Charles Aznavour

TrackAlbum / Single
Les Deux GuitaresCharles Aznavour (1960)
Je M'Voyais DéjàCharles Aznavour (1961)
Hier EncoreAccompagné Par Paul Mauriat...
La BohêmeCharles Aznavour (La Bohême)
Les Bon MomentsBarclay 60794
Les ComédiensBarclay 60333
Le CabotinBarclay SBP-10.085
Non, Je N'ai Rien OubliéNon, Je N'ai Rien Oublié
Comme Ils DisentIdiote Je T'Aime
The Old Fashioned WayThe Old Fashioned Way

Charles Aznavour photo 1

 

Charles Aznavour records

 

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Charles Aznavour playlist

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

Born Shahnour Aznavourian to Armenian parents in Paris in 1924, Charles Aznavour went on to become one of the greatest (if not the greatest) French chansonniers of the twentieth (and twenty-first) centuries. Both his father and mother were enthusiastic semi-amateur performers who appeared in plays (generally in Armenian) in small local theatres. Aznavour later claimed that he loved the fact that both they and their fellow actors “acted only for the pleasure of acting, for the pleasure of being in touch with the public”. For them, he suggested, acting provided “a momentary escape from their own skins, their own circumstances”.

This background helped to spark Aznavour’s own interest in appearing on stage. In his early years, he did so primarily as a dancer performing in a duo with his sister, Aida, who was a singer. This early experience on the stage eventually led to his being employed as a child actor with a local troupe. During the war years, the entire Aznavour family was involved with the resistance. They also helped to shield Jewish people from the Nazis in their family home. For most of his life, Aznavour was characteristically modest about his involvement in this work. In 2017, however, it became public when the Israeli government awarded him and Aida the Raoul Wallenberg Award for their work in the war. Some commentators have linked the family’s actions then with his parents’ experiences at the time of the Armenian genocide. Charles himself later wrote a song, Ils Sont Tombé, as a tribute to those who had died in the massacres. (English translation here.)

During WWII, Aznavour formed a singing partnership with the pianist, Pierre Roche. It was during this time that he also first began writing songs. The duo eventually drew the attention of Edith Piaf, probably the greatest French singer of her generation. She and Aznavour shared a similar background as street-performers and they developed a close personal and professional relationship. The advantages which this apprenticeship (as it were) with Piaf gave Aznavour would be hard to underestimate. She also helped him and Roche with their careers, inviting them to accompany her on tours of the United States and Canada in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Aznavour also wrote a number of songs for her, the best known of which is probably Plus Bleu Que Tes Yeux.

The success which Aznavour and Roche had in Canada – and especially in Quebec – eventually persuaded the latter to settle there. This led to the break-up of the musical partnership between the two men. They did, however, appear on stage together again on a number of occasions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This marked a turning point in Aznavour’s career, as from that point on he operated essentially as a solo artist. It took him some time, however, to find the best musical vehicles to suit his talents. Many of his early records, for example, were strongly jazz-influenced and, although well-performed, they did not have the distinctive quality of the best of his later work. For me at least, Aznavour only really hit his stride as a solo performer in the early 1960s. The first five of my selections here come from this period.

The first of these, the gypsy-flavoured Les Deux Guitares is full of the world-weary regret which Aznavour made something of a trademark (English translation here).

Indeed, perhaps only Frank Sinatra mined this vein to greater effect than he did. Les Deux Guitares was also one of the first indications of his extraordinary ability to inhabit the lives of those characters he sang about in his songs. This ability perhaps stemmed from his early training as an actor.

If Aznavour’s songs often tended toward melancholy, this was usually tempered with a tough-minded and often sardonic humour and – in a manner reminiscent of Piaf – a strong sense of resilience. The characters in Aznavour’s songs were often Chaplinesque (or Keatonesque) in their ability to carry on despite the ‘slings and arrows’ they had to face in their lives. My next choice, Je M’Voyais Déjà, is a classic example of this. It is a bitter-sweet and satirical description of a young man from the provinces who sets out to be a star in Paris. Unfortunately for him, these aspirations are never realised and he is left embittered – at least in the French version – and critical of his audiences for not fully understanding him (English translation here). The song also gave Aznavour a perfect opportunity to display his brilliant phrasing.

 

The next two choices are among the greatest songs that Aznavour ever recorded. The first, Hier Encore, is a brilliant lament for what the narrator of the song considers to be a largely wasted life. Aznavour also recorded an English-language version of the song under the title Yesterday When I Was Young. The country singer Roy Clark picked up on the song and had a crossover hit with it in 1969 (it reached No.19 on the American pop charts). Other notable versions include those by Bing Crosby and Willie Nelson.

