After more than six decades of entertaining, Charles Aznavour – France’s favourite crooner – is hanging up his touring boots.
The diminutive singer, now 75, will say adieu to his multitude of fans at his last major concert in Divonne, eastern France, on Tuesday.
It comes at the end of a gruelling farewell tour of live dates taking in 13 French cities.
Thomas Schmitt, production manager of Aznavour’s concert in Mulhouse, north east France, says many of the 2,500 audience members found the evening emotional.
“Aznavour sang for around two hours and at the end he spent time thanking the fans for all their support over the years.
“Many were reduced to tears – it was very sad.”
Aznavour has performed many of his nostalgia-soaked odes such as She, The Old Fashioned Way and Yesterday to rapturous applause.
But his final reception is a small indication of the impact Aznavour’s composing and songwriting talents have had in France and around the world.
To a great extent Aznavour can be credited for dragging the French “chanson” out of the clouds of triviality.
By injecting irony, melancholy and earthy “taboo” subject matters, Aznavour brought an enduring and revolutionary realism to mainstream French musical culture.
Aznavour’s sound also travelled. His songs have been translated into numerous languages and have charted all over the world.
Many other artists have covered Aznavour songs, the most recent being Elvis Costello with She in the hit movie Notting Hill.
And at the end of 2000, readers of Time magazine voted Aznavour Entertainer of the Century.
It’s not a bad accomplishment for a man who – at 5ft 3ins and with an “exotic” voice – battled to overcome the difficulties of not meeting the showbusiness ideal.
“My shortcomings are my voice, my height, my gestures, my lack of culture and education and my lack of personality,” wrote Aznavour aged 26, brooding over his then stop/start career.
But Aznavour did not despair and continued to write about life on the street, the true irritations of love and homosexuality.
Much of Aznavour’s inspiration came from the hardship he witnessed as a child.
He was born Varenagh Aznavourian in Paris in May, 1924. His parents were Armenian immigrants who had fled to France after the Turkish massacre.
They lived in a succession of dingy apartments in the city’s immigrant neighbourhoods. Though his parents opened a restaurant, they were originally performing artists.
It was not long before their son was stagestruck himself, attending an acting school for children.
But, after hearing Maurice Chevalier sing the tuneful trifle, Donnez Moi La Main Mamz’elle Et Ne Dites Rien, he announced that he too wanted to be a “chansonnier”.
He dropped out of school and hopped from town to town playing in bars and cabarets. Even at this early stage, Aznavour – who is completely self-taught on the piano – was writing and composing songs.
Most of these were sung by big name stars like Chevalier, after they picked up on the originality of Aznavour’s lyrics.
“My fundamental reason for writing songs was based on my conviction that the French chanson had insipid lyrics,” Aznavour said.
“I wanted to do something new, more truthful and far more to the point.”
His first major success was the drunken lament J’ai Bu, sung by Charles Ulmer. But his biggest fan was the legendary Edith Piaf – who took Aznavour under her wing.It was also Piaf who encouraged Aznavour to go out and perform his own songs.
But for a long time his attempts were met with derision – Aznavour just did not look or sound like a star.
“All singers have to pay their due,” he explained. “Of my 25-year career, 17 were complete washouts. But they made me all the more determined to succeed.”
By 1957, Aznavour was topping the bill in major venues in France and was its number one singing star. A few years later he had also conquered many other countries, including the US.
Aznavour always took the trouble to sing his songs in the country’s native language. To visit the UK, however, he felt he had also to speak the language fluently – which he achieved by 1967.
Concerts at the Albert Hall were a sell-out and in 1973 his song Dance In The Old Fashioned Way was in the charts for 15 weeks.
She, in 1974, reached number one and earned him a platinum disc. Aznavour became the symbol of a new romanticism, drawing emotions from real life and people.
Songs such as You’ve Let Yourself Go prompted famed French film director Jean Cocteau to comment: “Before Charles Aznavour, despair was unpopular.”
Aznavour was also to work with Cocteau in his work as an actor. He has made more than 60 films and his latest Ararat, directed by Atom Egoyan, is out next year.
Though Aznavour is retiring from touring, he says he will probably continue to do the odd concert in France.
And despite being rich, famous and happily married, Aznavour continues to expand his portfolio of credentials.
Last year, his musical Lautrec opened on the West End stage. And for the past 30 years, he has worked to help the Armenian people, particularly with the charity Unesco.
“I intend to work until I am 90 and die at 100,” he has said.