A century of Charles Aznavour, storytelling crooner who rewrote the French songbook

By Jessica Phelan with RFI
Europe  REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
© REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour would have turned 100 on Wednesday. A giant of chanson française, the French-Armenian artist behind “La Bohème” and “She” left a lasting mark on music in France.

Aznavour had big plans for his hundredth birthday. 

“I stopped celebrating my birthdays at 50. I said to my friends: the next time will be when I'm 100, there's plenty of time,” he told French radio station RTL as he turned 90 in May 2014. 

The singer was even planning a spectacular farewell concert, he said the same month. 

“I've fixed the date. It will be 22 May 2024,” he announced at a special performance for the presidents of France and Armenia in Yerevan. 

“You will be there, I hope.” 
They wouldn't: Aznavour died of sudden cardiac arrest four years later, on 1 October 2018.  

He received a state funeral watched by nearly one in two French TV viewers, where President Emmanuel Macron declared him “one of the faces of France”. 

From clown to crooner

Aznavour's route to national stardom was far from obvious.  

Born in Paris to Armenian parents on 22 May 1924, he grew up fooling around on the piano and writing songs with his sister.  

He began performing as an actor aged nine and later turned his hand to dancing, vaudeville and acrobatics in music halls and cabarets.  

Short and athletic with a prominent nose and heavy, slanting eyebrows that gave him a permanently sorrowful look, he seemed better suited as a clown than a crooner. 

But he found a musical partner in pianist Pierre Roche and a patron in Edith Piaf, who helped the duo get their first bookings in France and then Canada (as well as convincing Aznavour to get plastic surgery on his nose). 

He struck out on his own in the 1950s, by then writing songs that were as unconventional as his looks. 

“I wrote songs because nobody wanted to write for me,” he said in a 2005 interview with RFI. “I didn't know I was able to do it.”  

Channelling his theatrical past, he inhabited characters that spanned the range of human experience, from an embittered alcoholic in “Je Bois” to a gay drag artist in “Comme Ils Disent”.  

“I was singing about subjects that nobody used to sing about,” Aznavour told RFI, remembering how he shook up musical conventions.  

“I knew one of these days, they would understand. And it took time, but every strong idea takes time.” 

Listen to Charles Aznavour speaking to RFI's Imogen Lamb in 2005:

A musician to the end

By the end of the 1960s, he had released a string of successful albums, starred in multiple films and put on a legendary performance at New York's Carnegie Hall – watched by one Bob Dylan, who said Aznavour “just blew my brains out”.  

But while he was once at the cutting edge, in later years he was a respected grandfather of chanson française, continuing to perform his best-known numbers to crowds around the world.  

“I write in a very classical way. And I'm not ashamed to say that I don't care about not being up to date,” he told RFI in 2005.  

“I was up to date 40, 50 years ago. I'm not up to date, but I write much better than I used to write then.” 

Then 81, Aznavour was still penning songs “every moment – when I have five minutes, when I have an idea”, he said. 

“But I throw out more than I keep.” 
The one thing he wouldn't write, though, was an ending.  

“The end has to come. I can't write it – well, I don't like to write it,” he told RFI in response to a question about his photo memoir, Images de Ma Vie (“Images of My Life”). 

“I would like to have a book without end, and to have a life without end. At least to have a few decades more.” 

He got almost a decade and a half, and left behind him some 1,400 songs in nine languages.

Instead of a farewell performance, Aznavour's 100th birthday will be marked with concerts, a 100-disc box set of his complete recordings, a commemorative stamp in France and a special-edition coin in Armenia. 

Paris has also renamed a section of the gardens on the Champs-Élysées in his honour.  

Meanwhile a biopic of the singer, starring French actor Tahar Rahim, is set for release in October.