Obituary:  Charles Aznavour

Obituary:  Charles Aznavour

Charles Aznavour was singer, songwriter and actor, best known for She, who personified French culture to the world.

The singer, songwriter and actor Charles Aznavour, who has died aged 94. He was one of France’s best-loved entertainers and its most potent show-business export since Maurice Chevalier. Edif Piaf was one of those who encouraged his early career. In many ways Aznavour could be seen as the male Piaf; his slight frame disguised a similarly huge talent. Aznavour was as important a composer and songwriter as he was a singer. He could be a great actor even without singing a note on screen.

Outside Of France

There were times in Aznavour’s career when he was as popular outside France as he was in his own country. His recording of  ‘She’, a sweet, soulful number composed by Aznavour and Herbert Kretzmer. It topped the British charts for several weeks in 1974. Aznavour’s songs were in the great dramatic tradition of the chanson, storytelling to music, rather than mere verse sung in the way of the conventional pop song. Even when he performed in English, his songs sounded as though they had first been minted in Montmartre. He was often called the French Frank Sinatra and the comparison was apt. When he sang The Old Fashioned Way or Yesterday When I Was Young listeners somehow caught his nostalgia kick and remembered those days, too.


In films, he was a character actor who was always the most interesting figure on the screen. His lead role as a musician clashing with criminals in Francois Truffaut’s 1960 drama Tirez sur le Pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player) established him internationally.

Aznavour, however, was always self-deprecating. He would refer people to a crumpled piece of paper on which, as a very young man, he had written his weaknesses. They were, he said: “My voice, my height, my gestures, my lack of culture and education, my frankness and my lack of personality.”

What Piaf Said…...

No one doubted his frankness, but his personality was one of his greatest characteristics. He seemed to personify French culture to the English-speaking world. His height (5ft 3in) was the only thing that he could do nothing about. However it was one of those great trademarks that help to mark out a show-business personality.  That and his gravelly voice, and the facial features that got craggier as he got older. Aznavour recalled: “They used to say, ‘When you are as ugly as that and when you have a voice like that, you do not sing.’ But Piaf used to tell me, ‘You will be the greatest.’”


Aznavour’s family were Armenian and went to France in the wake of the Turkish massacres of their people. Parents, Mischa and Knar Aznavourian, were living in Paris at the time of their son’s birth, in a poor part of the Latin quarter.  His father worked as a cook and his mother as a seamstress. His father was also a part-time singer and his mother a sometime actor. Neither made a living at what they wanted to do most.

Encouraged by them, he danced, played the violin, sang and aspired to act. He got work as a film extra from the 1930s onwards and in 1941 joined the Jean Dasté dramatic troupe. During the second world war, having adopted Charles Aznavour as his stage name. Joining the singer-composer Pierre Roche in a nightclub act and gained experience writing lyrics and in cabaret. In the postwar years they went on tour with Piaf around France and in the US, but split up when Roche married.

Other Artists 

Aznavour wrote songs for artists including Piaf, Gilbert Bécaud and Juliette Gréco. In the 1950s began to have some success in his own right, first in France and then internationally. By the early 1960s he was able to sell out Carnegie Hall in New York. He appeared in films such as Les Dragueurs (Young Have No Morals, 1959) and La Tête Contre les Murs (The Keepers, 1959). By the time he made Le Testament d’Orphée (Testament of Orpheus, 1960), he was enough of a star to be featured in a cameo role as himself. After his acclaimed performance in Shoot the Piano Player, he starred in US and British films including Candy (1968) and And Then There Were None (1974), an Agatha Christie adaptation, and in the Oscar-winning German drama The Tin Drum (1979).


In 2002 he appeared in Atom Egoyan’s drama about the Armenian genocide, Ararat. Aznavour retained close ties to his family’s homeland. When an earthquake hit Armenia in 1988, killing more than 20,000 people, he formed the charity Aznavour for Armenia and wrote Pour Toi Armenie which he recorded with a lineup of well-known French singers, to help support those affected by the disaster. In 2004 he was made a National Hero of Armenia, and a few years later an Aznavour museum was opened in the capital, Yerevan. He was appointed Armenia’s ambassador to Unesco and in 2009 Armenian ambassador to Switzerland.

Career Spanning Eight Decades

Across his eight-decade career, he wrote more than 1,000 songs and was said to have sold more than 180m records. He continued to record popular albums, including Duos (2008), a collection of duets with, among others, Elton John, Carole King, Liza Minnelli and Plácido Domingo. In 2011 he held a month-long residency at the Olympia music hall in Paris.

Personal Life 

Aznavour was married three times and had six children. “I know my life is a flop,” he said once. “A flop as a father, a flop as a man. You must make a choice: a successful life as a man, or show business. Now it is too late even to make a choice. I belong to the public or to my pride. My only salvation is to become a greater artist.” A legion would say he achieved that salvation.

He is survived by his third wife, Ulla (nee Thorsel), whom he married in 1967, and their children Katia, Mischa and Nicolas; and by Seda and Charles, the children of his first marriage, to Micheline Rugel. A son, Patrick, from his second marriage, to Evelyne Plessis, predeceased him.

  • Charles Aznavour (Shahnour Varenagh Aznavourian), singer, songwriter and actor, born 22 May 1924; died 1 October 2018

Source:  Michael Freedland  –  The Guardian