French singer-songwriter, actor and activist Charles Aznavour was one of the country’s most beloved entertainers for decades. He was considered their very own Frank Sinatra, with a unique tenor that was quintessentially Gallic. It took the theme of a ITV series for him to score a UK number 1.
He was born Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian in Paris on 22 May 1924. His parents were poor Armenian immigrants that had fled their country to escape the Turkish massacres, and both had ambitions to be in showbusiness, so they encouraged their son from an early age. He learned to act, dance and play the violin, and left school at nine, taking the stage name ‘Charles Aznavour’. During the Second World War he and his family hid Armenians and Jews, risking their own lives in the process.
In 1944 he joined singer and actor Pierre Roche in a nightclub act and gained experience in writing lyrics. When the war was over and his country liberated, they toured with Edith Piaf, playing at the Moulin Rouge. It was she that helped him develop his distinctive voice. When Roche married, Aznavour decided to go it alone.
He began writing songs for Piaf and others, and in the 50s became a name in his own right in France, and then internationally. Film roles came too, including appeared in films such as Les Dragueurs (Young Have No Morals) in 1959. He was famous enough to appear as himself in Testament d’Orphée (Testament of Orpheus) a year later.
In the 60s Aznavour sold out Carnegie Hall and thanks to being multilingual would sing at venues around the world in native languages. He wrote thousands of songs, and musicals, and starred in US and British films including Candy (1968) and And Then There Were None (1974). Never forgetting how it felt to be persecuted, in 1972 he recorded Comme ils disent (As They Say), which dealt with homosexuality (‘Nobody has the right to be/The judge of what is right for me’).
He co-wrote She with long-time collaborator and English lyricist Herbert Kretzmer, later to write the English words to Les Misérables. The LWT series Seven Faces of a Woman has long since been forgotten while it’s theme has endured, but it was a seven-part anthology drama series depicting contemporary women at various stages of life. A love song by Aznavour, in which he celebrates the fairer sex, was bound to help the profile of the series and fit beautifully.
She is cheesy, in a ‘Hallmark card for Valentine’s Day’ way, but I found myself warming to it over the years. Am I getting soft in my old age?The Brits (used) to love a bit of European ‘sophistication’ and obviously, Aznavour fits our stereotype of the French and their love of romance. He’s like a less sleazy Serge Gainsbourg. But one thing’s for sure, after reading those lyrics, and all the possibilities Aznavour runs through in his head when wondering about ‘She’, you get the impression he wouldn’t be much good on Tinder. He’d spend an age wondering about every profile before deciding which way to swipe. I’ll admit to not being familiar with Aznavour’s music, but I’d put money on there being better work out there then She. Is this his Strangers in the Night?
She performed best in the UK, thanks to Seven Faces of Woman, probably, as the series wasn’t aired elsewhere. He recorded versions of the song in French, German, Italian and Spanish.
The diminutive chanson continued to perform worldwide, and earned the respect and admiration of fellow singers, many of whom recorded covers of his work. These artists include Sinatra (one of the few European singers invited to duet with him), Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, Liza Minnelli (they had a brief affair), Bob Dylan (who was awestruck when he saw Aznavour perform), Elton John, Tom Jones and Marc Almond, who Aznavour noted as his personal favourite interpreter of his work. He also delved into the classical world, performing with tenors Luciano Pavarotti and close friend Plácido Domingo.
Although his film career came second, he had some notable roles, including Shoot the Piano Player (1960), And Then There Were None (1974) and The Tin Drum (1979), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1980.
Aznavour turned 82 into 2005, and announced his next tour would be his last. It lasted until 2018, with his final performance taking place at the NHK Hall of Osaka in Japan on 19 September 2018. He had continued to record throughout this time, releasing Duos, an album of celebrity duets in 2008.
Aznavour also continued to be an activist all his life. In 2010 he recorded Un Geste pour Haiti Chérie, a song with young French rap stars, to help raise money after the earthquake in Haiti. He became more involved in politics as he grew older, opposing France’s National Front
After he was found dead in his bathtub from cardiorespiratory arrest on 1 October 2018, aged 94, France went into mourning and gave one of their most famous exports a state funeral. Although small in stature, Aznavour was a giant of music, and he deserved no less.
Elvis Costello covered She for the soundtrack to the romantic comedy Notting Hill in 1999, where it was used over the closing credits.
Written by: Charles Aznavour & Herbert Kretzmer
Producer: Barclay Records
Arranged by: Del Newman
Weeks at number 1: 4 (29 June-26 July)
Comedian David Mitchell – 14 July
Actress Maxine Peake – 14 July
Novelist Georgette Heyer – 4 July
Nobel Prize laureate physicist Patrick Blackett – 13 July
Nobel Prize laureate physicist James Chadwick – 24 July
3 July: Don Revie, manager of Football League champions Leeds United since 1961, accepts the Football Association’s £200,000-a-year deal to become the new manager of England.
12 July: Bill Shankly, stuns his team, FA Cup holders Liverpool, by announcing his retirement after 15 years. He had transformed them into one of the world’s top club sides with three top division titles, two FA Cups and a UEFA Cup win.
17 July: The IRA wage more terror, with a bomb exploding in the White Tower at the Tower of London, killing one person and injuring 41. Another explodes outside a government building in South London.
20 July: Leeds United appoint Brian Clough as their new manager.
21 July: 10,000 Greek-Cypriots protest in London against the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.
26 July: Liverpool appoint Bob Paisley as their new manager.