Legendary French Singer Aznavour Dies At 94

In this photo taken on November 23, 2011 in Tours, French late singer Charles Aznavour performs on stage. PHOTO: GUILLAUME SOUVANT / AFP

The legendary French singer Charles Aznavour — who said last week he would be happy to breathe his last on stage — has died aged 94, his spokeswoman told AFP Monday.

The songwriter, who had just returned from a concert tour of Japan, passed away at his home in Alpilles in southeastern France.

The veteran French actor Alain Delon said his old friend had “died in his sleep”.

“I loved that man. I am in bits,” he told AFP.

Aznavour had to cancel several shows after breaking his arm in a fall earlier this year.

But as late as Friday the diminutive singer told French television that though his Swedish-born wife wanted him to stop, he would happily die on stage.

“I always go forwards. I have no reverse gear,” he said.

“All I can do is live, and I live on stage. I am happy up there, and you can see that.”

The singer had planned to go back on tour later this month, starting with a concert in Brussels on October 26 and his hometown Paris a fortnight later.

French President Emmanuel Macron led the tributes, praising his “unique brilliance”.

“Proudly French, viscerally attached to his Armenian roots, known all over the world, Charles Aznavour accompanied three generations through their joys and pains,” he said.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called him “a national hero”.

Aznavour’s family said “his legacy will live forever” in a Facebook message in French, English and Armenian.

Dramatic delivery

Multilingual and a tireless traveller, Aznavour was named “Entertainer of the Century” by CNN in 1998.

He pioneered a new, highly emotional way of performing, turning every song into “a one-act play”.

In the English-speaking world he was often dubbed France’s Frank Sinatra.

But unlike the American crooner, he wrote his own songs, often breaking taboos about marriage, homosexuality and men talking about their emotions.

He was born Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian in Paris on May 22, 1924, to parents who had fled the massacres in their homeland when the Ottoman empire collapsed.

Aznavour went on to sell more than 180 million records in a career spanning eight decades.

Ironically, his favourite song was one of the few in his repertoire he didn’t write himself, “La Boheme”.

Family of Resistance heroes

His family were heroes of the resistance against the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, regularly risking death to hide Jews and Communist partisans in their Paris apartment.

He began performing in their little restaurant with his sister when he was a child.

Aznavour got his big break after the war when he opened for the then rising French star Edith Piaf.

She took him to America as her manager and songwriter while he worked on his voice.

The two lived and drank together but Aznavour said they were never lovers.

“We loved each other but it was not sexual. She wasn’t my type. It’s very important to have a type,” he said.

Aznavour had his first number one hit in 1956 with “Sur Ma Vie” (In My Life). That was followed by one of his biggest hits, “Je M’voyais Deja” (It Will Be My Day).

But it was his leading role in Francois Truffaut’s film “Shoot the Piano Player” in 1960 that catapulted Aznavour to international fame.

‘I learned tolerance’

Buoyed by its success he took New York’s Carnegie Hall by storm in 1963 before touring the world and seeing his songs recorded by stars from Ray Charles to Liza Minnelli and Fred Astaire.

His classic “For Me… Formidable” followed while the romantic ballad “She” was a huge international hit before going on to feature in the film “Notting Hill”.

As he grew older, Aznavour loved nothing more than toying with his audiences over his advanced age, pretending to trip or to forget his lyrics.

“I’m very old you know,” he liked to say, “Too old.”

A campaigner for the massacres of up to 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1917 to be recognised as genocide, Aznavour pleaded for respect for difference and other cultures in his last interview.

“Tolerance is the most important thing” for humanity, he said last week.

An early champion of gay rights, he also claimed to be “100 percent a feminist. A man always should put himself in a woman’s place,” he said.

The poet of the lovelorn and broken-hearted, Aznavour married twice before meeting his wife of half a century, Swede Ulla Thorsel.

The best man at their wedding was Sammy Davis Junior.

“The first time I was too young, the second I was too stupid, and the third I married a woman from a different culture and I learned tolerance,” said the father of six.

“I am from hot and she is from cold. We have managed for the best.”

AFP

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