but still acted in films throughout his career. His movie credits include Francois Truffaut's 1960 Tirez sur le Pianiste (Shoot the Pianist), Volker Schloendorff's 1979 Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), and Atom Egoyan's 2002 Ararat.

That last film by the Canadian director dealt with the 1915 massacres of up to 1.5 million Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, an event that has strained relations between Turkey and Armenia for a century. Aznavour campaigned internationally to get the killings formally deemed a genocide.

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Aznavour became a piano player and toured with Piaf in New York after the Second World War. She encouraged him to perform his own songs. There, he performed on stage with Minnelli. In 1963, he performed in a sold-out Carnegie Hall.

In addition to the English-language She, other best-selling songs included La Bohè​me, For Me, Formidable and La Mamma. Other songs gained fame by their notoriety, including the seductive Apres l'Amour (After Love), which was banned by French radio in 1965 as an affront to public morals, and the 1972 Comme Ils Disent (As They Say) — a first-person narrative of a gay man's heartache.

His style varied little over the decades, his lyrics sticking to traditional structures, his melodies catchy and smooth with a swelling orchestra in the background — and lacking in imagination, some critics said. But in live performances, his small, lithe frame exuded an energy and emotion that made his songs something more. He had a ready grin, but his expressive brows overhung eyes that often seemed tinged with sadness.

French chanson singer Charles Aznavour celebrated his 90th birthday with a concert in Berlin in 2014. (Bernd von Jutrczenka/Associated Press)

The singer never forgot his Armenian roots. He founded Aznavour and Armenia, a nonprofit organization created after the devastating earthquake that hit Soviet Armenia in 1988.

After it earned independence from the Soviet Union, Aznavour traveled regularly to Armenia. He was named itinerant ambassador for humanitarian action in 1993 by President Levon Ter-Petrossian, served as Armenia's ambassador to U.N. cultural agency UNESCO and was named Armenia's ambassador to Switzerland in 2009.

In 2001, the singer was awarded France's prestigious National Order of Merit. In April 2002, along with other French celebrities, he urged people to sing France's national anthem in a campaign to defeat far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, known for his anti-immigrant stance.

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"If Le Pen had existed [in my parents' time], I wouldn't have been born in France," Aznavour said at the time.

In 2002, he opened La Bohè​me restaurant in Aix-en-Provence, southeastern France. The following year, he published a second memoir titled Le Temps des Avants (The Times Before); his first memoir, in 1973, had been called Aznavour by Aznavour.

Aznavour is shown in 2008, flanked by then Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean and her husband Jean-Daniel Lafond. Aznavour received the insignia of Officer of the Order of Canada. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Aznavour toured many times in Canada, beginning with Montreal cabarets early in his career. In 2008, he was named an honorary officer of the Order of Canada, receiving the prestigious honour in person in Quebec City. In 2009, he received the National Order of Quebec, a first for a singer.

For his 80th birthday, Aznavour sang at the renowned Palais des Congres in Paris and then went on a tour of France and Belgium. He celebrated his 90th birthday with a concert in Berlin.

Married three times, Aznavour had six children.

President Emmanuel Macron was a big fan of Aznavour and sang many of his songs during karaoke nights with friends when he was a student, according to former classmates.

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In a tribute shared online, the French president praised the singer, whose music scored "the joys and sorrows of three generations."

With files from Reuters