Charles Aznavour (Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian), the Paris-born Armenian singer-songwriter, actor, and diplomat, who was known as “France’s Frank Sinatra”, died this month, on October 1st, 2018.
Born in 1924 to Armenian immigrants who’d fled to France amid Turkey’s perpetration of ethnic cleansing and genocide against Armenians in the early 20th century, Aznavour was raised by a family of artists. His father was a singer, performing in French restaurants prior to opening his own.
Aznavour dropped out of school at a young age of nine to pursue his career as an entertainer -- before his 10th birthday, he’d already starred in a movie and a theater production. Despite his young age, Aznavour insisted that he was never pressured or forced to become a performer. To him, it was a natural calling. "People say that they put me on the stage, but I put myself there. It was natural. It was what I wanted to do."
Aznavour later shifted his focus to professional dancing. He didn’t write his first song until the age of 24 in 1950.
He got his big break when he began opening for the legendary French singer, Edith Piaf. After his distinctive rich, mellow voice caught her attention, Piaf took Aznavour under her wing, mentoring the young virtuoso. Piaf advised Aznavour to pursue a singing career.
Aznavour went on to command a career lasting 80 years. He wrote a whopping 1000 songs, sold 180 million albums, and dazzled audiences in sold-out auditoriums well into his 90’s. He sang in an astounding 8 different languages: French, English, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, Armenian, and Neapolitan.
Aznavour’s music knew no boundaries, touching upon an eclectic range of themes.
He wrote songs that by any standard were ahead of their time. In “What Makes a Man” (1972), Aznavour sang about a gay transvestite. The lyrics are overall great but especially outstanding are the lines, “Nobody has the right to be; the judge of what is right for me; tell me if you can; what make a man a man.”
In 1974, Aznavour topped UK charts with his number one hit, “She”. One of the most beautiful love ballads ever written, with lyrics like, “She may be the beauty or the beast; may be the famine or the feast; may turn each day into a Heaven or a Hell”.
The following year, in 1975, he wrote a song dedicated to the victims of the Armenian Genocide titled “Ils Sont Tombes” (They Fell).
Despite being born in France, Aznavour always remained true to his Armenian identity. In 1979 he proudly proclaimed, “I am Armenian. Everybody figures that I am a Frenchman because I sing in French. I act like a Frenchman and I have all the symptoms of a Frenchman, but my parents are Armenian.”
Aznavour founded the charitable organization Aznavour for Armenia following the tragic earthquake that shook Armenia in 1988. In 1989 Aznavour wrote and dedicated the song “Pour toi Arménie" (For You, Armenia) to the estimated 50,000 victims of the earthquake.
Following Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Aznavour began traveling to his homeland of which he was named the ambassador to Switzerland in 2009. The following year he was granted Armenian citizenship by presidential decree.
In 1998, Aznavour was named Entertainer of the Century by CNN – now that wasn’t fake news.
Through most of Aznavour’s childhood, Europe was immersed in war. Amid the German occupation of France, Aznavour and his family rescued and hid Jews from the Nazis. His selfless, altruistic actions awarded him the Raoul Wallenberg Award in 2017. Israeli president Reuven Rivlin extolled Aznavour’s music, calling Aznavour’s 1965 hit song La Boheme – a beautiful ballad about a nostalgic artist – his favorite song.
Receiving his award, Aznavour said, “We have so many things in common, the Jews and the Armenians, in misfortune, in happiness, in work, in music, in the arts and in the ease of learning different languages and becoming important people in the countries where they have been received.”
In August of 2017, Aznavour joined the reams of distinguished entertainers from around the globe on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame when he was awarded his own star.
Eschewing early retirement (or even, retirement at 90 years old), Aznavour lived doing what he loved to his last day. This past summer, months before his death, he’d already announced a world tour for his 95th birthday including stops in Ukraine, Israel, and Switzerland.
Through his poetic prose and velvety tenor tone, Aznavour touched countless lives. For nearly a full century, he lent his voice to the voiceless and fought for the persecuted. From hiding Jews from the Nazis in WWII to his unyielding fight for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, Aznavour made the world a better place.
Charles Aznavour is survived by his sons Charles, Patrick, Misha, Nicolas, and daughters, Seda and Katia.