Aznavour’s long goodbye – 83 and still singing
8 October 2007
PARIS (AFP) – As he would, Charles Aznavour, uncontested star of French song, hummed and tapped a few bars before sitting down to talk about his latest tour, a seemingly gruelling affair for an 83-year-old — 20 Paris concerts followed by 28 in France, Belgium and Switzerland.
After announcing his retirement in 1999, then again in 2000, and crooning through a farewell foreign tour in 2006, the French press reckoned the concerts kicking off next week were the singer’s last good-bye.
“I never said farewell, never!”, said an indignant Aznavour, still sprightly though a little hard-of-hearing. “But it’s true the tours are getting shorter. Only 20 concerts in Paris this time against nine full weeks in the past. Next time it’ll only be three or four days.”
“It’s like cutting back on cigarettes to stop smoking,” said the musician who’s composed close to a mammoth 1,000 songs, sold more than a million records, and played in some 60 films.
“There’ll come a day when I forget the words and stumble on stage — then I’ll stop.”
Nicknamed “Aznovoice” at the beginning of his career by English critics because of his raspy delivery, the slight and easy-going showman is the last of a generation of French “chanson” masters — where the lyrics are king, the tune a prop.
“It’s the words that count,” he said. “It’s a French genre. Our chansons say more than anyone else’s.”
Born in Paris in 1924 to Armenian immigrant entertainer parents who hoped to get to America but were never granted a visa, Aznavour — original name Aznavourian — grew up in the poorer neighbourhoods of the city, pulling himself up by the bootstraps to a career on stage.
With his quirky eyebrows and tiny stature — 1.64 metres (5 foot 3 inches in bare feet) — Aznavour never quite made it as a leading man on screen.
Cash-starved in his early 20s during the war years, Aznavour instead tried cabaret, where he met and teamed up with young songwriter and composer Pierre Roche, then with Edith Piaf, who would take him to America and to a solo career.
“I got lucky,” said the singer.
In 1954 he rose to prominence with his live renditions of “Sur Ma Vie”, followed by one of his biggest hits “Je m’voyais deja” in 1960 — the same year he starred on screen in Francois Truffault’s “Shoot The Pianist”, which catapulted him to fame abroad.
A couple of years later he took New York’s Carnegie Hall by storm before touring the world and seeing his songs sung by stars from Ray Charles (“La Mamma”) to Liza Minnelli and Fred Astaire. In 1972 he was top of the charts in Britain with the single “She”, recently rerecorded by Elvis Costello for the Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant comedy “Notting Hill.”
“I’m the last of the few singers who didn’t just use their voice,” he said. “There were never very many of us, Sammy Davis, Liza Minnelli, Shirley Maclaine, Yves Montand and me … we also performed.”
Voted one of the century’s top singers with Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan in a 1999 CNN/Time Internet poll, Aznavour dishes up his lyrics with a typically French chanson syrupy mash of pop, jazz, blues and latino sound (his just-released “Colore Ma Vie” was recorded in Cuba with pianist “Chucho” Valdes).
The hundreds of tunes brought fame and wealth as well as a conflict with the government tax-man that has left him living in tax-easy Switzerland half the year.
But the hits often were hard-hitting with a social thrust — songs about his native Armenia, his 1970s ballad on homosexuality “Comme Ils Disent” and currently, in his latest album, songs on the environment and the plight of migrants in France’s sleazy urban ghettos.
“I am attuned to what is going on around me,” he said. “I grew up among the Polish, Armenian and Greek tailors who worked off tables on the outskirts of Paris. I never knew misery but I did know poverty.”
Sitting in his Paris office — the musical publis