CHARLES AZNAVOUR WAS
THE UNKNOWN SUPERSTAR
My Ave Maria Radio colleague, Al Kresta, is host of the daily talk show, “Kresta In the Afternoon,” heard on about 400 radio stations.
Al once made a wry comment about his situation of being widely known within the limited universe of Catholic Radio…
“It’s hard being famous when nobody knows who you are.”
The line is classic Kresta, reflecting both his quick wit and his honest self-awareness.
Charles Aznavour faced Al’s problem, but with a twist. Based in France, he was a true international superstar, a singer-songwriter known around the world, but recognized and followed by only a narrow audience within the United States (the world’s single largest music market).
That must have been a frustration for someone who had written more than 1,300 songs, some of which became standards in the U.S.
I discovered Charles Aznavour in the early 1970s, and I found his music deeply affecting. But whenever I’d mention him, the common response would be…
My simple answer was always…
“The guy who wrote ‘Yesterday, When I was Young.’”
At which point I would hear…
“Oh…you mean Roy Clark’s song.”
Don’t get me wrong, Charles Aznavour had his American fans — my wife, Kathy, and myself among them. Those fans appreciated him, not primarily as a vocalist, but as someone who had a uniquely captivating performance style.
He described himself as “an actor who sings,” and that was right on target. His voice wasn’t listenable in the ordinary sense, not musically pleasant. And his songs didn’t conform to the conventionalized, “hooky” structures of pop music.
Rather, his jerky, gravely baritone was a perfect vehicle for conveying the dramatic or comic slices of life captured in what were actually little musical vignettes of human experience.
One of his finest pieces, “Happy Anniversary,” tells of a husband and wife getting dressed to attend a show, only to encounter various comic mishaps that turn their big evening into a farce. In the end it’s clear that their shared humor was the real celebration of all the years together.
Back in the 1970s, Kathy and I found the song poignant. Today, we’d think Aznavour was writing about us.
That idiosyncratic and deeply personal approach kept Charles Aznavour from breaking through to mass U.S. appeal. With rock-’n-roll coloring just about every musical genre, too many people had became enamored of gimmicks and bombast. Aznavour was too intimate, too subtle, too French to make him a top draw here.
But no one who gave him a chance could ever deny that they had seen a genuine artist at work.
I saw Aznavour perform at Princeton University’s McCarter Theater, a modest-size venue, with no seat too far away, that was perfect for his show. He stood at a microphone on a darkened stage, backed by a small accompanying ensemble, his white linen tropical suit caught in a single spotlight.
This was the entirety of his physical presentation, keeping focus on the interpretive singing, the expressive face, and the animated hand gestures that were his stock-in-trade. Through the power of these simple elements he owned the house that night.
Charles Aznavour died Monday at the age of 94, after a long career that had begun at age nine.
He will be remembered by those of us who were touched by his art — and who appreciate how hard it must have been for him to be famous when nobody knew who he was.
The entertainment trade paper, Variety, offers a good reflection on Charles Aznavour and his artistry…
“Aznavour’s approach to songwriting came from a natural curiosity about people. ‘I have always been interested in observing human behavior,’ he said. He tried to emulate ‘the freedom that painters, sculptors and writers had. They could [depict] characters, landscapes and nudes without being vulgar, and that’s what I tried to achieve with my songwriting: total freedom to tackle any subject, use any word if needed.’”