La Bohême is a superb character study of a painter looking back on his life in bohemian circles in Montmartre. This excellent live performance shows how Aznavour used his skills as an actor to aid him in conveying the central message of the song.

For comparison’s sake, here is an English-language version of the song:

 

Les Bons Moments, my next choice, is one of Aznavour’s finest break-up songs. There is also a refined subtlety about the way in which it is constructed. It appears at the beginning as if it is going to be a conventional love song, but then veers off in an entirely different direction.

Here is an English-language version by one of Aznavour’s best known admirers:

Next on this list, Les Comédiens, reflects Aznavour’s love of the theatre and of stage performers. (English translation here) .

By contrast, Le Cabotin is an attempt at self-description which does not evade the dark sides to Aznavour’s own personality (English translation here). This extraordinary performance shows the remarkably magnetic quality he had as a live performer.

And here is the English language version from Aznavour:

One of the lessons which Aznavour learned from Piaf was the ability to build up the emotional intensity of a song from a seemingly subdued beginning. Non, Je N’ai Rien Oublié, the next pick, is perhaps the greatest example of this skill on his part. It begins in a conversational way before developing into that typically ‘big’ French chorus.

Here Aznavour’s displays his dramatic skill and striking vocal range to supreme effect (English translation here.

Comme Ils Disent is one of Aznavour’s bravest songs. To use Thom Hickey’s words on The Radiators ‘Under Clery’s Clock’, it describes with “heart rending beauty … a situation where a gay man struggles to find dignity and love in a world which stonily refuses to admit that love has never been limited to that between men and women”. It is difficult, in retrospect, to describe either the originality or the bravery which Aznavour showed in writing such a song at a time when there was still a huge amount of prejudice against gay people across the world. This great live performance shows the extraordinary way in which he could transform himself into the character described in the song.

And here is a version he recorded in English as What Makes A Man.

 

My final choice is Charles Aznavour’s 1973 hit, The Old Fashioned Way. This is a rare instance where I prefer his English-language version to the French one. To me the song has a genuinely romantic feel to it.

In this respect, I find it superior to the far-better known She which was a hit in the following year. She is probably his best-known recording outside France, although I cannot say I have ever particularly liked it. To me, it resembles the idea of what a French singer should record, unlike the brilliantly individual and distinctive work which Aznavour did in so many of his other recordings.

Indeed, in my opinion, Charles Aznavour ranks high among the very best singers of modern times. Only a handful of those come close to him in terms of his ability to interpret a song. As a singer, he was also one of the great character actors. In almost every song he sang, he was able to create a new and distinctive ‘persona’ which he depicted, in writer Doreen St. Félix’s words, “with [an] astonishing empathy”. His instinctive sympathies were always with the underdog and the downtrodden and his music generally celebrated the lives of people who often remained voiceless. The selections here are designed only as a taster to the vast body of excellent work that this great artist produced over his lifetime.

 

POSTSCRIPT

Charles Aznavour’s popularity transcends generations, counting legions of international fans. During his magical career spanning more than 70 years, he recorded 1,400 songs (of which 1,300 he wrote personally), his 390 albums sold 200,000,000 copies, he performed in 9 languages, gave concerts at the age of 94, and appeared in more than 90 films … from the Aznavour Foundation website

 

Charles Aznavour photo 3

Kurt Loder: Who are some of the greatest live performers you’ve ever seen?
Bob Dylan: I like Charles Aznavour a lot. I saw him in sixty-something at Carnegie Hall, and he just blew my brains out.
(Rolling Stone interview 1987)

 

Charles Aznavour poster

 

Charles Aznavour (1924-2018)

 

The Aznavour Foundation – official website

Pictorial Discography at Encyclopédisque

Charles Aznavour discography (Wikipedia)

“Charles Aznavour: Memories of My Life” – The Autobiography (2005)

Aznavour receives the Raoul Wallenberg Award in 2017

“Remembering Charles Aznavour, the Last and Greatest Troubadour”
by Doreen St Félix, New York Times, October 2018

Charles Aznavour biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs. Andrew has written on many musicians for this site including, recently, Jacques Brel.

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2 Comments

  1. Ilkka Jauramo
    Feb 8, 2021

    “Charles Aznavour’s popularity transcends generations, counting legions of international fans.” – Exactly. I had to laugh at myself. In the sixties my late mother listened to Aznavour in living room. I closed my boy room door and listened to Dylan instead. Now I can see Dylan sing Aznavour on this site! This was new to me and my favourite so far.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Feb 10, 2021

    Thanks for this Ilkka. As a teenager, I also lumped Aznavour in with the easy-listening artists of the 70s. It was quite a bit later on that I began to realise what a great artist he was. Have grown to like his music even more through researching this piece.

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