Charles Aznavour: Grit and self-belief made the ‘French Frank Sinatra’

How the diminutive French singer went from poverty to stratospheric fame across the globe

French superstar Charles Aznavour (1924-2018) was born Shahnour Aznavourian to Armenian immigrants in Paris

Charles Aznavour (1924-2018) was born in poverty in Paris to an Armenian couple. 

Both artists, they were only temporarily living in Paris whilst seeking visas to emigrate to America. 

In the end, however, they and their two children (Charles and his older sister Aïda) stayed in France, and worked in the family restaurant. 

It was frequented by a bohemian crowd and the family sang and played instruments to entertain their customers.

Sold goods on the black market

Still a child, Shahnour Aznavourian enrolled in drama school, took the stage name of Charles Aznavour, and began working as a child actor and a singer, modelling himself on his favourite stars such as Maurice Chevalier. 

WW2 broke out when he was 15 and Aznavour sold chocolate, perfume and lingerie on the black market. 

He is also reputed to have resold bicycles left at the train station (by Parisians leaving the city) to the occupying Nazi troops. 

The family also hid Jews and Armenians in their Paris apartment. 

Nazi Occupation of France

During the Occupation, Aznavour travelled around the Occupied Zone with Jean Dasté’s theatre company and in 1941, aged 17, he put a singing act together with his friend Pierre Roche. 

He later claimed that because he had a large nose he was often mistaken for a Jew, and had to prove that he was not by showing soldiers that he was uncircumcised.

Piaf bailed him out of prison in New York

In March 1946, he married his first wife, Micheline Rugel Fromentin, and in 1947 they had a daughter, Patricia. 

In 1948, the act (Roche et Aznavour) was invited to perform on RTF, which is where they caught the attention of Edith Piaf, already an established star. 

They began working as her support act and from 1947-48 toured France and the US with her. 

Arriving in New York without the correct paperwork, the pair were thrown into prison on Ellis Island for three days until Piaf bailed them out.

Read more: From poverty to glory: Life of legendary French singer Edith Piaf

‘I adored being Piaf’s slave’

Roche et Aznavour found steady work at a cabaret in Montreal, giving 11 concerts a week, and recorded half a dozen 78s (vinyl records). 

The duo split up when Pierre Roche married a Canadian, at which point Aznavour became Piaf’s right-hand man. 

For eight years he managed her tours, sang in her shows, and was her secretary, chauffeur and confidante. 

In 1950, she paid for him to have a nose job. He was 26 and she a decade his senior. 

He later said, “I adored every minute I spent as Piaf’s slave”. They remained friends for life.

Family tragedy

Although he was still married, in 1951 he had a son, Patrick, with a dancer called Arlette Bordais. 

Patrick Bordais died of a drug overdose in 1975. 

In 1955, Charles married his second wife, Evelyn Plessis, but they did not have children together.

Too short with a thin voice

Charles Aznavour was not immediately successful, being generally considered too short, too slight, his voice too thin, his range too limited. But nothing daunted him. 

He continued writing songs and singing, and finally in 1953 during a tour of Morocco, he had a breakthrough. 

The audiences at the Winter Garden in Casablanca loved him. 

He was subsequently spotted performing at the Casino in Marrakech by the director of the Moulin Rouge, who offered him a contract. 

Despite his diminutive stature and lack of a voice, he had learned how to to perform a song with sincere emotion that would touch people’s hearts. 

In 1955, he opened for Sydney Bechet at the Olympia in Paris. He was on his way. By the end of the year he was headlining at the same venue.

Read more: Barbara: The elfin singer, actress and French national treasure

Steamy record ‘Banned for Under-16s’

During 1955 and 1956, he recorded a series of songs, A te regarder, Vivre avec Toi, Après l’Amour, and Sur Ma Vie

When his steamy version of the song Je Veux Te Dire Adieu appeared on a record marked ‘Banned for Under-16s’, his name was made. 

In 1958, at the Olympia in Paris he received two encores, and in 1960, he signed a record deal with Barclay. 

