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Legendary French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour dies at 94

B.N.I.P.P./AFP | Charles Aznavour on the set of his show "Extraznavour" on October 1, 1966.

The legendary French singer Charles Aznavour—who said last week that he dreamed of breathing 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 last month, passed away in his home in Alpilles in southeastern France.

He had to cancel several shows last year after breaking his arm in a fall.

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

“I always go forwards,” said the performer who tried to write a song every day. “There is no backwards step with me.

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

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

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

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.

Born Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian in Paris on May 22, 1924, to parents who had fled the genocide of ethnic Armenians as the Ottoman empire fell, Aznavour sold more than 180 million records in a career spanning eight decades and as many languages.

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 Communist partisans in their tiny Paris apartment.

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 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, and urged him to get a nose job advice he at first resisted.

He had his first No. 1 hit in 1956 with “Sur Ma Vie” (On my life). That was followed by one of his biggest hits, “Je m’voyais déjà” (It will be my day).

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

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.

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.

Aznavour resisted characterisation 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.

"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 metre) 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."

One of France's most recognised faces, Aznavour sang to sold-out concert halls until the end, resorting to a prompter only after having written upwards of 1,000 songs, by his own estimate, including the classic "La Bohème."

His other best-selling songs included the English-language "She," ''For me, formidable" and "La Mamma." Other songs gained fame by their notoriety, including the seductive "Après 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.

Beyond “Shoot the piano player”, Aznavour’s movie credits include 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 a genocide.

Indeed, the singer never forgot his Armenian roots. He founded Aznavour and Armenia, a nonprofit organisation created after the devastating earthquake that hit Soviet Armenia in 1988.

After it earned independence from the Soviet Union, Aznavour traveled regularly to Armenia. He was named itinerant ambassador for humanitarian action in 1993 by then president Levon Ter-Petrossian, served as Armenia's ambassador to UNESCO and was named Armenia's ambassador to Switzerland in 2009.

He was granted Armenian citizenship by presidential decree in 2008.

In 2001, the singer was awarded France's prestigious National Order of Merit. In April 2002, along with other French celebrities, 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.

Married three times, Aznavour had six children.

‘Unique brilliance’

French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to the “unique brilliance” of Aznavour in a tweet shortly after his death was announced on Monday.

“Proudly French, viscerally attached to his Armenian roots, known all over the world, Charles Aznavour accompanied three generations through their joys and pains,” the 40-year-old French leader wrote.

“His masterpieces, his tone, his unique brilliance will live far beyond him,” Macron added.

Former prime minister Manuel Valls was among the first to react to his death, praising “this son of Armenian immigrants who became one of the greatest and most beautiful symbols of French brilliance".

Adieu and thank you,” Valls tweeted.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)


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