The master of the chanson | Music | DW | 21.05.2014
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The master of the chanson

Long a legend, Charles Aznavour is the best known French chansonnier and arguably Armenia's most famous son. On May 22, he celebrates his 90th birthday - not at home but on stage in Berlin.

Others at his age are already well into retirement, but Charles Aznavour can't do without concerts. He just released a new album and has been working hard on compositions for a Broadway show. 30 performances are on his agenda for 2014.

Asked whether he wouldn't like to take things a bit more slowly at his age, he answers with a smile, "I do. I used to give 200 to 250 concerts a year."

That pace is much in keeping with a man who has written more than 1,000 chansons. Many, such as "La Boheme," "Hier encore," "La Mamma" and "She," became worldwide hits at the hands of top performers like Shirley Bassey, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minnelli and Nina Simone. Aznavour can sing in seven languages, and in Germany, his "Du lässt dich geh'n" ("You're Lettin' Yourself Go"), addressed to a lover less than concerned with her upkeep, is a cult classic.

The multi-talented Frenchman can also act, appearing in Volker Schlöndorff's "The Tin Drum" and in Francois Truffaut's masterpiece "Shoot the Piano Player," where he imitated a degenerate bar pianist. He also appeared on camera for French filmmaker Claude Chabrol and for Canadian director Atom Egoyan's 2002 work "Ararat" about the genocide of Armenians in present-day Turkey.

Charles Aznavour, shown in 1965

By 1970, Aznavour was known throughout Europe

Frank words

In 2006, he pulled back from the film industry, but music remains indispensible for the restless entertainer. His 'farewell' tours have repeatedly proven to be anything but.

Each morning, Aznavour goes into the basement of his home in Lausanne and composes at his keyboard. And he doesn't just write the love songs to which some journalists like to reduce his creativity. A recent tune encourages people to take to the streets, saying that citizens - whether in Egypt, Tunisia or elsewhere - have to protest when things are out of line.

Taking on an absolutely taboo topic at the time, Aznavour expressed support for homosexuals in his 1972 song "Comme ils dissent."

"I support human dignity. If someone is gay, then that's what he is. I don't judge other people's lives," he said to the German magazine "Stern."

At a recent luncheon with high-level Armenian dignitaries he told French President Francois Hollande that he didn't vote for him. As befits a statesman, Hollande took the remark in stride.

Aznavour has long been an export hit and a kind of French archetype - a role he acknowledges with a chuckle, saying, "So, who embodies France? The lovely women, the actresses and me: As soon as there's something to represent, I have to head in."

Singer Charles Aznavour

Aznavour - still far from retirement today

Armenian roots

Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian was born in Paris on May 22, 1924, the son of Armenian refugees. His father was a singer and his mother an actress Charles got his first theater gig at age nine and trotted with pride through the immigrant district where he spent his childhood. People knew him as the boy who acted. But he also recalls much teasing - for being ugly, too small or hardly moving on stage.

A short man - 1.61 meters (5'3") - but one with a relentless will, he made it to the top in the European music world. The famed singer Edith Piaf helped him achieve his breakthrough and took him along on a tour of France and the US in 1946. From then on, his career hit peak after peak.

"I don't know if I'm a good singer in the classical sense," Aznavour once said. "What's more important than the beauty of a voice is its expressiveness and how someone interprets a song, fills it with life. With my songs, I've always tried to tell personal, intimate stories."

Charles Aznavour with Liza Minelli in 1994

Aznavour and Liza Minelli gave charity concerts together

No longer the flashy type

Over the course of his 70-year career, Charles Aznavour has released nearly 100 albums with a vast range of duet partners including Placido Domingo, Elton John, Liza Minnelli, Frank Sinatra and Sting. He has received countless prizes and honors, and was named Entertainer of the Century in the US in 1998.

There was a time when he loved to show off his wealth, swimming in luxury and driving a Rolls Royce. His marriage to Ulla Ingegerd Thorssell from Sweden in 1967 was his third - and the one in which he found happiness.

"She doesn't need any glamour or parties - and always pulls me back down to the facts when I'm letting my creative ambition get out of control. She grounds me," he said.

These days, he drives an energy-efficient car and has become more thrifty - after all, he notes, he has grandchildren to think about.

Since 1976, the couple has lived in Switzerland, and Aznavour says France did little to try and hold on to him, besmirching his reputation with claims that he evaded taxes and bribed politicians. In the end, the musician says he was compelled to live elsewhere - but that it's all water under the bridge now.

Charles Aznavour and Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy visited Armenia in 2011 together with the singer

Support for Armenia

Aznavour has used his fame to support his parents' home country - financially, politically and morally. His foundation, Aznavour for Armenia, has collected millions for charity. Former French President Jacques Chirac named Aznavour an Officier de la Legion d'Honneur for his political and social engagement. In December 2008, the singer was granted Armenian citizenship, and he has been the country's ambassador in Switzerland and to UNICEF since 2009. Yerevan, the country's capital, is home to a cultural center named after Aznavour.

On his 90th birthday, he'll do what he does best: sing on stage. Fans can hear him at the o2 World-Arena in Berlin. Joyeux anniversaire, Charles, and happy birthday, Monsieur Aznavour!

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