Volume 76, Number 17 | September 13 - 19, 2006

Au revoir from Aznavour, adventurer with guts

By Jerry Tallmer

It is to be wondered how many of the thousands who will pack Radio City Music Hall on the 18th and 19th of September 2006 to say au revoir to Charles Aznavour would have been at tiny Café Society Downtown in Greenwich Village to say bienvenue, comment ça va?, to the unknown 23-year-old Aznavour 58 years ago this coming Christmas.

Not very many.

“When I came to America for the first time in my life,” said Aznavour, the cherished-around-the-world singer/actor who ranks with French immortals Charles Trenet and Edith Piaf, “I performed at Café Society Downtown during Christmas ’48 with my partner Pierre Roche. For only a few weeks,” Aznavour said over the phone from Paris. “For Barney Josephson, yes?” — the combustible founder/owner of the historic race-free nightspot on Sheridan Square.

“When I came back to America, Art D’Lugoff wanted me in his club [the Village Gate]. I told him I’m not the type for a club. In clubs, I’m lost,” said the Aznavour whose enigmatic “Charlie Kohler” in Truffaut’s 1960 Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player) — the astonishing film that truly introduced Aznavour to a great many Americans including this writer — was just such a club, but in Paris. “Eat and drink,” said Aznavour over the phone, in stoic summation of nightclub clatter.

Not to mention the smoke? In those days?

“Oh, the smoke doesn’t bother me,” said Aznavour.  

The two Radio City Music Hall concerts in September are way stations on what he says is his farewell tour. It isn’t the first one that’s been so termed, but now, he says, this is it.

“For the first time I’m stepping back, because in a few years I will not be able to do the same show with enthusiasm and strength. I think it’s fair while I am still strong to be honest with the public and myself. I told my management that we’re going to do the countries according to language: America, England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and so forth, and then all the others. Because I can’t do what I did before, jumping from one language to another as fast as before, from English to Spanish to French” — and of course to Armenian, the language into which he was born.

“Let’s face it,” said Charles Aznavour, “I’m 82. Not that I don’t have the memory, but I’ve seen some performers who” — he let it trail off — “and I want to finish honorably and good.”

Charles Aznavourian (he dropped the “ian” early on) was born in Paris on May 22, 1924. He was almost born in America.

“My parents” — Micha and Anar Aznavourian — “arrived in France after the Genocide” [of 1915, when the Turks forced- marched, starved, and slaughtered perhaps as many as a million Armenians]. “They applied for visas to the United States. There was of course a quota on Armenians and Greeks — ta ta ta, ta ta ta — ‘Come back next year.’ So my mother and father stayed in France. That’s why I’m not American, and that’s why I speak broken English but beautiful French!”

Until the Depression hit, the Aznavourians ran a small Russian-Armenian restaurant in the rue de la Huchette, a hangout for actors and musicians. One biography says that Micha’s father — Charles’s grandfather — “had been a chef to Czar Nicholas II.”

Aznavour gave a laugh over the telephone. “My grandfather,” he said, “was a chef for the governor of Tiflis, in Georgia. The czar used to eat there every 150 years.”

It was “a good family, my parents, my sister, and I, poor but not miserable” — one that found life and inspiration in “music, poetry, art, the things that make children grow up intellectually and happily.” 

He himself was placed in a theater school in 1933, at age 9, and was on stage at age 13, in 1937, when a young man named Charles Trenet came around to present some songs he’d written.

“That is how we met, and a year after, he took France by storm, as you say in America — the biggest star we ever had. It was the quality of his songs, the poetry of his songs” — and the romantic strength of that voice, those songs, on records and radio, even here, in Greenwich Village, USA, thanks to a girl or two one used to know, well before unknown Charles Aznavour made it into Café Society Downtown at Christmastime in ’48.

“The first time I heard Trenet’s songs,” said Aznavour now, “I said to myself: If this is what songwriting is, then it’s what you have to do. I was in his entourage for several years, and we were very close friends all his life until he died [at 88, in 2001]. At the end of his life I was his [music] publisher. I bought his catalogue. People are now working on it, putting it into a computer.”

