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‘Alpilles were haven for our Aznavour’

Charles Aznavour saw his home near the Alpilles hills in Provence as a “haven of peace”, local mayor Alice Roggiero (shown above with him) told Connexion.Aznavour, who has been described as ‘the French Sinatra’ and ‘the last of the greats of French chanson’, died at his home in Mouriès, Bouches-du-Rhône, aged 94, on October 1.

Ms Roggiero said the village was very proud of Mr Aznavour and sad at the news of his death, which came unexpectedly, in the night after he had been out to a local restaurant with friends.

He had a house called l’Aigo Claro (clear water) for 30 years in the quartier des fontaines, just outside the village, where he would stay around once a month.

He liked to con­template the Alpilles, immortalised in paintings by Van Gogh who spent his last days in nearby Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. “He came here to rest, far from the hubbub, to recharge his batteries,” said Ms Roggiero. “He said it was his haven of peace. He loved his olive trees, which he made oil from, the Alpilles, Provence... He could come and go without fuss, no one bothered him or took photos; people respected him.”

She added: “He’d had a fall at home when he missed a step. He hurt his arm and cancelled a few concerts but seemed to have got over it and had just got back from a tour in Japan. He had been physically well, but died from a problem with the heart.”

He was “reserved”, but would chat with locals and was well-liked, she said. “He used to call into the mairie to say hello – and we would talk of his tours and life in the village; he didn’t have a starry attitude.”

Ms Roggiero said many people came to pay homage and leave bouquets outside his gates. “They came from all over, our restaurateurs said ‘oh là là there were so many people wanting to eat’.”

The mairie is reflecting on how to pay homage to him in its own way, after the family funeral and a national ceremony. “We might organise something with his Armenian friends; have a special day. And we may name a street or square after him.”

Members of France’s Armenian com­munity were among those who had visited. Mr Aznavour was born in Paris, the son of Armenian immigrants. Following a 1988 earthquake, he did charitable work for the country and acted as its ambassador to Switzerland (where he also had a home) and as a Unesco delegate. “He used to say he had two countries, France and Armenia; he was torn between them,” Ms Roggiero said.

In a 70-year singing career from early days opening for Edith Piaf at the Moulin Rouge, he wrote 1,300 songs and sold 180million records, as well as acting in more than 60 films.

Numerous musical greats performed with him or covered his songs, from Pavarotti and Domingo to Sinatra and Crosby, Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones. His hits in the English-speaking world included The Old-Fashioned Way and She, which topped UK charts in the 1970s.

Some commentators mourned the end of an era for French chanson, characterised by stylish and original songs with an emphasis on the text, by such names as Charles Trenet, Edith Piaf, Georges Brassens and Serge Gainsbourg.

Trenet helped Aznavour get his big showbiz break

Aznavour got his first breaks thanks to another French singing legend – not Edith Piaf, who he sang with in the 1950s, but Charles Trenet, says an expert in French song.

Patricia Pélissié, president of the Festival de la Chanson Française du Pays d’Aix, said the connection with the singer of La Mer is little-known, but is borne out with letters and photos. “He was very much unknown at that time, but the person who supported him and introduced him to celebrities – Jean Cocteau, Sacha Guitry and other famous intellectuals and artists of the time, was Trenet,” she said. “His first success was in Canada, and Trenet wrote a letter to a cabaret there saying they must take him or he wouldn’t perform. We’ve a picture of Mr Trenet with the young Aznavour introducing him to Jean Cocteau [above].”

A 1940s letter shown to Connexion says Aznavour and then singing partner Pierre Roche are “excellent, full of talent and write their pretty songs themselves” and that “it would be charming to have them [perform] all summer. You will see the success they will have,” Trenet said.

Ms Pélissié added: “Often the public think it was Piaf, but she came into his life later. It’s our duty as people who like history to put the agenda straight. It’s important people know it was Trenet who took him under his wing and gave shelter and support.”

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