Charles Aznavour has died.
Curiously, when I type his name here Spellcheck underlines it: Spellcheck has never heard of him. Yet when I type ‘Sinatra’ it raises no objection. And this is strange because through European eyes Aznavour’s diminutive 5ft 2inches frame was the embodiment of Sinatra, Bennet, Martin and even a little bit of Perry Como. His career was as long, his fan base as widely spread, and his talent every bit as undeniable. He just wasn’t American: no, more than that, he was definitively French.
Aznavour was 94 years old. He was born in 1924. His career was ‘launched’, if that is the word, by his appearances with Edith Piaf, but international recognition had to wait until he was fifty years old. ‘She’ became an international hit, launching a brief spate of added ‘interesteds’ to his already devoted followers. He was feted by, and dueted with Nana Mouskouri, Lisa Minelli, even Pavarotti for a while before fading back, not into obscurity, but to a level of established stardom that assured him of a packed house wherever he went. He spoke fluently, and therefore sang, in five languages; his own native French, Italian, German, Spanish and English. At the age of 90 he filled London’s Royal Albert Hall with a rapt audience for a concert. He never retired.
To me, Aznavour was the ultimate singer/songwriter. His songs were never covers, they were all of his own authorship, and they are many. Hundreds, perhaps. There were collaborators, of course, there always are, but those evocative lyrics, those haunting semi-tones were his. Lyrics that wrenched at the heart – the regretful:
Yesterday, when I was young
The taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue
I teased at life as if it were a foolish game
The way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame…
Or the defiant, the ebullient:
I have lived each single moment, as a man of flesh and blood
With my soul and all my senses open wide
I have lived and tasted everything that called out to be tried
I’m afraid of neither heaven nor of hell
Never caring if I had a soul to sell.
I have one particular memory of an Aznavour song. From such a consummate showman the lyric is the more surprising because he was a convinced heterosexual, and its timing (this came out in 1974) perfectly reflected a society struggling with the questions of a new morality.
Lyrics that made the thinking among us think a little more. Bonne nuit, Charles, but no regrets. I am sure you tried all that was out there to be tried.