Following the death of Charles Aznavour, many newspapers and magazines compared him to Frank Sinatra, discussed his immense career, and described him as a romantic, easy-listening singer. With the help of Jean-Daniel Beauvallet – editor in chief of French music publication Les Inrockuptibles, Morgane Giuliani – journalist for Marie Claire, and many music lovers eager to talk about the artist’s hidden treasures, I looked into this famous singer-songwriter a bit more, to try and figure out what made him the man he was, and what made French music the unique, not-so-rose genre it is.
On October 1st, one of France and Armenia’s biggest singer-songwriters – Charles Aznavour – died at the age of 94. Having written more than one thousand, three hundred songs in eight different languages, he was the most well-known and enduring French artist around the world.
In 1974, his song 'She' ('Tous les visages de l’amour') was recorded as the theme tune for the
TV series Seven Faces of Woman and introduced him to the British music scene, following his success with 'The Old Fashioned Way' ('Les plaisirs démodés') the previous year, making its way to the top of the charts in the UK.
When talking to people from different generations about Charles Aznavour, I soon realised a lot of British consider him as an archaic singer who made corny and easy-listening songs about love and nothing else.
And that is something that really surprised me – not in a good way.
Crude lyrics and historical trauma
The artist who came from an Armenian family used his background as food for thought for his lyrics. Historical events and trauma are regularly at the heart of his songs, which I think anyone would agree, is anything but sugary.
Janine Bonhomme has been a fan of Aznavour for a very long time, as well as other giants in the French music scene of that time: Jean Ferrat, Dalida, Serge Reggiani, and so on. “I agree with the fact that French music can be considered as poetic, and even romantic, but definitely not à l'eau de rose,” she states. “Most of the songs from that time, and especially Aznavour’s, reflect on how life isn’t always easy.”
The harrowing 'They Fell' ('Ils sont tombés') for example, deals with all the men who fought and died during the Armenian Diaspora. His famous 'La Bohème' is incredibly nostalgic and addresses the issue of poverty as well.
Talking about this particular song, Thierry Bonhomme, son of Janine, thinks it paints a good picture of old Paris, it reminds him of “French artists like Philippe Cley, Gréco, Higelin and Brigitte Fontaine. And also, the films from that time with producers like Clouzot, actors such as Arletti and Michel Simon, and of course the painters from Montmartre” – whom the singer refers to a number of times.
When he started his career, the singer used crude lyrics and was even rejected by other artists such as 'La Vie en Rose'-singer – Édith Piaf, who later became very friendly with this small and strange-looking man.
Jean-Daniel Beauvallet recalls an interview with the artist, during which he explained how he managed to develop and build his own audience. “I remember Aznavour telling us about how he wanted to change his life,” he recollects. “He didn’t want to rely on singing about the Armenian Diaspora to be successful, even though that really helped him make a name for himself at the beginning. So, he went around different universities, asking for $1 at the door, and little by little, he managed to build his own audience. That’s what we call artist development today. And he did that fifty years before anyone else did.”
During the twentieth century, Aznavour’s songs were – and still are – very deep, personal and even shocking. Dealing with a lot of emotions, from wistfulness to personal trauma, from social differences to homosexuality, and the way his songs were written was considered as violent and even raw.
'What Makes a Man' ('Comme ils disent') released in 1972, tells the story of a drag queen who isn’t afraid of showing his sexual orientation in front of other men. The singer was the first to tackle such a subject at that time with this tour de force, and to use slang language from his own background was something very new too.
“I don’t agree with those who think Aznavour is the French Frank Sinatra,” explains Beauvallet. “On the contrary, Sinatra was someone who was very self-conscious and discreet. He wouldn’t have sung about homosexuality. Charles’ lyrics have a sordid side to them, and it’s the same for Jacques Brel. Some people think his songs are romantic when in fact, they are very grim.”
Indeed, people would be very surprised if they fully understood Charles Aznavour’s lyrics and what they imply. French people look up to him and what he brought to their patrimony. And the stories he told played an important part in all of that.
“His involvement with Armenia is probably what people remember most about him, but not as much as his realism which gave him his credibility,” says Eric Lechevallier, a great music fan, married to an Armenian lady – Aghavni Martirosyan.
The worldwide-known artist was considered as a poet for some, a brilliant painter of the reality around him for others, and contributed to forging a certain image and standard of French music.
Thierry Bonhomme describes Aznavour as a “chanteur à textes, a French wordsmith focusing on the message and rather refined melodies.” He also adds: “This songwriter’s style was peculiar to his time, the same one as Piaf and Saint-Germain-des-Près – a sort of poetic realism very specific to French singers.”
Aznavour was just that. And he thought la chanson française was defined by its words, and not its rhythm or beat. His lyrics would always come first, before any melodies, which proves once again he wasn’t just a beau-parleur.
A French singer like no other
The man who was nicknamed Aznovoice built his own career in music from scratch, played in more than eighty films, and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. He felt the need to try everything out and wanted an immense international career. And – as if that wasn’t enough – “Charles Aznavour was one of the rare French singers from that generation to acknowledge the importance of rappers,” explains Beauvallet. “He recognized himself in them, in their work because they use their own slang words from their background, just like he used to do.”
From Aghavni Martirosyan’s point of view, what made him the gentleman, the genius and the giant of the French music industry, was “the well-trodden destiny of an immigrant with nothing else to lose, the strong determination to survive, to settle, to anchor in the new land. He wanted to offer something new, be persistent, eccentric, provoking, kitsch. But he still remained the bearer of a different culture and different values.”
It is fair to say French people are very proud and quite defensive when it comes to the history of their music. And it truly makes me wonder how some have misunderstood, misinterpreted and misapprehended this unique genre, and such a huge artist.
This goes to show the importance of translation, and the complexity of translating the morbid, horrendous and grim truths of those songs. And that may be where it all went wrong.
From Sinatra to Eddy de Pretto
Having met numerous music personalities around the world, Aznavour has been compared to some of the biggest ones throughout the years. Frank Sinatra comes up regularly, being seen as the American version of the French singer, whether wrongly or rightly so. The lyrics and style of the young Eddy de Pretto have also been compared to the late artist’s.
Considered as the new French genius and the modern Aznavour, he tackles subjects such as homophobia, his native town Créteil, as well as what he calls “virilité abusive”. His peculiar album Cure has been acclaimed for its fresh style – inspired by the likes of Barbara, with a rap and hip-hop twist – and praised for his strong lyrics.
“Aznavour and Eddy de Pretto both have the same way of giving a certain rhythm to their lyrics,” explains Morgane Giuliani. “But in what Eddy de Pretto sings about, there isn’t any consciousness of the different social classes, of historical trauma, nor any nostalgia, unlike his elder.”
Even though this young artist uses swear words, adopts a more theatrical approach to his songs and puts his own personal twist to French music, it doesn’t hold the same violence, horror and realism that the late singer had.
“Aznavour took a lot more risks and was way more violent than Eddy de Pretto,” states Jean-Daniel Beauvallet. This surely isn’t a competition but thinking Aznavour is easy-listening is the misunderstanding of the century. As Jean-Luc Perrine, who has been listening to French artists for many years, said: “They’re not really songs à l'eau de rose, but more à l'eau de vie!”
Aznovoice did have a voice. And it was a pretty powerful, eye-opening and sincere one.