Charles Aznavour first appeared on stage at age 9, began writing songs in his teens and then waited 15 years to be pronounced a star. Chevalier, Piaf and Mistinguette made his songs famous long before his voice was accepted.
The trouble, Aznavour today believes: "I was different." He thinks his voice is "not pretty . . . but a good voice--it fits what I'm doing; it is a voice that has tenderness and anger. I would be very unhappy to have a pretty voice. To do the things I do, I need the voice I have."
That voice led a Paris critic to declare in 1956, "France has been Aznavourized."
Aznavour, 58, who has become famous on records, in films and on television, refuses to be categorized as just an entertainer. "I am an actor," he insisted before his sell-out performance this week at the Kennedy Center. "I made my stage debut before I was born, in the belly of my mother, who was an actress. When I sing, it is an actor singing and when I write, it is an actor writing."
When Aznavour speaks, it is also an actor speaking, even in the privacy of his suite at the Four Seasons Hotel. He could be called one of the world's most ordinary-looking human beings--a bit below average height, graying slightly, his deeply lined face shadowed with stubborn traces of a beard. Sitting next to him on a bus, you would never suspect that you were in the presence of one of the world's great actors.
But when he speaks, the features mobilize; a symphony of emotions plays across his face. When he frowns, the room is a bit darker--when he talks about Turkey, for example, and the deaths of millions of Armenians during World War I: "My mother was the only survivor in her family; she was alive because she was an actress and she was away from the village when the massacre happened."
The face brightens when he mentions his three smallest children, ages 5 to 13 (his oldest daughter is married and has made him a grandfather twice): "They know Armenian, but they don't want to speak it; they prefer French." His children came with him to New York for his three-week run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on Broadway, but now he is alone again: "They wanted to go home--to Switzerland." (Aznavour has three homes--in Switzerland, Sweden and California.) "They miss the street life there, which they cannot have in America. It's a very safe country, Switzerland. You can let your kids go out to play and not worry; they can have the kind of youth I had."
Aznavour's youth combined show business and street life. His parents were in the theater--his father, an opera singer in Imperial Russia, left during the Revolution and met his mother while touring in Turkey. Eventually they moved to Paris and opened a restaurant to supplement their slender earnings from the stage.
"My father left opera and became an actor," Aznavour says. "He was a great actor, but in Paris he was frustrated by language. He could act in Russian, Georgian, Yiddish and Armenian, but he had trouble acting in French. After many years, he still had an accent."
There was an Armenian theater in Paris ("one night every now and then, with a rehearsal every day") where his parents performed regularly in theatrical classics of that language. It was not very lucrative.
After his prenatal debut ("my mother stayed on the stage until the last moment of pregnancy") he entered the world in Paris on May 22, 1924. He rested for a while before making his postnatal debut in a Paris production of "Emile and the Detectives" at age 9. A budding career as a child actor (including small roles in two French productions of Shakespeare) was cut short by World War II ("there was no electricity, so the theaters closed.")
He switched temporarily from show business to the news business--that is, he became a paper boy on the streets of Paris "to make a little money for my family . . . My father was away from home, first in the French army and later as a member of the underground."
Aznavour began writing songs in the 1940s, "when I found out that I couldn't find the songs I wanted to sing." He was part of a team with Pierre Roche, and they performed not only in Europe, but in New York and Montreal. "I told him, 'Pierre, we do not have enough material--we need more than that'--and then I started to write the songs that others refused to write. Now, I have written for almost all the French singers except Trenet and Brel. It is an old tradition in France."
For a long time, he was unable to reach stardom, while others--including Be'caud, Chevalier, Piaf and Mistinguette--were scoring hits with his songs. He sang in nightclubs and theaters in France, Belgium, North Africa and Canada, and nobody noticed. Then, in 1956, he was singing in a vaudeville show in Casablanca and suddenly he caught on.
Aznavour's attitude toward his songs is highly pragmatic; he considers them part of his acting career: "An actor needs material to be able to work. When I make a movie, I accept a part--but what happens may not be what I want to express. Singing offers a great deal of freedom that we cannot find in the movies, and certainly not in television."
He does not distinguish between his songs and other kinds of writing. Asked how many songs he has composed, he answers, "I have written about 700 different things in 41 years. This is not an enormous amount. Writing an article for a magazine is like writing a song for me--it's exactly the same thing."
One kind of writing where he is beginning to make his mark is film scripts. He is well-known as an actor in such films as "Shoot the Piano Player," "Candy," "Ten Little Indians" and "The Tin Drum," but he has also written the script for his next movie, "The Yiddish Connection," and he promises that it will be funny. After that, he will be making "I Remember April" with Peter Bogdanovich, and a series for French television.
"American television is not my cup of tea," he says. "I like it better in Europe, where I can do exactly what I want. Europeans are easier to deal with than Americans. The money is the same now, but they give me much more freedom. I can choose anyone I want--cameraman, director or guest artist."
His favorite television network is the BBC: "I love them. When I can't tune in on them directly, I have videotapes made so that I don't miss anything. I am collecting their Shakespeare productions. For me, it is very difficult--the real good English--but I feel that I become richer with it."
One role he is planning for French television is that of Toulouse-Lautrec. "I will try to do it differently from Jose' Ferrer," he says. "He wanted me to do it on the stage in New York, but I didn't want to work on the stage. I am too young to stay very long in one place. When I am old, perhaps, but now I don't want to have a long run anywhere. I am thinking of quitting tours, to sit down and try to write something serious--maybe poetry. I have never written a poem in my life. Songs are different--not poetry."
Millions of admirers of his songs would disagree.