Charles Aznavour, the Frank Sinatra of France, showed the French a new way to love

One man can change the world
One man can change the world
Image: Reuters / Hamad I Mohammed
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Charles Aznavour, often described as “France’s Frank Sinatra,” famously said, “If I stop singing, I will die.” He kept that promise: The 94-year-old died on Oct. 1 after returning home from a world tour, forced by his doctors to cancel several planned appearances after a fall in his home left him with broken bones. AFP reports that the singer passed away peacefully in his home in southern France.

His death is a loss for France and for the world, but most of all for his fans, whom he once described as “my first love, my mistress.”

Who was Charles Aznavour?

The signer-songwriter crossed through time, borders, and generations, with songs like La BohèmeEmmenez-moi, and Je Me Voyais Déjà. He was the quintessential romantic of his generation, devoted to fans, friends, and country. That love shone through in every one of the 1,200 songs he wrote (in seven different languages), in the hundreds of shows he performed (in 94 countries), in the 84 movies he appeared in, and in the more than 100 million records he sold worldwide.

Aznavour was born in Paris on May 22, 1924, to a baritone father and an actress mother. He was the grandson of Armenians who fled the genocide in Turkey, and he was proud of his heritage, eventually serving as Armenia’s ambassador in Geneva to both the Swiss and the UN institutions there.

His family opened a small restaurant on the Rue de la Huchette, and it became a regular haunt for singers, poets, writers, and comedians. Aznavour and his family were heroes of the Resistance against the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, hiding Jews and Communist partisans in their tiny Parisian apartment, a distinction that earned him the Raoul Wallenberg Medal, given to him in 2017 by Israeli president Reuven Rivlin.

Aznavour began performing at the age of nine, but his career didn’t take off until he was noticed by world-famous French signer Edith Piaf. After years of unsuccessful records and rejections from music labels due to his appearance (something he later spoke of as having deeply affected him), the legend that became Aznavour was born one evening in December 1960; he was 36 years old. Singing at the Alhambra, the music hall near the Place de la République in Paris, he sang a new song about an artist who was struggling to get his career to take off. “I was never given my chance. Others succeeded with a little voice but a lot of money. I was too pure or too early. But a day will come when I will show them that I have talent.” It earned him a standing ovation. Aznavour made it to the top of the billboards, and he rarely left it after that.

Soon his career would take off outside of France as well. He toured the US in 1963, singing in French and in English at Carnegie Hall in New York, and would go on to sing for millions of fans in Asia, Europe, Latin America, Australia, and the Middle East. Today, his star is on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

What Aznavour meant to French people

Growing up in France, I always felt out of step with the music of my generation. The music my friends listened to didn’t transport me to another place–it just made me want to turn off the radio. The lyrics didn’t inspire me; the tempo didn’t make me want to dance. Then I discovered Charles Aznavour, a man who sang about his love for France, the country that his family in and gave them a new life; his love for women (he was married three times); his hope for the future, which for him rested on children (he had six of his own) and on the openness of people to those who were different from them; and his belief that love would be the world’s salvation.

He spoke of loving two countries, a relatively uncommon idea in France, where immigrants are expected to leave their native countries behind in order to become fully French. He brought three French presidents to Armenia and told French magazine Le Figaro, “I work for both of my countries, without making a difference between them.” For me, the child of bicultural parents, his words felt like a liberation.

In La Bohèmehe spoke of “a time that those under 20 years old cannot know,” and yet I felt like I did. He sang about a Paris that looked very different from the Paris I grew up in, a place where artists starved so they could paint and frequented the terraces of cafés to soak up inspiration from the romance of their city. Listening to his words on the CD I kept popped into my portable Sony Discman, I was transported back to the Paris of his childhood, one that had been both destroyed and rejuvenated by the war.

He taught me what love should feel like, so I would know it when it happened to me. He taught me how to grieve, when he sang:

When at random,
I go for a walk
To my old address,
I do not recognize
Either the walls or the streets
That witnessed my youth.
At the top of a staircase
I look for the workshop,
Of which nothing remains.
In its new decor,
Montmartre seems sad,
And the lilacs are dead.
Bohemia, bohemia.
We were young,
We were crazy.
Bohemia, bohemia.
It all means nothing at all.

I am far from the only person Aznavour touched so profoundly. He taught young French people about queer love, when he sang “I am gay, as they say.” (He was not gay.) He spoke eloquently about acceptance of immigrants and refugees, and wrote a song, The Migrants, in their honor. And he brought international attention to the Armenian genocide when he sang “Your spring will bloom again, Your beautiful days will be reborn again, After the winter, After hell, The tree of life will grow,” in For You, Armenia.

Today, we lost Aznavour, a man with an endless amount of love to give, at a time when the world feels dangerously low on love. And I am sitting in my kitchen, crying. But my tears are happy ones filled with love and appreciation—Aznavour wouldn’t have had it any other way.