Charles Aznavour, known as France's Sinatra, dies at 94
Published Monday, October 1, 2018 8:25AM EDT Last Updated Monday, October 1, 2018 6:53PM EDT
PARIS -- Charles Aznavour's performing career endured eight decades, with a prompter in his final years the sole concession to age -- or to difficulty recalling a 1,000-song repertoire.
Known as France's Frank Sinatra, the dapper crooner and actor, who got his start as a songwriter and protege of Edith Piaf, died Monday at 94.
His versatile tenor, lush lyrics and kinetic stage presence endeared himself to fans the world over, but nowhere more so than in France. He sang to sold-out concert halls into his 90s and said he wrote every single day.
"I throw most of it away. You write first, judge later," he said in a 2015 interview before the release of the album "Encores."
Often compared to Sinatra, Aznavour started his career as a songwriter for Piaf, but it was she who took him under her wing, encouraging him to sing his own material. Like her, his fame ultimately reached well outside France, including being awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2017.
"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 (1.6-meter) tall 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."
In his career, Aznavour wrote upward of 1,000 songs, for himself, 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."
Aznavour sold more than 180 million records, according to his official biography. He broke an arm in May but was set to start a new tour in November in France, starting in Paris.
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. On Monday, she said in a statement: "Charles was my mentor, my friend, my love... I will miss him forever."
He resisted description as a crooner, despite decades of 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.
But it was as a performer that Aznavour came most to life, expression vibrating from his thick brows to his fingertips.
"On stage, I don't feel like I'm singing for the audience. I'm singing for myself, and I give it to the audience. We share. If it's not shared, it's not good," he said in 2015.
French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to Aznavour's "masterpieces, voice tone" and "unique radiance."
"Deeply French, viscerally attached to his Armenian roots, recognized throughout the world, Charles Aznavour will have accompanied the joys and sorrows of three generations," Macron said in a message posted on Twitter.
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 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 genocide. Turkey vehemently denies that the massacre was genocide and insists it was part of the violence during World War I.
Aznavour became a piano player, and toured in New York after World War II with Piaf. 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 bestselling songs included "La Boheme," "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.
If sometimes critics hinted that his voice wasn't quite up to the task, they said people went to see one of the century's great singer-songwriters in action.
"We continue to go to find this intimate link that each one of us keeps with their songs and what they represent," critic Caroline Rodgers wrote after a 2014 concert. "If there are failures, these insignificant musical blemishes called false notes, advanced age has this privilege -- that you are simply overcome before such a monument who is still singing after all these years."
With half a wink, Aznavour never quite forgot that critics were less kind when he was younger.
"No one dares say what they said before. So when were they lying -- before or after?" he asked in the 2015 interview.
The singer also never forgot his Armenian roots.
He travelled regularly to Armenia after it earned independence from the Soviet Union. He was named itinerant ambassador for humanitarian action in 1993 by then-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. He founded Aznavour and Armenia, a non-profit organization created after the devastating earthquake that hit Soviet Armenia in 1988.
Aznavour was awarded France's prestigious National Order of Merit In 2001, and in 2009, he received the National Order of Quebec, a first for a singer.
"I am not trying to boast, but I have to admit that for an uneducated son of an immigrant I could have done far worse," Aznavour said.
Along with other French celebrities, in April 2002 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.
"If Le Pen had existed (in my parents' time) I wouldn't have been born in France," Aznavour said at the time.
Aznavour owned La Boheme restaurant in Aix-en-Provence, southeastern France. He also published two volumes of memoirs -- "Aznavour by Aznavour" in 1973 and "Le Temps des Avants" (The Times Before) in 2003.
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. He is survived by his wife of more than four decades, Ulla.
Samuel Petrequin contributed to this story.
Je l’avais convié à mon déplacement à Erevan pour le sommet de la francophonie, où il devait chanter. Nous partagerons avec le peuple arménien le deuil du peuple français.— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) October 1, 2018