PARIS — It had been raining since morning, but Charles Aznavour’s welcoming smile banished thoughts of the cold outside.
We were in French music publisher Raoul Breton’s company, on the rue Ampere in the 17th Arrondissement, which manages major songs by great French chanson singers such as Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet.
Aznavour, the Frank Sinatra of France, purchased the company with his friend Gerald Davoust in 1992, when Breton’s wife, Rachel, died, to make sure that this great music collection, which includes his own songs, would not be scattered.
“What is most important for you now?” I asked him at one point.
“To travel. And to meet people,” he replied right away.
His answer reminded me of a duet between Aznavour and his eldest daughter, Katia, titled “Je voyage (I Travel)” on Aznavour’s 2003 album of the same name. One of the lyrics goes, “Travel toward understanding and knowing.” Perhaps it is because of this unfailingly positive attitude that Aznavour looks so young at age 82.
Aznavour’s travels bring him to Japan this month for the first time since 1991. He performs seven shows on his “Thank You and Farewell Japan Tour,” although he has let slip in interviews that he sees no end to a world tour that could easily return to these shores, so long as his health allows it.
Although now regarded as one of the top entertainers of the last century, Aznavour’s career began in controversy. The former lyricist for singers such as Juliet Greco and Piaf was panned by critics, first for his short stature (he is 160-cm tall) and husky voice. That voice has become richer with each passing year. Asked what he does to keep his voice in shape, he replied, “Nothing.”
He simply practices chanson exhaustively.
“Each time I sing, I add some small twist, which amazes the audience and myself,” he said.
It wasn’t only Aznavour’s voice that caused a stir in his early years. His lyrics were also controversial because he dealt with themes ahead of his time. In 1956, he was attacked by both critics and music fans for the song “Apres l’amour,” about the erotic pleasure between a man and a woman. Singing about matters of the bedroom in public was taboo in those days. Aznavour stood firm, however, refusing to drop the number, which has become a standard feature at his concerts.
Even more scandalous was “Comme ils disent (What Makes a Man)” (1973), about a homosexual dancer. Aznavour’s elaborate gestures on stage, holding his body with both arms, shocked critics as much as lyrics such as, “He finishes his work at midnight and returns to his apartment, but he cannot sleep — thinking about his beloved boyfriend.”
Asked about writing this song during a time of great prejudice against homosexuals, Aznavour replied simply.
“You need to pay careful attention when you deal with social issues. You should not offend homosexual people. They also have mothers, sisters and brothers’ wives. You should not offend any one of them.”
Aznavour, who also has a long movie career, first visited Japan in 1966, after a shoot in Cambodia — not to perform, but as a tourist. He traveled alone, pursuing an avid interest in photography, particularly images of ladies holding parasols or people eating on the street.
“Photographs have their own merit, different from films,” Aznavour said. “Films are moving images, and images go away. Photographs are frozen images. So your imagination can take you to the world behind them.”
His 2003 autobiography “Les Temps des Avants” contains a section titled “In Japan” where he writes, “Yukata for customers to use freely, windows, washing basin — everything was my size.”
Diminutive he may be, but Aznavour’s voice and his lyrics make him a giant of the music world, a presence anything but fleeting.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.