His fame only grew when in 1960, at the height of the Franco-Algerian war, he released L’Amour et la Guerre, which was promptly banned from national radio. 

He was also in a relationship with Liza Minnelli while he was in the States. 

Read more: These 10 songs can help you improve your French

Performed with his back to the audience

That same year he performed Je m’voyais déjà with his back turned to the audience. No response. 

He sang another six songs still facing upstage. Still no response. 

Aznavour left the stage feeling that his career was over. After a stunned silence, he went back on stage to take a bow and the Alhambra exploded into riotous applause. It was a triumph. He was 36.

The Frank Sinatra of France

Throughout the 60s, he recorded hit after hit, releasing songs in English as well as French, and earning himself the nickname ‘the Frank Sinatra of France’. 

He also wrote for other artists including Johnny Hallyday, Mireille Mathieu, and Sylvie Vartan. 

He toured internationally, singing in Italian and Spanish, as well as in French and English. 

He married his third wife, Ulla Thorsell, in 1967, and they had a daughter Katia (b. 1969), then sons Mischa (b. 1971) and Nicolas (b. 1977). 

“For the first, I was too young, for the second one I was too stupid,” he said later. “The third time I was right on.”

In 1973, he released The Old Fashioned Way and then followed it the next year with She, which went straight to number one in the UK and reached number 44 in the US.

Fundraising for Armenia

Following a devastating earthquake in Armenia in 1988, he founded the Foundation Aznavour for Armenia to support the country’s recovery. 

His fundraising record Pour Toi Arménie, featured 80 other artists and went to the top of the charts.

In recognition of his contribution, in 2001, the central square in the capital Erevan was named after him.

In 1997, he was awarded a Légion d’’Honneur and in 2004 he became a Commandeur d’Honneur, cementing his status as national treasure. 

He worked with both Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo, and in 1998 he re-recorded his hits in a swing style and released the album Jazznavour.

Read more: France to honour foreign Resistance member: who was Missak Manouchian?

Sold out massive venues worldwide

His relationship with Armenia strengthened throughout his life. In 2002, he starred in Ararat about the Armenian genocide. 

He began a series of farewell tours in 2005, and appeared in Erevan in 2006 before a crowd of 100,000 fans. 

He continued touring in 2006 and 2007, appearing all across North America and Canada, Japan and Europe. 

By this time he was telling audiences that if his health permitted, his farewell tour would last until after 2010. 

In 2008, he toured Portugal and South America, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay. He played to sell-out crowds in massive venues, picking up endless awards.

He was a global star.

UN representative of Armenia

At the end of 2008, the president of Armenia finally awarded him honorary Armenian citizenship and the following year he became the Armenian Ambassador to Switzerland. 

He also became the permanent representative of Armenia at the UN in Geneva.

These duties did not, however, impinge on his recording or touring activities, and in 2009, he even found the time to publish his autobiography, A Voix Basse

In 2010, at the age of 86, far from retiring, he took part in a fundraiser for Haiti, recorded another album and in 2011, set off on tour around France and Europe. 

He played Moscow, Montreal and Los Angeles before heading off to Georgia. 

Celebrated his 90th birthday with a world tour

In 2013, he appeared with Johnny Hallyday, and in 2014, he was back in the studio again, before celebrating his 90th birthday by setting off on a world tour which took in Israel, Armenia, Germany, the UK, Poland, Spain, Italy, the US, Russia, Switzerland, Belgium and Canada.

Unstoppable, he continued touring, recording, performing and being awarded prizes and honours throughout 2014, 2015, and 2016, receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2017. 

His diary was still full when he died in his bath at the age of 94 in 2018. 

His popularity never waned

France was plunged into national mourning, and his funeral was held in the Armenian cathedral of Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Paris, where he had been christened and married. 

He was buried in the family plot in Montfort-l’Amaury.

Over the course of his long career, he wrote at least a thousand songs, appeared in more than 30 feature films, and sold hundreds of millions of records worldwide. 

His popularity never waned although he was never as edgy and cool as Serge Gainsbourg. But he remains one of France’s most internationally famous artists.