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Tributes to French crooner Charles Aznavour following death aged 94

Charles Aznavour, a French singer of Armenian origin, performs during a concert in Marseille (Claude Paris/AP)
Charles Aznavour, a French singer of Armenian origin, performs during a concert in Marseille (Claude Paris/AP)

Charles Aznavour, the French crooner and actor whose performing career spanned eight decades, has died at the age of 94.

One of France’s most recognized faces, Aznavour sang to sold-out concert halls until the end, resorting to a prompter only after having written upwards of 1,000 songs by his own estimate, including the classic La Boheme.

French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to Aznavour’s “masterpieces, voice tone” and “unique radiance”.

“Deeply French, viscerally attached to his Armenian roots, recognised throughout the world, Charles Aznavour will have accompanied the joys and sorrows of three generations,” Mr Macron said in a message posted on Twitter.

Often compared to Frank Sinatra, Aznavour started his career as a songwriter for Edith Piaf.

The French chanteuse took him under her wing.

France Obit Aznavour
Brigitte Macron and French singer Charles Aznavour, right, listen to French President Emmanuel Macron (Ludovic Marin/AP)

Like her, his fame ultimately reached well outside France.

In a career that spanned 80 years, Aznavour sold more than 180 million records, according to his official biography.

He broke an arm last May but was set to start a new tour in November in France, starting in Paris.

BFMTV, the French news station, said he had just returned from a tour of Japan.

Aznavour was one of the Armenian diaspora’s most recognised voices and vocal defenders, but he sang in numerous languages, particularly English.

His reputation in the US spanned generations.

Mr Macron said he had invited Aznavour to attend the upcoming Francophonie summit from October  10-12 in Yerevan, Armenia, where he was expected to sing.

In a recent TV interview Aznavour said he felt “alive”, joking that he and his sister had made the decision to live beyond 100 years old.

Throughout his career, Aznavour wrote for Piaf and other popular French singers.

62nd Cannes Film Festival – ‘Up’ Photocall
Charles Aznavour at the launch of Up! at the Cannes Film Festival (Ian West/PA)

The love ballad She topped British charts for four weeks in 1974 and was covered by Elvis Costello for the film Notting Hill.

Liza Minnelli, who met Aznavour when she was a teenager and he was in his 40s, described following him to Paris.

“He really taught me everything I know about singing — how each song is a different movie,” she said in a 2013 interview.

The two remained close through the decades, often performing together.

He resisted description as a crooner, despite decades of songs that are now firmly fixed in the French lexicon.

“I’m a songwriter who sometimes performs his own songs,” was his preferred self-description.

“What were my faults? My voice, my size, my gestures, my lack of culture and education, my honesty, or my lack of personality,” the diminutive performer wrote in his autobiography.

“My voice? I cannot change it. The teachers I consulted all agreed I shouldn’t sing, but nevertheless I continued to sing until my throat was sore.”

Shanoun Varenagh Aznavourian was born in Paris on May 22 1924, to Armenian parents who fled to Paris in the 1920s and opened a restaurant.

His singer father, whose own father was a chef to Russian tsar Nicholas II, and actress mother exposed him to the performing arts early on, and he acted in his first play when he was nine.

Aznavour, who cut the Armenian suffix from his stage name, decided to switch to music but still acted in films throughout his career.

France Obit Aznavour
Liza Minnelli welcomes French singer Charles Aznavour on stage (Laurent Rebours/AP)

His movie credits include Francois Truffaut’s 1960 Tirez Sur Le Pianiste (Shoot the Pianist), Volker Schloendorff’s 1979 Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), and Atom Egoyan’s 2002 Ararat.

That last film dealt with the 1915 massacres of up to 1.5 million Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, an event that has strained relations between Turkey and Armenia for a century.

Aznavour campaigned internationally to get the killings formally deemed a genocide.

Turkey vehemently denies that the massacre was genocide and insists it was part of the violence during the Second World War.

Aznavour became a piano player, and toured in New York after the Second World War with Piaf, who encouraged him to perform his own songs.

There, he performed on stage with Minnelli.

PAF Charles Aznavour
Charles Aznavour (PA)

In 1963, he performed in a sold-out Carnegie Hall.

In addition to the English-language She, other best-selling songs included La Boheme, For Me, Formidable and La Mamma.

Other songs gained fame by their notoriety, including the seductive Apres l’Amour, (After Love) which was banned by French radio in 1965 as an affront to public morals, and the 1972 Comme Ils Disent (As They Say), a first-person narrative of a gay man’s heartache.

The singer never forgot his Armenian roots.

He founded Aznavour And Armenia, a non-profit organisation created after the devastating earthquake that hit Soviet Armenia in 1988.

After it earned independence from the Soviet Union, Aznavour travelled regularly to Armenia.

He was named itinerant ambassador for humanitarian action in 1993 by President Levon Ter-Petrossian, served as Armenia’s ambassador to UN cultural agency Unesco and was named Armenia’s ambassador to Switzerland in 2009.

“I am not trying to boast, but I have to admit that for an uneducated son of an immigrant I could have done far worse,” Aznavour said.

In 2001, the singer was awarded France’s prestigious National Order of Merit. In April 2002, along with other French celebrities, he urged people to sing France’s national anthem in a campaign to defeat far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, known for his anti-immigrant stance.

“If Le Pen had existed (in my parents’ time), I wouldn’t have been born in France,” Aznavour said at the time.

In 2002, he opened La Boheme restaurant in Aix-en-Provence, southeastern France.

The following year, he published a second memoir titled Le Temps Des Avants (The Times Before); his first memoir, in 1973, had been called Aznavour By Aznavour.

In 2009, he received the National Order of Quebec, a first for a singer.

For his 80th birthday, Aznavour sang at the renowned Palais des Congres in Paris and then went on a tour of France and Belgium.

He celebrated his 90th birthday with a concert in Berlin.

Married three times, Aznavour had six children and is survived by his third wife.