And then there was Piaf.

For whom Aznavour wrote one of the most famous of his incredible output of more than 700 songs, ”Plus bleu que les yeux,” which, when audiences called out for it, he would continue to sing in duet with her long after she left us in 1963. Among living ladies with whom he has teamed in concert are close friend Liza Minnelli and, somewhat incongrously, Pia Zadora, among others.

“I met Piaf on a radio show in 1946. On the same night there I saw her and Trenet and Raoul Breton, a publisher of songs, only good songs, which is not true of many music publishers. I signed a contract with him.

“I didn’t work much with Piaf. I was much more her friend. That first time I came to America in 1948, it was with her. I was then in a duet [a two-man act] with Pierre Roche.” As singer-songwriters, the team of Aznavour & Roche began to hit it big in the States and Canada.

“But Piaf and Trenet told me I should sing alone, so I break up with my partner [who got married and stayed in Montreal]; no aggravation, no hard feelings.” And Aznavour’s star kept rising as he toured North Africa and then returned to Paris to acclaimed solo stands at the Alhambra and the Olympia.

An aficionado of Trenet’s used to come to Aznavour’s shows. His name was Francois Truffaut, and at age 27 he had made one of the greatest of motion pictures, The 400 Blows. Now he came and introduced himself to Aznavour.

“That was a good meeting. Two timid people deciding to make a movie. He said: ‘I would like to make a documentary on you,’ but when he came back a few weeks later he said: ‘I’ve found a book, and the man in the book reminds me of you.” The book was Down There, by the American writer David Goodis, and the man in the book was Charles Kohler, the pianist with a secret life and another name, Edouard Saroyan. An Armenian name, be it noted. It took five or six weeks to shoot the film in Paris and Grenoble.

“It made my career in America, because until then, nobody in America knew who I was. A funny thing, careers. You can have a public without having a name. The first time I want to come to America [early 1963], my manager said there is no theater that wants you in New York. I said: So rent a theater. Carnegie Hall! It was during the strike of the newspapers. We sold 3,000 seats without advertisements. Jack Paar on the television talked with Geneviève about “somebody named Aznavour” but he didn’t know who I was. I was ready to ruin myself” – to go broke, not just renting Carnegie Hall but flying 150 journalists over from Europe to cover the concert.

“The beginning of a career is amazing. The coincidences are amazing. I have been lucky,” said Charles Aznavour. “You must have the guts to be more than routine. You have to be adventurous.”

He has starred or otherwise participated throughout that career in no fewer than 60 motion pictures, long and short; has worked with directors from Truffaut to Volker Schlondorff’s The Tin Drum, (1979) to Atom Egoyan’s Ararat, (2002).

That one, which put the Armenian Genocide under a burning glass — Egoyan is Canadian Armenian —“There are Armenians all over the world,” says Aznavour cozily — was, obviously, closest to the heart of the singer/actor who had flown to Armenia and raised millions for that doubly stricken country after the earthquake that killed 50,000 people and left 500,000 homeless in 1988.

Aznavour has been married four times — “four marriages, four children, and four grandchildren.” His daughter Katia will be on stage with him at Radio City. He is also — as “a very adventurous man” — had “ski accidents, horse accidents, car accidents.” Three or four of the latter have been serious — “twice with Piaf, twice only me. Yes, in France — if you’re going to have a car accident it is better to be in your own country. Two arms broke, but badly broke, from one of the ones when I was alone in the car. Six surgeries on each arm. In the other accident alone, I had nothing.”

Among his other works are a memoir, Les temps des avants (Flammarion), and the music and lyrics of a musical, Lautrec, which was done in London and in Germany, is awaiting production in Montreal, and might just come to the United States under the aegis of producer Mike Merrick.

I’d love to see it, said I.

“Me too!” said Aznavour, over there in Paris.

I wonder if he’ll go down to look at 1 Sheridan Square, where Café Society Downtown once was. Yesterday, when I was young … when we were young … when he was young …

CHARLES AZNAVOUR. September 18th and 19th at Radio City Music Hall, 212-307-7171; radiocity.com.

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